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.
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
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.
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.”