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 BRIEFINGS

STUN GRENADES + STRANGE BIOFUELS + MEDICAL UAVs

STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING - STAR TURN

STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING
STAR TURN

The thrill of soaring 541 feet — or 40 stories — is just one of the rare experiences offered by the Singapore Flyer. There are also views of three countries: Singapore, Malaysia and distant Indonesia. The giant observation wheel’s 28 enclosed, air-conditioned capsules hold up to 35 passengers each, big enough for a small wedding. Opened in March 2008, the Flyer was designed with the city-state’s sudden wind gusts in mind. It differs from England’s famous wheel, the London Eye, in having support legs on both sides. These allow for a wider spindle, greater angle of inclination for the spoke cables, and a gracefully thin rim.



DATA PROCESSING
SHARPER IMAGE

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners give doctors detailed images of internal organs and tissues from several angles, which is great for diagnostics. But for the machines to work properly, patients have to lie still, often for 30 minutes or more — not so easy, especially for children. Now researchers at the University of Edinburgh have turned to astronomers for help. They’ve discovered that algorithms created to process data received from distant galaxies also work to correct distortions in MRI scans, meaning fewer repeats and faster results. Says Edinburgh astrophysicist Alan Heavens: “We estimate that in two to three years, this technology, derived from pure astronomy research, will be bringing benefits to patients.” And that’ll be a truly heavenly gift. — THOMAS K. GROSE



EXPLOSIVES
SIMPLY STUNNING

Stun grenades, also called flash bangs, are an important law-enforcement and military tool. Developed in the late 1980s at Sandia National Laboratories, they’re used for special operations like crowd control and hostage rescues. Pull the pin of one and toss it, and it emits a shotgun-loud blast and a bright, blinding flash but no shrapnel. So no one’s actually hurt — usually. But flash bangs get damaged, sometimes are poorly manufactured, and are occasionally used improperly — so they can cause injuries. Now Mark Grubelich, a Sandia researcher, has developed a new and improved flash bang. When the pin is pulled on Grubelich’s “fuel air diversionary device,” a tiny explosion ejects a cloud of aluminum powder into the air and ignites it, causing a loud boom and flash of light. Since the explosion doesn’t take place inside the canister, the likelihood of injury is greatly reduced. No flash in the pan, this one. — TG




HYDRODYNAMICS - ORIGINAL FIN
HYDRODYNAMICS
ORIGINAL FIN

A Canadian company has designed a revolutionary wind turbine inspired by an unlikely source: the humpback whale. In the early 1980s, the president of Toronto-based WhalePower, Frank Fish, came across a model of a humpback whale at a shop in Boston. Fish noticed the leading edge of the fin had bumpy projections and figured the modeler must have made a mistake, since one of the fundamental tenets of fluid mechanics is that the smoother a front edge of a wing or fin, the better the lifting force. But wind tunnel tests later conducted by Fish and the US Naval Academy demonstrated that the bumps are a hydrodynamic marvel, enabling the whale to tilt its fin at an almost 40 percent higher angle than a smooth-edged flipper before experiencing stall. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why the knobby projections, known as tubercles, work. Some have suggested that they create a difference in pressure between the water flowing over the bumps and the water that gets funneled through the gaps in between, which increases lift and improves drag. The Wind Energy Institute of Canada is testing wind turbines retrofitted with WhalePower’s “tubercle technology” on the coast of Prince Edward Island, while industrial ceiling fan manufacturer Envira-North Systems has reported a 20 percent increase in efficiency since it started using the whale-inspired design. —Pierre Home-Douglas




ALTERNATIVE ENERGY
FUELS RUSH IN

Not so long ago, biofuels were touted as a clean, green alternative to fossil fuels. But creating fuels from commodities like corn, soybeans, and sugar cane has led to skyrocketing food costs, deforestation, and higher carbon dioxide emissions. Now some new sources for biofuels could up their green cred again. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Toronto researchers say ethanol could be produced from kudzu, a fast-growing weed that blankets the southern U.S. Researchers estimate an acre of kudzu could produce 270 gallons of ethanol, about the same as corn. It’s tough to harvest, but it doesn’t require costly planting, irrigating, or fertilizing. And how about poppy seeds? Sure, they’re tasty on rolls and breads, but they’re also packed with oil. In Tasmania, Australia, a new firm is producing biodiesel from them. Finally, look no further than your nearest landfill for a possible fuel source. Garbage, which is both plentiful and cheap, can be turned into ethanol. Processing it has been expensive, but new technologies are changing that. One company, Coskata, says rubbish could produce 8 billion gallons of ethanol a year. And that’s no trash talk. — TG



TEACHING
ORIENTATION TO REMEMBER

Engineering schools around the country face the same problem: how to get students excited enough about what engineers do that they will work to master the rigors of math and science. So Marquette University has come up with a program that freshmen won’t soon forget. Last June, 120 incoming students joined in designing a water access, transport, and storage project for a village in Tanzania. They worked in teams of eight, mentored by 15 faculty, and stayed in daily communication via webcam with workers on the scene who were part of the Safe Water for Life and Dignity project. The design work was supplemented with guest speakers, including a Salvadoran priest who had experience in Tanzania. The hope is that by experiencing what it means to be an engineer, students will view their next four years in a different way.



SHIP DESIGN - PUSHING THE LIMITS
SHIP DESIGN
PUSHING THE LIMITS

Marine engineer and naval architect Andrew D. Lebet faced an interesting challenge when New York Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises needed a new 600-passenger ferry for its Manhattan routes. The boat had to fit under low bridges on the Harlem River, where clearance is just 22.5 feet at high tide. “You’ve got a freeboard restriction on one end squishing you up, and you’ve got the air draft squishing you down,” says Lebet, vice president of DeJong & Lebet of Jacksonville, Fla., referring to the height of the deck above the waterline and the difference between the waterline and the highest point of the vessel. The result: an unusually long, low-profile vessel. Lebet had fun pushing the limits for a vessel this size. The steel hull was framed carefully to keep the boat under 100 gross tons, since a heavier boat would have exceeded Coast Guard limits and been subject to more stringent rules. The new Manhattan, 165 feet by 36 feet, maintains the iconic look of the current fleet, made up of ships that were converted from landing craft used in Corregidor and Shanghai during World War II. — PETER MEREDITH



FINANCE
GOOD LUCK

Engineers enjoy solving problems. That’s a good thing for Neel Kashkari, 35, tapped by the U.S. Treasury to oversee the $700 billion fund Congress created to ease the financial crisis. He’s tackling a problem that few people saw coming, at least in its credit-freezing, market-thrashing, global dimensions. The son of Indian immigrants — his dad’s an engineer, his mother a pathologist — Kashkari grew up in suburban Akron, Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s in engineering at the University of Illinois, where he built a solar-powered car. He worked for TRW (now Northrop Grumman) designing satellites for NASA, then earned an M.B.A. at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Next stop: Goldman Sachs. When Goldman CEO Henry Paulson Jr. became Treasury secretary, Kashkari joined him in Washington as an assistant secretary. And when the subprime mortgage market began to unravel, Paulson put him to work on it. — TG



ROBOTICS
FLIGHT FOR LIFE

Struggling with epidemics of both HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, South African clinicians face an added challenge — getting timely lab-test results from remote, rural areas where 20 percent of the country’s population lives. So South Africa’s National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) has turned to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These autonomous robotic aircraft use electronic navigation and GPS to reach their destinations and can often fly into areas inaccessible to larger, manned aircraft. Initially, the NHLS planned to use the e-Juba (Zulu for e-Pigeon), which weighs nearly 8 pounds and can fly 30 miles with a 1-pound payload. But now that lab testing requires only the tiniest of samples smeared on tissue paper, the NHLS has developed a smaller UAV, weighing less than 2 pounds. E-Juba could still be useful, it says, for delivering medicines and whole blood to remote areas. — TG



ROBOTICS - FLIGHT FOR LIFE

SPACEWALK
13-MINUTE LEAP FORWARD

China — particularly its student population — is catching space fever. Countless Chinese watched giant outdoor screens beaming live video coverage of the country’s first spacewalk in September. Throngs of students — some wearing homemade spacesuits — also gathered in assemblies to watch the historic event. They cheered and waved flags as astronaut Zhai Zhigang, 212 miles above Earth, spent 13 minutes outside the orbital module and retrieved a rack, attached to the craft, that contained a solid-lubricants experiment. Zhai wore a Chinese-made suit that cost $4.4 million. China’s manned space program began in 2003. China is now the third nation to boast a spacewalk, after the U.S. and Russia. China’s immediate goal is to set up an orbital space station, but it also wants to send a manned mission to the moon — maybe ahead of NASA’s planned 2020 lunar mission. — TG



RANKINGS
ALMA MATERS MATTER

Move over, U.S. News & World Report — there’s a new entry in the college-ranking business: Boeing. Richard D. Stephens, a vice president at the aerospace company, told the Chronicle of Higher Education he got Boeing to evaluate the performance reviews of its 35,000 engineers and look for correlations between good performance and alma maters. The company will use the findings in deciding which schools to work with most closely. It’s also sending letters to 150 engineering deans, letting them know how their schools ranked and mentioning areas for improvement. Not everybody loves the idea. A former Boeing engineer, Paul R. Illian, now a Seattle University researcher, says Boeing evaluations often don’t give credit to the truly innovative. And James L. Melsa, former Iowa State University engineering dean and immediate past president of ASEE, told the Chronicle that Boeing and other major companies have tended to favor schools attended by their top executives. And while the suggested approach is more systematic, the old method did seem to work pretty well. — TG



BIOMETRICS
CROSSING GUARD

Each year, 250 million people cross in and out of the United Kingdom by air, sea, and the Channel Tunnel’s rail links. The British government wants a better idea of who they are, so it’s spending around $2.1 billion on a high-tech tracking system. Rushing to design and implement the system ahead of its planned rollout in April are 600 engineers and technicians assembled by American defense contractor Raytheon, British defense company QinetiQ, and software giant Capgemini. Their aim, according to The Engineer magazine, is “to keep track of everyone coming in and out of the U.K., whether they be the skippers of private yachts or passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport.” Biometrics will play a big role: Already several big U.K. airports are using iris scanners, and Manchester Airport has an automated biometric facial recognition system. Gathering data on millions of travelers is hard enough, but it’s even harder to develop the complex algorithms to analyze the data in real time. Nonetheless, Raytheon’s Martyn Dawkes told The Engineer this will be “the most complete border management capability anywhere in the world.” —TG

FACTOID
13%

Fraudulent visa requests found in the H-1B program, according to a study by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. The program lets companies hire foreign workers with specialized skills. Critics are demanding tougher oversight.



EMISSIONS TRADING
GOING, GOING, GONE?

The idea of creating a market for pollution in order to help cut greenhouse gas emissions isn’t new. The concept is simple: Put a price on carbon emissions, as well as an ever declining cap on the amount of pollution allowed. Companies that can’t or won’t cut emissions can buy credits from companies that have installed clean technologies. Europe started a cap-and-trade carbon dioxide market in 2005, with mixed results. Congress and the White House have been leery of the notion, but regional groups of states are giving it a shot. The first pollution-rights auction in the U.S. was held in September by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which includes Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. New York will join in time for a second auction scheduled for this month. The regional goal is to cut by 10 percent the current estimated emissions of 188 million metric tons a year by 2019. Two other regional carbon markets — in the Midwest and the far West — are in the works. — TG



NAVIGATION - WHERE AM I REALLY?

NAVIGATION
WHERE AM I REALLY?

The backbone of the global positioning system is a network of more than 30 satellites that twice daily circle the globe and send signals to GPS receivers — from surveyors to hikers — that enable them to pinpoint their exact location. It’s an amazing navigational tool but not foolproof, according to researchers at Cornell University and Virginia Tech. They reprogrammed a briefcase-size receiver to send out phony signals that duped a nearby navigation device into accepting them as authentic. The researchers say they hope that by proving that receivers can be “spoofed,” manufacturers will develop safeguards. Because, let’s face it, GPS has become so popular, many of us would be lost without it. — TG



MATERIALS - SEAT OF HONOR

MATERIALS
SEAT OF HONOR

Rob Kelly says that when he first saw the design for a parklike memorial to the 184 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, he was “stunned by the beauty” of the designers’ vision. The memorial consists of 184 stainless steel, cantilevered benches, each inscribed with a name. Designers came to Kelly, a professor of engineering and materials science at the University of Virginia, for help in selecting the right steel to use. They wanted something that would remain shiny and reflective for at least a century, and that was relatively inexpensive and strong enough to hold the weight of people sitting on it. “This was a classic engineering problem,” Kelly recalls, and he reviewed countless possibilities before choosing a steel that included small amounts of molybdenum and nitrogen, which help stave off corrosion. Kelly did the work pro bono. — TG


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