Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My trip to Munich, 20-25 March 2008

My brother Bob and his wife Anja have been spending a year living in Munich. Bob is in the Air Force reserves and is working at the Air Force base there. Here are my photos from the trip.

For the moment this blog entry is only a placeholder, later I'll fill in more details. The itinerary was roughly as follows. Wednesday night, took a red-eye from Boston to London Heathrow, landing at 6 AM local time and spending six hours learning about unreasonable exchange rates. Then a two hour flight to the Munich airport near Erding where Bob lives and works.

View Larger Map
On Friday we went to the Museum Mensch und Natur (map) in downtown Munich. On Saturday we went to Herrenchiemsee, a palace on an island in the middle of a lake, modeled after Versailles in France. On Sunday we went to the Deutsches Museum (photos, map) in Munich, and I've got to say, it's the best science and technology museum I have ever seen in my life. On Monday we went to the castle complex at Burghausen, on the Austrian border. On Tuesday I was too frantic catching my plane for any interesting adventures, although Bob and I did bike into town to get strawberries and fresh croissants.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nanotube radio antenna work at U.C. Berkeley

Alex Zettl at the University of California at Berkeley has invented an interesting radio antenna made from a single conductive carbon nanotube (less than a micron long and ten nanometers wide) positioned between two conductive plates. He has used the antenna to receive songs transmitted by radio, and has posted the results for your listening pleasure. There is a gap between one plate and a free end of the nanotube, across which electrons tunnel. When a voltage is placed across the two plates, the nanotube's free end becomes electrically charged oppositely from the nearby plate, and the electrostatic attraction keeps the nanotube under mechanical tension.

The nanotube's electrically charged free end moves in response to an ambient radio frequency electric field. This changes the gap size, and therefore the measured tunneling current across the gap, just as with a scanning tunneling microscope. The resonant frequency of the antenna is simply the mechanical resonant frequency of the nanotube under tension. The tension can be changed by changing the voltage across the two conducting plates, and in this way the radio can be tuned. The bandwidth of the antenna is determined by the nanotube's stiffness, and (I think) would depend primarily on the length of the nanotube. The space between the two plates should be a vacuum so the nanotube can move freely, and so that Brownian motion does not detune the radio.

The value of a radio antenna this size is that one can communicate with and control nanorobots, for instance in the human body. One could use these nanorobots for diagnostics, reading out blood chemistry or information about various kinds of cell damage, and could send them instructions to intervene.

There are lots of interesting things happening in the area of nanofabrication, such as Andrew Turberfield's tetrahedra discussed in the previous posting. Presently such things are "controlled" by adding solutions of different DNA sequences to the liquid the structure is sitting in, and the new sequence interacts mechanically with the structure to alter it, by binding selectively with some part of the structure already in place. But each step takes tens of minutes as molecules diffuse through water and position themselves to bind correctly. A signal received by a radio antenna might make things happen much quicker.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Adrian Bowyer interview, Computerworld

Here is the start of the four-page interview. Much of this is stuff that's been published before. Two parts I found interesting appeared on the third page.

Are there plans to modify the current design to replace non-reproducible parts such as bolts with parts that can be manufactured on the machine itself, bringing the overall RepRap design closer to 100 per cent self-reproduction?

Yes - that is definitely one of the evolutionary paths to greater reproductive success. For the immediate future I will be concentrating on widening the list of materials that RepRap can build with (starting with electrical conductors). That widening will implicitly raise the proportion of parts that it can make for itself, of course.

The Fab@Home people have already done a few embedded circuits by printing with conductive silicone. Making circuitry will be a very important ability for these machines.

Can the RepRap recycle what it manufactures?

Yes, recycling has been built in from the start... The main plastic we are using is polylactic acid...

But I want to move to using a non-biodegradable resin. This too is sourced from biomass, but is stable in the ground. That means that the more reprapped goods that get made from it and thrown in landfill, the more carbon is taken out of the atmosphere and locked away for good. And, in 200 years when we have taken so much carbon out of the air to make stuff that anthropogenic global cooling is starting to be a problem, the landfill sites become our strip coal mines to save us.

This is the first time I've ever heard anybody advocate for putting stuff INTO landfills as an environmental measure. An interesting approach to carbon sequestration.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Coming soon: a complete RepRap kit is an on-line store based in the UK which will be offering a complete set of parts for the RepRap for UK£299, or somewhere around US$600 given current exchange rates. They will offer both hardware and software.

I wish I could claim to be so ambitious that I would take a more active approach than simply ordering all the parts in a kit. But I'm as lazy and tired as the next guy, so a kit is really the only practical way I'm likely to do this. And the price is just about right. Months ago, Adrian Bowyer was talking about $400 as a target price for the long term, after lots of self-replicating machines had brought the price of parts down to a minimum. To get so close to the long-term price so quickly is fantastic.

With this kind of head start, the scenario where RepRaps bootstrap themselves to microeconomic ubiquity looks very plausible.