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Viewed from space, America’s glowing electrical grid seems all an advanced nation could want. In reality, the system is antiquated and wasteful, prone to blackouts and unable to make proper use of 21st-century clean-energy sources like wind and wave power. Congress has launched development of a “smart grid” that will harness the latest technology to distribute electricity efficiently; monitor use, availability, and need; quickly fix any failure; and store unused power. “Smart” meters, thermostats, and switches will let customers save money by keeping a close watch on their consumption. But the $11 billion provided so far is a mere down payment; with installation and testing, costs could reach $130 billion, according to Scientific American. Regulatory hurdles loom, as well. “Smart” doesn’t mean easy.


Finding better ways to mend broken bones is an area of great interest to bioengineers. And researchers at two schools have recently reported promising developments. An effort headed by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston is hoping to develop a “fracture putty” to help speed the repair of bones shattered by bombs. Non-union fractures are hard to fix and slow to heal, and can lead to amputations. The goal of the $7.9 million project, funded by the Department of Defense, is a modeling clay-like material that could be molded into a bio-scaffold. It would not only act as a temporary substitute for the broken bone but facilitate natural bone growth. A key ingredient will be a non-porous silicon developed by bioengineer Mauro Ferrari, the principal investigator. It’s capable of rendering the putty strong enough to support a patient’s weight while regeneration takes place.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a nano-bio technique that could greatly accelerate the healing time of some fractures. It places mesenchymal stem cells culled from a patient’s own bone marrow atop a layer of titanium-oxide nanotubes. The nanotubes help control the stem cells’ conversion into bone-building cells, or osteoblasts. Implants treated with the material could have patients off their crutches in a month’s time — rather than the three months it now takes for bone to heal using standard titanium implants. –THOMAS K. GROSE


In rural areas of developing countries, grinding up food grains so they can be more easily cooked is typically tedious, labor-intensive work. So two years ago, engineers at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., developed a bicycle-powered crusher to process grains like corn and barley cheaply and more efficiently. The Rowan crusher comes in two iterations. One uses a 26-inch bicycle on a stand; the back wheel turns a pulley to move the crusher’s plates. The second version has pedals attached directly to the machine. Which works best? Beena Sukumaran, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, is finding out. She and graduate student Kevin McGarvey spent part of this year in southern India having residents field-test the two. “We’re going to get local folks there to use them and give us feedback,” she says. They’re also hoping to see if the machine can be manufactured locally, for under $200. That way, at least the cost won’t be crushing. – TG


Can a golf club be too well engineered? Yes, say some British doctors. They recently reported in the British Medical Journal that thin-faced titanium drivers — designed to knock the ball farther than standard stainless steel models — produce such a loud thwack that users risk damaging their hearing, perhaps permanently. Some players report the sound is akin to a sonic boom. They’re not far off. One model, the Ping G10, produces a bang of more than 130 decibels — that’s louder than standing 6 feet away from a fully amped rock band. Martin Strangwood, a sports equipment engineer at the University of Birmingham, told the BBC that the sound is engineered into the clubs intentionally. It’s meant to give golfers feedback on their swing and how well the club is performing, he says, so wearing earplugs would defeat the purpose. To any Tiger Woods hopefuls using these super drivers, all we can say is: FORE! – TG



Ever since the Alice Tully Hall for chamber concerts opened at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1969, critics have faulted its sound as too arid. The situation worsened over the years as the hall’s mahogany walls dried and cracked, further dulling the sound. But a new $159 million renovation of the hall has musicians crying “Bravo!” The walls are now composed of panels — some made of heavy wood, others of resin — 1 to 1.5 inches thick, each covered in a paper-thin veneer taken from a single African moabi tree.

Subway tracks 2,000 feet below ground are no longer an annoyance, thanks in part to newly installed rubber pads that insulate the hall from vibrations. Acoustic firm JaffeHolden also lined the side walls with special panels that direct the sound inward. The result, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott told the New York Times, is a sound that’s fat, rich and buttery. “Oh my God,” she said. “It’s heaven.”– TG


UNITED KINGDOM – Two years ago, the U.K. launched a $5 million, industry-
academic-government initiative called Project TOPLESS (Thin Organic Polymeric Light Emitting Semiconductor Surfaces) to help realize the commercial potential of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). These thin films of organic material produce a natural, sunshine-crisp light when electricity is applied to them. OLEDs are expected to ultimately revolutionize the lighting industry: They require just a fifth of the electricity needed by most current light bulbs, and because they’re thin and flexible and emit light from a surface, they can be used in ways unthinkable today. TOPLESS — which includes researchers from Thorn Lighting, Durham University, and Cambridge Display Technology — focuses its work upon P-OLEDs, those OLEDs coated with a polymer.

And it is making real progress. Last December, the group showcased a desk lamp that gives off light at 20 lumens per watt from five panels, each less than a millimeter thick. The lamp requires only 4 to 5 volts of power, far less than the 250 volts incandescent lights use. Months earlier, the German company Osram put into limited production an OLED lamp that produces 60 lumens per watt. But TOPLESS director Geoff Williams believes that P-OLEDs will be the technology of choice because they’re easier and cheaper to manufacture, using inkjet printing techniques. Either way, the future looks bright. – TG

“The financial crisis should cause a cultural shift
back to the strong foundations of innovation and know-how that have always been the American way.”




The Obama administration says it’s serious about spending big bucks to end America’s dependence on oil, coal, and other fossil fuels. That could mean a flood of new research dollars pouring into university labs. The United States currently spends $3 billion a year on energy research — a mere drop in the oil barrel compared with the $80 billion or so spent on defense. The Brookings Institution think tank recently released a study urging the government to commit $20 billion to $30 billion a year to energy. While most of that money should go to federal labs, Brookings says, some $6 billion should be used to finance energy-oriented, regional “energy discovery-innovation institutes” at college campuses nationwide. Each would have a single focus — say, biofuels or energy efficiency — and would research its topic broadly, investigating economic, political, technical, and social issues. Think-tank reports often gather dust, but Brookings is well-connected with the Democrats now in control of the White House and Congress. So this report may inspire action. – TG


While on vacation in the Philippines two years ago, Purdue University industrial engineering student Rafael Smith was stunned by the living conditions of poor residents. So for his senior design project, Smith invented a temporary shelter that’s portable, lightweight, easy to erect, and relatively comfortable. Made from recyclable aluminum, his Uber Shelter unfolds from a small, slab-like pack into a two-story unit the size of a small truck. Because it can house two families — one on each floor — it can accommodate more people on less land. It produces solar-powered electricity to run the lights, a small stove that can double as a heater, and a small refrigerator that can serve as an air conditioner. It can be assembled quickly using just a few tools and has built-in jacks and levels to compensate for uneven ground. Currently, Uber Shelter exists solely as a computer-generated design; Smith plans to refine it before considering the patents. Says Smith, “I wanted to design a project that would impact people’s lives.”– TG


The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is wrapping up more than 10 years of work to bring to justice those responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide. During a 100-day rampage, Rwanda’s Hutu ethnic majority massacred at least 800,000 people, mostly members of the Tutsi minority. The machete was the weapon of choice, and rape and torture were commonplace. To ensure that the tribunal’s work won’t be forgotten or dismissed, a team led by University of Washington computer scientist Batya Friedman interviewed and videoed 49 members of the tribunal, including judges, investigators, and prosecutors.

The resulting 70 hours of video — dubbed Voices From the Rwanda Tribunal — will be recorded and saved in a digital format that will be easily accessible and verifiable for generations, adaptable to any future format changes. Indeed, it’s part of Friedman’s research into multi-life-span information systems. Because digital records can be altered, she’s developing a system that incorporates a cryptographic hash mark — an algorithm that creates a number 128 characters long that changes value if even the slightest change is made to the material. Friedman hopes the project will help prevent future genocides — or, absent that, help improve the application of international justice. – TG


For a freshman design project several years ago, four Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students designed plastic water bottles that, once emptied, could be snapped together, Lego-like, and used to construct housing in developing countries. Once refilled with sand or dirt, the bottles are as heavy as bricks. Two of the students — Peter Zummo and Matthew Naples — used time off-campus during junior year to refine the design, ensuring stronger bottles and cheaper production costs. Last year, Popular Science magazine gave the invention a rave review, and the pair, now seniors, obtained a provisional patent and are seeking to commercialize the technology.

But, as a recent New York Times article noted, their success also highlights an often-ignored reality: Even undergraduates’ inventions may belong to their school if the inventors relied upon resources provided by the school. RPI decided that the design belongs to Zummo and Naples, who are now seeking to raise $18,000 so they can manufacture some test models to interest companies that might license the design. But RPI also decided that the idea belonged to the college, so the students must pay $250 a year to RPI, as well as 25 percent of any future profits. The pair told the Times that it’s a small price to pay because “if someone infringes on our rights, now it’s RPI against them.”– TG


AUSTRALIA — Access to clean water is a priority for rural Third World communities, so water system installation has become a familiar overseas aid project. But what happens after the visiting engineers leave? “Developing countries are littered with water systems and pumps constructed by well-meaning aid organizations,” says Anh Tran, an Australian official of the international humanitarian organization Engineers Without Borders. “Within a few years, many become dilapidated and rusted.” In response, the Australian branch of EWB has added a new procedure when it dispatches student volunteers to replace or repair pumps in poor countries. Cheap, locally available equipment is used and villagers or other locals are trained to maintain the pumps. Volunteers from Australia’s 21 EWB chapters are now working in Cambodia, India, and Laos, as well as in Papua New Guinea. “Access to clean water is a top priority because it reduces disease dramatically,” says EWB spokesperson Nathalie Cattaneo. –CHRIS PRITCHARD


With apologies to Joyce Kilmer, we think we may never see a carbon-catcher as lovely as a tree. Indeed, when deciduous trees suck in and break down carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, emitting oxygen in return, they do so with remarkable efficiency and grace. But a Long Beach, Calif., product development company has now devised a unique way to put hundreds of trees to work at CO2-spewing industrial sites. Nectar Design’s CO2 Scraper is an H-shaped, high-rise concrete tower that supports from 200 to 400 large trees on tiers anchored between the H’s upright arms. Windmills within the structure will power a pumping system to shunt water and nutrients to the trees. But who will sweep up all those leaves come fall? – TG



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