Primed by an exciting story in Spectrum, the online newsletter of the IEEE, I'm off sniffing out stories about odd power sources. The Spectrum piece is about the rather science-fictional idea of making self-powered chips by embedding small lumps of radioactive material in the silicon. It may sound like Star Trek, but people are doing it and it seems to work. Those of a nervous disposition might take comfort from the fact that the amounts of radioactive substances used are miniscule -- there's much more in a smoke alarm -- and the amount of power generated is in the nanowatts so far. So far, tricks include getting the radiation to blatter electrons about directly in the silicon, and making small nanotechnology machines vibrate up and down at speed due to the accumulation of beta particles in their fabric. They're seriously thinking about making microscopic turbines next. Splendid stuff -- but nuclear energy is the most ambiguous of energy sources, and it'll take some marketing.
During my research, I discover a piece I wrote in 2002 about a more mundane -- but still worthwhile -- innovation. Rayovac had invented a modification of standard NiMH battery technology that let you fully recharge them from flat in under quarter of an hour. As someone who spends far too much time shuttling batteries from radios to music players to cameras to phone handsets, this struck me at the time as being laudable. But here we are in 2004, and there's no sign of 'em.
I check online, and not only are they everywhere in the US but they're very highly thought of. Seems they do everything Rayovac promised: to use them is to love them. So where's ours, eh? No sign of them over here.
The same disappointment comes our way when we read about a new Netgear product -- a wireless access point that includes a repeater unit. You plug one box into the mains and the network as per usual, but you can then plug a further unit into the mains anywhere else in the house or office and it then rebroadcasts 802.11g signals -- a very neat way to fill in gaps in coverage with almost no configuration problems. But again, there's no sign of it coming over to Europe.
Wouldn't mind if the same limitations applied to certain other American exports…