Tidal power for the Severn; £27m for British bioenergy research; Moon camera picks up signal; device aids whale rescue; complexity and deadlines hamper IT performance; micro-motor could unblock arteries; bright future for LEDs and so much more besides.

Five projects make Severn shortlist

The possibility of a ten-mile barrage across the River Severn to generate up to 5 per cent of the UK's electricity has moved a step closer after it was included on a government shortlist of five schemes for harnessing tidal power in the estuary.

Two schemes for innovative tidal lagoons on the English and Welsh coasts and two smaller barrages are also shortlisted.

The tides in the Severn estuary are the second highest in the world. Over the past year, a feasibility study has investigated ten options, assessing the costs, benefits and environmental challenges of using the estuary to generate power.

The five projects that failed to make the short list are not out of contention, however. Amid criticism that a barrage could be damaging to wildlife and the local economy, Energy and Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband announced £500,000 of funding to develop currently immature technologies. This leaves the door open to the other projects should their technology develop to meet the criteria.

These include a 12-mile tidal reef and tidal fences which would not dam the estuary like a barrage, causing less impact on its world-renowned habitat.

"The five shortlisted schemes are what we believe can be feasible," said Miliband, "but this doesn't mean we have lost sight of the others." He added that progress on the developing technologies would be considered before any final decisions were made.

A consultation on the proposals runs until 23 April. In due course the government will announce a final shortlist of schemes that will be taken forward for further analysis under the two-year feasibility study. A final decision is due next year on which scheme, if any, the government will support.

"We need to think about how to balance the value of this unique natural environment against the long-term threat of global climate change," said Miliband.

On the same day that the shortlist was announced, Miliband's department published a study of the UK's offshore environment which found scope for building 5,000 to 7,000 wind turbines. DECC says they could supply the equivalent of enough electricity to power almost every home in the UK.

Tireless performer needs no lunch break

An interactive life-size robot called RoboThespian is proving a big hit with visitors at science and technology centres across Europe.

Its maker, Cornwall-based Engineered Arts, was originally commissioned in January 2005 to create a troupe of robotic actors to perform at the Eden Project's 'Mechanical Theatre'. The initial design work focused on the necessary mechanical engineering and control systems, resulting in a hugely popular installation piece, but it soon became obvious that audiences wanted to interact with the robots.

Engineered Arts embarked on a development programme to create a set of integrated hardware modules for controlling the robots' various valves and motors, and added Internet connectivity to the control software, to give access to Web-based public information sources such as Wikipedia.

The first interactive RoboThespian, exhibited in Los Angeles 15 months ago, could respond to its audience vocally and through reactive movements.

Now the company has incorporated articulated hands, an additional axis in each arm, and feedback sensors on all movement axes. In total there are 31 powered axes, each featuring full proportional control, and six DC motors.
All the major movements are controlled by Festo fluidic muscles. These very high power-to-weight pneumatic actuators essentially comprise a flexible tube with reinforcing fibres in a lattice structure; they contract as they are filled with compressed air, and elongate when the air is removed.

The first interactive RoboThespian was installed at the Goonhilly Future World exhibition in Cornwall in March 2008. It features a new remote control console with a 19in touch-sensitive screen, linked to the robot via an industry-standard LAN; the control software employs an advanced graphical user interface with 'drag and drop' editing facilities, enabling visitors to create their own movement sequences and to then watch them being performed.

£27m for British bioenergy research

By Mark Venables

A multimillion-pound scheme that could one day see cars running on fuel taken from straw has been unveiled by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The UK funding agency for biosciences announced that £27m would be invested in research to create biofuels from natural products such as willow and straw. The announcement will be seen as a huge breakthrough for the renewable energy industry as these new second generation biofuels are far more efficient than first generation fuels derived from crops such as maize.

The investment put towards creating the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC) will be focused on six research hubs of academic and industrial partners. These are based at the Universities of Cambridge, Dundee and York and Rothamsted Research with two at the University of Nottingham. Another seven universities and institutes are involved and 15 industrial partners across the hubs are contributing around £7m of the funding.

Projects will focus on widening the range of materials that can be used for bioenergy, modifying them to make them more amenable to processing, and optimising the fermentation process.

"This is a huge breakthrough for second generation biofuels," said BBSRC chief executive Professor Douglas Kell. "It's the way forward; one day our cars could be run by fuel obtained from straw.

"The UK has a world-leading research base in plant and microbial science. By working closely with industrial partners, the Centre's scientists will be able to quickly translate their progress into practical solutions to all our benefit - and ultimately, by supporting the sustainable bioenergy sector, help to create thousands of new 'green collar' jobs in the UK."

Second-generation biofuels can be obtained from fast-growing trees and grasses such as willow and miscanthus, which are regarded as sustainable feedstocks because they regenerate each year and grow on marginal land without requiring intensive cultivation or high levels of nitrogen fertiliser. Waste products such as carrot tops and spent grain from the brewing industry can also be used.

Sugars are extracted from the plant cell walls in a highly complicated process using enzymes. These sugars are then broken down with yeast and bacteria to produce butanol and ethanol, which can be used as transport fuels.

It is hoped that within ten years cars could be running on a mix incorporating fuel created by this process. Scientists at the launch of the scheme in central London said that the motor industry would need to modify the design of car engines for the second generation biofuels to be able to power the vehicles completely.

Science minister Lord Drayson, who owns a racing car converted to run on second-generation biofuel, said he hoped the new fuel could provide an answer to the UK's energy needs. "Our target is to generate 10 per cent of energy production from renewables by 2010, as part of our overall target to reduce by 80 per cent our CO2 emissions by 2050," he said.

Rapid manufacturing project adds up

A project led by Loughborough University aims to revolutionise the way components for the aeronautical and automotive industries are made, leading to a significant reduction in weight, wastage and CO2 emissions both at the manufacturing stage and during use.

The University's Wolfson School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering will apply Rapid Manufacturing (RM) techniques - also known as Additive Manufacturing - to make parts for aircraft and motor vehicles. RM works by breaking down a 3D computer-aided-design (CAD) model into 2D digital sections, which are then built up layer by layer by high-tech robotic machines - effectively 3D-printing the required design.

That makes it possible to make components where they are needed, and to build lightweight parts with a honeycomb or hollow structure instead of machining solid blocks.

Funding for the £2.7m project comes from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and industry partners, which include Boeing, Virgin Atlantic and Bentley Motors, among significant others.

The ultimate aim of the project is to use an additive manufacturing approach, specifically Selective Laser Melting (SLM) of metallic components, to ensure the design, manufacture and distribution of fully optimised automotive and aerospace components are more sustainable with a significantly reduced carbon footprint.

"Current products are generally wasteful in all aspects, from design and manufacture to the final distribution to the consumer," said Professor Richard Hague, who is leading the project.

"This is mainly a consequence of conventional processes that restrict our current design, manufacture and supply chains. For example, conventional destructive manufacturing techniques, such as machining, result in the removal of large amounts of bulk material in order to produce the end-use part - often machining operations can result in over 90-95 per cent waste material, which then has to be recycled."

Your vote counts

Who are today's most influential engineers? In our last issue we published a list selected by E&T's editorial team. Now it's your turn to express an opinion. Vote online for your pick from our list or nominate your own choice.

You can also tell us who you think is the greatest engineer or technologist of all time.

Everyone submitting a form before the closing date of 31 March will be entered into a prize draw to win £100 in Amazon vouchers (terms and conditions apply).

To vote, log into the IET website at [new window].

Moon camera picks up first faint signal

An instrument on board India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft has successfully detected its first X-ray signature from the Moon. This is the initial step in its mission to map the composition of the lunar surface, which will help scientists quantify the mineral resources that exist there.

The C1XS (pronounced "kicks") X-ray camera, jointly developed by the UK's STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), detected the signal from a region near the Apollo landing sites on 12 December 2008. The instrument collected three minutes of data at the end of its observation, just as the flare started, but that was enough to identify the chemistry of that area.

The solar flare that caused the X-ray fluorescence was weak - approximately 20 times smaller than the minimum C1XS was designed to detect. A solar minimum of activity that should have ended in early 2008 is still in effect at the beginning of 2009.

"C1XS has exceeded expectations as to its sensitivity, and has proven by its performance that it is the most sensitive X-ray spectrometer of its kind in history," said Ms Shyama Narendranath, instrument operations scientist at ISRO.

Chandrayaan-1 is the first lunar mission from ISRO and also the organisation's first mission with international partners. It is designed to orbit the Moon and carries 11 instruments including radar and particle detectors as well as instruments that will make observations in the visible, near infrared and soft and hard X-rays.

The data gathered by the mission should help scientists understand the origin and evolution of the Moon.

Children turn to IT-savvy mums for Web support

By Dominic Lenton

Mothers may be going out to work in increasing numbers, but they still spend enough time at home with their children to make them the preferred source of advice when it comes to using new technologies. A survey of thousands of British youngsters found they are more than twice as likely to ask Mum for help with using the Web for school work as they are to go to Dad.

Around 4,600 children aged between six and 14 took part in the research, carried out by the University of Hertfordshire on behalf of Intuitive Media, a provider of online learning communities for young people.

Funded by the government's educational ICT agency Becta, the project aimed to find out how parents and children work together to learn about and use new technology. While virtually all children said they use a computer at home with their parents, there was a big difference in who they turn to when they need help using it for homework.

When using the Internet to do homework, three-quarters of children say they ask their parents for help. Of this group, 28 per cent say they ask both parents equally, while for those that ask only one parent, it's more likely to be Mum (26 per cent) than Dad (9 per cent). In total, 50 per cent say they either ask only their mother - or prefer her - compared with 22 per cent who favour their father.

Professor Karen Pine of Hertfordshire's School of Psychology believes it's clear from the results is that mothers are taking the lead. "Overall, mothers are more likely to engage with their children using new technologies, especially when it comes to formal learning or research. The mothers were also the most experienced and capable computer and Internet users."

The exception was helping with a technical problem on the computer, playing on the games console or using a CD-ROM. In this situation fathers are equally involved or, in the case of solving a technical problem, more likely to be the source of help.

Professor Pine co-authored a report on the research, 'Learning in the Family', with Robert Hart, research director at Intuitive Media. "Technology use in the family is clearly gender-related and we can see parallels to other activities in family life: fathers being in charge of fixing things and mothers helping children with homework in general," said Hart. "The results show that overall mothers are more involved in children's learning activities with new technologies than fathers."

The report acknowledges that, in two-parent families, the differences could be due to mothers not working or working part-time, and fathers working longer hours and therefore spending less time with their children. Even in families where both parents work full-time the mother may still take on the traditional role of the main carer and therefore help the children more.

However, this doesn't fully explain the findings, says Hart. "In many cases in our data, the differences in the number of fathers and mothers getting involved with children's learning are larger than could be explained by children living with their mothers only. Also, if children live with their mothers, that doesn't mean that the father doesn't have any involvement."

The report can be downloaded free from [new window]

Hearing test aids beached-whale rescue decisions

By Dominic Lenton

A compact new device can let marine scientists assess damage to the hearing of a stranded whale or dolphin without moving it to a laboratory. The development promises to reduce the number of rescue operations mounted for animals that are unable to survive if returned to the wild.

Cetaceans, the group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, navigate using a sophisticated hearing system that translates specific frequencies into 'acoustic images'. Sound waves picked up through the jaw are transmitted straight to the inner ear, where they are processed and relayed to the brain.

Each species has a unique acoustic repertoire directly related to its usual habitat. Coastal species detect their prey by tracing the outline and details of short-range features. Pelagic species that live further out at sea make more use of medium and long-range data to identify shoals of fish to feed on.

One big drawback is that it is vulnerable to interference from artificial sound sources, contributing to cetaceans' position among the world's most imperilled creatures. Deaths are associated increasingly with collisions with boats, or mass beaching in the wake of military manoeuvres at sea.

However, measuring the sensitivity of an injured or stranded animal's ear to the specific frequencies that it uses gives a rapid indication of whether it is likely to survive a rescue attempt.

Until now that meant the complex process of moving to a laboratory, but an audiogram measurement system developed by researchers in Spain, the UK, France, the Netherlands and the United States could allow an assessment to be made on the spot. The team was led by Michel André, director of the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona.

Researchers say the device can detect auditory lesions in a few minutes. Capable of generating signals from 10Hz up to 200kHz, it measures how an animal's brain reacts to sounds using simple suction cup electrodes placed on the top of the skull. These detect the auditory-evoked potentials generated when an animal hears a sound, helping the user to assess whether the animal's biosonar system is working properly and to evaluate its survival chances.

In January this year hundreds of people descended on a beach in west Cork, Ireland, when a 20m-long fin whale became trapped on a sandbank. Despite a major rescue effort the whale died.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) runs an all-Ireland stranding and sighting scheme. Group coordinator Dr Simon Berrow says the number of live strandings seems to be increasing, with an all-time high of 28 events in 2007, although this may be due to better recording.

Berrow says that, while the audiogram technique looks interesting, it would be of limited use in the many situations where a stranding is not associated with hearing loss or baurotrauma.

"There are numerous reasons why cetaceans strand alive, and trauma to the animal's auditory system is only one," he told E&T. In the Canaries, where much of the testing of the system has been carried out, a number of mass strandings, often of deep-diving species such as beaked whales, have been associated with naval activities such as the use of mid- and low-frequency sonar.

This would only account for a small proportion of incidents in a country like Ireland, where most live stranded species are dolphins or small whales and more rarely fin, sperm or sei whale.

"The case of the fin whale in Courtmacsherry is a good example," said Berrow. "The whale was thin but not emaciated and there were no obvious external lesions. Internal post-mortem examination also failed to reveal a cause of death. However, options were limited anyway. There was no option of moving the whale or refloating so it could only be left to die or euthanased."

Berrow added that he would still seek a vet's opinion if possible. "Sometimes there is not a clear-cut reason for an event or an obvious solution. Indeed it could be argued that refloating any live stranded cetacean is a wasted effort and done for the benefit of people rather than the animal. We would try to determine species (as some have a better prognosis if refloated), body condition, external lesions and the resources available."

Moscow Metro hails smartcard success

The Moscow underground railway has become the first major public transport system to convert entirely to contactless automatic fare collection using chip-based tickets.

Moscow Metro is one of the most heavily used mass transport schemes in the world, carrying on average nine million passengers each day. It first deployed smartcard technology in 1999 for regular users but continued to issue magnetic stripe tickets for one, two and five trips.

In January 2008 it replaced these with smart paper tickets incorporating NXP's Mifare Ultralight chips, and has now sold more than 300 million of them within a single year.

Since introducing the contactless ticketing system, Moscow Metro has been able to cut the level of fraud by an order of magnitude as well as driving down maintenance costs and operational expenses.

Complexity and deadlines hamper IT performance

By James Hayes

Growing complexity of the corporate applications mix, and pressure on IT teams to roll out new applications before they are fully tested, is hobbling the performance of enterprise IT systems, claims a new study.

Testing tools used to track down faults are also struggling to provide accurate diagnoses, according to the report, which was produced by Forrester Consulting for Compuware. The need to put resources into addressing performance issues when they are uncovered is diverting IT team leaders away from their primary projects.

The study, based on responses from 389 technology decision makers with active involvement in enterprise service level management and application management, focused on a range of operational challenges facing IT in large organisations.

In an environment where highly complex inter-networks support growing numbers of complex front- and back-end applications, often across mixed operating environments, problems are arising that at best drain disproportionate amounts of in-house expertise and at worst are impossible to remedy.

Some 64 per cent of enterprise IT problems are not detected until end users report them to service desks, the study says, and 47 per cent of respondents find that users continue to complain of 'poor' application performance, even when monitoring tools indicate that the system is meeting designated performance thresholds.

"With non-IT executives increasingly being appointed to management roles within IT, the issue of connecting expenditure to return is becoming acute," said Compuware technical manager Hadrian James. "Increasing demands are being made on the IT function to support the business, but these demands are creating greater complexity and scope for error, as more applications rub against each other at different levels. The greater complexity makes it harder to locate bottlenecks, never mind fix them."

James says that IT departments now have to roll out internal applications to go-live dates that are "driven by the business", even when they know they have not been properly tested or trialled. "Only when there is a security issue do IT departments have the clout to press for a delay," he avers.

Met's 'copper lifesaver' named best tech job ad

By Dominic Lenton

An advert for senior IT and engineering jobs with the Metropolitan Police has collected a new IET-backed prize for creativity in recruitment advertising. 'Our copper's a real lifesaver' was picked from dozens of entries
for the competition, run for the
first time this year in association with recruitment industry news service Ri5.

An awards evening at the IET's Savoy Place building in London last month saw recruitment communications agency AIA pick up the title of best technology-related ad for its work on the Met campaign. The event also included the announcement of another agency, Bernard Hodes, as overall winner of the monthly 'RiFiver' contest for recruitment advertising in any sector, which the IET sponsored throughout 2008.

The winning Met ad shows a data cable coiled in the form of a lifesaving ring and invites applications for posts including solutions architects and senior engineering managers. Laura Fox, a senior account manager at AIA who worked on the campaign, said the aim had been to find a unifying image that represented the different roles and how they contribute to the Met's work. "These jobs play an important part in the work of an essential service that's protecting the safety of London," she explained.

The winner was selected by a group of judges from IET Publishing based on five criteria: impact, originality, illustration, typography and copy. The panel included E&T chief designer John Rooney, who said "This is a great example of copywriting and art direction working in harmony to produce an eye-catching and simple advertisement. A really clever concept, executed brilliantly."

During the presentations, Ri5 co-founder Bob Anthony revealed that the IET is to continue sponsoring the awards in 2009. "It's brilliant to have the IET's backing," he said. "It does give terrific support to the recruitment communications business in general."

Micro-motor could unblock arteries

By Chris Edwards

Scientists from Monash University in Australia are using piezoelectricity to build a micro-motor that could be used to drive tiny robots inside the human body. These 'microbots' could unblock arteries and perform surgery in the bloodstream of a patient.

Professor James Friend said the team started work on the micro-motor more than two years ago, picking piezoelectricity as the most suitable way of generating torque because it can be scaled down more easily than mechanical systems. Friend dubbed the motor Proteus after the miniaturised submarine used in Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Voyage.

"Opportunities for micro-motors abound in fields as diverse as biomedicine, electronics, aeronautics and the automotive industry," said Friend. "Responses to this need have been just as diverse, with designs developed using electromagnetic, electrostatic, thermal and osmotic driving forces. Piezoelectric designs however have favourable scaling characteristics and, in general, are simple designs, which have provided an excellent platform for the development of micro-motors."

The researchers claimed their current design, based on a rod measuring 250µm across and around 1mm long, is 70 per cent smaller than the previous record holder, an ultrasonic motor made by researchers from Okayama University that used piezoelectric transducers.

Friend's motor uses a simpler design that translates the bending induced by passing a current through a piezoelectric crystal into rotational force. The team found that, by cutting a spiral groove into a steel rod, the force of crystal atoms underneath it could be translated into rotational force.

Although the experiment, published in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, used a steel ball as a rotor mounted on top of the rod-shaped stator, the aim is to use a flagellum for movement in the bloodstream. The device would move in a similar way to swimming bacteria, which use a rotating whip-like flagellum to propel themselves forward.

Indonesia to tighten air safety rules

By William Dennis in Jakarta

Indonesia is to introduce new operating requirements and standards for air transport, with a focus on enhancing safety. The move comes in response to directives issued by the European Union, which has banned all Indonesian airlines from flying into the 27-nation bloc since April 2007.

The regulations involve stringent maintenance checks on all aircraft and enhanced training for pilots and engineers, including proficiency and health checks. However, the document stops short of saying what action will be taken against airlines that overlook safety and maintenance requirements.

The Ministry of Transport (MOT), which drew up the new regulations, also failed to act on the EU's request to make the local watchdog Air Safety Certification Directorate (ASCD) independent.

The draft will be submitted to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) next month for approval. It will be implemented after ICAO endorses it.

In an interview in Jakarta, the director of MOT's air transport division, Budhi Muliawan Suyinto, said ASCD will remain under the MOT, though it will manage its own budget for hiring technicians and engineers to carry out safety audits on airlines.

Budhi refused to be drawn on why the EU's request was ignored, but E&T understands that the MOT lacks the necessary funds to make ASCD independent.

As an independent body, ASCD would need a bigger budget to pay for training and to offer more attractive remuneration packages for competent inspecting engineers.

ASCD inspectors are known to be unqualified and poorly compensated financially. They have been alleged to look the other way when carrying out safety audits in return for rewards from carriers.

Although Indonesia has signed up to international regulations and policies pertaining to safety and maintenance, lack of enforcement and alleged corruption are issues that stick out like sore thumbs in the local aviation industry.

It is no secret that some Indonesian carriers have compromised on maintenance of their aircraft as a cost-cutting measure, especially low-cost airlines.

DRAM firms in merger talks

By William Dennis

Japan-based Elpida Memory, the world's third-largest producer of dynamic random access memory chips (DRAMs), is in final stages of talks with three Taiwanese semiconductor firms with the hope of consolidating their strengths in the face of declining prices.

Negotiations started in December with the three firms - ProMos Technologies, Powerchip Semiconductor Corp (PSC) and Rexchip, a joint venture between Elpida and PSC - and are due to end in February.

If the talks end on a positive note, the four companies would merge, creating the world's second-largest DRAM producer by volume after Samsung Electronics.

According to a Rexchip official in Taiwan, the four companies are in need of financial assistance. Pooling their strengths would not only create a giant company but also a major DRAM producer. "It would also strengthen their financial position," he noted.

The official said he believed that negotiations would be concluded positively.

In December, Powerchip and Rexchip's proposal for consolidation and state aid was turned down by the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Taipei. Last month (January) ProMos had its proposal rejected.

Rexchip opened its first 300mm fab using 70nm process technology in October 2007. Over 85 per cent of its production is shipped to Elpida and Powerchip. The two companies invested a total of US$1.8bn to set up the joint venture.

Rexchip has plans to invest a further $13.4bn in building four more 300mm fabs over the next four years.

High-speed breakthrough

Elpida has just launched a 1Gbit XDR DRAM based on a x32-bit configuration, aimed at high-bandwidth, high-performance HD-capable applications such as games consoles, digital televisions and Blu-ray disc recorders.

According to the company, the new memory chip's ultra-high speed of 7.2GHz is the fastest available, providing a data transfer rate of 28.8Gigabyte/s with a single device. It offers a one-chip solution that consumes 35-40 per cent less power than two x16-bit configuration 512Mbit XDR DRAMs and requires less space.

The device is manufactured using 65nm process technology. Sample shipments have already started and mass production is scheduled to begin in April 2009.

Elpida is continuing to work on reducing the power consumption of XDR DRAMs, which will open up their potential in portable devices.

Bright future for LEDs

Light-emitting diodes could be made for a tenth of current prices within five years, say Cambridge University researchers. Cheap mass-produced LEDs could become widely available for general lighting, slashing energy bills.

Gallium nitride, which is used to make LEDs, has been grown in labs on expensive two-inch sapphire wafers since the 1990s. Now the Cambridge team, with funding from EPSRC, has developed a way of growing GaN on cheaper six-inch silicon wafers, yielding ten times as many LEDs for similar processing costs.

Based on current results, GaN LED lights in every home and office could cut the proportion of UK electricity used for lights from 20 per cent to 5 per cent.

A GaN LED can burn for 100,000 hours, or around 11 years, turns on instantly and is dimmable.

Professor Colin Humphreys, who led the project, said: "This could well be the holy grail in terms of providing our lighting needs for the future. We are very close to achieving highly efficient, low-cost white LEDs that can take the place of both traditional and currently available low-energy light bulbs."

View from Washington:

'Yes, we can' needs mature response

By Paul Dempsey

Were we two million or merely one-and-a-half? I couldn't say. I can say that my toes went numb, that my proficiency at al fresco nappy-changing was tested, and that I didn't see anyone get angry or frustrated, in spite of the waiting and the cold. All that humanity, and the DC police made not a single arrest. Darn the oxymoron, let's call it 'measured euphoria'. It suits the man so well.

President Barack Obama. You grin even when you type the words. However, our times remain troubling, the prospects are grim and people are worried. The clichés of doomlordery seem justified, and even the historic and emotional force of January's inauguration could not reverse the mood.

Obama knew as much. Devoid of lofty rhetoric, his inaugural address was part call-to-arms, part Queen's Speech. It was a tough-minded shopping list of policies and ideas to be implemented and developed over the next four years - and didn't it have so many of the right things on it?

"We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise healthcare's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the Sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do."

Within seconds, a friend at one of this country's leading research organisations had texted me. "Thank Darwin for that!" Who said engineers can't be pithy?

But Obama faces serious challenges. The relationship between science and the US federal government has been badly damaged. Many senior academics are glad to see the back of George W Bush, but a reservoir of deep mistrust remains. The new President will also have to direct an entrenched and not very tech-savvy bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, Republicans have rightly pointed out that directing federal funds to science, smart power and other initiatives aimed at reviving the economy needs an infrastructure, a skeletal view of how these projects will advance. But time is also an enemy. To work, the stimuli must be applied sooner rather than later.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, lies with the American people. When Obama spoke of "time to put away childish things," it would be tempting to see that allusion to 1 Corinthians 13 as a sop to the country's religious right. It was anything but.

The President could not criticise his predecessor's policies without also observing that the whole country may have made bigger mistakes by repeatedly avoiding difficult decisions. The US has claimed evidence of a new maturity in its election of an African-American president. More interesting, though, the said African-American has called its bluff. The country might have grown up for one day last November, but now it has to stay grown-up.

The multitude at the inauguration got this - but what about the folks at home? If they don't, Obama's agenda doesn't stand a chance. It was never, "Yes, I will", but always, "Yes, we can".

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