By: Manimaran Govindarasu, Iowa State University and Adam Hahn, Washington State University

GridCalled the “largest interconnected machine,” the U.S. electricity grid is a complex digital and physical system crucial to life and commerce in this country. Today, it is made up of more than 7,000 power plants, 55,000 substations, 160,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and millions of miles of low-voltage distribution lines. This web of generators, substations and power lines is organized into three major interconnections, operated by 66 balancing authorities and 3,000 different utilities. That’s a lot of power, and many possible vulnerabilities.

The grid has been vulnerable physically for decades. Today, we are just beginning to understand the seriousness of an emerging threat to the grid’s cybersecurity. As the grid has become more dependent on computers and data-sharing, it has become more responsive to changes in power demand and better at integrating new sources of energy. But its computerized control could be abused by attackers who get into the systems.

Until 2015, the threat was hypothetical. But now we know cyberattacks can penetrate electricity grid control networks, shutting down power to large numbers of people. It happened in Ukraine in 2015 and again in 2016, and it could happen here in the U.S., too.

As researchers of grid security, we know the grid has long been designed to withstand random problems, such as equipment failures and trees falling on lines, as well as naturally occurring extreme events including storms and hurricanes. But as a new document from the National Institute of Standards and Technology suggests, we are just beginning to determine how best to protect it against cyberattacks.

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ElectronicsNew research demonstrates the development of the first stretchable integrated circuit, made entirely using an inkjet printer.

The team behind this research believes this development could lead to the manufacturing of inexpensive “smart fabric.” Potential applications include wallpaper that can turn an entire wall into an electronic display and electronics that could be scaled up and down easily.

“We can conceivably make the costs of producing flexible electronics comparable to the costs of printing newspapers,” says Chuan Wang, co-author of the paper and former ECS member. “Our work could soon lead to printed displays that can easily be stretched to larger sizes, as well as wearable electronics and soft robotics applications.”

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Cyber Security via IStockA team of researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology recently developed a new form of ransomware that could take over control of water treatment plants. The simulated hacking exercise was able to command programmable logic controls (PLCs) to shut down water valves, increase or decrease the amount of chemicals used to treat water, and churn out false readings.

According to the researchers, simulations were conducted to highlight the vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure. This research comes at a time when cyber security concerns have reached a high point in light of recent cyber attacking and hacking attempts across the globe.

Cyber attacks go far beyond the acquisition of emails and corruption of websites. Any establishment with PLCs is, in theory, vulnerable to hacking. This could range from water infrastructure, as demonstrated here, to electrical dependency.

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Flying carWhile most car companies are investing research efforts into electric and autonomous vehicles, Uber – the highly popular ride-sharing service – is attempting to stick out in the crowd of auto giants by developing a flying car.

According to reports from Bloomberg, the company just took that goal one step further by hiring NASA veteran Mark Moore to work on company’s flying car project.

In less than a decade, Uber has changed the way many individuals think about transportation. Now, the company is looking to do that again. In October 2016, Uber announced plans for the “Elevate” network, which is set to function as a fleet of on-demand, electric aircrafts that take off and land vertically. Uber looks to implement Elevate within a decade.

Much like electric vehicles, the idea of the flying car is not new. In 1926, the concept even landed the cover of Popular Science. Still, there has never been a feasible technology to make this goal an actuality.

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Silicon ValleyNearly 100 tech companies have filed an amicus brief condemning U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order concerning immigration.

The legal brief emphasizes what the companies believe to be the importance of immigrants in both the economy and society.

This from the brief:

Immigrants make many of the Nation’s greatest discoveries, and create some of the country’s most innovative and iconic companies. America has long recognized the importance of protecting ourselves against those who would do us harm. But it has done so while maintaining our fundamental commitment to welcoming immigrants—through increased background checks and other controls on people seeking to enter our country.

The brief cites the executive order as illegal, discriminatory, and ultimately damaging for U.S. companies. The complete list of opposing companies follows:

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By: William Messner, Tufts University

Driverless carWhen a May 2016 crash killed the person operating a Tesla Model S driving in Autopilot mode, advocates of autonomous vehicles feared a slowdown in development of self-driving cars.

Instead the opposite has occurred. In August, Ford publicly committed to field self-driving cars by 2021. In September, Uber began picking up passengers with self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, albeit with safety drivers ready to take over.

October saw Tesla itself undeterred by the fatality. The company began producing cars it said had all the hardware needed for autonomous operation; the software will be written and added later. In December, days after Michigan established regulations for testing autonomous vehicles in December, General Motors started doing just that with self-driving Chevy Bolts. And just one day before the end of his term, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx designated 10 research centers as official test sites for automated vehicle systems.

Three of the most significant developments in the industry happened earlier this month. The 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit saw automakers new and old (and their suppliers) show off their plans and innovations in this arena. And the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its report on the Tesla fatality. Together, they suggest a future filled with driverless cars that are both safer than today’s vehicles and radically different in appearance and comfort.

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By using one of the world’s most powerful electron microscopes, a team of researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has successfully mapped the exact location and chemical type of 23,000 atoms in a nanoparticle made of iron and platinum. The team believes this work could reveal more information about material properties at the single-atom level, opening the doors to improving magnetic performance for next-generation hard drives.

“Our research is a big step in this direction. We can now take a snapshot that shows the positions of all the atoms in a nanoparticle at a specific point in its growth,” says Mary Scott, who conducted the research. “This will help us learn how nanoparticles grow atom by atom, and it sets the stage for a materials-design approach starting from the smallest building blocks.”

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E-Waste Volume Hits New Peak

E-wasteAs the demand for newer, faster electronics rises, so does the amount of e-waste across the globe.

E-waste refers to discarded electrical and electronic equipment, the amount of which has risen by 63 percent in just the past five years. Globally, it’s observed that the volume of e-waste has hit an astonishing new peak, totaling in at over 40 tons – seven percent of which includes communication devices such as smartphones and computers.

The challenge of rising levels of e-waste is a global issue. A report from U.N. think tank, United Nations University, shows that in 12 Asian countries, the volume of e-waste increased by nearly two-thirds between 2010 and 2015. Hong Kong, for example, produced nearly 48 pounds per person in digital trash. To compare, the average waste from Europe and the Americas is approximately 34 pounds per person.

Because Asia buys about half of all electronics on the market, the uptick in e-waste is expected. However, the infrastructure to recycle and the laws that mandate such actions do not exist in these countries. In the United States, however, states such as New York have implemented bans on disposing of unwanted electronics, posing fines to those who do not properly recycle their devices.

E-waste shows both great potential and hazards for the world. On one hand, it’s estimated that in the United States alone, the over $50 billion is wasted in the form of digital trash that can be recycled for alternative uses.

Additionally, e-waste – which includes components such as lithium-ion batteries – if not properly disposed of, could lead to substantial amounts of health-threatening toxins such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.

By: Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.

Net neutralityWith the selection of Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission, President Trump has elevated a major foe of net neutrality from the minority on the commission to its head. Pai, already a commissioner and therefore needing no Senate approval to become its chair, would need to be reconfirmed by the end of 2017 to continue to serve.

But what is net neutrality, this policy Pai has spent years criticizing? Here are some highlights of The Conversation’s coverage of the controversy around the concept of keeping the internet open:

Public interest versus private profit

The basic conflict is a result of the history of the internet, and the telecommunications industry more generally, writes internet law scholar Allen Hammond at Santa Clara University:

Like the telephone, broadcast and cable predecessors from which they evolved, the wire and mobile broadband networks that carry internet traffic travel over public property. The spectrum and land over which these broadband networks travel are known as rights of way. Congress allowed each network technology to be privately owned. However, the explicit arrangement has been that private owner access to the publicly owned spectrum and rights of way necessary to exploit the technology is exchanged for public access and speech rights.

The government is trying to balance competing interests in how the benefits of those network services. Should people have unfiltered access to any and all data services, or should some internet providers be allowed to charge a premium to let companies reach audiences more widely and more quickly?

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By: William Bentley, University of Maryland and Gregory Payne, University of Maryland

CellsMicroelectronics has transformed our lives. Cellphones, earbuds, pacemakers, defibrillators – all these and more rely on microelectronics’ very small electronic designs and components. Microelectronics has changed the way we collect, process and transmit information.

Such devices, however, rarely provide access to our biological world; there are technical gaps. We can’t simply connect our cellphones to our skin and expect to gain health information. For instance, is there an infection? What type of bacteria or virus is involved? We also can’t program the cellphone to make and deliver an antibiotic, even if we knew whether the pathogen was Staph or Strep. There’s a translation problem when you want the world of biology to communicate with the world of electronics.

The research we’ve just published with colleagues in Nature Communications brings us one step closer to closing that communication gap. Rather than relying on the usual molecular signals, like hormones or nutrients, that control a cell’s gene expression, we created a synthetic “switching” system in bacterial cells that recognizes electrons instead. This new technology – a link between electrons and biology – may ultimately allow us to program our phones or other microelectronic devices to autonomously detect and treat disease.

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