Where The Rubber Meets The Computer

If you ever get a chance to go to Leiden, take it. It is a beautiful little city that hides some high-power university research. It also boasts the world’s first rubber computer. You won’t be running Crysis on it anytime soon, though. The fledgling computer has memory and can count to two — really more of a state machine. It is easier to watch the video below than try to fully explain it. Or you can read through the actual paper.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that deformation in the corrugated rubber structure is apparently repeatable and represent bits in the machine. Pressing and releasing pressure on the structure forms both input and clock and it is possible for the material to go from state A to B on compression, but when you release pressure, it reaches state C. The compression and the angle of the pressure allow for different input conditions. One example rubber state machine counts how many times you compress the piece of rubber.

What do you do with a piece of smart rubber? We don’t know. Maybe if you wanted shoes to count steps so you could transmit the count once a minute to save on battery? The researchers have admitted they don’t have any specific applications in mind either, but presume someone will want to use their work.

Of course, the video’s title: “The Rubber Computer” is a bit of hyperbole, but we can forgive it. Most people wouldn’t get “The Rubber Finite State Machine.” While mechanical computing might seem a bit passe, turns out at the molecular level it may become very important. Besides, you can make a computer out of cardboard (or simulate that computer in an FPGA or spreadsheet, if you prefer).

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Optical Microscope Resolves Down To 40 Nanometers

Optical microscopes depend on light, of course, but they are also limited by that same light. Typically, anything under 200 nanometers just blurs together because of the wavelength of the light being used to observe it. However, engineers at the University of California San Diego have published their results using a hyperbolic metamaterial composed of silver and silica to drive optical microscopy down to below 40 nanometers. You can find the original paper online, also.

The technique also requires image processing. Light passing through the metamaterial breaks into speckles that produce low-resolution images that can combine to form high-resolution images. This so-called structured illumination technique isn’t exactly new, but previous techniques allowed about 100-nanometer resolution, much less than what the researchers were able to find using this material.

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Metasurface Design Methods Can Make LED Light Act More Like Lasers

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are not exactly new technology, but their use over time has evolved from rather dim replacements of incandescent signal lights in control panels to today’s home lighting. Although LEDs have the reputation of being power-efficient, there is still a lot of efficiency to be gained.

UC Santa Barbara researchers [Jonathan Schuller] and his team found that a large number of the photons that are generated never make it out of the LED. This means that the power that was used to generate these photons was essentially wasted. Ideally one would be able to have every single photon successfully make it out of the LED to contribute to the task of illuminating things.

In their paper titled ‘Unidirectional luminescence from InGaN/GaN quantum-well metasurfaces‘  (pre-publication Arxiv version) they describe the problem of photon emission in LEDs. Photons are normally radiated in all directions, causing a ‘spray’ of photons that can be guided somewhat by the LED’s packaging and other parameters. The challenge was thus to start at the beginning, having the LED emit as many photons in one direction as possible.

Their solution was the use of a metasurface-based design, consisting out of gallium nitride (GaN) nanorods on a sapphire substrate. These were embedded with indium gallium nitride (InGaN) quantum wells which emit the actual photons. According to one of the researchers, the idea is based on subwavelength antenna arrays already used with coherent light sources like lasers.

With experiments showing the simulated improvements, it seems that this research may lead to even brighter, more efficient LEDs before long if these findings translate to mass production.

(Thanks, Qes)

Deflecting Earthquakes The Way Ancient Romans Did It

A recent French study indicates that the ancient Romans may have figured out how to deal with earthquakes by simply deflecting the energy of the waves using structures that resemble metamaterials. These are materials which can manipulate waves (electromagnetic or otherwise) in ways which are normally deemed impossible, such as guiding light around an object using a special pattern.

In a 2012 study, the same researchers found that a pattern of 5 meter deep bore holes in the ground was effective at deflecting a significant part of artificially generated acoustic waves. One of the researchers, [Stéphane Brûlé], noticed on an aerial photograph of a Gallo-Roman theater near the town of Autun in central France that its pattern of pillars bore an uncanny resemblance to this earlier experiment: a series of concentric (semi) circles with the distance between the pillars (or holes) decreasing nearer the center.

Further research using archaeological data of this theater site confirmed that it did appear to match up the expected pattern if one would have aimed to design a structure that could successfully deflect the acoustic energy from an earthquake. This raises the interesting question of whether this was a deliberate design choice, or just coincidence.

Additional research on the Colosseum in Rome and various other amphitheaters did however turn up the same pattern, which makes it seem like a deliberate choice by the Roman builders over a long period of time. With this pattern apparently capable of protecting a structure from the destructive effects of the acoustic waves generated by an earthquake, the remaining question is whether they discovered this pattern over time by observing damage to buildings and decided to implement it in new buildings.

Although we’ll likely never get an answer to that question, this discovery can however lead to improvements to individual buildings today, as well as entire cities, that may protect them against earthquakes and save countless lives that way.