Fast Friday Four (July 1)

A Bugged Antenna

Antennas are tricky things to build. Due to some complex laws of physics, they typically have to be roughly about the same size as the wavelength of the signal it’s trying to pick up. Otherwise, the antenna doesn’t vibrate at the right frequency and it can’t pick up the signal. So building small antennas is something of a conundrum to modern engineering.

But why try to reinvent the wheel?

Humans can detect a fairly wide range of frequencies with their ears and also can identify the direction of the transmission, which is another feat difficult to achieve. You need space between two different receivers, such as the distance of a human head.

Nader Behdad, assistant professor of electrical and comuter engineering at the University of Wisconsin, however, has another idea. He’s looking to mother nature to solve the problem, which it already has time and again.

Specifically, he’s looking at ormia ochracea – a small parasitic fly capable of tracking a male cricket with very small, but powerful antennas.

“There hasn’t been any work done to design antennas that mimic the hearing mechanism of different insects,” he says. “We’ve designed a basic proof-of-concept antenna and have some preliminary results. But at this point, we still need to understand what the physics are.”

If he’s successful in learning the tricks behind the trade and building a small system capable of distinguishing signals coming from different directions, it will have major applications in technologies like satellite TV, radar systems, cell phones and imaging systems.

How has nobody thought of this before?

A Quantum Pipeline

If you’re a technology geek and/or have been paying close attention to this blog, you’re probably aware of the push for quantum computers. It’s the next big thing in computing and communications that will be both smaller and faster than ever before. It arises do to a “spooky” effect (as Einstein called it) of a pair of photons – particles of light – to become entangled.

When entangled, the pair of photons have exactly the same physical characteristics. And when the characteristics of one is changed, the other changes instantly as well, even if separated by thousands – if not millions or billions – of miles. When all you need to transmit information is a “1” or “0”, as is the case with digitally coded information – this ability for one photon to transmit one physical characteristic instantly across space becomes very interesting.

While many scientists are working out how to control these characteristics and produce stably entangled photons, Prem Kumar of Northwestern University is working on another aspect, a transmission line.

Once scientists figure out how to do all this, they will still need a way to transport these photons from one place to another in a quick and efficient manner that doesn’t disturb their physical properties. In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, Kumar has done just that. He’s developed a switch with an all-optical, fiber-based system that can transport these photons without disturbing them.

However, quantum computing and communication is a long way off. But it’s nice to know that people are considering all aspects of what will be needed. For instance, it would suck if someone invented the car without worrying about tires or roads.

3D Imaging with Electrons

Synchrotron radiation is a type of radiation produced by using magnets to “wiggle” electrons from side to side as they are travelling at near-light speeds around an accelerator. Depending on how quickly they are forced to wiggle, the electrons can put out any type of radiation from radio waves to gamma rays, spanning the entire spectrum of possibilities.

When I was working out at SLAC at Stanford, they were just completing their Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) capable of using x-rays with wavelengths of mere nanometers to image organic molecules in the nanoseconds before its power blasts the sample to smithereens.

At the University of Wisconsin, Carol Hirschmugl is working with Rohit Bhargava from the University of Illinois using a smaller accelerator to produce a different kind of imaging device. Using less powerful beams, they are creating infra-red beams, and many of them. By hitting a single sample with a dozen beams of radiation from all different angles at the same time, scientists can now create 3D images of molecules and biological samples.

Called the Infrared Environmental Imaging (IRENI) center, the device produces images 100 times less-pixilated than conventional infrared imagers. The first test involved identifying cancerous cells in breast and prostate tissue samples; a test that was extremely successful.

Besides medicine, the world-unique facility will be used for pharmaceutical drug analysis, art conservation, forensics, biofuel production, and advanced materials.


When is one eye better than eight? How about when it’s behind a brand new type of lens designed to take microscopic images in 3D?

Allen Yi, associate professor of integrated systems engineering at the Ohio State University, has created such a lens. About the size of a fingernail, the lens features a flat top surround by eight faces, whose sizes and angles vary minutely in ways nearly undetectable by the naked eye.

They’re so precisely machined, a machine wielding a diamond blade shaved just 10 nanometers off at a time. That’s 10 billions of a meter or 5,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

It looks like a rhinestone, with a faceted top and a wide, flat bottom.  When installed on a microscope, each face captures an image of the objects below from a different angle, which can be combined on a computer into a 3D image.

Yi hopes the new lens will be mass produced to make it cheap and accessible to fields like medical testing and manufacturing.

And that’s all I’ve got for today!


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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