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Jumbo Jet No Longer Biofuel Virgin after Palm Oil Fuels Flight

One short hop for jet travelers, one (giant?) leap for biofuel-based jets

VIRGIN FLIGHT: Virgin Atlantic flew a 747-400 from London to Amsterdam with one engine partially powered by palm oil.

Virgin Atlantic became the first commercial airplane operator to fly a plane powered partially by palm oil this week. In a short but historic flight, one of the company's Boeing 747-400s flew more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) from London Heathrow Airport to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, reaching a peak altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 meters) during the 40-minute flight, with one of its four engines burning a blend of 20 percent coconut and babassu oils mixed with regular petroleum-based jet fuel.

"This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future," Sir Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement.

Unfortunately, that low-carbon fuel of the future is not likely to be the blend that performed well here. The reason: such biofuel may end up causing rather than curing climate change, according to recent studies. In addition, fuel from the world's limited supply of coconuts could drive up the price of the cooking oil as well as lead to further clearing of endangered rainforests in Southeast Asia for palm plantation expansion. And though the babassu palm grows wild in Brazil--not unlike switchgrass, a native perennial grass that might be used for ethanol in North America--there may not be enough of it to slake much of commercial aviation's thirst for fuel.

Regardless, the nut-generated biodiesel did not gum up the unmodified engine (biodiesel can gel when exposed to the low temperatures found at high altitude) or impair its smooth functioning. Technicians from Virgin Atlantic, Boeing, GE Aviation (maker of the engine) and fuel provider Imperium Renewables now plan to analyze data collected during the flight to assess the engine's performance and pollution emissions.

Air New Zealand will test a Boeing 747 (this one powered by Rolls-Royce engines) using biofuels in coming months--and more demonstrations may follow. The Virgin Atlantic flight "is just to prove to industry that you can make fuel that has these cold-flow properties," (does not congeal at lower temperatures), says David Daggett, Boeing's technology leader for energy and emissions. "The second [test] will be to look more at sustainability issues and second-generation feedstocks."

Virgin's flight follows in the jet wash of the U.S. Air Force, Airbus and BioJet 1. Both the Air Force in December and Airbus earlier this month completed flights powered by synfuel--liquid jet fuel made from coal or natural gas. Last October, BioJet 1--a 1968 Czechoslovakian L-29 fighter jet--reached around 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) on 100 percent biodiesel during a test flight in Reno, Nev. Florida-based Green Flight International plans to fly the old jet--chosen because it has fuel-line heaters to keep the biodiesel from gelling--more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) from Reno to Orlando, Fla., later this year, pending U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval.

The FAA has already approved at least one biofuel--ethanol--as an alternative fuel for two types of aircraft and engines, including the Piper Pawnee powered by Lycoming IO-540 engines. At least 1,000 crop dusters in Brazil have already logged "over 650,000 hours in spray operation on 100 percent ethanol," says Max Shauck, director of the Baylor Institute for Air Science.

But ethanol will not work for the larger jumbo jets in commercial aviation because it does not pack enough power per gallon. Sir Branson ultimately hopes to use algae to produce the energy-dense oil needed to fly them. The microscopic plant can produce 60 percent of its weight as oil and can be grown in dirty freshwater or even in the oceans, according to systems engineer Ron Pate at Sandia National Laboratories in White Sands, N.M., who has been analyzing its fuel power potential.

As Boeing's Daggett says: "There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome, but 10 to 20 years is a reasonable time frame for production of biofuels from algae."

New Machine Interprets Dreams


Sleep Waking is an unusual art work that combines recorded brainwave activity and REM sleep with robot behaviors. The Sleep Waking robot plays back your dreams, or, if you will, presents an interpretive dance of your dreams.

The Sleep Waking robot is the result of a collaboration between Fernando Orellana and Brendan Burns. Orellana spent a night in The Albany Regional Sleep Disorder Center in New York. The staff wired him up and collected data of every conceivable kind: EEG, EKG,
rapid eye movement - you name it. Orellana describes the use of the data to animate the robot in this way:

"The eye position data we simply apply to the position the robot's heads is looking. So if my eye was looking left, the robot looks left.

The use of the EEG data is a bit more complex. Running it through a machine learning algorithm, we identified several patterns from a sample of the data set (both REM and non-REM events). We then associated preprogrammed robot behaviors to these patterns. Using the patterns like filters, we process the entire data set, letting the robot act out each behavior as each pattern surfaces in the signal. Periods of high activity (REM) where associated with dynamic behaviors (flying, scared, etc.) and low activity with more subtle ones (gesturing, looking around, etc.). The "behaviors" the robot demonstrates are some of the actions I might do (along with everyone else) in a dream."

Orellana and Burns used a
Kondo KHR-2HV humaniod robot for their project. Orellana believes that the Sleep Waking robot is a metaphor in which the robot is allowed to augment or act out human experience. The robot becomes an extension of the person and (I would add) an extension of the deeper unconscious level of the person (see video ).

In the classic 1956 film Forbidden Planet, Dr. Morbius unconsciously uses
Krell machinery when sleeping; the unthinkably powerful Krell technologies act upon his unconscious cues, and destroy his enemies.

You might want to have some constraints built into the robot that is going to act out your dreams.

Sleep is important; you might want to try the
Metronap Sleep Pod or even Orexin, the sleep surrogate . From Robot 'plays back' dreams .

Researchers Find Way to Steal Encrypted Data

The technique, which could undermine security software protecting critical data on computers, is as easy as chilling a computer memory chip with a blast of frigid air from a can of dust remover. Encryption software is widely used by companies and government agencies, notably in portable computers that are especially susceptible to theft.

The development, which was described on the group’s Web site Thursday, could also have implications for the protection of encrypted personal data from prosecutors.

The move, which cannot be carried out remotely, exploits a little-known vulnerability of the dynamic random access, or DRAM, chip. Those chips temporarily hold data, including the keys to modern data-scrambling algorithms. When the computer’s electrical power is shut off, the data, including the keys, is supposed to disappear.

In a technical paper that was published Thursday on the Web site of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, the group demonstrated that standard memory chips actually retain their data for seconds or even minutes after power is cut off.

When the chips were chilled using an inexpensive can of air, the data was frozen in place, permitting the researchers to easily read the keys — long strings of ones and zeros — out of the chip’s memory.

“Cool the chips in liquid nitrogen (-196 °C) and they hold their state for hours at least, without any power,” Edward W. Felten, a Princeton computer scientist, wrote in a Web posting. “Just put the chips back into a machine and you can read out their contents.”

The researchers used special pattern-recognition software of their own to identify security keys among the millions or even billions of pieces of data on the memory chip.

“We think this is pretty serious to the extent people are relying on file protection,” Mr. Felten said.

The team, which included five graduate students led by Mr. Felten and three independent technical experts, said they did not know if such an attack capability would compromise government computer information because details of how classified computer data is protected are not publicly available.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which paid for a portion of the research, did not return repeated calls for comment.

The researchers also said they had not explored disk encryption protection systems as now built into some commercial disk drives.

But they said they had proved that so-called Trusted Computing hardware, an industry standard approach that has been heralded as significantly increasing the security of modern personal computers, does not appear to stop the potential attacks.

A number of computer security experts said the research results were an indication that assertions of robust computer security should be regarded with caution.

“This is just another example of how things aren’t quite what they seem when people tell you things are secure,” said Peter Neumann, a security researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.

The Princeton researchers wrote that they were able to compromise encrypted information stored using special utilities in the Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems.

Apple has had a FileVault disk encryption feature as an option in its OS X operating system since 2003. Microsoft added file encryption last year with BitLocker features in its Windows Vista operating system. The programs both use the federal government’s certified Advanced Encryption System algorithm to scramble data as it is read from and written to a computer hard disk. But both programs leave the keys in computer memory in an unencrypted form.

“The software world tends not to think about these issues,” said Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. “We tend to make assumptions about the hardware. When we find out that those assumptions are wrong, we’re in trouble.”

Both of the software publishers said they ship their operating systems with the file encryption turned off. It is then up to the customer to turn on the feature.

Executives of Microsoft said BitLocker has a range of protection options that they referred to as “good, better and best.”

Austin Wilson, director of Windows product management security at Microsoft, said the company recommended that BitLocker be used in some cases with additional hardware security. That might include either a special U.S.B. hardware key, or a secure identification card that generates an additional key string.

The Princeton researchers acknowledged that in these advanced modes, BitLocker encrypted data could not be accessed using the vulnerability they discovered.

An Apple spokeswoman said that the security of the FileVault system could also be enhanced by using a secure card to add to the strength of the key.

The researchers said they began exploring the utilities for vulnerabilities last fall after seeing a reference to the persistence of data in memory in a technical paper written by computer scientists at Stanford in 2005.

The Princeton group included Seth D. Schoen of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, William Paul of Wind River Systems and Jacob Appelbaum, an independent computer security researcher.

The issue of protecting information with disk encryption technology became prominent recently in a criminal case involving a Canadian citizen who late in 2006 was stopped by United States customs agents who said they had found child pornography on his computer.

When the agents tried to examine the machine later, they discovered that the data was protected by encryption. The suspect has refused to divulge his password. A federal agent testified in court that the only way to determine the password otherwise would be with a password guessing program, which could take years.

A federal magistrate ruled recently that forcing the suspect to disclose the password would be unconstitutional. 

Self-Healing Rubber Keeps on Stretching, Rip after Rip

And it's recyclable, to boot

A new synthetic rubber fixes itself when torn ends are touched together.
Francois Tournilhac and Ludwik Leibler ESPCI/CNRS, Paris (France)

The laboratory setup for creating self-healing rubber from vegetable fat and urea (the yellow stuff in urine).

Talk about bouncing back from adversity. A new stretchy material can be cut and rejoined at the same spot just by pressing the broken ends together for a few minutes. The self-healing rubber stays stretchy even after being severed five or six times, or cut and left on the countertop overnight, French researchers say. A chemical manufacturer is already working to create large batches of the material for still hypothetical applications such as sealants and self-healing rubber duckies.

The material's secret is its molecular structure, which resembles a plate of spaghetti, says physicist Ludwik Leibler of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, who led the research team. The strands straighten out when pulled, but they  relax back to their tangled shape when the tension is released. The result is a rubber that can stretch to six times its resting length, the group reports in the journal Nature.

The self-mending occurs because each strand consists of numerous small molecules of vegetable fat linked to each other and to far-flung neighbors via relatively weak hydrogen bonds, the same chemical bonds that give water molecules their cohesiveness. When the material was cut or ripped, the severed bonds remained chemically sticky for each other.

Leibler recalls the first time his group ripped the material and pressed the torn ends together gingerly. "It was unbelievable, because after few seconds you could take the sample and the pieces would not fall apart," he says. "And it worked again and again and again." They called the sample "Miracle 1."

A full repair required up to six hours of bonding, the researchers report. They note that a ripped sample could be left overnight before being repaired, although it would not stretch as far, because some of the severed bonds had linked to their neighbors. Recycling a sample into a new shape is easy, Leibler adds—just heat it so the bonds break and reform.

The demonstration does have "a touch of magic about it," biochemists Justin Mynar and Takuzo Aida wrote in an editorial accompanying the paper. Prior self-healing materials relied on embedded capsules of sealant that opened during a break and then had to be replenished, or polymers that required high heat to rebond, they note.

Leibler says the Philadelphia-based chemical maker Arkema, Inc., is working on scaling up the synthesis process, "so that people can play with and dream about it." Among his own dreams are self-healing toys, pipe seals and pavement as well as plastic medical pouches that can be punctured and reused.


No Directions Required--Software Smartens Mobile Robots

DARPA initiative to develop self-navigating robots introduces a world of potential for the development of autonomous vehicles, but will the government take advantage of its research or let it wither on the vine?

SMART ROBOT: DARPA's LAGR initiative awarded each of eight teams of scientists $2 million to $3 million to develop software that would give unmanned vehicles the ability to autonomously learn and navigate irregular off-road terrain.

LOOK OUT!: Classifying natural obstacles was one of several challenges researchers faced as they programmed their robots to evaluate their surroundings and avoid impassible terrain.

Computer experts recently gathered in San Antonio, Tex., to test one last time how well their software programs enabled a mobile robot vehicle to think for—and steer—itself. The event wrapped up the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) three-year
Learning Applied to Ground Robots (LAGR) initiative, which awarded each of eight teams of scientists $2 million to $3 million to develop software that would give unmanned vehicles the ability to autonomously learn and navigate irregular off-road terrain.

Autonomous maneuvering may not seem terribly difficult for a reasonably smart robot on wheels. But although some vegetation, such as short grass on a prairie, is easily traversable, obstacles such as dense bushes and tree trunks are not. To expediently reach point B, the robot must be able to quickly sort through a range of flora and decide which ones it can travel over—or through—and which are rigid, impenetrable barriers.

Researchers initially believed that visual learning—making basic sense of a surrounding based on changes in light—would be easy to implement in computer systems. But Eero Simoncelli, a principal investigator at the New York University's (N.Y.U.) Laboratory for Computational Vision, pointed out that humans take vision for granted and overlook its complexity. "For you to avoid an object in your path is trivial," he says. "What's visual input [to a computer]? It's a bunch of pixels. It's a bunch of numbers that tell you how much light fell on each part of the sensor. That's a long way from a description of a cup sitting on a table." Extracting symbolic definitions from a large set of numeric values, he adds, is much harder than anyone realized.

Classifying natural obstacles was but one of myriad factors that DARPA researchers had to predict and implement in a software program to expand the capacity of a mobile robot to quickly analyze and travel through an environment. "Of course, no one [knew] how to design this," says Yann Lecun, professor of computer science at N.Y.U.'s Courant Institute of Mathematics who led the university's team. "So DARPA [was] interested in funding projects that advance the science of [robot] learning and vision."

Lecun, who has a knack for designing computer systems that pick out the key visual features in an environment, was an ideal candidate for the LAGR project. DARPA provided the funding and a standard test vehicle so Lecun and Urs Muller, CEO of software maker Net-Scale Technologies in Morganville, N.J., could focus on writing the software. They set out to push the realm of visual-based navigation forward—or to at least bring it up to speed.

A 2002 study by the Washington, D.C.–based National Research Council found that the increase in speed of unmanned ground vehicles was greatly outpaced by the rapid improvement in computer processing from 1990 to 2000 when the physical capability of a vehicle and course complexity is adjusted for. Muller points out that over the past decade there has been a 100-fold increase in computing power and a 1,000-fold gain in memory capacity but developments in unmanned navigational systems have lagged far behind these advances and will continue to without the development of new approaches to visual learning. "The limiting factor in software [design] is the human imagination," he says.

Until LAGR, most self-navigating mobile robots could only scan their immediate surroundings and plot a course over short distances. This made it difficult for robots to figure out an optimum route to any place farther than their own shortsighted universe of about 25 feet (7.6 meters), limiting them to a feel-as-you-go approach that often resulted in time-wasting, circuitous paths to a destination.

This visual (computational) restriction, which LAGR founder Larry Jackel likened to a person driving in a dense fog or blinding blizzard, motivated the program managers to challenge the depth perception of the contestant programs. In San Antonio, this was done by placing a goal (a set global positioning system, or GPS, point) directly behind a cul-de-sac formed by four-foot- (1.2-meter-) high plastic barriers. With a starting point several feet from the entrance, a program with short range vision would drive straight to the goal—and toward the dead end—only to encounter a barrier, forcing the clueless robot to aimlessly search for a way out by navigating along the wall. A smarter robot with greater depth perception would have seen the dead end from afar and instantly adjusted its course to go around the barrier to reach the goal sooner.

Many teams failed to equip the standard-issue LAGR robot with sufficient long-range vision (that would have allowed perfect execution of the cul-de-sac challenge), but the LAGR participants still took advantage of a mapping system that stored acquired information about the barrier. This way, the robot adapted and modified its behavior to avoid repeating the same mistake. After two runs, the robots usually mapped a complete picture of a continuous wall and figured that it had to go around the obstacle to reach its goal.

In addition to the obstacles, a portion of the final LAGR challenge, called the "petting zoo," allowed contestants to demonstrate the specific strengths of their robot algorithms. Lecun exhibited his program's quick response to obstacles that suddenly popped up. This trait reflects a design that is akin to the human reflex by using a faster (but less analytical) system that searches six times per second for any obstacles within 15 feet (4.6 meters) as well as a slower process that processes long-range data in more detail once every second. "We ran the robot through the crowd," he says, referring to spectators and LAGR teams who attended the event. "People weren't afraid of it since they saw it was driving really well and didn't bump anyone. It drives itself better than we can."

The LAGR competition is different from the sportier and better-publicized DARPA Urban Challenge, which features a course that resembles city streets, or the agency's Grand Challenge in which autonomous vehicles race through the desert. Both competitions allow vehicles to use cameras, sensors, GPS, radar and lasers, whereas LAGR vehicles essentially use stereo cameras, GPS and onboard computers.

The goal of autonomous vehicle research is to make unmanned transport an option during dangerous situations, such as war, to avoid putting a person's life at risk. Great strides are being made in visual navigation, thanks to projects like LAGR, but ever more sophisticated systems will eventually have to be developed to deal with increasingly complex problem-solving demands.

Now that LAGR has wrapped up, researchers are unsure if DARPA will pony up any more cash for more such research. "It's hard to tell whether [LAGR] will be perceived as a great success or failure because the devil is in the details," says Lecun, who points out that the best systems ran 2.5 times faster than the baseline ones already built into the robot. "I think there is a huge potential in some of the techniques that were developed during this program. It would be a shame if people disappeared into the woods and nothing came of it."

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