Category Archives: Materials

How will new patent law affect tech sector?

The America Invents Act was signed on Sept 16, and it makes sweeping changes to the way patents work in the US.  Widely seen as pro-business and possibly detrimental to small time inventors, the new law will phase in over the next 18 months and change the way the technology field is implemented.

VTIP, the technology transfer office of Virginia Tech, is sponsoring an event to help sort out the facts from the myth.  Guest speakers will describe the effects on inventors and tech startups and answer questions.  The event is called “Making Connections” and will be held in 310 in the ICTAS building on Stanger Street on October 18 from 2-5 pm.  Anyone is welcome to attend, but seating is limited so register with Michael Miller using the information provided in the link.


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Filed under biotechnology, Communications, electronics, Energy, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

Holding it all together


When I was a kid, I loved tearing up stuff to see what was inside it.  I guess that’s just a normal guy thing, sort of like spitting off bridges or something.

Electronic devices had especially cool guts back in the day.  First there were tube radios that came with that eerie, 1950s sci-fi glow.  The tubes themselves were pretty cool, filled with all sorts of little metal screens and such.  Those were replaced by transistor radios which were less sci-fi but much more futuristic.

Today, I don’t get much pleasure out of tearing up stuff because all the innards are so integrated into modules that there is no longer anything interesting to look at.

Anyway, the point of this meandering reminesce is really to talk about what holds all those parts together.  In the old days, it was wires.  You could see them.  They were eventually replaced by printed circuit boards with flat metal traces instead of wires.  Now, even the connecting traces are often buried deep down in the circuit boards, or, even worse, designed into the silicon chips themselves.

But whether wires or traces or silicon pathways, something has to hold it all together, and that something has always been solder.  However, if VT Corporate Research Center company NBE Tech has it’s way, solder might be replaced by a new material made from silver nanoparticles.

Elimination of lead based solders has been a goal for many years.  Other types of solders can be used but the perfect combination of processing temperature and performance has not always been possible.  Investigation continues into other bonding methods, such as low temperature and pressure sintering of precious metals.  The new NBTech nanomaterial provides a way to bond semiconductor dice to substrates without solder, simply by applying a small pressure while simultaneously applying a relatively low temperature just over 200 degrees C.

NBE founder GQ Lu invented the material and then set up a company to commercialize it based on a license from Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties.  Since then he has worked to improve the performance and develop a manufacturing process suitable for commercial application.  He recently received an independent verification of the value of his invention by the Fraunhofer Institute.  Researchers there published a paper last fall that indicates sintered bonding using the nanomaterial paste produced stunningly better performance that solder-based attachments.  In one test, nanomaterial and solder bonded parts were subjected to heating/cooling cycles of 45-175 degrees C.  Using the data obtained, it was projected that the sintered parts would withstand up to 160 million cycles, where the soldered components failed after 40,000 cycles.

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Filed under Communications, electronics, Materials, Wireless

Local Tech Companies Nominated for Awards

It’s almost May, and you know what that means:  The NewVa Corridor Technology Council has announced a list of companies nominated for the various awards handed out at the annual awards banquet.  You can find a link to the NCTC website to register for the awards ceremony here.

Awards are handed out in the categories of Rising Star, Educator, Entrepreneur, Leadership, and Innovation.  Sometimes they hand out another special award for a local technology leader whose contributions don’t fit exactly into any of the single categories.  It’s a fun networking opportunity and a chance to reward the technology leaders who help drive the local economy.  This year it will be at the Hotel Roanoke, in beautiful downtown…er, …..Roanoke.

The list of nominees is provided by the local newspaper here.

Now, a comment about the NCTC name.  I liked it better before, when it was the New Century Technology Council.  Apparently they decided that once the New Century had cut it’s first teeth, it would seem passe’ to keep that reference.  So instead, they decided to use the terribly expensive “NewVA” brand (I don’t know who paid for it, or who came up with it – it wasn’t the NCTC as far as I know, but a regional re-branding.).  NewVA is sort of short for New Virginia, as if Old Virginia would be something distasteful, or old fashioned, maybe.  I’m not going to gripe about it too much, except to note that “NewVA Corridor Technology Council” does not roll off the tongue as smoothly as “New Century Technology Council”.

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Filed under biomimetic, biotechnology, Communications, Energy, fuel, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless


When I was a kid, one of my least favorite things was to sit in the barber shop on a Saturday morning for what seemed like hours waiting my turn for a two-minute haircut.  My father didn’t allow any of those new-fangled haircuts where it actually looked like you had some hair.  No, sir, we got the standard, GI type of haircut where all your personality was left on the floor to be swept up later.

But, one good thing that came of this experience, aside from the presumed character-building aspect, was that I got to read issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics.  Even though these issues were worn and tattered from handling by the army of ten-year-old boys who frequented the establishment, and were in fact possibly older than any of us, it was fascinating to imagine the world we would live in as adults where lasers and robots and other mechanical and electrical marvels would make life much more interesting than it was at that time.  Of course, we had not discovered girls yet.

But all of us in that age bracket agreed, flying cars were going to be so cool, and what’s more, they should have been ready for market by the time we got our driver’s licenses.  Ohhhh, yeaaaah.

Unfortunately, the flying cars never came, even though one was featured later in a James Bond movie.  It was my first great life disappointment.  I mean the lack of flying cars, not the movie, although that, too, was a disappointment.

So, all these many years later, I have come to accept that visions of the future rarely match the actual future.  Sometimes the actual future turns out to be pretty cool anyway, but reality has a way of spoiling the dreams of preteen boys who possess, at last accounting, approximately 99% of the world’s total creativity.

But hold on, I may have found an actual example of how prophetic Popular Science truly was.  Take a look at this website that describes a concept for next-generation living.  It’s called the Lumenhaus and it’s Virginia Tech‘s entry into the Solar Decathlon competition.  It’s chock full of cool materials like aerogel panels, solar panels and anti-hurricane roof vents, and it thinks for itself!  It opens and closes panels to heat or cool as necessary, and it can be operated from an iPhone application.  Dude.

OK, so it looks pretty small, and it is.  But it’s just a concept house.  However, built into the concept is the idea of living more efficiently in less space by using technology and futuristic Star Trek social ideas.  Imagine a house that reconfigured the space for the temporary use to which it was being put.  You really have to take a look at the flash animations on the site, which was apparently designed by up-and-coming web advertising company Modea.  Not only is the house itself cool, I really love the website.  Like the house, the site is just what it needs to be.

So, even though I have still not totally given up on the flying cars, until they come along I can dream about the next generation house.

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Filed under Communications, Energy, Materials, Networks, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

Under my skin

Who among us hasn’t slipped out without our parents knowing and visited our local hopefully hygenic body artist and gotten a little permanent ink decoration in that special spot,  only to change our minds later and realize that either (a) our current significant other, the object of our inky affection, turned out to be a jerk/jerkette, or (b) in some careers, visible tattoos are not considered acceptable business attire?  Don’t you hate it when Mom turns out to be right?

In addition to many actual dermatological conditions requiring attention, a growing number of people are seeking to undo that adolescent indiscretion through laser skin treatments.  With the devices currently available, the laser light is applied to the surface of the skin and then it is up that beam of light to find its own path to the pigmented areas beneath the surface of the skin.  That means it can bounce around in there for a little while before finding the pigmented area, all the while heating up the surrounding tissue needlessly.  Ouch.

Biomedical Engineer Dr. Chris Rylander and his team in the Biotransport and Optics Lab at Virginia Tech have come up with a device that better controls where the laser light travels using optical fibers modeled after a mosquito proboscis – that’s the part the mosquito sticks into you to suck out blood and leave behind an itchy bump (and possibly malaria).

When a mosquito first slips its proboscis into a victim’s skin, it is so small it can’t be felt until the insect starts the deposit/withdrawal process of removing blood.  Chris’ optical fibers rival those of a mosquito, and he is working on a full-scale prototype of his current single fiber prototype.  These fibers can painlessly penetrate the outer layer of the skin and direct laser light more efficiently and quickly to those subdermal target areas.

While the offending spots and blemishes to be treated seem to reside on the surface of the skin,  they arise there from the subdermal layers.  Zap the subdermal cells that are the source of the unwanted pigment effectively and completely, and the source of the spot will be no more.  And that is what Chris’ invention is all about: delivering laser light faster, better, and with less damage and pain to the cells that resupply the spot you see on the skin’s surface.

For more details, you can actually download a pdf report of Chris’ work from the website of the National Insitutes of Health here.

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Filed under biotechnology, Materials, medical technology, optics

Gone Fishin’

You have to see this.  It’s probably one of the coolest and simultaneously creepy pieces of technology I have run across lately.  It’s an artificial fish.

“But Mike, why do we need an artificial fish, when there are so many real ones around?” you might ask.

Well, there is a reason, aside from the sheer coolness factor.

It turns out that good ol’ Mother Nature has had a long time to work on stuff, and at this point has pretty much got it all figured out.  For example, how birds fly and fish swim using the minimal amount of energy.  See, in nature, if you can swim faster or father than other fish on the same amount of energy, or conversely, if you can swim as fast or as far as other fish on less energy, it means you have an advantage in the great circle of life, and you might get a chance to stick around longer.

For all our intelligence, we often have trouble coming up with stuff that is better than, or even close to, working as well as natural systems.  But over the past couple of decades, many researchers and engineers have realized that sometimes we need to just take advantage of all that work that Mother Nature has done for us and see if we can duplicate it.  You know, like copying the answers off the test of the person in front of you (not that I would know anything about that).

Anyway, take a look at this site, where some smart folks have created an artificial carp.  Well, it looks like one to me, anyway.  But the cool part is that it isn’t just a bunch of motors and gears attached to a frame and a skin, like a Walt Disney animatronic fish…this one actually works like a fish.

It uses a combination of composites and electroactive materials, along with very clever mechanical design and probably loads of math to make a fish that wiggles like a fish.  Just look at it.  It’s so cool and creepy!

The secret is that by passing electric current through certain types of materials, you can cause them to expand or contract just a little, sort of the way a real muscle works.  Some of these electroactive materials are made of polymers, which as you know are relatively soft.  Electroactive polymer “muscles” can move fairly large amounts when activated, but they are so soft that they can’t really exert much force.  On the other hand, there are much harder materials, like the little crystal inside your quartz-controlled watch, that can actually exert a lot of force, but they can’t change shape very much.  So, it would seem that both of these types of actuated materials have limitations.

True, but when you give them just the right shape and attach them to other structures just so, such as the artificial fish body, they can produce large, amplified movements that can be used to do significant work for you.

Now, back to the question of “Who cares?”  Well, the same design that creates the wiggly artificial fish body can also be use to slightly change the shape of a wing on an airplane, for example.  Airplane wings need to alter their shapes for different flying conditions, and being able to command the wing to take a slightly more efficient shape for cruising while morphing to a higher lift configuration for landing would save significant fuel (or extend range).  The artificial fish could be released in small schools or swarms to swim about and collect data on temperature or chemical content of a stream for environmental monitoring purposes, or as an early warning system for protecting ports from attack in a homeland security scenario.

The technology behind the creepy wiggly artificial fish is being developed by Dr. Wayne Neu of Virginia Tech’s Aerospace and Ocean Engineering group, along with private research company AVID.  Interestingly, AVID is also working on related technology that can be used to create actual flapping wing structures.  So, maybe soon we will have not just creepy artificial fish, but creepy artificial birds and insects.


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Filed under biomimetic, Energy, Materials, propulsion

How do you scratch an electronic nose?

I don’t know, but I thought that was a pretty catchy lead in for introducing some new technology that could help “sniff out” dangerous chemicals in the environment and possibly even detect explosives from their trace chemical signatures.

Imagine, if you will, a machine the size of a small automobile and costing significantly more, shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp, costing a few hundred dollars.  Oh, and did I mention that they do the same thing?  Well, they do.

That’s what Dr. Masoud Agah and his team have been working to accomplish.  Using an NSF Career grant, Agah is trying to develop materials, structures and processes that will result in a gas chromatograph that could fit easily inside your cell phone.

Chromatography is a technique used to separate out individual chemical components from a mixture.  The mixture, which can be a liquid but in this case is a gas, is basically forced through a tube (called a column) that has been filled with a special material called a stationary phase.  The stationary phase is chemically treated to react with the sample as it flows by, slowing its progress down slightly through this temporary interaction.  Each component of the mixture will react with the stationary phase slightly differently, which means that the different components will take different amounts of time to flow through the column.  If you make the column long enough, all the different components of the gas mixture will come out at different times.  This allows you to either analyze the mixture for its constituents, or even collect each of them into a different container, in effect producing purified gasses from mixtures.

In Agah’s lab, he has found a way to pack all that scientific goodness into a very small space, using manufacturing techniques originally developed for the computer-chip industry.  Agah etches tiny trenches in silicon wafers that replace the chromatographic column described above, and then coats them with a special molecular material that functions as the stationary phase.  Because the trenches are microscopic, he can etch very long channels by simply arranging them in tiny spiral structures.  That way, he can get many inches of column length onto a structure the size of a postage stamp.  And, they are very inexpensive to fabricate.

So what, you say.  Well, let me tell you.

Let’s say you are a passenger in a commercial airplane on your way from somewhere to, oh, say,  Detroit.  And it’s Christmas Day.  And let’s say that another passenger has hidden on his person in very intimate places, some materials that when mixed together could explode.  Wouldn’t you be happy to know that such a person has been screened out of the passenger line before you boarded the plane by a security person with a handheld wand that can sniff out one part in a trillion of the potentially explosive materials?

If Dr. Agah is successful, and of course if some company steps up to take his technology to the market, then this scenario could be a reality someday in the not-too-distant future.

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Filed under Materials, Sensing