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Living in the Future: August 26, 2013

This week: Stealth Snowmachines, Super-fast Graphene Transistors on the Horizon, and Lab-Created Ball Lightning

As any Alaskan could tell you, there are times and places when travel by Snowmachine is the best and most effective way to get somewhere. The Canadian Military has long noticed this, but with the problem that snowmachines are loud – any efficiency of movement is countered by their lack of secrecy. New information out of Ottowa suggests that the Canadian Military is working on a “stealth mode” snow machine, that can switch from gas to electric running if silence is needed. There’s some dissent over their usefulness, given that Canada has, at present, few patrols in the far north, but the potential benefits of a stealth snow machine run to hunters, as well – if such a machine is ever given Civilian clearance. Still, stealth snowmachines are clear indicators of living in the future!

We’ve discussed the new carbon material Graphene before, given its strength and flexibility. But it appears to have desirable electrical properties, too! Scientists at the University of California, Riverside have discovered that using graphene for computation can bring speeds of around 425 GhZ – nearly 100 times faster than the current silicon state-of-the-art. The trick relies on using a property of graphene to produce “negative resistance” and a subsequent voltage drop as a transistor, rather than stopping current flow like silicon transistors. As a positive side effect, this also reduces the number of transistors needed to create elementary logic gates – the XOR gate, for instance, requires three graphene transistors, but 8 transistors of silicon. A smaller profile and faster speeds means graphene is likely going to be in the computers of the future!

One of the iconic images of scientist Nikola Tesla is the Serbian-American inventor surrounded by lightning and ball lightning. Though we have for years understood how to create electrical arcs like lightning, ball lightning has escaped contemporary scientists – until now. Scientists at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado have developed an efficient way to produce “glow discharge plasma”, which appears to be similar to ball lightning, also known as “St Elmo’s Fire” and “Bead Lightning”. The glowing plasma is produced by running an electrical charge through an acidic electrolyte solution, and the researchers noticed that the acidity of the solution changes the length of the phenomena. Whether this is the same phenomena as the natural version is still unknown, but it does suggest that plasma discharges may be an area of research for years to come!