A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

Brought to you by Washington State Magazine

Archive for May 2010

Improving computers via carbon nanotubes

Story and video by Becky Philips for WSU Today

Cars, computers, cell phones, DVDs, and life-saving medical technology — our modern world thrives on the power of electronics and integrated circuits. Today, the microprocessor — the workhorse behind most of these devices — is set to undergo an extreme makeover that promises to push the possibilities even further.

Josè Delgado-Frias, professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Centennial Boeing Chair in Computer Engineering, is working to merge the fields of digital technology and nanotechnology — the field of study which develops materials and devices smaller than 100 nanometers in size.

Using carbon nanotubes and FinFETS—tiny electronic gates used in digital components—Dr. Delgado-Frias’ research stands to advance the world of electronics by producing computers and other digital devices with faster speed, reduced size, improved reliability, and wide-ranging adaptability.

CMOS vs. nanocircuits
Contemporary integrated circuits and microprocessors are based almost entirely on a technology known as CMOS. The problem with CMOS is that it allows leakage of electrical current along system pathways, ultimately wasting most of their power. With nanoelectronics, that leakage can be blocked — resulting in a sharp drop in power consumption along with decreased heat production.

The technology can also make computers run faster. In theory, FinFETS could increase processor speed by a magnitude of 10. Carbon nanotube-based microprocessors are projected to run up to 1,000 times faster.


Hormones and Plastics: Act II

More than most people, WSU’s Patricia Hunt helped make the plasticizer bisphenol A, also known as BPA, a household word.

OK, that might be pushing the point, but the WSU biologist did get lots of people to wonder if a lot of widely used plastic bottles might be bad for them. It was Hunt who, back in 1998, connected genetic abnormalities in lab mice with a substance—BPA—that a detergent released from their cages and water bottles. This spring, Washington became the fifth state to outlaw the chemical in children’s food containers and drinking cups, with the measure taking effect in July, 2011. A ban on sports water bottles with the chemical takes effect the following July.

But wait, there’s more.

Last month, Japanese researchers reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that a similar compound, bisphenol AF, has a similar ability to the body’s ability to use the hormone estrogen. Moreover, the study found the flourines accounting for the “F” in bisphenol AF are an order of magnitude more effective than bisphenol A at binding to two major estrogen receptors. One reporter referred to the compound as “BPA’s fluorinated twin — on steroids.”

WSU Biologist Patricia Hunt

The study is another strong piece of evidence that such chemicals need to be kept away from humans, says Hunt:

“We have a lot of evidence from studies of BPA that exposure to low doses (doses that we think mimic current levels of human exposure) cause significant changes in the developing fetus.  There is also good evidence that the changes induced in the developing fetus can lead to behavioral changes, decreased fertility and an increase in diseases like breast and prostate cancer in the adult.

“Given these findings, this new study of the related compound, BPA-F, raises tremendous concerns because it suggests that BPA-F is likely to be even more hazardous to our health.  There is a really simple lesson here:  Humans – especially fetuses and babies – should not be exposed to chemicals that can act like or interfere with the actions of hormones.  Using chemicals like BPA and BPA-F in a wide variety of consumer products makes daily human exposure inevitable.”

Citation: Matsushima A, Liu X, Okada H, Shimohigashi M, Shimohigashi Y 2010. Bisphenol AF is a Full Agonist for the Estrogen Receptor ERα, but a Highly Specific Antagonist for ERβ. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi:10.1289/ehp.0901819

Patricia Hunt’s Center for Reproductive Biology web page is here.

Happy Anniversary, Mount St. Helens

Thirty years ago today, Mount St. Helens blew in one of the great natural spectacles of our time. The anniversary has launched several hundred retrospectives, many of which are highlighting work by Washington State University scientists.

In a piece for Voice of America news, Tom Banse visits with botanist John Bishop, who has spent decades studying the transition from sterile blast zone to habitat-rich ecosystem.

“What we’ve realized as we’ve spent a lot of time here and we’ve quantified the plants and the animals is that we actually have extraordinary levels of diversity here, of biological diversity,” he says.

Early morning sun on Mount St. Helens/Robert Hubner photo

In a Vancouver Columbian piece about preserving the mountain, Bishop encourages people to visit.

“There ought to be more people hiking out there, not less,” the newpaper quotes him as saying. “I think people ought to see the place. It’s wonderful. The recovery process is amazing, the vegetation is quite remarkable. It’s a very interesting place to visit.”

In a separate Columbian piece, reporter Erik Robinson explains how the blast created landscape patterns around the Toutle River similar to other, unexplained forms elsewhere.

Says John Wolff, WSU volcanologist and geochemist: “Almost as soon as that landslide had settled down, people said, ‘Whoa, this looks exactly like the corridor by Mount Shasta.’”

The coverage has a powerful alumni angle as well. The Daily News of Longview recounts how Trixie Anders, a WSU geology masters student, was riding up the mountain with Barry Johnston, her husband of the time, when at 8:32 a.m., “the event of a lifetime burst into our lives.” Turning around, the two outraced the plume of ash back down the mountain, barely.

For more on John Bishop’s work, see the Washington State Magazine piece, “Mount St. Helens: The perfect laboratory.”

A Better Mouse Pain Picture

Loyal readers will recall Friday’s post in which Stephen Greene, professor in anesthesiology at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, commented on the first study of how a non-human animal’s face can express pain. Its publisher, Nature Methods, has kindly granted us permission to show a great set of pictures showing the “mouse grimace scale” that may some day be put to use in drug testing and veterinary care.

The "mouse grimace scale," according to the authors, "may provide insight into the subjective pain experience of mice."

Photo courtesy of Nature Methods and Dale J Langford, Andrea L Bailey, Mona Lisa Chanda, Sarah E Clarke, Tanya E Drummond, Stephanie Echols, Sarah Glick, Joelle Ingrao, Tammy Klassen-Ross, Michael L LaCroix-Fralish, Lynn Matsumiya, Robert E Sorge, Susana G Sotocinal, John M Tabaka, David Wong, Arn M J M van den Maagdenberg, Michel D Ferrari, Kenneth D Craig & Jeffrey S Mogil, authors of “Coding of facial expressions of pain in the laboratory mouse.”