IN TERRY PRATCHETT’S Discworld fantasy novels, the Unseen University at Ankh Morpork is home to the Hex computer [Wikipedia entry]. It’s ‘circuits’ are glass tubes through which millions of ants constantly run, hence the sticker on Hex that reads ‘Anthill Inside’ — an obvious pun on the ‘Intel Inside’ slogan. You can buy an ‘Anthill Inside’ sticker for your own computer too, as well as mouse-mats and other merchandise, from Paul Kidby.

Strangely, another connection between ants and computing has come to my attention. The connection is formic acid — the simplest carboxylic acid, with chemical formula HCOOH. The Southern Wood Ant, Formica rufa, which is Britain’s largest ant, is able to squirt this insecticidal acid several feet from an acidopore on its abdomen, and uses it as a weapon in the savage battles that often take place in the Spring between neighbouring colonies. The English naturalist John Ray, a Fellow of the Royal Society, first isolated formic acid in 1671 by crushing up ants and distilling them, and the name of the acid comes from the Latin word for ant.

Formic acid is now manufactured chemically and has a number of industrial uses: for example, I have watched Malaysian rubber-tappers add formic acid to organic latex to cause it to congeal into raw rubber.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a research group has devised a simple and safe proton-exchange fuel cell powered by formic acid. The cell converts oxygen and formic acid into carbon dioxide and water through a reaction that takes place on a palladium catalyst. The cells are said to be more efficient than direct-methanol fuel cells, and formic acid is also a safer fuel in case of leakage, as methanol is poisonous and can cause blindness.

Wood Ant, <i>Formica rufa</i>

Wood Ant, Formica rufa

The university has assigned an exclusive licence to manufacture formic acid fuel cells to Tekion, who are developing hybrid Formira™ power modules containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery and a direct formic acid fuel cell, for use in laptops and mobile telephones. Which is why we can imagine running a laptop on ant juice.

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‘DIGITAL NOMAD’ is a term that’s come to describe people whose primary place for using a computer is anywhere and everywhere as they move from meeting to meeting. You recognise them by this trait: as soon as they arrive, they are looking for a power socket to give their exhausted laptop a fresh ‘fix’ of electricity. The truly serious cases also suffer from anxiety if they are not wirelessly connected to the Internet. And there’s something of a paradox about being wirelessly Internetted — but forced to crash to earth at frequent intervals to recharge.

There are laptops which offer radically better battery performance: this was one of the aims, and indeed achievements, of the team who built the One Laptop Per Child XO machine. In the high street you can also find the ASUS EeePC, with WiFi 802.11n connectivity and up to eight hours of battery power, achieved in part by replacing the hard drive with a solid-state one (as in USB memory sticks).

Dell recently announced the Latitude E4300 laptop which is said to give up to 14 hours of continuous battery operation, yet runs Vista and has a proper hard disk. Since most laptops in this class manage only two to three hours on battery, you may well wonder by what feat of engineering this is achieved. The truth, as usual, is a little more nuanced.

The E3400 is a hybrid system:it’s as if it had a EeePC personality living inside the case alongside Vista. The ‘Latitude ON’ feature means users power up the machine in 5 seconds to a simplified environment providing a small range of communication facilities: wireless and wired networking, web browsing and Skype. In this mode, the E3400 works well as a ‘thin client’ machine for Net-centric operations. If the user needs to work in Windows apps, they can continue to boot up into Vista.

The secret is Splashtop, an innovative operating system solution from Chinese-American start-up company DeviceVM. Computers with Splashtop installed have a modified BIOS, and pressing the power button boots up a compact GNU/Linux OS. The startup screen gives immediate access to a Web browser (based on Firefox 2), photo browser, music player, Skype or chat – or a button to fire up the main heavy-lifting operation system, which can be Windows or Linux.

The ASUS EeePC is based around Splashtop, where it is rebranded as Express Gate. ASUSTek announced in May 2008 an intention to deploy Splashtop across a wide range of laptops, motherboards and desktop systems.

Details of the workings of the Dell Latitude E4300 and its little brother the E4200 are as yet unclear, but one report suggests that the Splashtop-based Latitude ON system uses a dedicated low-voltage processor. I would guess, therefore, that the estimates of 14 to 19 hours of battery operation are based on a mix of Splashtop-based net-centric operation and Vista-based orthodox working. Which, for many digital nomads, may accurately reflect the working day, though I personally would prefer to have at least a reasonable Open Source word-processor available within the Splashtop environment.