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Innovations


Developments to Watch

INNOVATIONS

THIS YEAR MARKS THE 100TH anniversary of the discovery of the electron by British physicist Joseph J. Thomson. But even a century later, after the world has been transformed by electronics, the electron is still an enigma: How can it have mass, as it does under some conditions, yet not occupy space under other conditions? Among the Web sites celebrating the continuing conundrum: http://www.iop.org/Physics/Electron /Exhibition and http://www.aip.org/history/electron.

-- Intel Corp. has another microprocessor challenger on its hands. Centaur Technology Inc., an Austin (Tex.) unit of Integrated Device Technology Inc., has developed a Pentium-class chip that's 40% smaller than comparable Pentiums. Since silicon size is a major factor affecting costs, Centaur's IDT-C6 chip could put intense price pressure on Intel. Samples of the chip will be available in July.

-- On another roost, Intel continues to rule indisputably. The supercomputer it is installing at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico just broke its own world speed record: 1.34 trillion floating-point operations per second (teraflops). That's 25% better than the mark posted last December. The computer harnesses an army of 9,200 Pentium Pro chips, all marching in concert.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

WATER IS THICKER THAN CLOTS

SOME TEN YEARS AGO, executives at the Minneapolis company now called Possis Medical Inc. wondered if their heavyweight water-jet cutting tools, which were used to slice concrete off entombed oil-well valves after the gulf war, could be adapted to clearing out clogged arteries. If clots could be excised, it would restore blood flow almost instantly, unlike clot-busting drugs, which can take hours to work.

The hunch paid off. The result is AngioJet, a thin stainless steel tube running through a larger, spaghetti-size plastic tube that snakes through an artery. At the end of the metal tube is a tiny showerhead, but facing backward. Once the device has been guided to a clot, sterile saline solution is pumped at great pressure through the shower head, producing powerful water jets pointed back into the plastic tube. This creates a suction that whisks away the clot.

Possis got federal approval last December to sell the AngioJet for clearing out the blood clots that plague kidney-dialysis patients--a procedure that recently saved an Ohio man from a massive stroke. He arrived at the Cleveland Clinic with clots in both of the arteries that nourish the brain. He probably had only minutes to live, so the dialysis team quickly sucked out one clot. Now, clinical trials are under way on clots involved in heart attacks.EDITED BY OTIS PORT John CareyReturn to top

A NEW CHIP THAT'S A SURFBOARD FOR DATA

"IT'S JUST A PROTOTYPE, BUT it's the start of plasma-wave electronics," says Michael Shur, a professor of solid-state electronics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. He's talking about a chip that marks a radical change from current technology: It transmits signals as waves, not as packets of electrons. This promises to boost computer "heartbeat" speeds from today's megahertz range--233 MHz for top-end mainstream PCs--into the gigahertz realm, or billions of cycles per second.

To explain how, Shur draws an analogy with sound. Sounds travel on waves rippling through the air, not as clumps of air molecules that leave one person's mouth and enter another's ear. If sound worked that way, there would be a long delay while the sound-carrying molecules elbowed their way through the other air molecules. Similarly, he says, chips can harness a so-called plasma wave to send signals through the fluid of electrons within chip circuits.

Shur proposed the scheme in 1993. Now, with help from colleagues at Russia's Ioffe Institute and the University of Virginia, he has built a crude plasma-wave chip. If the research and development continues to pan out, he envisions such applications as sensors of exquisite sensitivity--they could be tuned to detect the molecular vibrations of specific substances, including explosives. Signals that surf the electron waves, says Shur, would bring "many, many exciting new opportunities."EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


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