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Apr 18

Reported by Bob Yirka, in PhysOrg, 12 April 2011.

Enrico Fermi, the famous Italian physicist, once asked the question; if intelligent life has come to exist many times in our galaxy, why is there no sign of it? It’s a clearly valid point, when you consider the number of planets and solar systems that exist out there. If there are other intelligent beings out there somewhere, how come they haven’t responded to our messages?

Adrian Kent, of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada has published a paper in arXiv, somewhat humorously titled, “Too Dammed Quiet?” where he suggests the reason we haven’t heard from other life forms out there, is because maybe they are keeping quiet on purpose, to protect themselves from others that might hear their “noise” and come to investigate, and perhaps cause them harm.

Kent takes the idea of Darwin’s survival of the fittest concept to a galactic level, in that he believes it’s possible that there are only so many habitual planets and if so, that would mean scarce resources, which would mean only the smartest, strongest, or most careful would survive; which would leave at least some of the aliens out there keeping a lid on things to assure their own survival; sort of like how certain species of birds on this planet freeze to avoid being noticed by predators.

But, if what Kent has to say is true, that begs even more questions, such as, who are they hiding from, and why haven’t we heard anything from those pesky predators?

His paper raises even more difficult questions, which of course we have no answers to, such as is it possible that the vast expanse of the universe is so great that the laws of physics will forever prevent any life forms that do crop up, from ever being able to contact one another? Or, is it conceivable, that the events that led to our existence are so rare that there really isn’t anyone else out there?

Kent’s paper has no doubt some added credence due to his support of Stephen Hawking’s parallel suggestion in “Into the Universe,” the Discovery Channel documentary that made headlines all over the world last year; but as with all hypothetical suppositions, ultimately, it’s all, as Kent himself reminds us, pure speculation; at least until we hear otherwise from someone out there who can settle the matter for us, once and for all.

Reference: Too Damned Quiet?, Adrian Kent, arXiv:1104.0624v1 [physics.pop-ph]
More information: Fermi paradox: http://en.wikipedi … ermi_paradox

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Apr 16

Reported by Deborah Braconnier, in PhysOrg, 11 April 2011.

In a report published in Nature, Yu-ming Lin and Phaedon Avoris, IBM researchers, have announced the development of a new graphene transistor which is smaller and faster than the one they introduced in February of 2010. This new transistor has a cut-off frequency of 155 GHz, compared to the 100 GHz previous transistor.

Image credit: Nature, doi:10.1038/nature09979

Graphene is a flat sheet of carbon which is one atom thick and has the ability to conduct at extremely fast speeds. It is quickly on its way to replace the traditional silicon as the top electronic material for faster .

Graphene devices have been made previously by placing the graphene sheet on top of an insulating substrate, such as silicon dioxide. However, this substrate can degrade the of the graphene. However, the team of researchers has found a solution to minimize that.

A diamond-like carbon is placed as the top layer of the substrate on a silicon wafer. The carbon is non-polar dielectric and does not trap or scatter charges as much as the alone. This new graphene transistor, due to the diamond-like carbon, shows excellent stability in temperature changes, including extremely cold temperatures like that in space.

These new high-frequency transistors are being targeted to applications primarily in communications such as mobile phones, internet, and radar.

The manufacturing of these new transistors can be accomplished utilizing technologies already in place for standard silicon devices, which means commercial production of these transistors could begin at any time.

The transistor development was part of an ongoing research project IBM is doing for the U.S. Department of Defense’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program. The military is looking to this research to help in the development of high-performance radio frequency transistors.

Reference: High-frequency, scaled graphene transistors on diamond-like carbon, Nature, 472, 74–78 (07 April 2011) doi:10.1038/nature09979

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Apr 14

Reported by Universidad Carlos III de Madrid – Oficina de Información Científica, 11 April 2011.

Artificial Intelligence offers many possibilities for developing data processing systems which are more precise and robust. That is one of the main conclusions drawn from an international encounter of experts in this scientific area, recently held at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M).

Artificial Intelligence offers many possibilities for developing data processing systems which are more precise and robust. (Credit: UMC3)

Within this framework, five leading scientists presented the latest advances in their research work on different aspects of AI. The speakers tackled issues ranging from the more theoretical such as algorithms capable of solving combinatorial problems to robots that can reason about emotions, systems that use vision to monitor activities, and automated players that learn how to win in a given situation. “Inviting speakers from groups of references allows us to offer a panoramic view of the main problems and the techniques open in the area, including advances in video and multi-sensor systems, task planning, automated learning, games, and artificial consciousness or reasoning,” the experts noted.

The participants from the AVIRES (The Artificial Vision and Real Time Systems) research group at the University of Udine gave a seminar on the introduction of data fusion techniques and distributed artificial vision. In particular, they dealt with automated surveillance systems with visual sensor networks, from basic techniques for image processing and object recognition to Bayesian reasoning for understanding activities and automated learning and data fusion to make high performance system. Dr.Simon Lucas, professor at the Essex University and editor in chief of IEEE Transactions on Computational Intelligence and AI in Games and a researcher focusing on the application of AI techniques on games, presented the latest trends in generation algorithms for game strategies. During his presentation, he pointed out the strength of UC3M in this area, citing its victory in two of the competitions held at the international level during the most recent edition of the Conference on Computational Intelligence and Games.

In addition, Enrico Giunchiglia, professor at the University of Genoa and former president of the Council of the International Conference on Automated Planning and Scheduling (ICAPS), described the most recent work in the area of logic satisfaction, which is rapidly growing due to its applications in circuit design and in task planning

Artificial Intelligence (IA) is as old as computer science and has generated ideas, techniques and applications that permit it to solve difficult problems. The field is very active and offers solutions to very diverse sectors. The number of industrial applications that have an AI technique is very high, and from the scientific point of view, there are many specialized journals and congresses. Furthermore, new lines of research are constantly being open and there is a still great room for improvement in knowledge transfer between researchers and industry. These are some of the main ideas gathered at the 4th International Seminar on New Issues on Artificial Intelligence), organized by the SCALAB group in the UC3M Computer Engineering Department at the Leganés campus of this Madrid university.

The future of Artificial Intelligence

This seminar also included a talk on the promising future of AI. “The tremendous surge in the number of devices capable of capturing and processing information, together with the growth of the computing capacity and the advances in algorithms enormously boost the possibilities for practical application,” the researchers from the SCALAB group pointed out. Among them we can cite the construction of computer programs that make life easier, which take decisions in complex environments or which allow problems to be solved in environments which are difficult to access for people,” he noted. From the point of view of these research trends, more and more emphasis is being placed on developing systems capable of learning and demonstrating intelligent behavior without being tied to replicating a human model.

AI will allow advances in the development of systems capable of automatically understanding a situation and its context with the use of sensor data and information systems as well as establishing plans of action, from support applications to decision making within dynamic situations. According to the researchers, this is due to the rapid advances and the availability of sensor technology which provides a continuous flow of data about the environment, information that must be dealt with appropriately in a node of data fusion and information. Likewise, the development of sophisticated techniques for task planning allow plans of action to be composed, executed, checked for correct execution, and rectified in case of some failure, and finally to learn from mistakes made.

This technology has allowed a wide range of applications such as integrated systems for surveillance, monitoring and detecting anomalies, activity recognition, teleassistence systems, transport logistic planning, etc. According to Antonio Chella, Full Professor at the University of Palermo and expert in Artificial Consciousness, the future of AI will imply discovering a new meaning of the word “intelligence.” Until now, it has been equated with automated reasoning in software systems, but in the future AI will tackle more daring concepts such as the incarnation of intelligence in robots, as well as emotions, and above all consciousness.

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Apr 14

Reported in ScienceDaily, 4 April 2011.

This 3-D image illustrates a lattice composed of columns of squares that represent repeating molecular structures, one rotated clockwise (colored blue) and another counterclockwise (colored orange) with respect to each other. (Credit: Penn State University, Gopalan lab, Ryan Haislmaier)

A new way of understanding the structure of proteins, polymers, minerals, and engineered materials will be published in the May 2011 issue of the journal Nature Materials. The discovery by two Penn State University researchers is a new type of symmetry in the structure of materials, which the researchers say greatly expands the possibilities for discovering or designing materials with desired properties.

The research is expected to have broad relevance in many development efforts involving physical, chemical, biological, or engineering disciplines including, for example, the search for advanced ferroelectric ferromagnet materials for next-generation ultrasound devices and computers. The paper describing the research will be posted early online by the journal on 3 April 2011, prior to its publication in the journal’s May 2011 print edition.

Before the publication of this paper, scientists and engineers had five different types of symmetries to use as tools for understanding the structures of materials whose building blocks are arranged in fairly regular patterns. Four types of symmetries had been known for thousands of years — called rotation, inversion, rotation inversion, and translation — and a fifth type — called time reversal — had been discovered about 60 years ago. Now, Gopalan and Litvin have added a new, sixth, type, called rotation reversal. As a result, the number of known ways in which the components of such crystalline materials can be combined in symmetrical ways has multiplied from no more than 1,651 before to more than 17,800 now. “We mathematically combined the new rotation-reversal symmetry with the previous five symmetries and now we know that symmetrical groups can form in crystalline materials in a much larger number of ways,” said Daniel B. Litvin, distinguished professor of physics, who coauthored the study with Venkatraman Gopalan, professor of materials science and engineering.

The new rotation-reversal symmetry enriches the mathematical language that researchers use to describe a crystalline material’s structure and to predict its properties. “Rotation reversal is an absolutely new approach that is different in that it acts on a static component of the material’s structure, not on the whole structure all at once,” Litvin said. “It is important to look at symmetries in materials because symmetry dictates all natural laws in our physical universe.”

The most simple type of symmetry — rotation symmetry — is obvious, for example, when a square shape is rotated around its center point: the square shows its symmetrical character by looking exactly the same at four points during the rotation: at 90 degrees, 180 degrees, 270 degrees, and 360 degrees. Gopalan and Litvin say their new rotation-reversal symmetry is obvious, as well, if you know where to look.

The “eureka moment” of the discovery occurred when Gopalan recognized that the simple concept of reversing the direction of a spiral-shaped structure from clockwise to counterclockwise opens the door to a distinctly new type of symmetry. Just as a square shape has the quality of rotation symmetry even when it is not being rotated, Gopalan realized that a spiral shape has the quality of rotation-reversal symmetry even when it is not being physically forced to rotate in the reverse direction. Their further work with this rotation-reversal concept revealed many more structural symmetries than previously had been recognized in materials containing various types of directionally oriented structures. Many important biological molecules, for example, are said to be either “right handed” or “left handed,” including DNA, sugars, and proteins.

“We found that rotation-reversal symmetry also exists in paired structures where the partner components lean toward each other, then away from each other in paired patterns symmetrically throughout a material,” Gopalan said. These “tilting octahedral” structures are common in a wide variety of crystalline materials, where all the component structures are tightly interconnected by networks of shared atoms. The researchers say it is possible that components of materials with rotation-reversal symmetry could be engineered to function as on/off switches for a variety of novel applications.

The now-much-larger number of possible symmetry groups also is expected to be useful in identifying materials with unusual combinations of properties. “For example, the goal in developing a ferroelectric ferromagnet is to have a material in which the electrical dipoles and the magnetic moments coexist and are coupled in the same material — that is, a material that allows electrical control of magnetism — which would be very useful to have in computers,” Gopalan said. The addition of rotation-reversal symmetry to the materials-science toolbox may help researchers to identify and search for structures in materials that could have strong ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties.

Gopalan and Litvin said a goal of their continuing research is to describe each of the more than 17,800 different combinations of the six symmetry types to give materials scientists a practical new tool for significantly increasing the efficiency and effectiveness in finding novel materials. The team also plans to conduct laboratory experiments that make use of their theoretical work on rotation-reversal symmetry. “We have done some predictions, we will test those predictions experimentally,” Litvin said. “We are in the very early stages of implementing the results we have described in our new theory paper.” Gopalan said, for example, that he has predicted new forms for optical properties in the commonplace quartz crystals that are used widely in watches and electronic equipment, and that his group now is testing these predictions experimentally.

The National Science Foundation provided financial support for this research through its Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program.

Journal Reference: Venkatraman Gopalan, Daniel B. Litvin. Rotation-reversal symmetries in crystals and handed structures. Nature Materials, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nmat2987

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Apr 14

Reported in ScienceDaily, 1 April 2011.

Up to 14 quantum bits were entangled in an ion trap. (Credit: University of Innsbruck)

Quantum physicists from the University of Innsbruck have set another world record: They have achieved controlled entanglement of 14 quantum bits (qubits) and, thus, realized the largest quantum register that has ever been produced. With this experiment the scientists have not only come closer to the realization of a quantum computer but they also show surprising results for the quantum mechanical phenomenon of entanglement.

The term entanglement was introduced by the Austrian Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, and it describes a quantum mechanical phenomenon that while it can clearly be demonstrated experimentally, is not understood completely. Entangled particles cannot be defined as single particles with defined states but rather as a whole system. By entangling single quantum bits, a quantum computer will solve problems considerably faster than conventional computers. “It becomes even more difficult to understand entanglement when there are more than two particles involved,” says Thomas Monz, junior scientist in the research group led by Rainer Blatt at the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Innsbruck. “And now our experiment with many particles provides us with new insights into this phenomenon,” adds Blatt.

World record: 14 quantum bits

Since 2005 the research team of Rainer Blatt has held the record for the number of entangled quantum bits realized experimentally. To date, nobody else has been able to achieve controlled entanglement of eight particles, which represents one quantum byte. Now the Innsbruck scientists have almost doubled this record. They confined 14 calcium atoms in an ion trap, which, similar to a quantum computer, they then manipulated with laser light. The internal states of each atom formed single qubits and a quantum register of 14 qubits was produced. This register represents the core of a future quantum computer. In addition, the physicists of the University of Innsbruck have found out that the decay rate of the atoms is not linear, as usually expected, but is proportional to the square of the number of the qubits. When several particles are entangled, the sensitivity of the system increases significantly. “This process is known as superdecoherence and has rarely been observed in quantum processing,” explains Thomas Monz. It is not only of importance for building quantum computers but also for the construction of precise atomic clocks or carrying out quantum simulations.

Increasing the number of entangled particles

By now the Innsbruck experimental physicists have succeeded in confining up to 64 particles in an ion trap. “We are not able to entangle this high number of ions yet,” says Thomas Monz. “However, our current findings provide us with a better understanding about the behavior of many entangled particles.” And this knowledge may soon enable them to entangle even more atoms. Some weeks ago Rainer Blatt’s research group reported on another important finding in this context in the scientific journal Nature: They showed that ions might be entangled by electromagnetic coupling. This enables the scientists to link many little quantum registers efficiently on a micro chip. All these findings are important steps to make quantum technologies suitable for practical information processing,” Rainer Blatt is convinced.

The results of this work are published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters. The Innsbruck researchers are supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), the European Commission and the Federation of Austrian Industries Tyrol.

Journal Reference: Thomas Monz, Philipp Schindler, Julio Barreiro, Michael Chwalla, Daniel Nigg, William Coish, Maximilian Harlander, Wolfgang Hänsel, Markus Hennrich, Rainer Blatt. 14-Qubit Entanglement: Creation and Coherence. Physical Review Letters, 2011; 106 (13) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.130506

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Apr 09

Reported by Ewen Callaway in Nature News, 6 April 2011 (doi:10.1038/news.2011.215).

Mouse cells have been coaxed into forming a retina, the most complex tissue yet engineered.

Here's lookin' at you kid. M. Eiraku and Y.Sasai at RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology

A retina made in a laboratory in Japan could pave the way for treatments for human eye diseases, including some forms of blindness.

Created by coaxing mouse embryonic stem cells into a precise three-dimensional assembly, the ‘retina in a dish’ is by far and away the most complex biological tissue engineered yet, scientists say.

“There’s nothing like it,” says Robin Ali, a human molecular geneticist at the Institute of Ophthalmology in London who was not involved in the study. “When I received the manuscript, I was stunned, I really was. I never though I’d see the day where you have recapitulation of development in a dish.”

If the technique, published today in Nature1, can be adapted to human cells and proved safe for transplantation — which will take years — it could offer an unlimited well of tissue to replace damaged retinas. More immediately, the synthetic retinal tissue could help scientists in the study of eye disease and in identifying therapies.

The work may also guide the assembly of other organs and tissues, says Bruce Conklin, a stem-cell biologist at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, who was not involved in the work. “I think it really reveals a larger discovery that’s coming upon all of us: that these cells have instructions that allow them to self-organize.”

Cocktail recipe

In hindsight, previous work had suggested that, given the right cues, stem cells could form eye tissue spontaneously, Ali says. A cocktail of genes is enough to induce frog embryos to form form eyes on other parts of their body2, and human embryonic stem cells in a Petri dish can be coaxed into making the pigmented cells that support the retina, sheets of cells that resemble lenses and light-sensing retinal cells themselves3.

However, the eye structure created by Yoshiki Sasai at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe and his team is much more complex.

The optic cup is brandy-snifter-shaped organ that has two distinct cell layers. The outer layer — that nearest to the brain — is made up of pigmented retinal cells that provide nutrients and support the retina. The inner layer is the retina itself, and contains several types of light-sensitive neuron, ganglion cells that conduct light information to the brain, and supporting glial cells.

To make this organ in a dish, Sasai’s team grew mouse embryonic stem cells in a nutrient soup containing proteins that pushed stem cells to transform into retinal cells. The team also added a protein gel to support the cells. “It’s a bandage to the tissue. Without that, cells tend to fall apart,” Sasai says.

At first, the stem cells formed blobs of early retinal cells. Then, over the next week, the blobs grew and began to form a structure, seen early in eye development, called an optic vesicle. Just as it would in an embryo, the laboratory-made optic vesicle folded in on itself over the next two days to form an optic cup, with its characteristic brandy-snifter shape, double layer and the appropriate cells.

Even though the optic cups look and develop like the real thing, “there may be differences between the synthetic retina and what happens normally,” Ali says.

Sasai’s team has not yet tested whether the optic cups can sense light or transmit impulses to the mouse brain. “That’s what we are now trying,” he says. However, previous studies have suggested that embryonic retinas can be transplanted into adult rodents4, so Sasai is hopeful.

Sasai, Ali and others expect that human retinas, which develop similarly to those of mice, could eventually be created in the lab. “In terms of regenerative medicine, we have to go beyond mouse cells. We have to make human retinal tissue from human embryonic stem cells and investigation is under way,” Sasai says.

The eyes have it

Synthetic human retinas could provide a source of cells to treat conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa, in which the retina’s light-sensing cells atrophy, eventually leading to blindness. In 2006, Ali’s team found that retinal cells from newborn mice work when transplanted into older mice5. Synthetic retinas, he says, “provide a much more attractive, more practical source of cells”.

David Gamm, a stem-cell biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says that transplanting entire layers of eye tissue, rather than individual retinal cells, could help people with widespread retinal damage. But, he adds, diseases such as late-stage glaucoma, in which the wiring between the retina and brain is damaged, will be much tougher to fix.

When and whether such therapies will make it to patients is impossible to predict. However, in the nearer term, synthetic retinas will be useful for unpicking the molecular defects behind eye diseases, and finding treatments for them, Sasai says. Retinas created from reprogrammed stem cells from patients with eye diseases could, for instance, be used to screen drugs or test gene therapies, Ali says.

Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of the biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology, based in Santa Monica, California, says the paper has implications far beyond treating and modelling eye diseases. The research shows that embryonic stem cells, given the right physical and chemical surroundings, can spontaneously transform into intricate tissues. “Stem cells are smart,” Lanza says. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully it’s the beginning of an important new phase of stem-cell research.”

  • References
    1. Eiraku, M. et al. Nature 472, 51-56 (2011). | Article |
    2. Zuber, M. E., Gestri, G., Viczian, A. S., Barsacchi, G. & Harris, W. A. Development 130, 5155-5167 (2003). | ArticlePubMedISIChemPort |
    3. Osakada, F. et al. Nature Biotechnol. 26, 215-224 (2008). | Article |
    4. Tansley, K. J. Exp. Biol. 22, 221-233 (1946). | PubMedISIChemPort |
    5. MacLaren, R. E. et al. Nature 444, 203-207 (2006). | ArticlePubMedISIChemPort |
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Apr 08

Reported by Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic, 18 March 2011.

Given the awesome correlating powers of today’s stock trading computers, the idea may not be as far-fetched as you think.

Images: 1. Anne Hathaway. Flickr/zigzaglens; 2. Warren Buffett. Flickr/trackrecord.

A couple weeks ago, Huffington Post blogger Dan Mirvish noted a funny trend: when Anne Hathaway was in the news, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway’s shares went up. He pointed to six dates going back to 2008 to show the correlation. Mirvish then suggested a mechanism to explain the trend: “automated, robotic trading programming are picking up the same chatter on the Internet about ‘Hathaway’ as the IMDb’s StarMeter, and they’re applying it to the stock market.”

The idea seems ridiculous. But the more I thought about the strange behavior of algorithmic trading systems and the news that Twitter sentiment analysis could be used by stock market analysts and the fact that many computer programs are simply looking for tradeable correlations, I really started to wonder if Mirvish’s theory was plausible.

I called up John Bates, a former Cambridge computer scientist whose company Progress Software works with hedge funds and others to help them find new algorithmic strategies. I asked, “Is this at all possible?” And I was surprised that he answered, roughly, “Maybe?”

“We come across all sorts of strange things in our line of business, strange correlations,” Bates told me. “And I’ve had a lot of interest in this for a long time because it’s really often the secret source for certain hedge funds.”

Companies are trying to “correlate everything against everything,” he explained, and if they find something that they think will work time and again, they’ll try it out. The interesting, thing, though, is that it’s all statistics, removed from the real world. It’s not as if a hedge fund’s computers would spit the trading strategy as a sentence: “When Hathway news increases, buy Berkshire Hathaway.” In fact, traders won’t always know why their algorithms are doing what they’re doing. They just see that it’s found some correlation and it’s betting on Buffett’s company.

Now, generally the correlations are between some statistical indicator and a stock or industry. “Let’s say a new instrument comes to an exchange, you might suddenly notice that that an instrument moves in conjunction with the insurance sector,” Bates posited. But it’s thought that some hedge funds are testing strategies out to mine news and social media datasets for other types of correlations.

Does it happen a lot? Bates doesn’t think so, but it’s not out of the question. And, in any case, we’re going to see a lot of strange trading strategies as hedge fund managers’ computing resources grow ever more powerful and they are actually able to “correlate everything against everything.” Oh, it’s raining in Kazakhstan? Buy pork bellies in Brazil! And sell wheat in Kansas! Dump Apple stock! Why? Because the computer says that the 193 out of the last 240 times it rained in Kazakhstan, pork bellies in Brazil went up, and wheat prices and Apple shares went down.

It sounds crazy, sure, but they’re the ones making 10 figures.

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Apr 08
The European Commission has been scratching its head about what to call the new EU research and innovation funding program. They’re asking for help. The new funding program will replace the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) after 2013.
Provided you’re not an employee of one of the European institutions or a direct family member, you are invited to enter the ongoing competition for the new name. Your proposal “should be easily associated with research and innovation, while also being original, memorable, either usable in a wide range of languages or easily translatable, and easy to pronounce and spell,” the European Commission Web site reads.
The three best suggestions will be selected by an international jury and further voted on by the public. The winner, to be announced on 10 June, will get an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels for the European Innovation Convention later this year.
Entries will be accepted until midnight Central European Summer Time on 10 May to send your proposal.
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Apr 08

The six teams who enter the “most innovative ideas that drive green technology commercialization and entrepreneurship” will divide $12 million in this year’s i6 Green Challenge competition, sponsored by the United States Economic Development Administration.  Teams from universities and private organizations as well as entrepreneurs are among those eligible to compete. Projects can focus on renewable energy, energy efficiency, green manufacturing, reuse and recycling, green buildings, or ecosystem restoration.   Each group must submit a letter of intent by May 2 and a final proposal by May 26.  More information is here.

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