QNX helps heat up fusion research

A plasma isn’t a solid, a liquid, or a gas. It's a fourth state of matter that exhibits an array of unusual behaviors, which makes it pretty cool in my book. That said, some forms of plasma are hot. Very hot. So hot that no material can contain them. Like other forms of plasma, though, even hot plasmas can be contained by magnetic fields.

Taking advantage of that property, researchers at MIT are attempting to create hydrogen-based plasmas hot enough and dense enough to produce fusion reactions. Their ultimate goal: To create a simple, efficient source of electrical power that doesn’t churn out the radioactive wastes generated by today’s uranium-based fission reactors. Not a bad idea, given the growing demand for electricity worldwide. In China, for example, consumption is growing at more than 4% per year. The overall global rate isn’t far behind, at about 2.4%. Compounded yearly, that’s a lot of juice.

To understand what the MIT researchers are attempting, you have to travel back to the 1980s, when Voyager II detected plasma trapped in Jupiter's magnetosphere. That finding, according to Science Magazine, inspired the physicist Akira Hasegawa to propose a fusion reactor based on a magnetic dipole, which is simplest, most common type of magnetic field in the universe. As the name suggests, a dipole consists simply of a north pole and a south pole.

In a dipole reactor, a magnetically levitated, superconducting torus (picture a big metal donut floating in a vacuum chamber) generates lines of magnetic force similar to those that surround the Earth, Jupiter, and other magnetized planets. The reactor then uses pulses of microwave heating to create plasma discharges, which the magnetic field holds in place.

The MIT researchers call their project, appropriately enough, the Levitated Dipole Experiment (LDX). To levitate the torus, which weighs about 1200 pounds (550 kg), they use a high-temperature superconducting coil, mounted on top of the vacuum chamber. The levitation control system, which uses 8 laser beams to constantly monitor and fine-tune the power of the levitation coil, runs on the QNX Neutrino RTOS.

According to a paper written by members of the research team, QNX Neutrino “ensures that the feedback cycle runs deterministically with high reliability.” To implement the feedback algorithm, the system designers used Opal-RT’s RT-Lab and Mathworks Simulink.

From what I’ve read, the hot, dense fusion reactions inside a dipole-based reactor can produce energetic photons that heat the reactor; this heat can then be used to generate electrical power. The reactions also create charged particles that the reactor will trap in its magnetic fields. The net effect is a theoretically clean, yet efficient method of generating electricity.

Just one thing, though. The MIT researchers warn that levitated dipole reactors aren’t ready for prime time just yet — and probably won’t be for about another 40 years. So turn off that light, will you?


I’ve got two videos to show you. The first one shows the "first flight" of the LDX (times are approximate):

1) A pneumatic launcher raises the torus (donut).
2) The launcher retracts (0:13) downward as the torus begins to levitate.
3) The chamber darkens (0:28) and plasma begins to heat up.
4) The heating stops (0:42) and the plasma begins to dim.
5) The launchers catches the falling torus (1:15).

The second video, filmed by Discovery News, provides a bit more context. If you can, go straight to the -2:35 mark:

Being plasma challenged, I’m the last thing from an expert on the LDX. So I invite you to visit their site — http://alcpc1.psfc.mit.edu/ldx/ — to get the full skinny. (Funny expression, that.)

Random bits of life

  • Life magazine, now on Google
  • Life in miniature, as seen through the microscope
  • Monty Python (the folks who brought you the meaning of life), now officially on YouTube
  • QNX Touches Your Life


QNX helps U.S. military make the jump to software defined radio

The U.S. military uses about 30 families of radio systems — systems that, in many cases, can’t communicate with one another. This incompatibility is inconvenient, inefficient, and, on occasion, downright dangerous for military personnel.

It’s a serious problem. And to solve it, the Department of Defense (DoD) is investing heavily in software defined radio (SDR). The premise of SDR is simple: Rather than implement filters, signal detectors, and other radio components in hardware (the traditional model), you implement them in upgradeable software. This approach allows a single device to support multiple modulation schemes, wireless protocols, encryption standards, etc; it can also future-proof the device against new or updated standards that hit the airwaves.

The benefits extend far beyond military radios. By using SDR, a variety of products — including wireless basestations, public-service radios, cellphones, and even in-car telematics systems — can intelligently adapt to the evolving wireless landscape. Better yet, a single SDR radio can replace several conventional devices. Emergency personnel, for example, can communicate with one another without having to schlep multiple radios, as they often do today.

To make the jump to SDR, the DoD created the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program, pronounced “jitters.” This program promises to create a new generation of reconfigurable military radios that offer far greater interoperability for voice, data, and video communications than conventional fixed radios.

About 3 years ago, I wrote an article on why the QNX Neutrino RTOS is a good fit for JTRS SDR. Harris Corporation, the leading supplier of SDRs to the U.S. military, must agree with me, because they’ve recently disclosed that the Harris Falcon III radio family, which includes radios in vehicular, handheld, and “manpack” configurations, is based entirely on QNX Neutrino.

From what I’ve read, the DoD has already deployed tens of thousands of these radios in Irag, Afghanistan, and other areas. The radios include the Falcon III AN/PRC-152(C) handheld radio, hailed by the U.S. army as "one of the greatest inventions of 2007." Adulation aside, the AN/PRC-152(C) is the first SDR device to be certified as fully compliant with version 2.2 of the JTRS Software Communications Architecture (SCA).

The SCA is important, because it provides a “blueprint” for building JTRS radios. Among other things, it ensures that JTRS software applications can be ported and reused easily across platforms. To ensure this portability, the SCA encompasses two well-established software standards: the CORBA architecture and the POSIX application programming interface (API).

Because SCA compliance is mandated for JTRS radios, Harris had to use a POSIX RTOS for their Falcon III products. QNX Neutrino served as a good choice, not only because it is POSIX certified, but because it was designed from the start to support POSIX APIs -- POSIX is built into the very core of the OS. As a result, QNX Neutrino doesn’t need a performance robbing (and memory consuming) POSIX adaptation layer.

Wayback dept: All this talk of military radios brings me back to the '60s, when I was the only kid on the block to own a Johnny Seven Micro Helment phone set, which consisted of a microphone-equipped military-style helmet and an accompanying walkie talkie. It was a pretty cool toy, except for one thing: the helmet and walkie talkie were connected by a 30-foot wire. So you couldn't run anywhere without literally dragging your brother-in-arms with you. To view the original TV ad, click here.


QNX takes home an Elektra award

Back in September, I told you that the QNX Aviage acoustic processing suite had been shortlisted for an Elektra award. Well, I just got the news: QNX Aviage has won.

QNX Aviage is a small, modular software library that eliminates the dedicated hardware typically used to reduce noise and echo in automotive hands-free systems. As a result, automotive suppliers can build these systems for less -- which means that more cars can offer handsfree kits as standard equipment. A good thing, given that more and more jurisdictions are banning handheld cellphones in cars.

The suite has some cool features to help reduce driver distraction. For instance, it can dynamically raise volume levels during periods of high cabin noise, allowing the driver to hear the remote party without straining or fiddling with volume controls. It can also “fill in” the limited bandwidth of cellphone calls, making the remote party's voice fuller and more intelligible.

The suite also has a nifty remote-control utility that lets the developer interactively turn features on or off, tweak settings, adjust performance, log events, run diagnostics, etc. — all while a handsfree call is in progress:

Click to enlarge.

If you have a couple of minutes, check out this podcast interview on QNX Aviage. It outlines some of the challenges of building handsfree and speech-controlled systems -- such as navigation units that think the driver is saying "no, no, no, no, no" every time the car rolls across a rumble strip.

QNX received the Elektra last night in Munich, at the Electronica 2008 conference. Click here to see the entire list of award winners.


Totally random

  • Hey, babe, wanna go for a drive in my '59 Lincoln hybrid?
  • What happens when two high-priority threads ignore synchronization mechanisms on shared objects (thanks Bill)
  • The one velociraptor per child project (thanks JM)
  • Old Lady 1; Mercedes 0
  • QNX developers now come better ARMed