Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 09:21 UK

HP's plan to fix ailing planet

by Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Stan Williams
Scientists at HP have been working in nanotech for the last 13 years
Hewlett Packard is up to two years away from starting to build a "central nervous system for the Earth", known as CeNSE.

The man leading this ambitious project is Dr Stan Williams, who runs HP's Information and Quantum Systems Laboratory.

"The motivation for this work is realising and understanding the planet is sick and the disease is us," he told BBC News.

"As information technology people, we are not going to be the ones who prescribe and administer the cure but we should be the people who provide the information required to do proper diagnosis and treatment."

Unprecedented

And just as a doctor would use a barrage of tests to find out what ails a patient, so Dr Williams believes he and HP can do the same in finding out what is going wrong with our environment and offering solutions to problems before they turn into disasters.

Dr Williams suggested that, instead of wielding a stethoscope, HP would use trillions of sensors to monitor the health of the Earth and use the information to head off natural calamities such as large scale flooding or wildfires.

Firefighters near Santa Barbara - 3/7/2008
Wildfires in California burned 1,528 square miles across the state this year

The ubiquitous sensors would mimic human senses such as touch, smell, hearing, sight and taste.

"We are working with physics here so we can go beyond those normal human systems and we can sense them at an extraordinary level which is literally unprecedented," said Dr Williams, an HP senior fellow and a pioneer in nanotechnology.

These sensors will be so sensitive they can detect and measure anything and everything from viruses to bacteria, from the chemical composition of molecules to sounds and moisture levels.

Stark terror

The promise of nanotechnology has long been overhyped with visions of tiny devices sailing through human bodies to find and wipe out bugs and disease.

That scenario still lives in the realm of science fiction but a recent report by Lux Research found that the technology is starting to live up to its potential as a business.

nonwired to be use in creastioin of sensors
These sensors will ultimately be cheap enough to build in the trillions

The company said $147bn worth of nano-enabled products were produced in 2007 with the figure set to grow to $3.1 trillion by 2015.

"Nanotech isn't a new market or industry, it's an enabling technology that improves many types of products," said Jurron Bradley, a senior analyst at Lux Research.

"You find it in coatings boosting the efficiency of auto engines, in protecting electronic devices and making cholesterol-reducing drugs more effective.

"These innovations aren't always visible to consumers, but they improve products and boost margins. That's why nanomaterials' use is only going to keep growing."

Dr Williams said that HP almost had a product ready to put in the hands of the customers.

It came after 13 years of hard work, he said.

stanwilliams
Dr Williams said "This project has been a quest of mine for some time."

"We have been working at HP labs since 1995. Nanotechnology has gone through the normal hype cycle of the early days of irrational exuberance to stark terror, neither of which were justified."

The first to benefit from HP's work, won't however be the environment but businesses because they will be able to afford the technology.

"We are at this stage now the business people call the valley of death," said Dr Williams.

"We have a technology and now we have to figure out how to get it to the market place and who will pay."

Predict failures

The most obvious type of industry that this technology will appeal to, he said, was the chemical and energy sector.

"These industries have huge assets and large plants," he said. "Today they do a lot of manual oversight, but all too often the first indication that something is wrong is some sort of catastrophic failure and there is no warning.

North Quay, Newhaven
Big industrial plants will be among the first to benefit from nanotech sensors

"With the set of sensors we have available today, because they aren't very good and are very expensive, the most they can do is sense temperature and pressure and then look at what comes out the end pipe to see if it's the right stuff or not.

"If it isn't, you have a huge economic problem and sometimes an ecological problem and a health problem."

Dr Williams claimed HP's nanotech sensors would be able to avert this.

"They can be deployed all over the chemical plant or oil refinery in the same way a human body has nerves to collect information... so you have a very high-value real-time situation of what is going on in the system," he said.

"So if a bearing on a pump starts to have problems, you know about it long before it actually fails because the sensors tell you what is happening. Today you can predict failures before they occur and allow them to be fixed during routine maintenance."

Hard nosed

For HP's central nervous system to become a reality, Dr Williams said the world had to be covered with sensors.

"We can and should be able to make these sensors by the billions and eventually even trillions using these highly integrated manufacturing processes that have been developed for the computer chip industry and the electronics industry," he said.

Cross-bar latch
Applying nanotech to monitor the entire planet will take time

"This should drive the cost of the units very low and eventually down to pennies meaning you can afford to deploy very large numbers in a system."

Once that happens, the technology becomes affordable for everyone from farms to grocery stores and from government agencies to environmental groups.

He said: "We can get into this whole stewardship process and many tools we develop for high end business customers could be used by groups to tell us what is the health of our environment. How are our lakes and streams doing? What about our forests?"

[The technology] would help us manage those assets for the good of society," said Dr Williams.

HP is already courting companies to persuade them to be the first to use the technology. Field tests are due to start in the next 12-18 months.


SEE ALSO
IBM hails nano chip-making method
08 Dec 03 |  Science/Nature
Nanotech takes aim at transistors
01 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature
Government 'failing' nanoscience
28 Mar 07 |  Science/Nature

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