Fallout from Solyndra Hurts Nuclear Startups

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Politicians are drawing parallels between the $535 million federal loan guarantee issued to bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra and loan guarantees that the U.S. Department of Energy is offering to utilities building new nuclear power plants. But while those nuclear startups could also go bust, experts say U.S. taxpayers are unlikely to take a loss on them. That's because the only reactor projects moving forward are those in a handful of southern states, where laws allow utilities to offload the risk onto state ratepayers.

A case study is the two-reactor expansion by Southern Company at the Vogtle nuclear power station in Georgia—the only project in construction to be offered a federal loan guarantee. Southern Company is unlikely to default on its $8 billion loan guarantee because, under Georgia law, it is prebilling its customers for much of the cost.

This all but assures Southern Company of recouping the total expenditure, according to Peter Bradford, a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission member and a nuclear policy expert at Vermont Law School's Institute for Energy and the Environment. "The risks in Georgia are fairly low because state utility commissioners have said customers will cover the full cost no matter what, whether the plant is canceled or experiences substantial cost overruns," says Bradford.

Utility-friendly laws in states such as Georgia and South Carolina are, however, an exception. The risk of default on nuclear loan guarantees would be higher in most U.S. states, because most states have competitive, rather than regulated, power markets. New nuclear plants are expected to generate power at 12 to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is two to three times more than average U.S. power prices. "The economic setback of 2008 and the decline of natural gas prices—a decline that's now projected ... to last out into the 2030s—have pushed any semblance of economic justification for these plants way off over the horizon," says Bradford.

A Wish List for the Next GM Volt

Monday, November 28, 2011

After a week of driving the new 2012 version of the Chevrolet Volt in the Boston area, I've reached three conclusions. It's an amazing car that's fun to drive. But it's not an ideal vehicle for city dwellers, and there are simple changes that would allow it to make a much more compelling case for electric vehicles.

The Volt is a type of plug-in hybrid vehicle that can go about 35 miles on a battery charge, followed by hundreds of miles powered by a tank of gasoline. Unlike other plug-in hybrids, it's designed primarily to be an electric vehicle, and this is where it shines. It's engineered for speeds up to 100 miles per hour on battery power (I didn't try that), with impressive acceleration and nimble handling that makes negotiating city traffic a breeze. But once the battery is depleted, it slips into hybrid mode, in which it gets a mediocre 35 miles to the gallon, about the same as the comparably sized gas-powered Cruze, and the ride is accompanied by the near-constant grumble of the engine.

The car is being marketed primarily as a fuel-efficient, green vehicle. GM representatives regularly remark how much driving it is like driving an ordinary gas-powered car. No doubt market surveys say this is a good approach. But the fact is that electric cars, by virtue of the instantaneous power the electric motors deliver, can be more thrilling to drive than conventional cars. At the same time, their quietness makes driving them relaxing. The power and quietness alone could be worth the extra price of the vehicle (it's about $33,000 after a federal tax rebate, compared to $17,000 for the Cruze). This is a performance car, and could easily be a luxury car with a few improvements to the interior.

In the Volt, some of the power is stifled by the default energy-efficient driving mode, which dials back the rate of acceleration. Another setting, sport mode, is better—the pickup is noticeably better. But drivers need to select this every time they get into the car, or it defaults to efficiency mode. Yes, plug-in cars can be very efficient and reduce gasoline consumption. But to make much of an impact, people have to buy them first. These cars are great to drive, and that should be emphasized. One way could be allowing drivers greater freedom to tune the responsiveness of the acceleration, rather than just selecting between sport and normal modes, and to leave it set the way they like it.

Light-Based Therapy Destroys Cancer Cells

Saturday, November 26, 2011

For more than two decades, researchers have tried to develop a light-activated cancer therapy that could replace standard chemotherapy, which is effective but causes serious negative side effects. Despite those efforts, they've struggled to come up with a light-activated approach that would target only cancer cells.

Now scientists at the National Cancer Institute have developed a possible solution that involves pairing cancer-specific antibodies with a heat-sensitive fluorescent dye. The dye is nontoxic on its own, but when it comes into contact with near-infrared light, it heats up and essentially burns a small hole in the cell membrane it has attached to, killing the cell.

To target the tumor cells, the researchers used antibodies that bind to proteins that are overexpressed in cancer cells. "Normal cells may have a hundred copies of these antibodies, but cancer cells have millions of copies. That's a big difference," says Hisataka Kobayashi, a molecular imaging researcher at the National Cancer Institute and the lead author of the new study, published this week in Nature Medicine. The result is that only cancer cells are vulnerable to the light-activated cascade.

The researchers tested the new treatment in mice and found that it reduced tumor growth and prolonged survival.

New Method for Making Neurons Could Lead to Parkinson's Treatment

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A new method of synthesizing dopamine-producing neurons, the predominant type of brain cell destroyed in Parkinson's, offers hope for creating cell-replacement therapies that reverse the damage.

The method provides an efficient way of making functional cells. When transplanted into mice and rats with brain damage and movement problems similar to Parkinson's, the cells integrated into the brain and worked normally, reversing the animals' motor issues.

The finding brings researchers a step closer to testing a stem-cell-derived therapy in patients with this disorder. "We finally have a cell that seems to survive and function and a cell source that we can easily scale up," says Lorenz Studer, a researcher at the Sloan Kettering Institute and senior author on the new study. "That makes us optimistic that this could potentially be used in patients in the future."

The research also highlights the challenges of generating cells for tissue-replacement therapy, showing that subtle differences in the way the cells are made can have a huge impact on how well they work once implanted.

A Social Network that Pays You

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

For all the differences among them, the juggernauts of social media rely on a common business model: create free services, then sell ads against users' information. In a dramatic departure, a new social network plans to give its users a 50 percent commission—or even let them sell their own ads and keep all the revenue.

Chime.in is built around users' interests—think photography, politics, or travel—as opposed to friends, professional contacts, or news. The site's founders hope that by creating pages around those interests, the users will attract people with similar affinities, an attractive combination for targeted advertising.

"Because social is going to be so powerful, I feel that the people who are creating the engaging social content should have some stake," says Bill Gross, the serial entrepreneur who is the CEO of both Idealab, a startup incubator, and Ubermedia, a social media developer that launched Chime.in. "Right now that's sort of a heresy—but I almost like it that people think it's heresy. It gives me more of a lead."

Gross is no stranger to creating disruptive business models. The pay-per-click concept for advertising in search listings was born in 1998 at his startup Goto.com, a search engine that was later renamed Overture and sold to Yahoo in 2003 for $1.6 billion. "It took five years [to go from calling Overture] heresy to 'We want to own it,' " Gross recalls.

Sleep Sensor Hides Beneath the Mattress

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gadgets and apps that track a user's sleep are growing in popularity, but they typically require a person to wear a headband or bracelet. Now a startup called Bam Labs is offering a sensor pad that can track heart rate, breathing, and movement to track sleep and other health measures from underneath the mattress.

"Using it is as easy as going to bed, and all your data is made available through our Web services and apps," says Richard Rifredi, president of Bam Labs, based in Los Gatos, California.

The company's sensor takes the form of a thin, self-inflating mattress pad, like those popular with backpackers. A sensor at one corner of the pad tracks air-pressure fluctuations caused by the tiny tremors caused by heartbeats or the more sizable shaking that occurs when someone turns over or gets out of bed. That data is transmitted by wireless to a box connected to the Internet, which in turn relays the data to cloud servers, where it is interpreted as heartbeats, breaths, and other movements. Processed data can be viewed using mobile apps for iOS devices or via an online dashboard, both of which show trends over time and calculate measures like quality and duration of sleep.

The company recently began offering a version of the product called Touch-free Life Care, or TLC, to senior-care homes, after several months of trials in such facilities. "In 2012, you'll see us also migrate to more acute-care situations and also to home users," .

Regimes Use U.S. Tech to Censor Citizens

Friday, November 18, 2011

A company whose Internet-filtering servers were recently found to have been used by Syria's regime for censorship is facing a new research report that Myanmar, too, uses its technology—and that the Syrian use is wider than acknowledged.

The findings released today by the Citizen Lab, an Internet research center at the University of Toronto, are the latest evidence that commercial technology from the West—in this case from Blue Coat of Sunnyvale, California—is often used by repressive regimes, says Ron Deibert, the lab's director, who posted the findings today in a blog.

"Prior research by our group, and others like it, have highlighted the growing market for censorship, surveillance, and even offensive computer network attack products and services," Deibert says. "It is distressing that many, but not all, of the companies that sell this technology are based in liberal democratic regimes."

A spokesman for Blue Coat said he hadn't seen the report and pointed to the company's October statement about the Syrian matter. The company said in the statement that its "appliances apparently were transferred illegally to Syria."

Verizon Plans a Fast Lane for Some Apps

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wireless provider Verizon has developed technology that would allow mobile apps to request extra bandwidth for short periods—to fix a choppy video call if a local cell tower is experiencing high demand, for example, or to ensure that a video plays smoothly.

The feature is intended to allow bandwidth-hungry apps to survive even as soaring wireless Internet traffic from smart phones and tablets strains the networks serving them. However, users or the companies that make data-hogging apps will have to pay for such turbo boosts, and the feature could face opposition from advocates of "net neutrality," the philosophy that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.

Verizon demonstrated the new feature—which is still in development—at the company's Application Innovation Center in San Francisco last week. High-quality video streaming over a 4G cellular link became pixilated as the available bandwidth was throttled, to simulate what can happen when a lot of users request data in the same area. That was reversed when the application receiving the video used a new API to request a bandwidth boost.

"Maybe, for the first time in the world, programs can make the network coincide with their business and technology goals," says Hugh Fletcher, who leads Verizon's efforts to allow outside software to access data and features of the company's cellular network that are traditionally meant for internal use only.

Smart Phone Chips Calling for Data Centers

Monday, November 14, 2011

It's no secret that the demands placed on data centers are growing rapidly—all those 800 million Facebook profiles have to be stored somewhere. Not surprisingly, the companies that operate these vast warehouses are concerned about the costs of using all that energy. In September, Google said that its global operations continuously draw 260 million megawatts of power, roughly a quarter of the energy generated by a nuclear power plant.

Last week, Hewlett-Packard announced it would partner with a Texas-based processor startup, Calxeda, to use extremely low-power ARM chips in a new generation of data-center servers. These chips are similar to the ones found in iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices, and use significantly less energy than Intel's traditional server chips.

"Every watt that you use on a CPU, you spend one more watt to cool it down," says Sergis Mushell, an analyst with Gartner Research. "If you reduce the box's [energy demands] by one watt, you save yourself two watts of power."

Scale that up to the size of a company like Google or Facebook, and there's a huge incentive to bring down those energy requirements.

Calxeda is one of many companies that licenses low-power processor designs from U.K.-based ARM Holdings, a company that was spun out of academic research done in the U.K. in the early 1980s. Calxeda is the first company to put ARM-based processors into data-center servers.

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