Battery Material Prevents Fires, Stores Five Times the Energy

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a solid electrolyte to replace flammable ones used in lithium-ion batteries

By Kevin Bullis on January 25, 2013

An electrolyte developed by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory could enable lithium-ion batteries that store five to 10 times more energy and are safer than the ones that recently caught fire on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.

While the cause of the Boeing fire hasn’t yet been determined, Boeing could have reduced the risk of fire by choosing a safer electrode chemistry (see “Grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners Use Batteries Prone to Overheating”). But it would have had fewer options for the electrolyte—the material that allows current to flow through a battery. Lithium-ion batteries, even the ones that use relatively safe electrodes, still use flammable liquid electrolytes.

Solid electrolytes would be much safer, but it’s been difficult to make them conductive enough for use in batteries. The ORNL researchers, in work published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Chemistry Society, have an easy method for making a nanostructured form of one solid electrolyte. The nanostructure improves the material’s conductivity 1,000 times, enough to make it useful in lithium-ion batteries. The researchers also showed that the new material is compatible with high-energy electrodes.

The solid electrolyte isn’t as conductive as liquid electrolytes, but the researchers say they can compensate for this by making the electrolyte very thin, among other measures. Even then, the batteries might not charge as quickly or provide the same boost of power possible with liquid electrolytes, but this would be okay in many applications, such as in electric cars, where the sheer number of battery cells makes it easy to deliver adequate bursts of power.

The solid electrolyte not only makes batteries safer, it could also enable the use of higher energy electrode materials. As a result, while the rate at which these batteries deliver power may be less than today’s lithium-ion batteries, the total amount of energy they can store would be far higher. A much smaller battery could then be used—saving space and weight on airplanes and greatly reducing the cost of electric vehicles.

The solid electrolyte might be particularly suited to lithium-sulfur batteries, which can store a lot of energy, but have safety issues and can’t be recharged enough times to last the life of a car (see “Nanostructures Boost Battery Life Fivefold”). The lithium-metal electrodes can cause battery shorts and fires. The solid electrolyte helps stabilize the lithium metal and serves as a barrier to prevent shorts. The sulfur electrodes in these batteries also degrade when used with liquid electrolytes—some of the sulfur can be dissolved in the liquid and lost. The solid electrolyte prevents that.

The work is still at an early stage. So far, the researchers have only made small, half-inch test cells, And the results demonstrating the compatibility with lithium-sulfur batteries are still unpublished.

Canada sets start-up visa to attract entrepreneur immigrants

By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA | Thu Jan 24, 2013 10:50am EST

(Reuters) – Foreign innovators who want to set up new companies in Canada will be able to immigrate under a new start-up visa program that Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said on Thursday was the first of its kind in the world.

The new program, to be launched on April 1, is part of a government push to better align the immigration system with Canada’s economic goals. Last year, the government revamped the skilled worker program to try to make it meet employers’ needs more nimbly.

“Our new start-up visa will help make Canada the destination of choice for the world’s best and brightest to launch their companies,” Kenney said in a statement.

“Recruiting dynamic entrepreneurs from around the world will help Canada remain competitive in the global economy.”

Under this program, would-be immigrants would require the support of a Canadian venture capital fund or angel investor group, which would invest in new companies started by the immigrants.

Once candidates for the program are identified by these groups, the government would try to clear them for entry into Canada within weeks.

The goal is to unite Canadian money and foreign brains. An initial source of candidates could be frustrated foreigners in the high-tech sector in the United States who have not been able to land resident status there.

The Canadian start-up visa would grant permanent resident status, which can then lead to citizenship.

For now, Ottawa will work with two umbrella groups that will identify which members of their associations will be eligible to participate in the program. They are Canada’s Venture Capital & Private Equity Association (CVCA) and the National Angel Capital Organization.

“Through this program, we want to attract high-quality entrepreneurs from around the globe and help build best-in-class companies in Canada,” said Peter van der Velden, president of CVCA and managing general partner of Lumira Capital, which helps build health and life-science companies.

Kenney has put a moratorium on issuing on Canada’s existing entrepreneur visa, which only required an immigrant to hire one person for one year.

(Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway)

Factory activity gains speed, jobless claims drop

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON | Thu Jan 24, 2013 1:55pm EST

(Reuters) – Factory activity grew the most in nearly two years in January and the number of new claims for jobless benefits dropped to a five-year low last week, giving surprisingly strong signals on the economy’s pulse.

Financial information firm Markit on Thursday said its preliminary Purchasing Managers Index for manufacturing rose to 56.1 this month, its best showing since March 2011. A reading above 50 indicates expansion.

A separate report from the Labor Department showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell by 5,000 to 330,000, the lowest since January 2008 when the 2007-2009 recession had just begun.

Together, the data suggest the economy entered the new year with some underlying momentum despite an ongoing political battle in Washington over fiscal policy.

“The economy is structurally doing a little bit better,” said Michael Strauss, an economist at Commonfund in Wilton, Connecticut.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected Markit’s “flash” factory gauge to slip and looked for claims to rise to 355,000.

The unexpectedly strong U.S. data helped U.S. stocks to rise, reversing early declines caused by disappointing revenues reported by Apple Inc. Better-than-expected economic news from the euro zone and China also supported stocks.

Economists have cautioned about reading too deeply into this month’s figures on jobless claims, which tend to be volatile around this time of the year because of large swings in the model the government uses to iron out seasonal fluctuations.

Still, claims have fallen for two straight weeks, suggesting employers do not yet see tax hikes enacted this month as a big threat to consumer demand.

A four-week moving average for new claims, meant to provide a better sense of underlying trends, fell 8,250 to 351,750, the lowest since March 2008.

The data helped the dollar extend gains versus the yen, while U.S. Treasury debt prices fell.


Claims are now at roughly the same level they were in much of 2006 and 2007. They started trending higher around December 2007, the month the recession began.

However, while employers have pulled back on layoffs, they have only added jobs at a lackluster pace.

Analysts polled by Reuters expect the government’s employment report due on February 1 will show 165,000 jobs were added to payrolls this month, up from 155,000 new positions in December. The unemployment rate is expected to hold steady at 7.8 percent.

Like the claims data, Markit’s factory report also offered support for the idea that the labor market recovery was gaining traction with new jobs in the sector being created at the fastest pace in nine months.

A Markit subindex showed factory output grew at its fastest pace since March 2012, while new orders also rose. The new orders gauge hit 57.7, its highest level since May 2010.

Improved economic conditions in China and some parts of Europe helped boost orders from abroad, but firms largely tied the growth surge to higher demand from U.S. customers.

“It is the domestic market that is clearly providing the main impetus to the upturn,” said Markit chief economist Chris Williamson.

Aggressive monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve and a last-minute deal by Congress to reduce the size of the tax hike gave a boost to business confidence, Williamson said.

A third gauge of economic health released on Thursday also beat analysts’ forecasts. The private Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index gained 0.5 percent to 93.9 last month, pointing to an improvement in growth.

(Additional reporting by Steven C. Johnson and Richard Leong in New York; Writing by Jason Lange and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Gauge of business spending plans edges higher

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON | Mon Jan 28, 2013 1:34pm EST

(Reuters) – A gauge of business investment plans improved in December, a sign companies were betting the economy will pick up despite fears over tighter fiscal policy.

The Commerce Department said on Monday that non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for investment plans, edged up 0.2 percent last month.

Many economists expected businesses to invest more timidly late last year because of uncertainty over government spending cuts and tax increases, which had been scheduled to kick in this month. Congress ultimately struck a last-minute deal to avoid or postpone most of the austerity measures.

Despite the uncertainty, Monday’s data pointed to growing economic momentum as companies sensed improved consumer demand.

“It certainly seems to us that companies are slowly but surely expanding,” said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer at Solaris Group in Bedford Hills, New York.

In a further sign of business confidence, the November reading on capital spending plans was revised higher to show a 3 percent gain, up from the 2.6 percent rise reported a month ago.

A second report showed a measure of upcoming home resales took a breather in December, declining 4.3 percent. Still, the housing sector posted a rebound last year and economists expect it will add to growth again in 2013.

The business spending data pushed down prices for U.S. government debt, while giving the dollar a lift against the yen. But stock prices opened lower.

New orders for overall durable goods – long lasting factory goods from toasters to automobiles – jumped 4.6 percent in December, beating economists expectations of a 1.8 percent gain.

The gains were broad based, with orders for machinery, cars and primary metals all increasing.

“There’s a lot more confidence,” said Wayne Kaufman, an analyst at John Thomas Financial in New York.

Orders surged for civilian aircraft and military goods, although those two categories tend to be quite volatile.

Despite the stronger-than-expected demand at the nation’s factories, economists think economic growth cooled in the fourth quarter as companies slowed the pace at which they re-stocked their shelves.

Analysts polled by Reuters expect a report on gross domestic product due on Wednesday will show the economy expanded at a mere 1.1 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, down from a 3.1 percent rate in the previous three months.

However, Monday’s report on new orders for long-lasting factory goods suggested businesses are feeling stronger demand from consumers, and are responding by buying more machines to meet that demand. TD Securities economist Millan Mulraine said capital investment likely added to economic growth in the fourth quarter.

(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington, and by Leah Schnurr and Ryan Vlastelica in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman)

Stocks: Tech earnings to dominate

By Emily Jane Fox @CNNMoneyInvest January 20, 2013: 10:53 AM ET


Investors are heading into the shortened trading week with a deluge of technology focused quarterly financial reports on tap.

U.S. markets will be closed Monday in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Earnings season will pick right back up again on Tuesday, as several tech giants, including Google (GOOGFortune 500), IBM (IBMFortune 500)and Verizon (VZFortune 500), release their quarterly reports.

The barrage of tech earnings will continue throughout the week, with AT&T (TFortune 500), Microsoft (MSFTFortune 500), Netflix (NFLX) and Nokia (NOK) following.

The most hotly anticipated report will come from Apple (AAPLFortune 500) on Wednesday.

The iPhone and iPad maker already warned that its profit margins would come down significantly during the final three months of the year thanks to higher production costs tied to all of its new products, including the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini. Less-expensive products, like the iPhone 4S and iPad mini, also make up a growing portion of Apple’s sales mix.

While expectations are all over the map, some analysts anticipate a year-over-year decline. That would mark Apple’s first drop in profits in nine years.

Overall, S&P 500 companies are expected to report earnings growth of 3.8% for the last three months of 2012, according to S&P’s Capital IQ.

In economic news, several pieces of data on the housing market are due throughout the week, including existing and new home sales and the MBA mortgage index.

The housing market has continued to pick up steam throughout the recovery, as record-low mortgage rates spur demand for homes. A recovering job market and a tapering off of foreclosures have also given the market a boost.

Last week, all three major indexes logged a third straight week of gains, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 climbing to their highest levels since December 2007. The Dow gained 1.2%, the S&P 500 rose 1% and the Nasdaq added 0.3%.

Agencies approve new mortgage appraisal requirements

WASHINGTON | Fri Jan 18, 2013 11:16am EST

(Reuters) – U.S. mortgage lenders making higher-priced loans to consumers must have properties appraised and provide borrowers a free copy of the report, under new rules released by six financial regulatory agencies on Friday.

The rule is part of an overhaul of mortgage market regulations, as U.S. officials try to prevent the types of industry abuses that contributed to millions of home foreclosures and helped spark the 2007-2009 U.S. financial crisis.

Lenders making loans with interest rates above a certain threshold, which do not meet the “qualified mortgage” definition set by regulators last week, will be required to have a certified appraiser visit the interior of the property, the regulators said.

In an effort to crack down on property flipping, regulators said creditors also must obtain a second appraisal if the difference between what the seller paid for the property and what the consumer will pay exceeds certain levels.

Six agencies approved the appraisal rules, which were called for by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial oversight law and which will take effect in January 2014.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Reserve, Federal Housing Finance Agency, National Credit Union Administration and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency all signed off on the rules.

(Reporting By Emily Stephenson; Editing by Neil Stempleman)

Balloon-like dwelling to be tested on Int’l Space Station

By Irene Klotz

LAS VEGAS | Wed Jan 16, 2013 7:06pm EST

(Reuters) – A low-cost space dwelling that inflates like a balloon in orbit will be tested aboard the International Space Station, opening the door for commercial leases of future free-flying outposts and deep-space astronaut habitats for NASA.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, nicknamed BEAM, will be the third orbital prototype developed and flown by privately owned Bigelow Aerospace.

The Las Vegas-based company, founded in 1999 by Budget Suites of America hotel chain owner Robert Bigelow, currently operates two small unmanned experimental habitats called Genesis 1, launched in 2006, and Genesis 2, which followed a year later.

BEAM, about 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter when inflated, is scheduled for launch in mid-2015 aboard a Space Exploration Technologies’ Dragon cargo ship, said Mike Gold, director of operations for Bigelow Aerospace.

“It will be the first expandable habitat module ever constructed for human occupancy,” Gold said.

A successful test flight on the space station would be a stepping stone for planned Bigelow-staffed orbiting outposts that the company plans to lease to research organizations, businesses and wealthy individuals wishing to vacation in orbit.

Bigelow has invested about $250 million in inflatable habitation modules so far. It has preliminary agreements with seven non-U.S. space and research agencies in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.

“The value to me personally and to our company is doing a project with NASA,” Robert Bigelow said. “This is our first opportunity to do that. We do have other ambitions.”

NASA, which will pay Bigelow Aerospace $17.8 million for the BEAM habitat, also is interested in the technology to house crew during future expeditions beyond the space station, a $100 billion research complex that flies about 250 miles above Earth.

“Whether you’re going to the surface of the moon or even Mars, the benefits of expandable habitats are critical for any exploration mission,” Gold said.

The lightweight, soft-skinned inflatable, made of materials similar to Kevlar, has several advantages over traditional metallic space dwellings. BEAM, for example, weighs about 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg), less than a third of traditional, similarly sized space modules, so it can be launched for a fraction of the cost.


It also offers a potentially safer radiation environment than metal structures, which can produce body-piercing secondary heavy particles during solar storms and other cosmic radiation events.

The U.S. space agency studied inflatable space habitats for humans in the 1990s under a NASA program called TransHab. The tests included blasting a model structure with bullet-like projectiles to see how well it would withstand micro meteoroid and orbital debris hits. The material proved space-worthy, though budget and political issues prompted the project’s cancellation in 2000.

Bigelow later licensed the technology from NASA and spent millions of dollars more to develop it.

“It’s one of our classical roles to advance technology so the private sector can utilize it. In this case, we’re going to be able to benefit from it again,” said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.

BEAM will be attached to the station’s Tranquility connecting node and inflated with pressurized air to form a rigid, cylinder-shaped, balloon-like dwelling.

Garver said there are no firm plans for what the station’s six live-aboard crew members will do with their spare room.

Initially, NASA and Bigelow are interested in getting information about how the structure withstands radiation and maintains a stable temperature in orbit, and also whether the fabric mildews or becomes a place where contaminants in the station’s air collects.

Beyond the test flight, Bigelow’s commercial business is dependent on the development of space taxis to fly company personnel and guests into orbit. NASA likewise is looking to the private sector to fly its astronauts to and from the space station, a service now solely provided by Russia at a cost of more than $60 million per person.

NASA is investing in three companies – Boeing Co, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corp – in hopes of having at least one space transportation system ready to fly before the end of 2017. The space station, a project of 15 nations, currently is funded through 2020.

Bigelow has agreements with Boeing and SpaceX for launch services, if and when they become available. SpaceX plans a test launch with company astronauts before the end of 2015, and Boeing’s first piloted flight is pegged for 2016.

(Editing by Tom Brown, Dan Grebler, Kevin Gray and David Gregorio)

The Underdog Operating Systems Set to Shake Up the Smartphone Scene

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android rule the fast-growing smartphone market, but upcoming operating systems want to muscle in on their turf.

By Rachel Metz on January 15, 2013

The next time you go shopping for a smartphone, you might see some unfamiliar software on the screens lining store shelves.

The smartphone market is dominated by Apple’s iPhone and devices running Google’s Android software, with Microsoft and RIM hoping to carve out the remaining market share for their new Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10. But several completely new operating systems will soon be available.

Manufacturers, carriers, and other parties have realized how important the mobile operating system is in providing control over the modern computing experience. Apple and Google are able to sell apps and digital content through the stores tied to their mobile operating systems, causing users to become “locked in” to their ecosystem of hardware and software.

Now, competitors—and some free-software proponents—hope to capture some of the same success, or at least stop the two juggernauts from gaining too much power. They recognize that an environment dominated by just two players could stifle innovation and give the leaders too much power over carriers, handset makers, and users themselves.

Today, according to IHS iSuppli, close to 46 percent of cell-phone users worldwide have smartphones, and 87 percent of those phones run either Google or Apple software. Both handset makers and carriers want more options, says David Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School.

Yoffie notes that Android was originally seen as an unbiased player with no hardware or sales revenues from handsets—a software “Switzerland”—but Google’s purchase of Motorola’s handset business makes the software more threatening to other hardware makers, and he believes this is leading a number of them to consider alternatives. New entrants include Tizen, a platform that’s supported primarily by Samsung and Intel; Firefox OS, created by the Mozilla Foundation, which makes the Firefox Web browser; and a version of the free, open-source Ubuntu Linux operating system designed for smartphones. There are also several efforts under way to revive Hewlett-Packard’s critically acclaimed webOS (see “Can HP’s webOS Rise from the Ashes?”).

While Android can be modified, its development is still controlled by Google. So an alternative could make it easier for a carrier, or a technology giant like Samsung, to show off its own services and content—potentially helping it gain a more substantive relationship with smartphone buyers.

Even with interest from smartphone makers and wireless carriers, any would-be mobile operating system faces the challenge of establishing a healthy application ecosystem. Tizen, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu are all counting heavily on Web-based HTML5 apps (see “New Mobile OSs May Mean the End of the Closed App Store”), which they hope will make it easier for developers to make apps that can work on multiple platforms. This could encourage more coders to support nascent operating systems.

Tizen, which grew out of Nokia’s MeeGo platform and (like Android) is based on the open-source Linux operating system, may have the best chance of success. Along with Samsung and Intel, its supporters include the wireless carriers Sprint, Vodafone, and NTT Docomo; electronics maker Panasonic; and the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The software is still under development, but a video of a Tizen developer conference held last year shows novel features such as 3-D-type effects (photo browsing takes on the look of a spiraling cascade of images, for example).

The Mozilla Foundation and Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu operating system, are both likely to be hoping that their alternatives will provide a more open mobile environment where no companies dominate. Firefox mobile apps are essentially Web pages, and the Firefox team came up with ways for Firefox OS to access all the hardware on a smartphone running the software. Even the phone’s dialer acts as an app, says Chris Lee, Mozilla’s product lead for the OS.

Lee says Firefox OS phones will be low on built-in memory at about 256 megabytes of RAM, and many will include a microSD slot so users can pop in their own memory card to store music, photos, and videos. He adds that the first phones are expected to cost around $100 (in line with lower-end Android smartphones) and will be made by the electronics maker TCL Communication Technology and the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE. These devices are expected to be available in the first half of this year, initially in Brazil, where they will be sold by the wireless carrier Telefonica’s Vivo brand.

Strategy Analytics senior analyst Scott Bicheno thinks Firefox’s strategy could pay off, especially in areas where Telefonica has a strong presence. “There’s still plenty of growth in the rest of the world at lower price points,” he says. However, the developing world also presents a potential problem for the Firefox OS: access to reliable high-speed wireless networks. The OS is highly dependent on its users’ access to the Web, but many developing economies still don’t have robust networks.

Lee says this is definitely a challenge, but that the OS does allow some functionality offline. Firefox OS has already managed to get some major app makers on board: Lee says it is working with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, along with local app developers in various other markets.

Canonical has even more ambitious hopes for Ubuntu. Although it hasn’t publicly named hardware or wireless partners, Canonical project manager Richard Collins says Ubuntu hopes to have between 5 and 10 percent of the smartphone market by 2016 (see “Ubuntu to Offer Smartphone Operating Software”).

To reach this goal, Ubuntu is targeting the high and low ends of the smartphone market in the developing world. High-end smartphones running the OS will also be able to act as Ubuntu PCs when docked with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Collins says the company will work with a hardware manufacturer and mobile operator on getting the Ubuntu phone to market; it aims to ship its first phones by the beginning of next year.

Even with a well-stocked app larder, underdog operating systems won’t find it easy to grab major market share. Still, there’s always an opportunity in a market growing so rapidly. While less than half of the world had a smartphone in 2012, IHS iSuppli expects 56 percent of cellphone users to be swiping and tapping on smartphones by the end of this year.

Sound-Sensing Ear Cells Are Regenerated in Deaf Mice

A new study suggests that some of the hearing loss caused by noise exposure can be reversed with drugs.

By Susan Young on January 15, 2013

Listen up, live music fans. The hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noise can be at least partially reversed with drugs, according to a study published by U.S. and Japanese researchers last week in the journal Neuron.

The work is the first proof that a drug can spur regeneration of the mammalian ear’s sound-detecting hair cells, which can be damaged by noise exposure. While the hair cells of some animals, such as birds, can regenerate on their own, the hair cells of humans and other mammals cannot. The cells may be damaged by infection or as a side effect of certain drugs as well as after exposure to loud noises.

Previous research has hinted that gene therapy might be able to induce regeneration in the adult mammalian ear. Now, Albert Edge, a stem cell biologist at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Harvard Medical School, and colleagues have shown that a chemical compound can do the same by stimulating supporting cells to develop into new hair cells.

The drug used in the study inhibits the activity of a protein called Notch, which Edge’s lab and others had previously shown prevents supporting cells from turning into hair cells. “It’s like taking the brakes off the car,” says Edge.

The drug was first developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but it failed—partly because inhibiting Notch, which regulates many genes within the body, causes side effects.

In the study, an oral dose of the drug improved hearing and increased the number of hair cells in deaf mice, but it also had significant side effects. So the team tried delivering the drug directly to the inner ear, where it should be unlikely to reach the rest of the body, says Edge. “When we treated [the mice] with the local delivery of the drug, they seemed perfectly healthy,” he says. “But before this would be able to be used in patients, we would have to make sure of that.”

A month or so after treating the mice, Edge—working with stem cell biologists Kunio Mizutari and Masato Fujioka of Tokyo’s Keio University School of Medicine in Japan—found that some of the supporting cells in the animals’ ears had turned into hair cells. The mice that received this treatment recovered about 20 percent of their hearing at low frequencies, says Edge.

The results are an important confirmation of previous indications that regeneration is possible in adult mammalian ears, says Alan Cheng, an ear, nose, and throat doctor and scientist who studies hair cell regeneration at the Stanford School of Medicine. “But it will require a lot more work to validate its utility in different models of damage—to say in any definitive way that patients can benefit from it,” he says.

To see how much the drug improved hearing, the researchers placed a small amplifier into each animal’s ear canal and, working in a soundproof room, looked for electrical activity in the brain stem in response to sounds. “The mice, before treatment, don’t respond no matter how much sound we put in,” says Edge. After the treatment, however, the team could detect electrical activity in response to loud, low-frequency sounds.

There is still a lot of work to be done before this drug, or a similar compound, could be used to treat human patients. “The recovery of hearing that we found is quite small,” says Edge. “In human terms, the mice went from profoundly deaf to being able to detect fairly loud sounds at a low pitch.” Next, the team will explore whether the drug can regenerate hair cells damaged by trauma other than noise, such as exposure to toxins.

Cheng also notes that while the mice were given the drug soon after noise exposure, most people will not seek diagnosis or treatment until long after the damage occurs. Hearing loss in humans generally isn’t diagnosed “until days or weeks have passed,” he says. “Whether the treatment is useful in a delayed fashion has to be teased out.”

WRAPUP 1-Strong banks, energy cos stand out in early earnings

Fri Jan 18, 2013 1:50pm EST

By Ben Berkowitz

Jan 18 (Reuters) – If the latest week of earnings season has told investors anything, it is that strong banks and energy companies are getting stronger, while weaker banks and technology companies are far from conquering the challenges they have faced in the last few years.

Any sense of optimism for 2013 has to be tempered by a steady decline in earnings growth forecasts, as well as a recent rise in companies making mass layoffs in attempts to get costs further under control.

With U.S. economic growth anemic and the uncertainties of the “fiscal cliff” still reverberating, companies that went into the fourth quarter of 2012 with some sense of momentum seem to have kept that up, while those that were on the wrong foot to begin with did not get much help.

“The takeaway is that earnings appear to be mimicking the economic recovery,” said Tom Sowanick, co-president and chief investment officer at Omnivest Group LLC.

JPMorgan Chase & Co, the largest U.S. bank by assets, posted a 53 percent rise in fourth-quarter profits on growth in lending and a decline in bad loan costs. Goldman Sachs Group Inc, the largest U.S. investment bank, crushed Wall Street estimates on increasing client activity and smaller payouts to its bankers.

Meanwhile both industrial heavyweight General Electric Co and oilfield services leader Schlumberger Ltd handily beat expectations on still-booming demand for oil and gas equipment and services.

But the challenged got no relief.

Citigroup, the third-largest U.S. bank, badly missed estimates, striking such a cautious tone that analysts made no effort to hide their disappointment with the new management. Lender Capital One Financial Corp missed estimates after setting aside more money for credit card defaults.

Chipmaker Intel Corp, facing slack demand for personal computers, beat estimates because of a low tax rate and then forecast revenue and capital spending that unnerved investors. AT&T Corp warned of a $10 billion charge because its pension plan returns are weaker than forecast.

Market strategists like Doug Cote at ING Investment Management in New York say earnings season has been mixed at best, though there is always the potential for that to change with next week’s crop of results.


All totaled, with 13 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported fourth-quarter results as of Friday morning, 62 percent have beaten expectations, precisely in line with a typical quarter as computed since the mid-1990s.

But their profit growth has been lackluster at best. Blended fourth-quarter earnings growth (factoring in what has been reported and what is estimated to come) now stands at 2.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data. Less than four months ago, the expectation was that fourth-quarter earnings would grow almost 10 percent.

That may be why forward-looking earnings forecasts are getting so weak so quickly.

As of now, S&P 500 companies are expecting profits to growth 3.5 percent in the first quarter of this year, the data show. That figure was 4.3 percent at the start of January and 7.1 percent last October.

The slide, in other words, shows no sign of abating, and the trend holds equally true for second-quarter growth forecasts.

“I think it’s a reflection of a very flat economy right now. I think that companies might have been a little more hopeful that the economy was going to be stronger than it is,” said Bryant Evans, portfolio manager at Cozad Asset Management. “I think companies are pushing back better earnings to later in the year or early next year.”


Some companies blamed the ongoing weakness in Europe, which has moved past the worst of its debt crisis but is still struggling with the aftermath.

Johnson Controls, the largest U.S. auto part supplier, warned lower auto production in Europe would eat into results this quarter, sending shares lower even after it beat estimates for the last quarter.

Others, like Citigroup, warned they were taking a cautious posture because of the ongoing uncertainty over the next financial crisis facing the U.S. Congress: the country’s ability to borrow more to pay its obligations.

“What we would like to see now is how the U.S. deals with the ongoing debt ceiling debate,” Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach said on a conference call Thursday. The government is due to hit that ceiling as soon as mid-February, stirring fears of a debt default if it is not raised.

Some companies are reacting to the uncertainty by cutting jobs, hoping to save their way to stronger profits. Just this week, custody bank State Street Corp said it would cut 630 positions worldwide and Procter & Gamble cut 150 jobs in Europe. They join previous job-cutters like American Express , which is slashing 5,400 posts.

Even Cirque Du Soleil, the Canadian circus company known for its imaginative high-wire productions, said this week it would cut 400 jobs amid rising costs and currency pressure.

But the week’s biggest loser might have been Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan. Despite the record profits his bank posted, Dimon was taken to task by the company’s board for lax oversight, which led to huge trading losses last year.

The result? A bonus cut that cost Dimon more than $10 million.