Google’s Answer to Siri Thinks Ahead

TOM SIMONITE

Friday, September 28, 2012

Siri, the virtual assistant built into iPhones, launched to great fanfare last October and soon inspired a crowd of copycat apps, heated online arguments about its effectiveness, and an Apple ad campaign in which it played the starring role. It also inspired speculation that Google’s ad revenue was in jeopardy (see “Does Apple’s Siri Threaten Google’s Search Monopoly?“) and that the search and ads company would be forced to invent its own personal assistant.

Almost a year later, Google’s vision of how a smartphone can become a trusted, all-knowing assistant is rolling out to consumers in the form of Google Now. It’s a feature of the newest iteration of Android, Jelly Bean, which is so far available on only a handful of smartphones, and suggests that Google has ambitions to go well beyond what Siri has shown so far.

Google Now doesn’t have a pretend personality like Apple’s sassy assistant, instead just appearing as a familiar search box. But just like Siri, it can take voice commands related to phone functions such as setting reminders or sending messages, and field requests for information such as “How old is the Eiffel Tower?” and “Where can I find a good Chinese restaurant?”

Also like Siri, Google Now responds with speech. However, rather than passing along queries to third-party services such as Yelp for answers, Google’s helper makes use of the company’s recently launched Knowledge Graph, a database that categorizes information in useful ways (see “Google’s New Brain Could Have a Big Impact“).

Google Now also introduces a new trick. It combines the constant stream of data a smartphone collects on its owner with clues about the person’s life that Google can sift from Web searches and e-mails to guess what he or she would ask it for next. This enables Google Now not only to meet a user’s needs but also, in some cases, to preëmpt them. Virtual index cards appear offering information it thinks you need to know at a particular time.

“That’s actually been a goal for us with Android from the beginning,” says Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, when asked why Google has moved to position a souped-up version of search at the heart of Android. The desire to offer useful information without a person even asking “comes from Larry [Page, Google's cofounder],” adds Barra, “if you read the [2012] founders’ letter, he said that one of the company goals is to get out of the way of the user.”

Barra adds that the intimacy of people’s relationships with their smartphones makes Android one of the best places to take that to an extreme—by pulling together everything Google knows about the world, and you. “The best thing about Google Now is that it uses every system that Google has built in the last 10 years. It touches almost every back-end system at Google,” says Barra, and hides that power behind a simple, automatic interface. The result, he says, is an “increase in a person’s tranquility, as opposed to having to install an app or do a search or open the browser to navigate to a webpage.”

Most of us rely heavily on Google’s search capability, whatever smartphone we own. But having the search engine come to you, rather than vice versa, can be uncanny. Thanks to Google Now, as I stroll around San Francisco, live bus times are offered to me whenever I pull my phone from my pocket at a bus stop. And when I get up in the morning, Google Now presents a panel summarizing my optimum transit journey to work along with specific buses and an estimate of the time the trip will take. (If I drove to work, it would show a driving route and traffic conditions.) Google Now will show the status of a flight if an airline confirmation e-mail in my inbox shows I’ll be taking it or if I did a Google Web search for a flight number from my work computer—providing I’ve logged into my Google account. The search history trick is also used to guess which sports results you want to know about. I searched for “Giants playoffs” once. Combined with my location, this means I now automatically see a live score for San Francisco Giants games and the final score once they’re over.

Electronic Implant Dissolves in the Body

The technology could enable therapeutic and diagnostic devices that are absorbed by body after they are no longer needed.

SUSAN YOUNG

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Tufts University, and others have created fully biodegradable electronics that could allow doctors to implant medical sensors or drug delivery devices that dissolve when they’re no longer needed. The transient circuits, described in today’s issue ofScience, can be programmed to disappear after a set amount of time based on the durability of their silk-protein coating.

“You want the device to serve a useful function, but after that function is completed, you want it to simply disappear by dissolution and resorption into the body,” says John Rogers, a physical chemist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior author on the study.

The authors demonstrate this possibility with a resorbable device that can heat the area of a surgical cut to prevent bacterial growth. They implanted the heat-generating circuit into rats. After three weeks, the authors examined the site of the implant and found that the device had nearly completely disappeared, leaving only remnants of the silk coating, which is eliminated more slowly than the silicon and magnesium of the circuit itself.

The work builds upon previous efforts from Tufts University’s Fiorenzo Omenetto (whose work won a 10 Emerging Technologies award in 2010) on using silk as a body-friendly mechanical support for electronics as well as a tunable coating that can be made to last days or months depending on chemical processing. By combining that technology with their own thin and flexible circuitry, Omenetto, Rogers, and the rest of their team were able to develop silicon-based electronics that completely biodegrade. Other groups are also working to develop biodegradable electronics, some with different materials that may not perform as reliably as the silicon device but might dissolve faster.

“The basic idea is to fabricate implants that are not only electronically active but that can degrade over time,” says Chris Bettinger, a materials scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who is also developing such electronics. “Integration, I think, is the achievement here,” he says of the study. “It’s really impressive, with regards to how they were able to integrate all the materials.”

The circuits themselves are made from magnesium electrodes and thin sheets of silicon. They are built on a support substrate of protein purified from silkworm silk. The thin silicon sheets, or nanomembranes, are an important part of the integrated technology, says Bettinger, because they are more flexible and easily broken down and eliminated by the body than other forms of the semiconductor.

The technology could be useful in a variety of biomedical implants, from treating surgical infections, as demonstrated, to drug delivery or disease diagnostics. But the potential extends beyond the body, says Rogers. “Environmental monitors or even consumer electronics might be interesting to build in this fashion, because it would help to eliminate a lot of waste streams with discarded electronics,” he says.

GE’s New Natural-Gas Turbines Could Help Renewables

The technology could make it cheaper to use wind and solar power and to switch to natural gas from coal.

KEVIN BULLIS

Thursday, September 27, 2012

With the abundance of cheap natural gas propelling a shift away from coal for generating electricity, new gas turbine technology that GE announced yesterday could make it even more difficult for coal to compete. The technology could also help utilities integrate more renewable energy sources into their electricity mix.

Conventional natural-gas power plants are generally either flexible or efficient. That is, some can quickly increase and decrease power output to meet spikes or lulls in electricity demand, while others are able to hum along steadily without using much natural gas but take hours to bring up to speed. GE’s gas turbines are meant to be efficient without sacrificing the ability to adjust power output in a hurry. Last year the company announced a version designed for use in Europe as well as China and other countries with power grids that operate at 50 hertz. Yesterday it announced a version for countries that use 60-hertz power, such as the United States, Japan, and nations in the Middle East. GE says it has $1.2 billion worth of orders for its new flexible gas turbines from Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

In the U.S., customers are installing the gas turbines to replace coal power. Japan is shifting to natural gas from nuclear power following the Fukushima power plant disaster last year. In Europe, much of the motivation for adopting GE’s new turbines could come from the promise of integrating renewable energy more efficiently into the grid. GE had previously announced a project that will combine the turbines with solar and wind power at a plant in Turkey.

GE’s turbines are efficient enough to help shave $3.5 million off the cost of operating a natural-gas combined-cycle power plant each year, says Eric Gebhardt, GE Energy’s vice president of thermal engineering. And because they are also far more flexible than conventional gas turbines in the way they can operate, they could help utilities that want to incorporate intermittent power sources like wind and solar tackle the problem of balancing electricity demand with supply (see “Improving demand forecasting for electric power to save fuel and reduce emissions“).

GE has adapted materials it uses in its jet engines to help enable the gas turbines to get up to speed in less than half an hour. It’s also improved its ability to precisely control temperatures within the turbine. Narrow channels cut into the materials deliver cooling gases to exactly where they’re needed to control the expansion rates of parts and ensure good seals. GE has also added ports for injecting fuel into different parts of the combustion chamber. That, along with new computer models describing the physics of combustion, makes it possible to optimize combustion temperatures.

New-home sales steady, but prices jump

By Chris Isidore @CNNMoney September 26, 2012: 11:27 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Sales of new homes were little changed in August, but prices rose sharply in a signal of continued improvement in the housing market, according to a government report issued Wednesday.

New homes sold at an annual rate of 373,000, down 1,000 from the July reading from the Census Bureau, which tracks the sales. The number is 28% above year-earlier levels.

But the median price of a new home jumped 11% from the July reading to $256,900. While month-to-month readings can be volatile, the latest reading lifted the year-over-year improvement in sales price to 17%.

The prices are helped by a number of factors, including a tight supply in new homes available on the market. Census estimates there is now only a 4.5 month supply of new homes on the market, unchanged from July but down from 6.6 months at the same time last year. The tight supply is partially attributed to 2009 through 2011 being the three slowest years of housing construction on record.

“Even though this report did not show a significant headline increase, the persistent low levels of inventories and increasing prices are encouraging signs and in line with our view of a broader housing recovery,” said Cooper Howes, an economist with Barclays Research.

There have been numerous signs of a turnaround in the housing market in recent months, including broad improvement in home prices, newhousing construction and the sale of pre-owned homes. The pace of home foreclosures, which had been hanging over the market driving down prices, is also down from year-earlier levels. And record low mortgage rates are helping to lower the cost of home ownership.

Part of the reason for the jump in median price could be because of a geographic mix. Sales in the Northeast, typically a more expensive market, rose by 20%, while sales in the more affordable South slipped by 5%.

David Crowe, chief economist with the National Association of Home Builders, said he believes the increase is also due to more demand for bigger homes. He points out that there is was an increase in the number of homes sold costing $500,000 or more.

“I think it’s more of who’s buying — the trade-up buyers are a bigger share of the market,” he said. “They’re the ones with jobs and equity and sufficient credit scores.”

New-home sales are an important lift to the overall economy. Beyond the construction jobs needed to build a new home, a new-home sale can create more demand for appliances and other big-ticket purchases than the sale of an existing home. The new-home sales report is also a more forward-looking economic reading, since it tracks when contracts are signed to buy a new home, not when the home sale is closed, which can take place months later. The report on sale of existing homes tracks when the home sales are closed.

While the current pace of sales is far above the 306,000 new homes sold in 2011, it’s still well below the pace of sales during the housing bubble of the last decade, when more than 1 million new homes were sold every year from 2003 through 2006. Even in the five years before that bubble, there were about 900,000 new homes sold on average every year.

RIM’s fate hangs on BlackBerry 10

By Julianne Pepitone @CNNMoneyTech September 27, 2012: 11:04 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Research in Motion will reveal its second-quarter financial results late Thursday, but here’s what most BlackBerry investors really care about: What the heck is going on with BlackBerry 10?

RIM shocked the industry in June when it said that the BlackBerry 10operating system, meant to be the crown jewel of the company’s turnaround, won’t hit the market until the first quarter of 2013. The software had previously been slated for release later this year.

The news was so damning that critics wondered aloud if RIM(RIMM) will even survive long enough to launch BlackBerry 10.

Fast forward three months. RIM spent this week at its BlackBerry Jam Americas developer conference trying to prove those naysayers wrong. The company released a new update to the developer tools for BlackBerry 10 and revealed that the number of BlackBerry subscribers grew 2 million over last quarter to 80 million worldwide. (It also released a cheesy music video that several writers declared the worst corporate video ever made. Fortune‘s Dan Mitchell called it “slightly creepy on a few different levels.”)

RIM CEO Thorsten Heins devoted much of his keynote speech at the conference to BlackBerry 10, saying that the OS is on track for launch in early 2013. He ended his talk with a statement that highlights just how heavily RIM is depending on BlackBerry 10 to be its savior: “We are convinced this platform will shape the next 10 years as profoundly and as positively as BlackBerry shaped the last decade. To do that, we are listening. We are focused. We are excited about our future.”

Until that future arrives, RIM is stuck in a holding pattern. Everyone fromApple (AAPLFortune 500) to Nokia (NOK) to Microsoft (MSFT,Fortune 500) has released shiny new gadgets recently, but RIM is essentially forced to wait for the BlackBerry 10 software before it can unleash any significant new hardware.

Early reviews of BlackBerry 10 have generally been positive — but if RIM’s future rests solely on the success of this OS, it has a lot of ground to make up.

RIM’s main problem is its lost stronghold in the corporate market, where it once dominated. Rather than issuing company BlackBerries, many employers now have workers bring their own devices into work. Those workers usually choose Apple’s (AAPLFortune 500) iPhone and Google’s (GOOGFortune 500) Android devices.

Meanwhile shipments of BlackBerry phones fell a staggering 41% over the year to 7.4 million last quarter, according to an IDC report. That represented less than 5% of the market — the lowest level since 2009, IDC said. On the financial front, RIM still has over $2 billion in cash on hand. But it lost $518 million last quarter, when sales slumped 43% from a year ago.

The near-constant barrage of bad news from RIM over the past year hastarnished the company’s image. In the tech field, it takes a certain amount of cachet to convince consumer and companies to choose your gadget over all the rest.

Investors are also worried. RIM shares have lost 54% of their value in 2012 alone.

Still, with its large purse and growing subscriber base, RIM isn’t dead yet. BCG Partners’ Colin Gillis included a cautiously optimistic “investment haiku” in a note to clients late Wednesday: “There is still a chance / RIM finds a market foothold / although it looks bleak.”

How good that chance is now rests on BlackBerry 10.

Shares rise but euro slips ahead of Spain budget

NEW YORK | Thu Sep 27, 2012 11:45am EDT

(Reuters) – Stock markets reclaimed some ground though the euro fell on Thursday on speculationSpain could move toward a debt rescue and the European Central Bank would launch a new bond-buying plan.

Talk that the China Securities Regulatory Commission would announce steps to support beleaguered domestic markets was also positive for relatively risky investments.

A report showing U.S. durable goods orders falling by a larger than expected amount in August and another estimating second-quarter gross domestic product below expectations curtailed gains, though a fall in initial jobless claims in the latest week was taken as encouraging.

But euro zone worries have roared back into focus over the last week as the feel-good factor of recent central bank stimulus has given way to renewed uncertainty over Spain’s willingness to submit to a politically painful rescue program.

The Spanish government will hold a news conference on the 2013 budget and on economic reforms at 1500 GMT on Thursday, the prime minister’s office said.

The MSCI world equity index .MIWD00000PUS was up 0.5 percent to 332.28.

“I think … a few opportunistic buyers have been creeping in, on the hope that Spain might just push the bailout button,” said Angus Campbell, head of market analysis at Capital Spreads in London. “If that happens, I can only imagine you’ll see risk assets rise.”

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI was up 26.04 points, or 0.19 percent, at 13,439.55. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index .SPX was up 5.81 points, or 0.41 percent, at 1,439.13. The Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC was up 17.99 points, or 0.58 percent, at 3,111.69.

Separately, the Labor Department said the U.S. economy likely created 386,000 more jobs in the 12 months through March than previously estimated, in a preliminary estimate of its annual “benchmark” revision to closely watched payrolls data.

Contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes slipped in August due to a shortage of lower priced inventory in most of the country, an industry report revealed on Thursday. European shares trimmed gains after the U.S. home sales figures though the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index .FTEU3 was up 0.3 percent at 1,102.54 points.

In China, stocks rebounded from multiyear lows on speculation a China Securities Regulatory Commission announcement could include changes to the initial public offering market. Traders said China’s central bank fed $57.9 billion into money markets this week, the largest weekly injection in history.

Chinese equities helped push Asian stocks .MIAPJ0000PUS 1 percent.

But all eyes remained on Spain.

“The Spanish budget and whether that is linked to a request for aid is what everybody will be looking at today,” said Aline Schuiling at ABN Amro.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy “appears to be trying to resist making the request but, as we have seen, the yields are back above 6 percent and I think the markets certainly have the power to force his hand.”

The budget figures and new spending cuts will begin a busy two days in Madrid.

New stress tests on Friday will also spell out how much more money will be needed to strengthen its shaky banking sector. Spain also faces the prospect of possible sovereign downgrade by ratings firm Moody’s.

BOND LULL

Protests in Spain and Greece against austerity measures had roiled markets on Wednesday, sending 10-year Spanish bond yields back above the 6 percent threshold.

Spanish yields were slightly lower at 5.994 percent while the German 10-year Bund was flat at 1.455 percent.

The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note was down 8/32, with the yield at 1.637 percent.

Conscious that seeking help from EU partners would carry conditions for budget savings that would be unpopular at home, Rajoy has said he is not sure if a bailout is needed and has made clear he is in no hurry to ask for one.

The euro, which has lost more than 1.6 percent over the last two weeks, was last down 0.2 percent at $1.2848.

The dollar was a touch lower at 77.68 yen, inching back towards a seven-month low hit on September 13, the day the Federal Reserve announced a new round of monetary stimulus.

Oil prices were little changed as renewed worries over supply disruptions from the Middle East due to anti-Israeli and anti-Western comments from Iran, helped keep Brent futures above $110.

(Reporting By Nick Olivari; Additional reporting by Julie Haviv, Ellen Freilich, Ryan Vlastelica and Chuck Mikolajczak in New York, and Marc Jones in London; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

August new home sales dip, but prices scale 5-year high

WASHINGTON | Wed Sep 26, 2012 10:04am EDT

(Reuters) – New U.S. single-family home sales eased in August but held near two-year highs and prices vaulted to their highest level in more than five years, adding to signs of a broadening housing market recovery.

The Commerce Department said on Wednesday sales slipped 0.3 percent to a seasonally adjusted 373,000-unit annual rate. July’s sales pace was revised up to a 374,000-unit pace, the highest level since April 2010, from the previously reported 372,000 units.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast sales at a 380,000-unit rate last month. Compared to August last year, new home sales were up 27.7 percent.

Despite the month-on-month dip in sales, the report was consistent with other data that have suggested a turn-around in the housing market after collapsing in 2006 and igniting the 2007-09 recession.

Home resales surged last month and homebuilder sentiment jumped to a six-year high in September. However, the housing market recovery lacks sufficient strength to take the baton from manufacturing as the main driver of the economic recovery.

The Federal Reserve moved this month to bolster the economy, announcing it would buy $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities per month until the outlook for employment improved significantly.

Last month, the median price of a new home increased a record 11.2 percent to $256,000 — the highest level since March 2007. Compared to August last year, the median sales price jumped 17 percent, the largest rise since December 2004.

The inventory of new homes on the market held near record lows last month. At August’s sales pace it would take 4.5 months to clear the houses on the market, unchanged from July.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

World stocks expected to edge higher by year-end: Reuters poll

By Andy Bruce
LONDON | Wed Sep 26, 2012 1:29pm EDT
(Reuters) – Central bank cash filtering through financial markets will nudge global stocks higher between now and year-end, Reuters polls showed on Wednesday, with gains in the first half of next year likely to be more modest.

Since last year’s disastrous showing, most of the world’s major stock indexes have gained steadily this year and over 400 analysts surveyed around the globe over the last week largely expect that trend to continue into the new year.

All but one major index – crisis-hit Spain’s – was expected to be higher at the end of December than it is now.

Analysts tipped major indexes in Russia, Brazil, and mainland China for the biggest rise between now and mid-2013.

Still, the overall tone of the survey was cautious in comparison with previous polls, even among notoriously over-optimistic equity strategists.

They predicted double-digit gains between now and midway through next year for six out of the 20 stock markets covered in the latest poll, compared with expectations for 14 this time a year ago.

Feeble economies were cited as the biggest reason why most markets can expect fairly muted gains in the months ahead, acting against the hundreds of billions of dollars in central bank cash that have bloated stock markets.

“I’ve never been faced with a time in my career where the next six months were so critical and that includes the crisis of 2007-08,” said Peter Gibson, chief portfolio strategist at CIBC World Markets.

Although the risk of a euro zone disaster seems to have eased for now, analysts are worried U.S. politicians will fail to avert some $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and expiring tax breaks early next year – dubbed the “fiscal cliff”.

The outlook for major European economies remains dire, as most have floundered badly this year, and there seems little prospect of a sudden upturn soon.

Europe’s economic misfortunes hit Asian exporters hard this year, dampening the outlook for emerging market stocks.

Still, as usual in the stock markets poll, emerging market stocks were tipped for the heartiest gains from now.

RALLY IN RECESSION

European shares have rallied since the European Central Bank revealed plans to buy the government debt of struggling euro zone countries – welcomed by economists as an important step to prevent the region’s debt crisis escalating.

German shares, rather than fast-growing emerging market stocks, have soared the most this year, with the DAX 30 .GDAXI up more than 25 percent since the start of the year.

But that rally is likely coming to an end, with Germany’s economic peers in Europe struggling badly.

Analysts expect the DAX will manage little better than a 2 percent gain from now until mid-2013 – the weakest rise projected for any of the poll’s 20 indexes.

U.S. stocks also look set for some low-key few months ahead, having achieved double-digit gains so far this year. The S&P 500 .SPX is expected to rise less than 3 percent between now and the end of the year.

There was a palpable sense of uncertainty in forecasts for American stocks, partly reflecting the presidential election coming in November. The fiscal cliff was foremost among worries for U.S. stock watchers.

“I’ve become a little more bearish about an adverse outcome from the fiscal cliff, which I think Wall Street has gotten complacent about,” said David Joy, chief market strategist at Ameriprise Financial, which has about $570 billion in assets.

“I’m going to predict it gets triggered,” said Joy, who sees the S&P 500 falling to 1,350 by mid-13, largely because of these events. The S&P closed at 1441.59 on Tuesday, its worst day since June.

In common with previous polls, analysts earmarked Brazilian and Russian shares among the strongest performers from now.

Moscow’s RTS .IRTS could rise 15.8 percent from now until mid-2013, while respondents tipped Brazil’s Bovespa .BVSP for a 15.7 percent gain over the same timeframe.

And, as with almost all the other indexes, analysts cited the wall of cash central banks have been throwing at markets as critical for their positive outlook.

“Even though (Brazil’s) economy is accelerating and confidence is rising, the motor is really external,” said Katherine Rooney Vera, a strategist with Bulltick Capital Markets in Miami.

“It’s the Fed flooding the market with liquidity, absolutely pushing investors to look for yields.”

For a graphic of the poll click on link.reuters.com/zup82t

(Additional reporting from reporters in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Frankfurt, Milan, Sao Paulo, Toronto, Seoul, Moscow and Mumbai; Polling by Reuters Polls Bangalore; Analysis by Yati Himatsingka and Rahul Karunakar; Editing by Ross Finley/Jeremy Gaunt)

New Material Could Make Thermoelectric Power Practical

Kevin Bullis

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A practical, cheap device able to convert heat directly into electricity could transform the energy use of everything from cars to power plants. Moving a step closer to making such a device practical, researchers have made a material that produces about 20 percent more electricity from heat than previous thermoelectric materials. What’s more, it doesn’t require any difficult or expensive fabrication techniques, and it’s made of lead telluride, which isn’t prohibitively expensive.

We currently waste huge amounts of heat. It’s spewed into the atmosphere from vehicle exhaust pipes and power plant smokestacks. Thermoelectric materials can be used to generate electrical current from that heat, but so far they’ve been too expensive and inefficient to be widely used.

Thermoelectrics have found some niche commercial applications. In addition to generating electricity, they can do the reverse—using electric current to move heat around for portable coolers and seat heaters in cars. They’ve also been used as generators on space missions (see “Nuclear Generator Powers Curiosity Mars Mission“).

Unlike previous thermoelectric materials, the new one, described in the journal Nature,  could be efficient enough to make thermoelectric generators practical. The material works best at high temperatures, about 650 °C, which is close to the temperature of exhaust gases for a car cruising down the highway at 65 miles per hour. At that temperature, it could convert about 20 percent of the energy in that exhaust into electricity. That could be used, for example, to charge a battery in a hybrid vehicle or reduce the load on a car’s alternator and improve fuel economy (see “Powering Your Car with Waste Heat“).

A thermoelectric material blocks heat from flowing through it while allowing electrons to flow, creating an electric current. The new material excels at blocking heat flow by using microscopic interruptions, or boundaries, within the material. At the smallest size, the researchers added impurities into the material that interrupt its regular crystalline structure at the scale of individual atoms. For disruptions at a slightly larger scale, they mixed in nanoscale pieces of a similar material, each two to 10 nanometers wide. Finally, by controlling how the material crystallizes as it cools, they created microscopic grains that are a few hundred nanometers across. Researchers had previously done each of these things by themselves. “We’re the first to put it all together,” says Mercouri Kanatzidis, the professor of chemistry at Northwestern University who led the work.

One key to making this work was ensuring that the interruptions in the material didn’t also block the flow of electrons. The researchers did this by adding impurities to the material that increase the number of electrons in the material and by choosing nanostructures that automatically orient themselves within the larger material in a way that creates a clear path for the electrons to flow.

John Fairbanks, a technology development manager at the U.S. Department of Energy, says the new material is “a great advance,” but warns that there could be challenges to commercializing it. A thermoelectric device needs both positive and negative versions of the material (p- and n-type). The new one is only a positive type, so it needs a partner, he says. Also, regulators in the United States and the European Union will balk at including a lead-based material in a vehicle, even though it would be far less lead than what’s found in a typical vehicle battery, he says. The material could also be used in industrial settings or power plants to capture wasted heat.

Shares gain on stimulus hopes; Spain caps rise

(Reuters) – Stocks edged higher around the world on Tuesday, with U.S. markets in particular buoyed by end-of-quarter buying by funds and a higher-than-expected reading of confidence among American consumers.

However, lingering concerns over Spain’s funding problems and renewed worries about global growth limited gains.

U.S. stocks rose at the open after comments late on Monday from the president of the San Francisco Fed suggested the central bank was not done taking action to stimulate the economy.

But a pessimistic outlook from Caterpillar (CAT.N) capped gains and some investors cautioned the advance may be due to window-dressing for the end of the quarter. .N

U.S. stocks were supported by a private sector report showing U.S. consumer confidence jumped to its highest level in seven months in September as Americans were more optimistic about the job market and income prospects.

The MSCI world equity index .MIWD00000PUS rose 0.4 percent to 337.48. European shares .FTEU3 also gained 0.4 percent.

“A lot of people are buying equities today because they’ve been underexposed to the market. It isn’t necessarily a call on fundamentals,” said Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at the ConvergEx Group in New York.

“Money managers who haven’t believed in the rally don’t want to compound that error by showing a lack of exposure at the end of the quarter.”

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI was up 26.41 points, or 0.19 percent, at 13,585.33. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index .SPX was up 2.58 points, or 0.18 percent, at 1,459.47. The Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC was up 7.12 points, or 0.23 percent, at 3,167.90.

Caterpillar shares (CAT.N) fell 2.1 percent in New York trade. Just minutes before markets closed on Monday, Caterpillar Inc cut its 2015 profit outlook, warning that weaker commodity prices would result in a bigger-than-expected decline in demand. <ID: nL1E8KOGZR>.

EURO HIGHER

U.S. data showed single-family home prices rose for a sixth month in a row in July, though the improvement was not as strong as expected and had minimal impact on trading.

The euro rose 0.3 percent at $1.2965, still about two cents from the 4-1/2-month peak posted last week after the U.S. Federal Reserve announced further quantitative easing earlier this month.

The euro extended gains against the greenback after the U.S. consumer confidence data. The overall support for the single currency rally in recent weeks was the European Central Bank’s offer to provide bailout funds to indebted governments – if they seek its help and are willing to accept tough conditions.

But investors were not making huge bets.

“Fears about Europe’s situation remain among investors, with the focus mostly on Spain, butGreece is also still a concern,” said Kimihiko Tomita, head of foreign exchange for State Street Global Markets in Tokyo.

At the center of market concerns is what happens next in Spain, where the government is due this week to present its draft budget for 2013, outline new structural reforms for the economy and release the results of stress tests on the banking sector.

There are also concerns about Greece, which is due to hear soon from the “troika” of international lenders – the IMF, ECB and European Commission – on the prospects of further loans to financegovernment outlays.

U.S. Treasury debt prices were lower. The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note was down 3/32, the yield at 1.7233 percent.

After the recent central bank actions, many investors have become convinced that markets can rally further. But they believe any gains are highly dependent on signs the slowdown in the global economy has bottomed.

“The majority of central banks are in total, outspoken reflationary mode. That’s a big story,” said Didier Duret, chief investment officer at ABN Amro Private Banking in London.

“They are intervening actively for a very clear reasons: to support the economy in the U.S., to support the funding in Europe and to support also the economies in emerging markets.”

Duret said the main trigger for the next move up will likely be signs of a strengthening U.S. recovery.

Oil drew some support from the rise in tensions in the Middle East.

Washington on Monday cleared the path for tighter sanctions against Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, while Tehran renewed its rhetoric against Israel, intensifying worries about a conflict between the two that could have an impact on crude supplies from the region.

These worries sent Brent crude futures up 1.1 percent to $111.00 per barrel. U.S. crude was up $0.94 to $92.86 a barrel.

(Reporting by Nick Olivari; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak, Ryan Vlastelica, Richard Leong and Julie Haviv in New York and Richard Hubbard in London; Editing by Dan Grebler)