Tag: university of manchester

Graphene gets new boozy application

A new boozy application of graphene has been discovered, and it is one that is likely to be just as popular in a brewery as in a lab.

Nearly every week a strange new application is found for graphene, which continues  to exhibit some incredible attributes. Not only is the atom-thick material the thinnest known, it is the also the strongest, stiffest, most flexible and the best conductor of heat and electricity.

Since its discovery scientists across the world have been working flat out to find useful applications for the technology.  Now though it seems that they have finally cracked it.

According to the Nobel prize winning professor from the University of Manchester, who actually discovered the super-material, graphene can be used to distill hard liquor.

Professor Sir Andrew Geim, one of the sticky tape wielding graphene discoverers, revealed that he has been cooking up some graphene moonshine in labs recently.

Geim discovered that a membrane of graphene oxide placed over a container of water was able to stop any gases or liquids passing through, apart from water that is.   He was surprised to discover that the membranes – hundreds of times thinner that human hair – would let nothing but evaporated water molecules through while blocking everything else out.

Perhaps reliving his old student days, the Professor then set up a home brew kit and used the membrane to distill some vodka.  Geim, who says he did it all “for a laugh”, found that the vodka became stronger and stronger over time as the water evaporated out.

Whether graphene will be used in to give your drink an extra kick anytime soon, we don’t know, but we can certainly see some applications for the park bench liquor connoisseur.

It is thought that it could be 2020 before graphene starts getting used in microchips, so we can expect a graphene-based cocktail to hit swanky bars around that time too.

Cameron etc shamed as social media-ignorant reactionaries

A University of Manchester study has revealed that, far from being the tools of an ‘underclass’ bent on ‘criminality’ as the British government believed, social media was mostly a constructive force during the August riots.

In an emergency, out of season Parliament David Cameron and other MPs called for curbs on social media. “When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them,” he said. “So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and the industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Home secretary Theresa May met with industry figureheads including Facebook and Twitter. Again the question was about criminality. Just two weeks before the Home Office began considering “cyber-tagging” offenders and placing sanctions on users deemed dangerous, a spokesperson told TechEye that it was not “getting into the territory of banning people right now.”

Clearly that has changed. In fact, one glaring example of the government getting it wrong was when two people were sentenced to four years in jail for making bad jokes during the riots on Facebook. Their appeals were rejected. 

It’s apparent that the government either doesn’t understand, or is terrified of, social media. 

The University of Manchester study said that there was absolutely no evidence to suggest it would be worth shutting down Twitter in times of crisis, and actually that it was to thank for the people cleaning up the streets in the following days. It looked at 2.4 million tweets and found “no evidence” to suggest it should be shut down. 

Even if people were organising looting over the frankly silly medium of a public social network, Twitter would not be the culprit.

Speaking of the initial social media-bashing bandwagon post-riot, lead researcher Rob Procter from the University of Manchester tells TechEye it’s important to consider the context: “There were a lot of things said rather precipitously at that time about social media and whether it had a role in inciting and organising the riots. Of course, one must look at these remarks in the context of commentators’ political agendas.

“One thing which might be of interest to explain away is the scale of what happened. It might suit some politicians to blame social media for inciting people to do things, as if without that they wouldn’t have reason or interest in taking part, that somehow they were provoked into doing something they might not have otherwise wished to be involved in.”

Procter says social media can’t become the scapegoat certain quarters want it to.  

Both the riots and the enormous clean-up operation that followed were an example of the nature of mass communication and the internet, tools that are available to everyone in the country and largely for free. Like many things, these methods can be used constructively or they can be used destructively.

Procter agrees. He told us that, as a relatively new technology, there are a lot of people who don’t understand how to best make use of social media. 

“We’re still learning how to use it and people can use it for different ends,” Procter says. “As with any technology, social media has no intrinsic alignment with societal goals. It can be used to further suitable and worthy social ends and also to further illegal activities, we see this with the web so it’d be surprising if that wasn’t also reflected in how social media is used.

“I think we have to understand it in that light,” he continues. “Anytime we consider whether we should be taking steps to curb the use of technology, we need to look at the balance – in terms of the benefits we observe against anything of a less acceptable nature. I suspect, with social media, we’ll come to the same conclusion as with, say, the internet.”

Regardless, social media appears terrifying to Parliament and governments worldwide. People are waking up to the power they have to move together and achieve a common goal as one – which sounds a bit like democracy. Just look at the violent crackdowns on the peaceful Occupy movement, worldwide or China sweating over messages the went viral on its own Jasmine revolution.

But Conservative politicians are still prodding to put the blame with social media.

Nick Herbert said in Parliament yesterday that it’s clear “social networking sites were used to co-ordinate some of the criminality in the disorder in August.” 

Procter says, based on the team’s findings, Cameron’s knee-jerk ideas to close down networks are “clearly unwarranted”.

Now, Procter wonders if the politicians who came up with those thoughts in August would still stand by them, especially now that there’s been time for a more considered response.

A Guardian study recently revealed that most rioters cited antagonistic police, social frustration and poverty as the causes behind the riots rather than Sheer Criminality™.

And that is a let-down, Procter tells us: “I think what’s disappointing is the unwillingness to have a proper inquiry into the causes of the riots. There’s clearly questions to be answered but some politicians seem reluctant to confront them.

“One might draw their own conclusions from that.”

UK graphene fund is a stepping stone to EU project

The government announced a £50 million investment into graphene development.

Chancellor George Osborne outlined plans to create a Graphene Global Research and Technology Hub to commercialise the wonder-material, as part of a wider £200 million investment into science.

Garphene is already sparking experiments into many potential uses, with plenty labs across the world vying to create the first commercialised products from the atom-thick material, first created at the University of Manchester.

Companies such as Nokia and Samsung have been keen to stay at the forefront of its potential commercial use, with applications ranging from flexible touchscreens to transistors or superfast internet.

Speaking at the Conservative conference in Manchester, Osborne promised a national research programme to take graphene from the “British laboratory to the British factory floor”.

And with the government promising to get the UK producing again, its leading stance in graphene development could provide many potential jobs and other business boosts to the economy.

A plan for support that will push the current research into commercialised production is being looked at by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) alongside the Technology Strategy Board (TSB): “The Research Hub will certainly allow us to explore deeper into the vast applied potential of graphene, but also will lead to many new exciting results, continuing the scientific excellence in the UK.”

The scientific communitiy has applauded the move to invest in graphene, and is a sign of initial science and engineering funding that has the potential to reap financial benefits for the economy.

One leading graphene expert, Prof Andrea C Ferarri at the University of Cambridge, tells TechEye that he welcomes the increase in funding, but pointed out that this is really a preliminary step.

He believes that it is a good starting point, but the main aim at the moment is to secure funding from the EU Graphene Flagship project which has €1 billion available, with individual groups able to apply for up to €100 million.

“£50 million enough to start getting additional investment from the private sector, but it is not necessarily enough for developing commercially,” Ferarri told us. “The aim of the funding is to bring graphene to market, not just research. It is not as much as some other countries are putting into graphene, but certainly keeps the UK at the forefront of development.

“It gives a clear signal that the UK is backing graphene, and shows that it is really serious about it.

“But this investment  is a step towards getting the flagship funding.”

One million ARM chips challenge Intel bumblebee

A project to replicate the workings of the human brain has received a boost with the delivery of one million ARM processors.

While Intel has its sights set on reaching bumble bee brain level in the near future, it seems its rival is involved in one further.

Scientists at the University of Manchester will link together the ARM chips as the system architecture of a massive computer, dubbed SpiNNaker, or Spiking Neural Network architecture.

Despite the mass of chips it will only be possible to recreate models of up to one percent of the human brain.

The chips have arrived and are past functionality testing.

A similar experiment was once attempted with a load of old Centrino chips found at the back of our stationary cupboard, though so far we haven’t even managed to replicate the cranial workings of a particularly slow slug.

The work, headed up by Professor Steve Furber, has the potential to become a revolutionary tool for neuroscientists and psychologists in understanding how our brains work.

SpiNNaker will attempt to replicate the workings of the 100 billion neurons and the 1,000 million connections that are used to create high connectivity in cells.

SpiNNaker will model the electric signals that neurons emit, with each impulse modelled as a ‘packet’ of data, similar to the way that information is transferred over the internet.

The packet is sent to other neurons, represented by small equations solved in real time by ARM processors.

The chips, designed in Machester and built in Taiwan, each contain 18 ARM processors.

The bespoke 18 core chips are able to provide the computing power of a personal computer in a fraction of the space, using just one watt of power.

Now that the chips have arrived it will be possible to get cracking on building model.

“The project revolves around getting the chips made, which has taken the past five years to get right,” Professor Steve Furber told TechEye.

“We will know be increasing the scale of the project over the next 18 months before it reaches its final form, with one million processors used. We already have the system working on a smaller scale, and we are able to look at fifty to sixty thousand neurons currently.”

As well as offering possibilities as a scientific research tool, Furber hopes that the system will help pave the way for computational advancements too.

“It will help to analyse the intermediate levels of the brain, which are very difficult to focus on otherwise,” he says.

“Another area which this help is in building more reliable computing systems. As chip manufacturers continue towards the end of Moore’s Law, transistors will become increasingly unreliable. And computer systems are very susceptible to malfunctioning transistors.”

Furber says biology works differently. “Biology, on the other hand, reacts to the malfunctioning of neurons very well, with it happening regularly with all brains, so this could help future chips become more reliable.”

Of course, we also wanted to know how this all compares with Intel’s famous bumblebee claims.

Unfortunately, professor Furber couldn’t specifically help us with information about bumblebee brain processing.

He was, however, able to reel off some details about the honeybee.

“The honeybee brain has around 850,000 neurons so we will be able to reach that level of processing in the next few months. Of course, we don’t have a honeybee brain model to run, but we will have the computing power.”

Over to you, Intel.

Graphene modulator means 3D film download in seconds

Scientists have found tiny optical devices using wonder material graphene could soon be used to reach download times “up to ten times faster” than currently seen.

Modulators are used in data communications to control the speed at which data packets are transmitted, with faster data pulses meaning greater volumes of information can be sent out.

Now scientists led by UC Berkeley engineering professor Xiang Zhang have devised an optical device based on graphene to switch light on and off as an “incredibly compact modulator”, which the scientists claim is the world’s smallest.

According to the scientists this means it will be possible to “significantly enhance our capabilities in ultrafast optical communication and computing”.

This could mean allowing to stream cutting edge content such as 3D movies onto your phone in a matter of seconds in the near future the scientists.

It is yet another surprising use for the material developed by researchers at the University of Manchester following the discovery of its properties after messing around with some sellotape, perhaps the most ingenious use of sticky-back plastic since Blue Peter showed kids how to create a high-street level Tracy Island from household goods packaging in the mid nineties.

Electric charges were applied to a sheet of graphene on top of a silicon ‘waveguide’, with the voltage running through the graphene changing the materials transparency and therefore abiliity to turn light on and off to function as a modulator.

This very basically works by passing many electrons elctrons through the graphene enabling photons to be absorbed and thus rendering the material opaque, or passing a negative voltage through can cause the drawing out of electrons and therefore leaving the material transparent and turning the light ‘on’.

The researchers were able to achieve a modulation speed of one gigahertz, though they believe that 500 gighertz could possibly be reached on a single modulator. 

In the past attempts to use optics rather than electricity have been hampered due to difficulties in implementing bulky optics onto computer chips, as light waves are “less agile” in tight spaces comparatively and so are mainly used in large scale devices such as fibre optics.

However they are among other things able to carry data packets more quickly, and graphene based devices could get round these problems, shrinking the devices down to 25 microns, much smaller than some commercial modulators which can be as big as a few square millimetres.

In fact the scientists say that the graphite used in one pencil is the equivalent of one billion modulators worth of graphene.

The researchers believe that this means instead of broadband it will be possible to achieve the rather more hyperbolic “extremeband”, and hope to see industrial applications of the new device in the “next few years”.