Hydrogen-Rich and Fancy-Free in 12 Seconds

From the “mother” of all sources, a new device to reform hydrogen from gasoline has been developed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richmond, Washington. What makes this reformer special is its ability to reform enough hydrogen to get a vehicle up and running in only 12 seconds. Reformer technology has been notorious for its slowness.

Fuel cell technology has long been an interest of mine. Fuel cells still face a few obstacles before they eventually replace batteries and engines. Technology aside, few proponents have addressed exactly where the hydrogen is going to come from. The most abundant element in the Universe, it is not at all abundant here on Earth. Water is a clean source, but requires a great deal of energy just to split into oxygen and hydrogen. Reformers can convert gasoline and other fuels into hydrogen, but this does not eliminate pollution entirely. President Bush calls for hydrogen production from coal-burning plants, which does not solve the pollution problem at all. Microorganisms, solar cells, nuclear power and other technologies have been suggested as being cleaner producers of hydrogen, but a national grid of hydrogen is still many years away.

DNA 2.0

The evolution of life over 3.5 billion years is such an awesome story that it threatens the power of several establishments. A small mind is a mind more easily controlled, and evolution does not suffer a small mind. We have entered the age of DNA 2.0 – the enhancement or replacement of nature’s DNA through human intervention. In religion, what we “cannot do” has become what we “should not do” and there is no better indication of the validity of the theory of evolution than this irrational fear of our increasing ability to manipulate genetics through technology.

Researchers at MIT have created BioBricks, artificial genetic parts that can be combined together to produce particular human-engineered results in organisms. The library of parts is rapidly expanding.

In Israel, a new super DNA has been developed that is smart enough to diagnose cancer and launch an attack on cancerous cells. So far the new DNA has been shown to work in test tubes. Eventually, scientists hope to develop DNA computers that will reside in our cells to look for and prevent danger before the person is even aware of any symptoms.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the Minister of Education recently suggested that evolution no longer be taught in their secondary school curriculum, citing the complexity of the theory. She has since recanted after the general outcry and a petition from scientists. In the United States, some public school districts have begun teaching the “Theory of Intelligent Design” (a so-called “scientific” theory based on the Bible’s story of creation). Some districts require that all biology textbooks include a disclaimer that the theory of evolution is only a theory (apparently understanding neither the definition of “theory” nor the process of the scientific method). Others require that textbooks and curriculum include a section on Intelligent Design.

Stupid Barrels Avoid Stupid Rodeo Clowns Who Drive

You know those bright orange and white “bollards” placed on roads to direct traffic at construction sites? They are placed by construction workers, a task long considered to be quite dangerous. New robotic bollards have been developed that deploy themselves with the assistance of a human operator kept safely out of harm’s way. According to the developers, the two primary obstacles to acceptance are price (expected to fall rapidly) and the availability of user-friendly software interfaces (currently being created). I think I might actually have beaten Marshall Brain to the punch this time!

Saturn Approaches

Cassini-Huygens has sent back another glorious image of its destination. In this image, Saturn is much larger and more detailed than previous images sent back by the probe. Soon the planet will loom so large that it will not fit completely into the image frame. There are just 62 days left before Cassini-Huygens is inserted into orbit around Saturn and its primary mission can begin!

The Next Revolutionary Change

The Communications Revolution (including the Internet and, even more profoundly, the future Grid and Mesh) has brought us extraordinary change, but there is a less obvious revolution in the wings that I believe will be every bit as catastrophic in its impact on humanity.

The coming Transportation Revolution will bring a decentralized and networked robotic transport system, as well as personal vehicles with speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour. Imagine purchasing an item online and having it delivered to your doorstep in just a few hours or even minutes, or taking cheap weekend trips to the furthest points on the planet, or driving across the entire continental United States in less than ten hours.

I am not exactly sure yet how we will get there. NASA is funding research into a future transportation grid of personal flying cars, coordinated by advanced AI overseers. Marshal Brain expects transportation to become fully automated, starting with airplanes by 2015. Teleportation of objects appears to be physically possible, though so far only a few fundamental particles have been successfully teleported in experiments. Hybrid engine/battery systems and fuel-cells point the way to more energy-efficient vehicles. Atom lasers (as opposed to the photon lasers used today) have been successfully demonstrated.

Computer science, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, medicine, cognitive sciences, and much more continue to fascinate me, but the convergence of a communications revolution and a transportation revolution that will combine many if not all of the above progress is of particular interest to me. On frontierchannel.tv I will often highlight those trends that appear to have the most bearing on this particular convergence.

The Prokaryotic, Eukaryotic, and Archaea Kingdoms

I was interested to learn this morning that biologists no longer divide all life into two cellular kingdoms; they divide life into three kingdoms. When I took college biology as recently as the mid-1990s, teachers and textbooks were still stating that all life could be divided into the prokaryotic and eukaryotic cellular kingdoms (we belong to the eukaryotic kingdom because our cells have nuclei among other internal structures that bacteria in the prokaryotic kingdom do not).

The new kingdom was discovered in the late-1970s when research revealed some microorganisms that resembled bacteria but were as different from bacteria as we are. These organisms are the Archaea, and include the interesting little critters of the world that live in the most hostile environments such as hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. The current three kingdom theory of life is only now beginning to show up in textbooks and is not generally taught in schools. I discovered this information on the great The Phylogeny of Life website published by the University of California Berkeley.

Cold Fusion Returns?

Fifteen years ago scientists from the University of Utah claimed to have created a fusion reaction at room temperature. I remember at the time that it was a major news story because it was a revolutionary breakthrough. There were promises of cheap energy on the horizon for every device and in every home and automobile. Unfortunately, no one could replicate the experimental results and the event has gone down in history as a major scientific hoax.

MIT’s Technology Review has revisited the controversy, in light of new experimental data and theories that suggest the original scientists might have been on to something. The established scientific community remains skeptical, but a growing number of scientists, and now the United States Department of Energy, are giving the idea a second chance.

The point of both cold and hot fusion research (hot fusion powers the Sun) is to create an energy source that outputs more energy than is put in, thus ushering in an era of cheap, clean, and nearly infinite power. When hydrogen atoms are fused together, they release energy and helium-4. New experiments show a rise in heat unexplained by chemical processes, as well as the appearance of helium-4. So far the results have not been explained, as there is currently no theory to suggest that cold fusion should work.

Time will tell what is actually going on, but this should be a reminder that any establishment, including the scientific establishment, can and has been completely wrong. Science is not about consensus. It is about the truth. The ideal scientific mind is open and skeptical. Whether cold fusion pans out or not, the entire history has been and will continue to be dramatic and illuminating.

Pondering the Technological Singularity

If there is such a thing as a Technological Singularity, I predict that there will be a general trend of accelerated change punctuated by sudden, massive, and far-reaching paradigm shifts that are too obvious for any rational person to explain away as anything other than a milestone on the way toward the Singularity. Some of these sudden changes might be incomprehensively to humans who have not been enhanced through technology, but they will still be obvious. This theory borrows heavily from current catastrophic theories of geology and evolution (as opposed to uniformity). Change is generally uniform, as is the accelerating rate of change, but from time to time catastrophic change occurs.

So far, I have seen no evidence of such catastrophic changes occurring. Examples might include waking up one morning to read that a scientific and engineering team has discovered the means to travel faster than the speed of light, or mutant children have been born with abilities far beyond normal humans, or an entirely new form of cheap energy has been discovered.

Stories abound of strange things happening in the world but none have been substantiated and are likely similar to unfounded conspiracy theories and UFO sightings. For example, the Internet supposedly acts very strangely at times, with sudden massive data flows not related to any known human activity. Some suggest that this is the Internet “trying to wake up”, but most likely these mysterious data flows are urban legends, or at most easily explained by much more mundane activities like hacking.

Technological advancement does not require us to keep up, especially if new, more intelligent beings are eventually created. If we progress only at the rate of our own knowledge, than surely no Technological Singularity will occur.

Two Female Mice Produce Female Daughter

I once read an article about the possibility of two males having a baby based on both their genetic material through future medical techniques. The article specifically stated producing a child from the genetic material of two females would be much more difficult, if not impossible.

The impossible was born in Japan, a mouse named Kaguya. She grew to sexual maturity. Details of the project were published this week in Nature.

Because successful embryo imprinting requires particular keys from both a mother and a father, one of the mothers had to be genetically altered so that her eggs included some of the keys normally associated with male germ cells. An egg from this mutant female was then fused with the egg from a normal female. Out of nearly 500 attempts, only two were successful.

The research helps to clarify the underlying mechanics of reproduction, while opening up new avenues of research that could have far-reaching ramifications on other technologies, such as cloning and genetic manipulation. As always the case with pure scientific research, it is not clear where this will lead. Researchers were quick to note that such techniques in humans would not be successful due to the more complex imprinting mechanics at work in humans. Ethical concerns have also been raised, of course.