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To the general public, IBM might only be the world’s largest IT company, all bytes and nets, computer applications and services, smal and large servers. It sure is all of it, but not only it. IBM is also a great spender in researching: investments in materials research, nanotechnology, manufacturing and chip design are paying off in bringing new, innovative products to market, IBM is also applying that expertise to areas you may not be aware of. And some of these innovations could as well help solving today’s biggest problems, climate change and global warming.
For example, the scientific journal Advanced Materials has just published a paper detailing a breakthrough in solar research by IBM scientists. IBM researchers have created a high-efficiency solar cell that holds potential to produce more energy at a lower cost, as it is made of earth abundant materials.
The quest to develop a solar technology that can compare on a cost per watt basis with the conventional electricity generation, and also offer the future ability to deploy at the hundreds of gigawatts or greater levels, has become a major challenge that this breakthrough moves us closer to overcoming. IBM does not plan to manufacture solar technologies, but is open to partnering with solar cell manufacturers to demonstrate the technology.
IBM has a long history of pioneering advanced silicon technologies to help enhance performance, while reducing size and power consumption. Such advances include the development of the world’s first copper-based microprocessor; silicon-on-insulator (SOI), a technology that reduces power consumption and increases performance by helping insulate the millions of transistors on a chip; and strained silicon, a technology that “stretches” material inside the silicon decreasing the resistance and speeding the flow of electrons through transistors.
Similarly, IBM Research is applying its chip, materials and nanotechnology expertise in other areas. Consider the following:
* DNA sequencing – In an effort to build a nanoscale DNA sequencer, IBM scientists are drilling nano-sized holes in computer-like chips and passing DNA strands through them to read the information contained within their genetic code. IBM Research has received an “Advanced Sequencing Technology Award” from the US National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to design a silicon-based DNA Transistor that will advance genome sequencing technology and generate progress in health care diagnosis and practice. This advanced research effort to demonstrate a silicon-based “DNA Transistor” could help pave the way to read human DNA easily and quickly, generating advancements in health condition diagnosis and treatment. The challenge in the effort is to slow and control the motion of the DNA through the hole so the reader can accurately decode what is in the DNA. If successful, the project could improve throughput and reduce cost to achieve the vision of personalized genome analysis at a cost of $100 to $1,000. In comparison, the first sequencing ever done by the Human Genome Project (HGP) cost $3 billion.
* Water purification – Scientists at IBM Research, together with collaborators from Central Glass, KACST and the University of Texas, Austin have created a new membrane that filters out salts as well as potentially harmful toxins in water such as arsenic while using less energy than other forms of water purification. Membrane filtration is currently one of the most energy efficient techniques for removing salt and improving water quality. But, conventional membranes used today are easily damaged by chlorine, which is commonly added to water to prevent bacterial growth that can cause health problems. Now, the collaborative research team has designed a new concept in membrane materials that combines resistance to chlorine damage and high performance separation behavior in mildly basic conditions, making it suitable for arsenic removal in addition to water desalination
* Medical diagnostics – IBM scientists, in collaboration with the University Hospital of Basel in Switzerland, have created a one-step point-of-care-diagnostic test, based on an innovative silicon chip, that requires less sample volume, is significantly faster, portable, easy to use, and can test for many diseases, including one of world’s leading causes of death, cardiovascular disease. The results are so quick and accurate that a small sample of a patient’s serum or blood, could be tested immediately following a heart attack, to enable the doctor to quickly take a course of action to help the patient survive. The diagnostic test uses capillary forces to analyze tiny samples of serum, or blood, for the presence of disease markers, which are typically proteins that can be detected in people’s blood for diagnostic purposes.
As IBM focuses on building a smarter planet, at IBM Research scientists are looking at new ways to apply their expertise to help solve some of the big issues of our time. Oftentimes, this involves collaborating with other leading institutions, on the name of science , innovation and progress for everybody.