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Briefings

Easy Rider, Big Book, Hot Spot

A TREE GROWS IN MERCURY

Prof. Richard B. Meagher believes he will never see a landfill as lovely as a stand of trees. A genetic engineer at the University of Georgia, Meagher is heading an experiment in Danbury, Conn., to show that genetically modified cottonwood trees can safely and inexpensively cleanse soil of mercury. Currently, mercury-poisoned sites must be dug up and the polluted dirt hauled to special chemical landfills. That’s an expensive process. An acre site could cost $1 million to clean up. Meagher says it’s tantamount to recycling the waste from one area to another.

Highly lethal, mercury is an element and can’t be broken down. Meagher, however, reckoned that ionic or methyl mercury can be transformed by certain bacteria to metallic mercury, which is less toxic. He isolated a gene that can accomplish that task: the merA, from E. coli bacteria. The gene was then inserted into young cottonwood trees. It’s hoped the trees will soak up the ionic mercury, transform it into metallic mercury and eventually transpire it into the air through their leaves. Cottonwoods grow rapidly and have massive root systems, which make them ideal for this project. The 160 saplings planted in Danbury have grown from 18 inches to 6 feet in less than a year.

Using plants to siphon toxic waste from polluted sites is called phytoremediation. This is the first test of the process using genetically modified trees. No plant or tree naturally absorbs mercury. “This is real beginning-level technology,” Meagher cautions. “This is not a cleanup, just a field study.” At the university, he’s grown genetically modified plants in dirt contaminated with levels of mercury and arsenic that “would kill anything else,” he says, and they’re not only thriving, but ridding the soil of the pollutants.

 

LIGHT FLIGHT

A model airplane recently buzzed around a lab at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. And for engineer David Bushman, that flight was a small demonstration of a potentially huge new technology: laser-powered aircraft. The 11-ounce plane, with a 5-foot wingspan flew for 15 minutes tethered to a laser beam. The beam was directed to a cluster of photovoltaic cells—like those used in solar panels—that powered a small motor. “It was designed specifically to demonstrate the technology on a limited budget,” Bushman says of the ultralight model. In real life, the lasers would be used only to “refuel”aircraft. The AC electricity created by the PV cells would be stored in batteries that power the motors. The test flight was conducted indoors to avoid problems with wind gusts. But Bushman is sure the technology will work not only with large planes but ultimately with spacecraft.

There are, of course, safety issues. If an airplane flew through a tightly focused, centimeter-wide laser beam, “it would slice in two,” he admits. So his team used a broad beam that’s 3 feet wide. In the lab, he says, he and his colleagues were constantly walking through the beam with no ill effects. Before there are laser-powered planes or spaceships, Bushman says, we’ll likely see lasers used to keep small, unmanned aircraft hovering 60,000 feet over cities to provide cell phone signals. And such an application, he predicts, isn’t light years away.

 

WHEELING INTO THE FUTURE

The design team Quebec-based Bombardier Recreational Products was given a task that was part engineering, part crystal-ball gazing—to create the kind of recreational and commuting vehicle that people might use in the year 2025. A team of 60 mechanical engineers, industrial designers, graphic designers, CAD technicians, and model makers came up with Embrio, a futuristic cross between a motorcycle and a unicycle. Made partly of magnesium, nylon, and recycled aluminum, the 360-pound Embrio is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The vehicle relies on a complex series of gyroscopes and sensors to allow one or two passengers to ride on the one-wheeled vehicle. When Embrio’s speed falls under 12 miles per hour, a small wheel pops out to provide extra stability. Other features include a high-performance braking system, infrared night vision, a suspension system that can adjust to different road conditions, and a digitally encoded “learning key”—an electronic control system that automatically limits RPMs of the engine for less-experienced riders.

The Embrio’s design impressed the people at the Industrial Design Society of America and Business Week magazine. They gave the Embrio a Gold Award in the Industrial Designs Excellence Awards in the Explorations category in 2003. “Exciting,” “intriguing,” and “exuding the fun factor,” were a few of the words and phrases judge Tom Matano said came to his mind when he first saw Embrio. Genevieve Dion, director of communications and public relations at Bombardier, says the design team was given free rein when they began their task. “It’s important to let the imagination free to create new ideas,” she says. Dion adds that a similar technique is used when Bombardier designs its line of products, which includes the Sea-Doo watercraft and the Ski-Doo snowmobile.

 

A BOOK FOR THE RECORD BOOKS

Aresearcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab has produced the ultimate coffee table book. That is, if your coffee table is as large as a double bed. The book, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, has been cited by the folks at Guinness World Records as the world’s largest tome. How big is it? It weighs in at a hefty 133 pounds, and each of its 114 pages is 5 by 7 feet.

The book is a photographic essay of Michael Hawley’s treks across the aerie-high kingdom, which is tucked away between the countries of Nepal, India, and Tibet, and is often called “the last Shangri-la.” Hawley, awed by the beauty of its geography, people and culture, sees the book not only as a tribute to Bhutan, but as a showcase for breakthroughs in digital photography and printing techniques. He hopes to print no more than 500 copies, sell each for $10,000, and give the proceeds to the charity Friendly Planet, which promotes education in Bhutan. So far, he says, about 60 copies have been sold via Amazon.com, mainly to individuals. But wealthy buyers have donated the book to institutions like the Library of Congress and the University of Washington library. One California entrepreneur plans to circulate his copy among schools in La Jolla, Calif.

Each edition requires a gallon of ink and a length of paper longer than a football field. An HP Designjet printer, normally used for printing billboard and subway signs, was used to print the 135 images. Acme Bookbinding, of Charlestown, Mass., devised a special process for binding the book. The semi-gloss paper is thick enough to withstand regular use without sagging, since each book is propped upright. Hawley says the pages turn easily, but need to be aligned carefully. The images should last at least two centuries without fading. “It’s like buying a whole art gallery,” says Hawley, who is “overjoyed” with the final result. “The actual book is breathtaking,” he says. “It’s so ridiculously large it makes you feel like a 3 year old.”

 

STATE U. WITHOUT THE STATE

Three of Virginia's biggest public universities want to go it alone. Sort of. The three schools—Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary—want to reduce their dependence on state funding and become semiautonomous institutions. The move comes after years of budget cutbacks, but ahead of Gov. Mark Warner’s plan to hike funding for state schools by $144 million over the next two years. The universities say they’re tired of rollercoaster funding and want more control over their destinies. They suggest becoming “commonwealth chartered” schools that would take less money from the state. In return, they want the freedom to disregard state regulations concerning personnel, purchasing, and construction that they say are cumbersome and costly. They also want a free hand in setting tuition increases. The governor would still appoint the members of their governing boards, however. In some respects, the schools want to formalize a de facto trend that’s made the state very much a minority stakeholder. At Virginia, for instance, the portion of its budget coming from the state has fallen from 28 to 8 percent since 1985.

Virginia isn’t the only state where schools are questioning their traditional relationship with state government. Florida State and the University of Florida are seeking what’s essentially a performance-related contract with the state. They’ll accept a lower, guaranteed amount from the state in exchange for guaranteeing to educate a certain number of students a year. They’ll also be free to set tuitions on their own. In Washington State, a bill may soon pass setting up a pilot program to give performance-related contracts to three schools: a large research university, a four-year regional school, and a community college.

Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says the schools are betting that by freeing themselves from state regulations and having the ability to set tuition on their own, they can more than compensate for the lost tax dollars. They want more money, he says, to better compete with private schools for top researchers and students. Wary lawmakers, however, fear tuitions will skyrocket. All eyes are on Texas which recently gave its schools the freedom to set tuitions on their own.

Reindl says lawmakers are also leery of losing control over things like applied research and personnel matters. But as cash-strapped as many of them are, they may find that’s a trade-off worth making.

 

FOREIGN DOCS IN NO HURRY TO LEAVE

Foreign doctoral students are increasingly remaining in the United States after receiving their degrees. A study for the National Science Foundation conducted by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education found that 71 percent of foreigners who received Ph.D.s from U.S. schools were still here two years later. That’s up from 49 percent a decade earlier. The study, based on student tax records, offers no reason for the increase. But Michael G. Finn, the economist who conducted the study, told the Wall Street Journal that though the reasons are unclear, the United States stands to benefit from the phenomenon. Computer, electrical, and electronic engineering grads were most likely to remain in the United States. They had a stay rate of 80 percent. Seventy-nine percent of computer science and physical science doctorates remained. Among all other engineering grads, the stay rate was 73 percent. Fully 96 percent of Chinese doctorates stayed in the United States, and grads from India and Eastern Europe also had high retention rates. But only 21 percent of South Korean students and 24 percent of Japanese stayed here. Again, Finn said, he couldn’t explain why students from some countries were particularly likely to remain in the United States. It also appears that foreign Ph.D. recipients tend to stay longer than a couple of years, as well. Of those who earned their diplomas in 1996, 65 percent were still stateside five years later.

 

THE HOT PLACE TO BE

AUSTRALIA—Being “cool” helps win foreign students. Down-under schools are enjoying a winning streak in marketing themselves offshore—earning education its status as Australia’s eighth-biggest export. It was a $4 billion industry last year. But students are fussy about where they want to study.

“It’s true across the board—among engineering students as much as among others,” says Peter Giesinger, spokesman for IDP Education, an agency owned by 38 of Australia’s 39 universities to sell their services globally. “Foreigners want good schools—but they increasingly highlight image and lifestyle.”

Australia is a big country with a small population of 20 million. Students opt first for big cities—particularly Sydney, the state capital of New South Wales, which Giesinger says is “perceived as a place with a good image, a ‘cool’ base for living and studying.”

Consequently, foreign enrolments in New South Wales universities rose 16 percent last year compared with a national rise of 12 percent. Australian universities last year registered a total of 174,732 international students, up from 155,275 the previous year.

With foreign student numbers set to surge, some domestic students will have to settle for schools in regional areas. Sydney’s University of New South Wales, for instance, is popular with Southeast Asian students, but foreigners now comprise 23 percent of students compared with a national average of 13 percent. This is flirting with a self-imposed limit of 25 percent that the university says is necessary to “retain an Australian experience.”

Biggest growth areas for Australia are China—already the No. 1 source of students—and India. The latter’s growth—from a lower base than China’s—has been the most dramatic, with enrollments rising 34 per cent to 9,000 last year. Chinese numbers were up 23 percent over the same period.

 

TISSUE ISSUE

Big advances have been made in recent years toward growing replacement bone, skin, and cartilage tissue in the lab. One hurdle has been the difficulty in monitoring cells deep inside the tissue. Zhanfeng Cui, a researcher at England’s Oxford University, says sometimes the cells inside the scaffolding are unhealthy and not doing what they’re supposed to do. And sometimes they’re dead. That results in an “eggshell” effect, where the tissue scaffolding is fine on the outside, but is basically hollow. MRI machines can be used to check internal cell growth, but they’re costly, not readily available, and the resolutions they produce are not always clear. So Cui and his team developed a tiny, needlelike probe, constructed of a porous polymer membrane that can monitor the health of molecules inside the growing tissue, including large protein molecules, like polypeptides. The probe is a variation, he says, of microdialysis, a technique used by researchers to monitor animal brain cells to determine drug diffusion. The probe is filled with a fluid and mimics a blood vessel. Because it’s porous, it soon contains a representative sample of the tissue fluid’s molecules that can be extracted and analyzed. He’s patented the probe and hopes to soon license the technology. Cui is a chemical engineer who has been working in membrane technology and recently became interested in “enabling technologies for tissue engineering.”

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