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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Microsoft adds to framework to simplify development

Microsoft adds to framework to simplify development

Treating data at a higher level of abstraction

Looking to assist developers in building business applications, Microsoft published a second beta version of ADO.Net Entity Framework this week and a community technology preview of tools to work with the framework.

The goal of the ADO.Net Entity Framework is to eliminate the impedance mismatch between data models and languages, saving developers from having to deal with these. An example of such a mismatch is objects and relational stores.

Automation of complex processes is critical to the framework.

"Today, when a developer builds an application, they have to write code that fills in the gaps between the way the data is stored in however many databases they interact with and the way they want to manipulate the data in their application," said Britt Johnston, product manager for data programmability tools at Microsoft. "Generally, what they do is create an object model that they write their code against."

Developers might write an application that manipulates a CRM system with data for customers stored in 12 different tables, said Johnston.

"With the Entity Framework, you can automate the process essentially of bringing all that data together and presenting it to the developer as a single entity so they can interact with it at a higher level of abstraction," Johnston said.

Key new features in the framework beta release include events to customize code generation, complex programming types and entity key serialization. A key is a unique identifier for an entity, such as a customer ID. Metadata annotations and better support for LINQ (Language Integrated Query) also are included. LINQ features extensions to the .Net Framework to encompass language-integrated data query, set and transform operations.

Developers can access the framework on Microsoft's Web site. ADO.Net Entity Framework is due for general release as part of .Net Framework 3.5 in early 2008. Most would get it as part of an operating system update.

The ADO.Net Entity Framework Tools Community Technology Preview for August features an early version of the ADO.Net Entity Designer, enabling users to visually design model and mappings using the Visual Studio 2008 Beta 2 release. The tools preview is accessible on Microsoft's download page with the tools to be part of Visual Studio 2008.

With the framework, developers could focus on the needs of an application instead of the complexities of bridging disparate data representations. The framework consists of a data model and design-time and run-time services that allow developers to describe application data and interact with it in a conceptual level of abstraction appropriate for business applications, according to the company. This helps isolate the application from underlying logical database schemas.

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Lithium Batteries Take to the Road

Lithium Batteries ,Take , Road

BUZZ! DRILL! RRRIP!: Three A123 execs wield DeWalt's potent new line of tools, which pack the company's lithium‑ion cells. From left: CTO Bart Riley, CEO David Vieau, and Ric Fulop, VP of business development.

We knew from the start that we wanted to do auto batteries," says Ric Fulop, a 30‑something entrepreneur with an electrical engineering degree and a curly mop of brown hair. "But we also knew that automakers only buy from companies with volume production and real customers."

It's a version of the old chicken-and-egg problem that has confronted would-be tech entrepreneurs for decades. But Fulop and company came up with a novel solution: "We had to do power tools first."

In 2001, Fulop, then 26, set up A123 Systems in Watertown, Mass., with three partners, taking the position of vice president of business development. Late last year the company's new design for lithium-ion batteries hit the market in a line of power tools aimed at professional builders from the DeWalt Industrial Tool Co. The batteries operate at 36 volts, twice the voltage of their predecessors, and hold 130 watt-hours per kilogram-twice as much as standard nickel-metal-hydride cells.

Lithium-ion cells are poised to take an increasing share of the auto battery market, just as electric drive seems set to begin a long, slow climb to become, at last, a serious power-train option. But what's rarely understood is how much that second revolution depends on the first.

The auto industry transformation began modestly enough a decade ago with the Toyota Prius, the now wildly successful gasoline-electric hybrid. And if A123 and dozens of like-minded companies and research groups can deliver on the promise of lithium-ion batteries for vehicle propulsion, in four to 10 years plug-in hybrids could be capable of going substantial distances on electricity alone. Enthusiasm for the plug-ins being tested now, along with the 15- to 65-kilometer pure-electric range projected for their successors using lithium-ion battery packs, has raised hopes. Some analysts dare to contemplate the re-emergence of a mass-market electric car, perhaps within a decade.

Chalk it up to changing attitudes as much as breakthrough inventions. High gasoline prices have given regulators and drivers alike a reason to smile on hybrids. And investors in the currently fashionable green tech sector love new energy-storage technologies, so critical to electric-drive vehicles.

There are plenty of technical challenges-in the cells themselves, in the battery packs where they reside, and in the cars that will have to be engineered around them. The first to meet the challenges will be in the driver's seat of tomorrow's cars. A123, with its modest staff of 300 scientists and engineers, says its unique proprietary technology gives it a shot [see photos, "Battery Factory."

"The first vehicles to use lithium-ion batteries will come in 2009," Fulop declares. "In 2010, there'll be several. By 2015, most of the world's hybrids will use them."

A123 already has contracts to supply batteries to several European and American automakers, Fulop adds coyly, declining to identify the companies. He points out that early this year A123 received one of General Motors' first commissions for R&D work on lithium-ion batteries.

In fact, in June, GM raised the stakes, announcing two more R&D contracts: one to Compact Power of Troy, Mich., which plans to use cells from Korean battery maker LG Chem, and the other to a division of the German auto parts maker Continental, which plans to build battery packs incorporating A123's cells.

Experts agree that lithium-ion cells will power coming generations of cars-hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and pure electric. At first the car companies will put the new batteries in just a few standard hybrids, to test the waters, or they'll use them to fill market niches, like the one for such dazzlingly fast sports cars as the Tesla Roadster [see sidebar "Tesla: Not for Geeks Alone,"]. Later they'll put them in plug-ins-at first, in standard parallel designs, which drive the wheels with either the motor or the engine or some combination of the two. Then, perhaps, they'll move on to the more radical series design, in which the electric motor drives the wheels, leaving the engine no other role than to recharge the batteries.

Cars won't come until the batteries are affordable, and batteries won't be affordable until the automakers purchase a lot of them. This year, though, the world's top two automakers made firm commitments to lithium-ion technology.

Toyota, the world's biggest and most profitable car company, said that late next year it will put lithium-ion batteries in an unspecified hybrid vehicle. It will also test a fleet of plug-in hybrids, using nickel-metal-hydride cells, that are able to run a few kilometers on batteries alone. Today's Prius can do that for only a couple of minutes, and then only at speeds of less than 50 km/h.

General Motors is playing catch-up-but with a vengeance. Late this year, it expects to finally launch its first hybrids able to run in all-electric mode, if only for a minute or two. GM recently said it will "soon" offer a true plug-in, with an all-electric range of 16 km (10 miles), although it hasn't committed to a launch date, saying that the batteries aren't yet ready. GM is also planning to build a true series hybrid-the Chevrolet Volt, first shown as a concept vehicle in January.

Why aren't the batteries ready for prime time? There are lots of reasons, including cell life and cost, but perhaps the biggest of all is safety. Remember last year's vivid videos of flaming laptops? Nobody was hurt, but the resulting recall of millions of lithium-ion batteries was a black eye for Sony and other major vendors. If a lithium-ion powered minivan carrying a family were to burst into flames, the resulting fiasco could set the industry back a decade. And it's no use arguing that something like 250 000 gasoline-powered cars catch fire every year in the United States alone. New products are held to a higher standard.

Safety is key, and it all comes down to preventing fires and explosions. These catastrophes happen when a cell shorts out, gets hot, and starts an exothermic oxidizing reaction that kicks the temperature to hundreds of degrees Celsius in a fraction of a second. The heat then shorts out adjacent cells to produce a runaway thermal reaction that can be spectacular (just ask Sony). And, unlike a gasoline fire, the conflagration can't be smothered, because it gets oxygen from the cell's intrinsic chemistry.

Field failures occur once in every 5 million to 10 million of the most common lithium-ion cells, those known as the 18650 design, according to Brian Barnett, a technology analyst at Tiax, a consulting firm. Of course, the more cells there are in a battery pack, the greater the chance of a problem. Although it's clear that impurities introduced during manufacturing are largely to blame, the mechanism remains unclear.

There are several ways to make the new technology safe enough for cars. One, perhaps transitional, approach is to link large numbers of small cells in networks-as the Tesla does-with safeguards to ensure that a problem in one cell cannot propagate to others. A123 and some other start-ups instead chose to focus on the fundamental reactions in the cell.

First, a little chemistry. (Don't worry-it's so straightforward that chemists like to call lithium-ion "the physicist's battery.") Like any battery cell, this one has two electrodes sitting in an ion-rich solution, the electrolyte [see diagram, "Anatomy of a Cell"]. The electrodes are typically very close, so a polymer film, called a separator, prevents contact and a possible short circuit. A switched external circuit connects the electrodes to draw power, and the electrochemical reaction begins.

Ionized elements in the anode-in this case, including lithium-are tugged by the electric potential that is inherent in their chemical relation to elements in the opposing electrode, the cathode. The ions move through the electrolyte and the separator. Those arriving at the cathode give up electrons; those coming to the anode accept them. Electrons travel through the external circuit, producing a flow of charge complementary to the flow of ions. During recharge, current is forced into the cell, reversing the process.

Cell shapes vary widely, from thin discs hardly larger than a pinhead to high-power specimens the size of a small fire extinguisher. The consensus view in the auto industry is that battery packs will consist of up to 100 large-format cells of 20 to 50 ampere-hours apiece-each cell perhaps 50 millimeters wide and 200 mm long-grouped into modules that include sensors and electronics. The modules feed data to an electronic battery management system, which performs the crucial function of enabling cells of varying power and voltage to work together as a unit.

The Tesla alternative, packaging thousands of inexpensive commodity cells, requires far more sensors and control software than would be practical for mass-market vehicles.

There is no one lithium-ion battery. Several chemical designs compete, each with advantages and drawbacks. "No chemistry will be the perfect one," says Klaus Brandt, the chief executive of Gaia, a German subsidiary of Lithium Technology Corp., of Plymouth Meeting, Pa. "Different chemistries will find different niches that vary with cost, performance, and safety."

The anode is typically made of graphite, but the cathode composition varies widely from design to design, and as much as any other factor it determines a battery's capacity. The critical feature is the rate at which the cathode can absorb and emit free lithium ions; this parameter in turn largely determines the power density. Each of several competing cathode materials has a different mix of cost, durability, susceptibility to temperature, and so forth. Cobalt is more reactive than nickel or manganese, meaning it offers high electrical potential when paired with graphite anodes, permitting higher voltage. However, cobalt, like nickel, is expensive. Manganese is cheaper, but it is slightly soluble in electrolytes-which means a shorter useful life.

The most important cathode contenders:

Cobalt dioxide is the most popular choice today for small cells. It has been on the market for 15 years, so it is proven and its costs are known. It has high electrical potential and the highest energy density-up to 600 Wh/kg. On the other hand, when fully charged, it is the most prone of all the cathode alternatives to oxidation and subsequent thermal runaway. Its internal impedance-the extent to which it "pushes back" against an alternating current-also increases with both calendar time and cycling. Cobalt dioxide cells are manufactured by dozens of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean companies.

Nickel-cobalt-manganese is somewhat easier to make. Substituting nickel and manganese for some of the cobalt raises the electrical potential only slightly, but it's enough to let manufacturers tune the cell either for higher power or for greater energy density, though not both at the same time. (Remember that total energy determines the vehicle's range, whereas available power determines its acceleration.) It is susceptible to thermal runaway, though less so than cobalt dioxide. Its long-term durability is still unclear, and nickel and manganese are both pricey at the moment. Manufacturers include Hitachi, Panasonic, and Sanyo.

Nickel-cobalt-aluminum is similar, with lower-cost aluminum replacing the manganese. Companies manufacturing NCA cells include Toyota and Johnson Controls-Saft, a joint venture between a Milwaukee company and a French firm.

Manganese oxide spinel offers higher power at a lower cost than cobalt, because its three-dimensional crystalline structure provides more surface area, permitting more ion flow between the electrodes. The drawback is an energy density only slightly better than 450 Wh/kg. GS Yuasa, LG Chem, NEC-Lamilion Energy, and Samsung offer cells with such cathodes.

Iron phosphate may well be the most promising new cathode, thanks to its stability and safety. This is what A123 is using in its batteries. Other manufacturers include Gaia and Valence Technology, in Austin, Texas. The compound is inexpensive, and because the bonds between the iron, phosphate, and oxygen atoms are far stronger than those between cobalt and oxygen atoms, the oxygen is much harder to detach when overcharged. Therefore, when it fails, it does so without overheating.

Unfortunately, however, iron phosphate doesn't conduct well; to compensate, engineers have to add dopants. Even then, the cells work at a lower voltage than cobalt, so more of them must be chained together to drive a motor. That means iron phosphate battery packs need more interconnections and sensors to control the system.

One way around that problem is A123's use of nanostructures in the cathode. This proprietary method produces better power and longer life than earlier generations of iron phosphate cells, says Andy Chu, a researcher at A123.

As phosphate molecules in the cathode acquire and give off lithium atoms-undergoing lithiation and delithiation-the phase boundary between the two states shifts, just as the boundary between cold water and ice does during freezing. In A123's nanostructures, Chu says, the molecular lattices of the two states are structurally more similar to each other than in other phosphate cells, so atoms need less time to rearrange themselves. That means lithiation can proceed faster, delivering more power.

Moreover, because the lattice spacing of the two phases is closer, the physical stress on the cell is reduced, especially in deep discharge and charge. The cells should thus last longer.

"The batteries have performed as advertised by A123," said a third-party tester who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the news media. He noted that even when the cells were subjected to severe abuse, including extreme overcharging, they failed in a "relatively benign fashion."

One shadow hanging over iron phosphate chemistries is the extent of the coverage of patents for work done by the pioneering researcher in the field, John Goodenough, now of the University of Texas at Austin. A123 insists that its work does not violate the patents. Gaia, on the other hand, purchases only materials manufactured under license to the patent owner.

One characteristic flaw of lithium-ion batteries, anode plating, comes when a recharging cell dumps lithium ions faster than the anode can absorb them. This problem can be caused either by low temperatures, which slow the rate of diffusion, or by overcharging, which slows the rate of absorption. One of the jobs of the battery management system is to keep overcharging from ever happening.

Plating is bad for a number of reasons, particularly because it further reduces absorption, increasing the concentration of carbon ions until they begin to react with the oxygen in the electrolyte. The oxidation-equivalent to that in a burning lump of coal-creates a lot of heat, which in turn increases the rate of deposition.

A123 says its carbon anode combines the high rate of charging provided by graphitic carbon with the long life of nongraphitic types. It won't give details of its proprietary formulation, saying only that it fine-tunes the size and structure of the particles.

Altair Nanotechnologies of Reno, Nev., wards off plating by coupling standard cobalt oxide cathodes with anodes made of lithium titanate spinel rather than graphite. The spinel won't react with oxygen, and it also charges fast and lasts long. However, the energy density-at the current, early stage of development-is only half that of standard cobalt cells, and it is little better than that of nickel-metal-hydride cells.

The second-toughest problem after thermal runaway is limited life span, as measured by both the calendar and the number of charge-discharge cycles. A123's Fulop says the cycle-life goals are easy to meet, but the calendar-life ones will be harder.

Cobalt-based cells for portable electronics lose as much as 20 percent of their capacity each year, starting from the day of manufacture. That may be tolerable for cellphones and other portables that are replaced every three or four years, but not for a car, which is expected to last 15 years.

The California Air Resources Board requires a vehicle's power train to last for 10 years or 150 000 miles (240 000 km) with the original components. GM has said, meanwhile, that it expects battery packs for its Volt concept car to last for at least 4000 full-discharge cycles. That's good but might not be good enough. At one charge-discharge cycle per day, the pack would last for 11 years-though it's the rare car that runs 365 days a year for a decade.

Worse yet, auto and battery makers don't have the luxury of spending 10 years testing lithium-ion packs. "Ideally," says Mark Verbrugge, director of GM's materials and processes laboratory, "we'd have half the life span to test it. But we don't, so there's no clean answer." Meanwhile, automakers are "oversizing" their battery packs to ensure they'll power the car even after projected degradation. Of course, that strategy adds cost and weight.

THEY PUT THE JOLT IN THE VOLT: A123's dynamic trio pose beside Chevrolet's Volt, a serial hybrid concept car that uses their company's batteries.

Then there's the final hurdle: cost. At the moment, 12-V lead-acid batteries cost US $40 to $50 per kWh. Nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride cells for portable electronics cost $350/kWh; lithium-ion cells for the same market go for $450/kWh. Move to hybrid vehicles, though, and the price for longer-lived, more rugged nickel-metal-hydride batteries shoots up to about $700/kWh. That's more than double the $300 target set by the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium for automotive lithium-ion packs.

Manufacturers expect to reach that target by 2015, but in the earlier stages of production the price will likely be several times higher. How low must the price fall before a manufacturer will commit to even a low-volume purchase? No one will say, though every manufacturer surely has a threshold in mind. As GM's Verbrugge summarized with a straight face, "Cost lower-always better."

World politics plays a role in some of those costs, especially prices of the raw materials. Lithium is not a "strategic metal," unlike nickel-whose price is surging as demand for stainless steel grows-so the cost of the metal per kilowatt-hour is lower for lithium than for nickel-metal-hydride. Right now, Chile and Argentina supply much of the world's lithium carbonate, but Bolivia and China also have large reserves.

Geography does matter in another way, one that may give A123 an advantage: its headquarters and research labs are in the United States. No automaker wants to depend on a supplier in a distant land, especially one whose loyalties lie with a competitor. Take Ford: it purchased nickel-metal-hydride battery packs for its Escape Hybrid SUV from Japan's Sanyo Electric Co., which had developed them for Toyota. But if battery supplies get tight, Sanyo's ties to Toyota surely will outweigh Ford's needs.

With North American and European companies intent on nurturing battery companies in their own backyards, A123 is focusing its sales and marketing efforts in those regions. And clearly that focus has started to pay off.

A123 is confident it can compete with the big boys. It is fully global, concentrating its research and development in North America and manufacturing in Asia. Already Europe's Continental will build A123 cells into battery packs, and Fulop itches to provide details of A123's other contracts.

How, then, is development going? The goal remains the same: raise cell power beyond today's 3.5-V maximum, as high as the company's nanostructure phosphate chemistry will permit, while working toward cell life beyond 10 years and 5000 full-discharge cycles. If A123's cells can deliver the power and energy of the best cobalt varieties with far less danger of a spontaneous meltdown, the company could carve out a big, profitable share in the auto components industry. A123 won't reveal the details of its R&D, of course, but it has said it expects further significant improvements in chemistries and molecular structures.

For a company whose first products reached consumers less than a year ago, A123 is on a fast track. DeWalt cites builders who say they can finally replace corded tools, because the 36‑V line now provides all the torque they need. In fact, A123 has ignored most inquiries from potential buyers, instead focusing on existing customers and future markets. That's a luxury few companies enjoy.

Clearly the next five years are critical. Fulop notes that at this year's conference on advanced auto batteries, several companies declined to discuss current and future developments. "The submarines have gone underwater and turned on their sensors," he says cheerfully. "Everyone's preparing their attack." Asked what keeps him up at night, Fulop is startled. "The big challenges are behind us," he says. "We're well capitalized. We've got numbers of customers. Our products are good for this application."

Then his voice rises. "What excites me is to finally see our batteries in actual vehicles, after so many years of work," he says with a grin. "That's cloud nine."

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Hard drive containing Ark. Democratic Party data sold on eBay

Hard drive containing Ark. Democratic Party data sold on eBay

Imagine Bill Ries-Knight's surprise when he purchased a supposedly new hard drive on eBay only to discover it contained information from the Arkansas Democratic Party.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Ries-Knight, who lives in Stockton, Calif., said none of the information was encrypted and only a small amount of it was password protected.

In a telephone interview, Ries-Knight, a computer technician, said that while he didn't look at all the files on the drive, he did determine that the data included the private cell phone numbers of Democratic members of Arkansas' congressional delegation and of financial contributors to the party, including U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, as well as U.S. Reps. Marion Berry, Mike Ross and Vic Snyder.

Ries-Knight provided Computerworld with screenshots of the hard drive as well as other information documenting his claims.

After he discovered the information on the hard drive, he conducted his own investigation and determined that it came from a defunct computer once owned by Bruce Sinclair, director of Arkansas' Democratic Party. Ries-Knight then called Sinclair to make sure his computer had not been stolen. It had not, Ries-Knight was told.

"I was looking on eBay for a nice-priced laptop drive so I could enhance my portable computing," Ries-Knight said. "In the process, I bid on a new Seagate 120GB 2.5-in. laptop drive. I won the auction at a fair price and it arrived in the mail. As always, I check things out before responding to the auction. It was not a new drive. In fact, it was a pull from an HP laptop. It seems that in March 2007 [David Qualls] the friend of a high-ranking official of the Democratic Party of Arkansas [Sinclair] did some work on said HP laptop. [Sinclair] was led to believe it was a dead drive."

Ries-Knight said he also contacted David Qualls, the person who sold the hard drive on eBay. Ries-Knight said he was subsequently told that it was Qualls' wife who sold the hard drive on eBay, but he's not convinced that's the case. Qualls is a lead programmer/analyst for the Arkansas Department of Information Systems.

Both Sinclair and Qualls declined to comment for this story.

Ries-Knight said Qualls tried to image the hard drive from Sinclair's old computer to the hard drive that was on Sinclair's new computer, but failed. In exchange for his work, Qualls ended up retaining the drive from the new laptop, which still had the image information on it and was then sold on eBay.

"I recommend that if a tech says your drive is dead, that you ask for the drive and a sledge hammer," Ries-Knight said. "Be sure. If it contains sensitive information, use a legit data recovery company or destroy it."

Ries-Knight said he plans to wipe the drive clean of the data.


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Monitoring climate change at the top of the world

Monitoring climate change at the top of the world

Nestled in the Himalayas, bordering the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, lies tiny landlocked Nepal. The barely 250km stretch from south to north sees a land rise from under one hundred metres above sea level to 8000 metres, and climate ranging from tropical to glacial.

The Himalayas - the source of Asia's nine largest rivers and a lifeline for 1.3 billion people downstream - sweep over 2,400 kilometres across Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in April this year warns that the Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than any other and could disappear by 2035 if the present rate of global warming continues. Mount Everest itself is retreating and glaciers are melting, swelling lakes that could one day burst and cause massive flooding.

Nepal has 2,323 glacial lakes, of which 20 are a potential danger to the population. Its even tinier neighbour, Bhutan - whose glaciers are less well understood - has an estimated 3,000 glacial lakes, of which 24 could be dangerous.

But Bhutan and Nepal do not have the technical and financial means to study the impact of climate change on their countries. Largely ignored in the international arena of high-tech science and overshadowed by their populous neighbours China and India, these least-developed countries struggle on their own.

Shortage of scientific data

There are few trained scientists or even a research station in Nepal to study this area of science, says Om Ratna Bajracharya, senior hydrologist at the Snow and Glacier Hydrology Unit in the Nepalese government's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.

Batu Krishna Uprety, chief of the environment section in Nepal's Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, says that there are no research data available to help understand climate change in countries such as Nepal.

Bhutan has the same problem. "The gaps in scientific manpower and research are acute," says Doley Tshering, officer for climate change at the United Nation's Development Programme office in Bhutan.

"The two agencies responsible for climate change, the National Environment Commission and the Department of Geology and Mines, lack trained staff to conduct basic climate-change research. Research gaps exist in studies on climatology and climate and weather forecasting," he says.

Pradeep Mool, scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal's capital Kathmandu, agrees. There is a need to raise awareness about climate change at different levels and to build policies and strategies for mitigation and adaptation, he says.

Nepal is also hampered by a lack of adequate information on glacial lakes in neighbouring Tibet - part of China - and India, says Bajracharya. "There should be more information sharing and transboundary cooperation," he adds.

Funding more scientific input

Nepal relies on ground-based data on glacial parameters, collected from a network of 12 stations set up in the Himalayan region in the 1980s. Six of these were set up with Germany's support, but at least six more are needed - each costing about US$2,000, which the country simply cannot afford.

The country hopes that a new Nepalese-French project on glacial mass balance, slated to begin in late 2007, will provide essential updates.

Likewise, climate data for Bhutan are not well documented. Bhutan installed its first meteorological weather stations in 1973 at a few selected locations, but reliable data exist for only 10-12 years, whereas several decades of data are needed as a basis for climate prediction.

Buying expensive research equipment is a constraint, as is access to the latest scientific literature. "Research would require access to a lot of up-to-date scientific information through international journals. The government scientists may lack resources to subscribe to journals and other sources of information," says Tshering.

The inaccessibility to scientists of glaciers concentrated in northern Bhutan, where roads need to be built, adds to these problems.

"This [region] is not like the Alps," says Om Ratna Bajracharya. "Here it takes seven days for a scientist to walk to and reach a glacier. But we will not give up."

Satellite image of glaciers and
glacial lakes in Bhutan
Credit: NASA
Bajracharya and his colleagues are resigned to the fact that Nepal cannot afford to buy the high-resolution remote-sensing satellite systems that would provide a clearer picture of the receding glaciers and swelling glacial lakes. His department has a budget of US$84,400, which is barely enough for salaries, maintenance of buildings and equipment, and for operating weather stations.

The department makes do with whatever free satellite images it can get hold of, including some from ICIMOD, says Bajracharya.

Warning of mountain tsunamis

Forecasting glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) is a major worry for Bhutan and Nepal, with projections indicating that these are likely to increase in the future as a result of climate change. Thousands of people - as well as the local infrastructure of roads, bridges and communication networks - in the Himalayas are at risk of GLOFs. The warning time is barely minutes or, at most, hours. "GLOFs are the mountain tsunamis," says ICIMOD's Basanta Shreshtha.

Existing networks for gathering and transmitting data on climate and water are inadequate. There is an urgent need for new, improved mechanisms of flood forecasting and realtime warning in the region, says Mool.

ICIMOD and the World Meteorological Organization have started a project to set up a regional flood-information system for the Hindu Kush Himalayas and to share information for early-warning technologies, resources and scientific knowledge.

ICIMOD has also helped Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology and Bhutan's Department of Energy to set up two-part systems comprising a GLOF sensor and a GLOF warning system.

In Nepal, water-level sensors connected by cable relay information about the onset of a flood to a transmitter located upstream. The transmitter relays the signals to all remote warning systems downstream, where most people live, within two minutes of a flood starting.

Bhutan has a manually operated system in the eastern Luana lake area, with two staff members equipped with a wireless set and a satellite telephone to relay messages. They monitor gauges installed at intervals along the main river and lakes.

Such measures are resource intensive and require much detailed fieldwork and maintenance, say ICIMOD scientists.

Constraints on funding

Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology is not alone in its funding problems. The science ministry of Nepal is itself in need of restructuring, having been largely ignored in the political conflict between the monarchy, democrats and Maoist rebels over the past decade, says Ishwar Singh Thapa, joint secretary in Nepal's Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology.

A transmitter for the early
warning system for Tsho Rolpa
lake in Nepal
Credit: ICIMOD
An interim coalition government set up in 2006 can take no major policy decisions until elections are held in November 2007, but Thapa says it is imperative that the science allocation is increased from the present 0.3 per cent to at least one per cent of the country's gross domestic product in the coming years.

Meanwhile, issues of cost and affordability also affect decisions on installation of equipment and mitigation strategies to reduce the impact of global warming. "It is technically complex and financially difficult to have mitigation strategies in a harsh high-altitude environment," points out Om Ratna Bajracharya.

For example, Tsho Rolpa, Nepal's biggest glacial lake in the Rolwaling Valley near Kathmandu, needs to be drained by 17 metres to prevent a lake burst. So far, Nepal has drained it by three metres, reducing the chance of a GLOF by 20 per cent, with a US$3 million project from the Netherlands. But the project ended in 2000 and the future is uncertain.

Bhutan settled for the labour-intensive option of manually digging out the water from its Raphstreng Tso glacial lake, which reached a critical bursting point in 1998.

"International agencies are shifting focus from mitigation to adaptation, which is seen as less expensive," observes Saraju Kumar Baidya, senior divisional meteorologist at Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.

"We have to go along with where the funds lie," says Baidya, explaining that climate-change strategies are often donor rather than country-driven.

In theory, least-developed countries like Bhutan and Nepal are eligible for a special adaptation fund earmarked for them by United Nations Development Programme and Global Environment Facility (UNDP-GEF).

But scientists are concerned with country-level effects and the UNDP-GEF supports only projects with a global impact. The net result is that few projects qualify for funding, says Uprety.

Projects in the pipeline

Despite the hurdles, Nepal has bagged a UNDP-GEF grant for an 18-month National Capacity Self-Assessment Project, which started in April, and has finalised a National Adaptation Programme of Action to start this year.

Damage caused by the 1994
flood of Luggye Tsho lake in
Credit: ICIMOD
But such projects are few and far between. Nepal has managed just two projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), both dealing with biogas technologies. "China and India corner most of the CDM projects," says Uprety.

In April, the country set up a 23-member climate-change network comprising senior government scientists, academics, non-government organisations and community-based organisations from Nepal.

The network will attempt to assess the strengths of various organisations to deal with climate change, share information and use their collective expertise. It will serve as a platform to discuss and promote climate-change activities in Nepal and form a position paper for use in international negotiations, says Uprety.

And, like the rugged Himalayas, the scientists of Bhutan and Nepal will not buckle.

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Jordan unveils nuclear energy strategy

Jordan unveils nuclear energy strategy

Jordan has unveiled a strategy to develop nuclear energy and lessen its dependence on fossil fuel.

The plan was unveiled this week (27 August) by the minister of higher education and scientific research, Khalid Touqan, at a meeting of the Supreme Committee for Nuclear Energy Strategy in Amman, Jordan.

King Abdullah II, who chaired the committee, said Jordan - a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - will become a regional model for the peaceful use of nuclear energy in line with international rules.

Jordan aims to open its first nuclear power station by 2015 and generate 30 per cent of its total energy using nuclear power by the end of 2030, said the committee.

Jordan currently generates most of its energy from fossil fuels, 95 per cent of which it imports from neighbouring Arab countries - at a cost of 20 per cent of its gross domestic product.

The National Nuclear Energy Strategy covers electricity production from uranium, processing nuclear waste, research and capacity building nuclear energy and securing funds for the project.

Ned Xoubi, chairman of the Nuclear Engineering Department at Jordan University of Science and Technology, told SciDev.Net that nuclear energy "is the best choice for Jordan" and that it will provide the energy to fulfil growing demands from water desalination and hydrogen production plants.

He said that nuclear energy would alleviate the burden that fuel currently places on the national budget.

Xoubi added that his university has established a nuclear engineering programme, starting in September this year to "enhance nuclear knowledge in Jordan".

The course's first graduates in 2011 will "help in the design, building and running of Jordan's first nuclear power plant", he said, and will benefit from working with nuclear suppliers and contractors from developed nations.

The Jordan Atomic Energy Commission is currently carrying out a two-year feasibility study on nuclear power and desalination in cooperation with the IAEA, which should be ready next year.

Jordan is cooperating with Kazakhstan to develop its capability to mine uranium (see Jordan and Kazakhstan agree science cooperation).

Related SciDev.Net articles:
Gulf plans joint nuclear technology programme
Not just weapons: nuclear science for development
Middle East nuclear programmes could prove risky
Should developing nations embrace nuclear energy?

Related links:
Jordan University of Science and Technology

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Striking back: lightning in the developing world

Striking back: lightning in the developing world

Scientists are battling to stop damage and death caused by lightning strikes in the developing world, reports Anuradha Alahakoon

In July this year, dark clouds and lightning stained the sky above Ushari Dara, a remote mountain village in northwestern Pakistan. After the storm had blown over, police reported that lightning had destroyed a dozen houses and killed up to 30 people.

In 1988, residents of Cibinong in West Java, Indonesia, reported lightning strikes on 322 days of that year; lightning had struck each square kilometre of land as many as 12 times.

And in Bangladesh, the metal roofing of shanties that provide shelter for the urban poor is an easy target for lightning. In 2003, 133 people died and 137 were injured after their homes were struck.

Despite these accounts, the dangers of lightning are not taken sufficiently seriously, say lightning scientists. Alarmed by the general lack of safety precautions in the developing world, some 30 experts met in Colombo, Sri Lanka in May this year to discuss how their countries could better protect themselves against future strikes.

The purpose of the forum was to raise awareness of lightning and lightning protection standards and, most importantly, to agree to exert pressure as a group on governments in developing countries to take lightning protection seriously.

"All the scientists are very much concerned about pressuring policy-makers in their countries to adapt relevant standards of lightning protection and educate the public," says University of Colombo lightning expert Chandima Gomes, currently lightning-protection advisor to the National Lightning Safety Institution based in the United States.

Making people aware

One of the biggest problems confronting lightning-protection scientists is the lack of awareness about the dangers of lightning.

For example, in Sri Lanka, where lightning kills around 50 people every year and damages US$2.5 million worth of property, people in neighbourhoods where deaths and injuries that have occurred from lightning still do not take precautions in subsequent lightning storms, a research team from the University of Colombo has found.

A tree destroyed by a
lightning strike
Credit: Wikimedia/Luis
Fernández García
But there are some initiatives in progress to raise awareness.

In Bangladesh, where literacy levels are only 30 per cent and therefore disseminating information on lightning safety is difficult, a project to increase awareness in rural villages - where deaths from lightning are frequent - has met with success.

A team of local experts, headed by Munir Ahmed from the nongovernmental organisation Technological Assistance for Rural Advancement, began a project in 2004 by using street dramas and folk songs to teach people how to protect themselves against lightning. Follow-up by the Lightning Awareness Centre in Bangladesh found that understanding about lightning protection had improved in those communities.

According to Gomes, lightning awareness centres, which act as a meeting place for scientists and the community, are also a good solution. At present there are about eight such centres operating in Asian countries, including in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The scientists hope to build more such centres across the developing world.

Strengthening standards

Beyond lack of awareness, one of the principal problems the scientists identified at the forum is that many developing countries lack standards when it comes to producing, testing and installing lightning-protection devices such as lightning rods.

In Malaysia, many tall buildings are marked by lightning strikes, says Hartono Zainal from Lighting Research, a consulting body in Malaysia.

This is because some of the equipment used and marketed in Malaysia does not adhere to international standards, he says. So even though a considerable number of buildings have lightning-protection devices installed, many are not out of the danger zone.

The basic principle behind lightning-protection devices is that they provide a safe pathway - from the terminal above the building, through the conductor to the rod in the ground - for the lightning to earth, without destroying the structure or object it strikes.

Lightning in Marrakech,
Credit: Wikimedia/
Blaise Thirard
Standards specify the size and materials that can be safely used for lightning-protection devices, how and where they should be installed on buildings, and how they should be tested.

One of the biggest problems is in the positioning of the lightning-protection rod, Zainal says. If it is not positioned correctly, it doesn't shield the building from lightning effectively.

"I found that 90 per cent of lightning strikes are at the corners of buildings. In most places when damage has occurred, the placement of the rod was wrong," says Zainal.

Coming up with solutions

One of the main goals for the scientists at the forum in Colombo was to find a way to reduce the number of deaths and the extent of injury from lightning.

Mladjen Curic, from the University of Belgrade in Serbia, believes that science may be able to provide part of the solution. Anti-hail rockets, which fire silver iodide into thunderclouds to suppress hail and protect agricultural crops, can also reduce lightning, he says.

The silver iodide seeded in the thunderclouds produce an excess of ice crystals, which cause the clouds to discharge their electrical potential, thereby reducing the likelihood of the lightning reaching the ground.

Curic's analysis showed that the rockets also reduced lightning by 50 per cent, providing protection over a large area for an extended period of time. He believes that this type of protection is much more effective than individual protection of objects.

Although his research is encouraging, a more immediate solution may lie in pressuring governments in developing countries to pay more attention to lightning protection.

The scientists at the Colombo forum hope this will come about through a policy document called the Colombo Declaration.

Scientists at the International
Roundtable of Lightning
Credit: SciDev.Net/
Anuradha Alahakoon
The Declaration is a set of guidelines and recommendations - developed and signed by the forum scientists - for governments to ensure that people have proper protection from lightning.

The document recommends increasing awareness among the public, enhancing technical skills among professionals, better protection of buildings, developing national standards and promoting local manufacture of lightning-protection devices with the help of financial grants and training.

One of the recommendations in the declaration is to build an international network for lobbying governments about lightning standards, particularly in African countries, where much work needs to be done.

"This kind of a policy document, which we can use to force policy-makers to adapt standards, is very important, and it will make positive impacts in many countries if rightly adapted," says Orabile Nanabu of the Botswana Technology Centre, representing Africa as a whole.

Sri Lanka has been nominated to house a planned international institute of lightning protection and safety. The country has the oldest lightning-research group - over 35 years old - in the developing world, based at the University of Colombo. Sri Lankan scientists pioneered the promotion of lightning awareness in the region and have close ties with the National Lightning Safety Institute in the United States.

"An international centre of excellence, where you have the technology and where any interested person can use the facilities at affordable cost will be good initiative to develop the field in future. This centre can host laboratories to test the lightning-protection devices cost effectively," says Chandima Gomes.

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IBM stores data on an atom

IBM stores data on an atom As researchers look for ways to replace silicon in order to shrink chips, IBM has been able to perform functions like switching and data storage on atoms and molecules

IBM has demonstrated how to perform certain computer functions on single atoms and molecules, a discovery that could someday lead to processors the size of a speck of dust, the company said Thursday.

Researchers at IBM's Almaden Research Center in California developed a technique for measuring magnetic anisotropy, a property of the magnetic field that gives it the ability to maintain a particular direction. Being able to measure magnetic anisotropy at the atomic level is a crucial step toward the magnet representing the ones or the zeroes used to store data in binary computer language.

In a second report, researchers at IBM's lab in Zurich, Switzerland, said they had used an individual molecule as an electric switch that could potentially replace the transistors used in modern chips. The company published both research reports in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

The new technologies are at least 10 years from being used for components in commercial products, but the discoveries will allow scientists to take a large step forward in their quest to replace silicon, said IBM spokesman Matthew McMahon.

To build faster, smaller chips, IBM and other chip vendors like Intel and AMD have shrunk the dimensions of chip features from 90 nanometers to 65nm in the current generation of chips and plan to continue to 45nm and 32nm in coming years. The problem is that wires built from silicon tend to leak more electricity at each step on that scale and will eventually reach a limit where they are no longer useful.

"Across all our areas of nanotechnology research, we're trying to determine the new kinds of materials we can use in computing when silicon reaches its fundamental limits. The ultimate goal is molecular-level computers, but the interim products will probably be hybrids with current technology, using things like carbon nanotubes," McMahon said.

IBM defines nanotechnology as work done at a scale of 100nm or smaller. At that scale, scientists must use a tool called the STM (scanning tunneling microscope) to photograph and manipulate individual atoms as they did in their latest research. Their next challenge is to find a way to make these laboratory demonstrations work at room temperature, he said.

Having measured the magnetic anisotropy of a single atom, "their next step is finding atoms that can do it at stable temperatures that are suitable for storage devices. If they can find that, it's still a decade out from commercialization," he said.

The Zurich researchers also developed a technique for using a molecule containing two hydrogen atoms as a switch, either on its own or with an adjacent molecule. They are now looking to apply the method to many other molecules, enabling the system to work as a collection of logic gates, the building blocks of microprocessors.

Even if the teams reach those goals, they must find a way to manufacture the systems on a large scale, instead of moving single atoms with the STM. One possibility is to use the process of self-assembly, where atoms under certain conditions will naturally form the desired shapes. In May, IBM said it had used that approach to insulate the wires on a chip by creating trillions of tiny, vacuum-filled holes around each one.

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Bank of India site hacked, serves up 22 exploits

Bank of India site hacked, serves up 22 exploits

Reminiscent of Super Bowl site hack in January; notorious Russian gang suspected

The Bank of India Web site was hacked sometime Wednesday night (U.S. time) and seeded with a wide, wild array of malware that infected any users running unpatched browsers, security researchers said today.

Although the bank's site had been scoured of all malware by Friday morning, it's currently offline. "This site is under temporary maintenance and will be available after 09:00 IST on 1.09.07," a prominent message currently reads.

Researchers at Sunbelt Software Inc. first posted details of the hack yesterday afternoon after finding rogue code embedded in the site's HTML. That code, actually an IFRAME exploit, silently redirected users to a hacker server, which pushed 22 different pieces of malware onto vulnerable PCs. By Sunbelt's tally, the malware included one worm, three rootkits, five Trojan downloaders, and several password stealers. "The biggest issue is the sheer volume of malware we've had to analyze," said Alex Eckelberry, Sunbelt's CEO, in a blog posting yesterday.

Other researchers dug up more information. According to Roger Thompson, the chief technology officer of Exploit Prevention Labs Inc., the bank's site was compromised sometime between late Wednesday and early Thursday (U.S. time). How it was hacked, however, is yet unknown, as is how many bank customers might have been infected by the attacks.

When contacted Friday, executives and IT administrators at U.S. offices of Bank of India were unaware of the hack. Later, after reaching his colleagues in India, a U.S.-based spokesman said only: "They are aware of the problem. Bank IT and security people are working on this now." He had no other information on the severity of the attack or its duration, however.

For his part, Thompson posted a video of the hack (.wmv file download) that showed the massive infections and resulting system changes in a debugger window. At one point, he pointed out a couple of pop-ups that appeared during the infection. "The pop-ups aren't the problem, the problem is that you're already hosed if you're not patched," he said. "You're comprehensively owned at this point."

By 10:30 a.m. Eastern, the site was clean, Eckelberry reported.

All clues point to the notorious Russian Business Network (RBN) gang, said Eckelberry. Based in St. Petersburg, RBN has been dubbed "the baddest of the bad" by VeriSign iDefense, and is reportedly involved in everything from spamming and phishing to denial-of-service attacks and selling child pornography over the Internet.

"There has been speculation as to whether the malware was installed through an exploit framework -- Webattacker, Mpack, Icepack -- as it was encrypted in the same way as Webattacker," said Eckelberry.

Thompson confirmed the breach. In a blog of his own, Thompson said it looked like the "standard Mpack/Icepack stuff" to him.

The Bank of India hack is only the latest example of a legitimate Web site behing compromised, and serving up malware to unwary visitors. In the U.S., the most serious incident was earlier this year, when the site belong to Dolphin Stadium, host to the National Football League's Super Bowl, was hacked just days before the big game.

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Google News to host wire service stories

Google News to host wire service stories

Google Inc. took another step Friday in its continued attempts to improve its relationships with wire services, when it announced a program to host full articles from news agencies on Google News pages.

Google News, a site in which Google aggregates links to articles published on news outlets' Web sites, is generally valued by publishers who make money from online advertising and as such benefit from the traffic Google News sends to their sites.

But Google News has been a tougher sell for wire services, which generally make money by licensing their content to newspapers and magazines, and not by attracting readers to their own Web sites.

Agence France Presse (AFP), one of the world's largest wire services, sued Google for alleged copyright infringement on the News site. Although never publicly acknowledged, it's widely believed that the Associated Press threatened to file a similar lawsuit.

Although Google maintains that running hyperlinked headlines, text snippets and thumbnail images from news outlets in Google News is protected by the fair use principle, it eventually settled with AFP and signed a licensing agreement with it, as well as with AP.

Friday's announcement appears to be the first concrete result of those licensing agreements, although the AP deal is now more than a year old. The AFP settlement and agreement were announced in April.

Now, if they want, people will be able to read the original articles from AP, AFP, the U.K. Press Association and the Canadian Press in Google News pages. Google also entered into licensing agreements with the U.K. and Canadian wire services.

Previously, because wire services' Web sites typically feature either a small sample or none of their stories, the way to read their articles was go to the sites of their syndication clients, such as newspapers.

The new feature unveiled Friday is called "duplicate detection," which lets Google News identify the original source of a story that may appear in tens or hundreds of news outlet Web sites. If the source story is from one of the four news service agencies that Google has licensing agreements with, Google will display the story on a page that it hosts.

But the feature will benefit all types of news outlets, not just wire services. For example, if a New York Times story gets syndicated, Google News will know that it originally came from this newspaper.

For such outlets that have their own public Web sites, "duplicate detection" will simply let users click over to their sites, which is the traditional Google News model.

Removing duplicated articles opens up more room on Google News, leading to a better user experience, said Josh Cohen, Google News business product manager.

"Our goal with what we're launching today is to provide the best experience for our users and help our partners get credit for their content," he said.

Asked whether the hosting of full articles on Google News will weaken the fair-use protection claim, Cohen said that it will not. "We respect copyright laws. When we go beyond fair use, we enter into licensing agreements," he said.

The "duplicate detection" feature is already operational on the site, he said.

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Microsoft purchase of RIM nice to consider, but unlikely

Rumors that Microsoft Corp. may purchase BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. are likely just that because of RIM's high price tag, though there would be benefits for both parties if a deal were struck, analysts said Friday.

Michelle Warren, a senior analyst for Info-Tech Research Group in Toronto, sent out a note Thursday on industry speculation that Microsoft is in discussions with RIM, observing that the deal would give Microsoft ammunition to compete in the consumer device market against Apple Inc.

It also would position them well to fight any wireless strategy from Google Inc., which has been buying up dark cable networks and is expected to make a big move in wireless communications in the next year or two, she said.

I think this makes sense basically because Microsoft has to do something different to order increase market share in the overall IT market," Warren said in an interview Friday. "They have to do something disruptive and eye-catching, and this speaks to their marketing positioning and future expansion plans."

Microsoft has achieved a fair amount of success with its latest mobile OS, Windows Mobile 6, and has identified the mobile device space as an important one for the company's growth and revenue diversification going forward. Buying RIM would counter its current weakness in developing hardware for its mobile OS, Warren said.

RIM would gain Microsoft's brand power and also engineering expertise for one of BlackBerry's competitive differentiators. Business users find a BlackBerry's ability to communicate with Microsoft Exchange Server for mobile e-mail an attractive feature. Microsoft also makes this option available in Windows Mobile. Synching up with Microsoft would allow the company to enhance this capability faster and more efficiently, Warren said.

Neither Microsoft nor RIM would comment Friday on the possibility of a deal.

Despite the advantages of a Microsoft-RIM merger, the deal just doesn't make economic sense, other analysts said Friday. To them, it's not even a remote possibility Microsoft would pony up more than the US$47 billion in market cap RIM currently has to buy the vendor.

"I just don't see it," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Washington.

He acknowledged he was surprised by Microsoft's purchase of digital advertising services firm aQuantive for $6 billion, and so also could be mistaken in the case of RIM. However, it isn't likely that Microsoft, for which the aQuantive deal was its largest to date, would shell out much more than a few billion to purchase a company.

"A RIM deal would be larger by an order of magnitude," Rosoff said. "I just don't see Microsoft making that size of acquisition."

He added that some kind of strategic alliance between the two, which currently compete head to head in the mobile OS space, would be more likely. "A multiyear partnership agreement, where some money might change hands but we'd never know how much," would make more sense, Rosoff said.

Roger Kay, president of market intelligence firm Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc., agreed that Microsoft likely won't make a purchase that large. He also noted that although Microsoft has become increasingly "more comfortable" with developing consumer hardware -- with products like the Xbox 360 gaming console and Zune digital media player on the market -- there could be thorny competitive issues with mobile device makers that license Windows Mobile if Microsoft begin making hardware for this market.

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