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Engineering Mecca

Engineering Mecca

The hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, now draws some 2.5 million. “It’s a massive number of people going to a very limited area,” Amer Shalaby, a University of Toronto civil engineer, told the Toronto Star. In past years, hundreds of Muslim faithful were trampled to death as crowds panicked in the midst of ritual processions. So the government of Saudi Arabia, which Shalaby advises, has embarked on a multibillion-dollar transportation upgrade that includes an airport expansion, an elevated train to shuttle worshipers between shrines, a multilevel bridge, and a rail line to the coastal city of Jeddah. The construction boom also includes a 2,000-foot tower near the Grand Mosque (pictured) with what’s billed as the world’s largest clock.

Alternative Energy
W.Va. Is Hot

Nearly all the activity of the nascent U.S. geothermal energy industry occurs in the sparsely populated West. So a geothermal hot spot discovered in West Virginia may be of particular promise, given the state’s proximity to major East Coast cities. Researchers at Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory have recently estimated that the West Virginia field has the potential to generate 18,890 megawatts. That’s more than the state’s current generating capacity of 16,350 MW, derived mainly from coal. The SMU team used new, detailed mapping and reinterpreted temperature data derived from oil, gas, and thermal gradient wells to reach its updated figures. It found subsurface temperatures at levels greater than 300 degrees Fahrenheit in depths starting at less than 3 miles. Lab Director David Blackwell says more work is needed to fully determine the finding’s “magnitude, distribution, and commercial significance.” But he’s convinced West Virginia is sitting on a geyser of clean power. Unlike wind and solar, geothermal is a renewable resource that can be tapped around the clock, making it a baseline fuel. – THOMAS K. GROSE


A Charming Idea

Amazon is calling it a top holiday gift pick, and Talkatoo, indeed, is cute as button. This tiny digital recorder, which captures a 30-second sound bite, is worn as a necklace or clip-on charm. Parents can use it to record a daily message for children before packing them off to school. Playback involves a mere push of a button, so kids as young as 3 years can use it. Talkatoo is the brainchild of Detroit-area engineer Sheila Ann Wright, 43, who dreamed it up as a way to go beyond handwritten notes in her children’s lunchboxes. She started developing it only recently, after she lost her place at Chrysler in the Great Recession. Her efforts are now paying off: Beyond Amazon, Talkatoo has gotten raves from the New York Times and from Fortune and Parent magazines. Wright expects to sell 15,000 this winter, at $16.99 each. Seems she’s got the digital button market sewn up. – TG

Engineering Design

Engineering Design
Safe Ascent

When 33 Chilean miners were rescued from a collapsed copper-and-gold mine some 2,300 feet below ground, NASA engineers watched with special interest. The 13-foot-long, cigar-shaped steel cage, which brought the miners to the surface via a narrow shaft drilled through solid rock, had been designed with help from Clinton Cragg, principal engineer at the space agency’s Engineering and Safety Center in Langley, Va. After Cragg visited the site in August, he assembled a team of 20 NASA engineers who quickly devised a list of 75 design recommendations for the cage – dubbed the Phoenix – most of which the Chilean engineers incorporated into the final version. For example, it had wheels along its side, so it wouldn’t be damaged by friction, and levers inside that a miner could use to winch the capsule back to the bottom if it got stuck. The rescue operation went flawlessly, however, and travel time from pit to ground was eventually cut from 20 minutes to just 8. Cragg, 55, has noted his admiration for the determination and teamwork of the Chileans, and their openness in working with the Americans. – TG

Underwater RobotsUnderwater Robots
Probing Beneath the Ice

Scientists believe that a third of the sea ice surrounding Antarctica will be melted by 2100, which will speed up the collapse of the ice shelves that ring 40 percent of the continent’s coastline. But until now, climate modelers haven’t had an accurate means of monitoring the process in the deep ocean waters around and beneath those thick, icy fingers. So, during an expedition that began in mid-October, researchers tested a diving, swimming robot equipped with sensors that can monitor temperature and salinity; current meters; mapping sonar; a digital camera; and optical sensors. The 8-foot-long UBC-Gavia was designed by engineers at the University of British Columbia. Ultimately, researchers hope the data it sends back will provide a better understanding of the global climate. – PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

Color It In

AUSTRALIA — Increasingly, metals once used in the automotive, aeronautical, and construction industries are being replaced by plastics and advanced composite materials. They’re lighter, cheaper, and often more environmentally friendly. But there’s a problem: They’re difficult to paint, because nothing sticks to them. To correct this, engineer Voytek Gutowski, chief research scientist at Australia’s government-funded research agency, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, put his team to work to develop a new water-soluble organic compound. Applied like an undercoat, it modifies plastic and composites’ surfaces to enable easy painting. The technique was successfully tested and recently went into commercial use in Australia’s relatively small automobile industry. Gutowski says that compared with other means of coloring plastic, the compound “generates minimal waste, minimizes release of harmful chemicals to the environment, and delivers significant savings in cost, electricity, and greenhouse gas emissions.” Several multinationals are poised to adopt the process, he adds. – CHRIS PRITCHARD

Wind Sprints

The Chinese have produced the world’s fastest computer – or have they? “Peak performance doesn’t equal sustained performance,” points out Technology Review blogger Christopher Mims, noting that the NVIDIA GPUs used by China’s Tianhe 1A “are especially bad at the latter.” So, if judged in practical terms, the Chinese-developed supercomputer, which is capable of achieving 2.5 petaflops at peak performance, achieves that speed only in short bursts. Still, the Tianhe 1A is a stunning display of the speed with which China can achieve technological breakthroughs – a decade ago, it wasn’t even on the list. Now only the United States and the European Union have more computers in the rankings. – TG

Photo by Jill Steinberg

Panned Opera

Death and the Powers, the latest tech-heavy opus from the Opera of the Future group at MIT’s media lab, took director Tod Machover more than a decade to produce. It features nine life-size, singing “operabots” and an animated stage. The libretto, written with former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, concerns a wealthy inventor, Simon Powers, who disappears into his creation, The System. That allows the character to express himself through parts of the set: giant blinking bookcases and a musical chandelier. Alas, when Death premiered in Monaco in late September, the elaborate technology failed to win over critics. New York Times arts writer Michael Kimmelman called it “a real clunker” and “a debacle.” The International Herald Tribune’s Jonathan Levi said the 90-minute opera’s singing robots were “entertaining for about five minutes.” Ouch. A Machover spokesman told the Boston Globe, “We were all delighted with the quality of the performance . . . and look forward to having the opportunity to make the work even stronger.” – TG

Photo by Jill Steinberg.

College Tuition
Shock Absorbers

According to the College Board’s annual Trends in College Pricing report, tuition and fees at America’s colleges and universities continue to soar. At public schools, annual tuition jumped an average 7.9 percent to $7,605 for in-state students; with room and board included, the average total cost was up 6.1 percent, to $16,140. At private colleges, average yearly tuition increased 4.5 percent to $27,293; average total cost was up 4.3 percent, to $36,993. Yet because of big increases in federal grants and use of tax credits, the report notes, many students – especially from low-income families – haven’t been hit by the spiraling costs. A historic boost to Pell Grant funding in 2009-10 enabled 7.7 million students to share $28.2 billion in grants. Still, more students are taking on loans: Fifty-five percent of public-college students borrowed last year, to graduate with an average debt of $19,800. At private schools, 65 percent took on loans, to graduate some $26,100 in debt. A pressing question is whether the rising costs will affect enrollment. The College Board found that full-time undergraduate enrollment hit 13.5 million in 2009-10, up from 12.7 million the previous year. In a new report, however, the National Association for College Admission Counseling says that while most colleges reported a jump in applications during that cycle, 29 percent reported a decline, a falloff not seen in 14 years. – TG

Flying Humvee

Flying Humvee

It may sound like a gender-bending rock band, but the Transformer (TX) is actually DARPA’s latest sci-fi project. The Pentagon’s research agency is divvying up $9.5 million among a group of defense contractors and Carnegie Mellon University for the development of a humvee that can take off from a standstill, fly 250 miles, and drive across rugged terrain – mostly on its own. The semiautonomous flying TX would be used to get soldiers into and out of otherwise inaccessible areas. A human navigator would handle only the vertical takeoffs and landings, the start of the forward flight, and updates on the flight path, if needed. It’s not as fanciful as it sounds. One of the subcontractors is Terrafugia, a Massachusetts company cofounded by five MIT grads, which anticipates starting low-volume production and consumer sales of another flying car, the Transition, late next year, with a sticker price hovering between $200,000 and $250,000. Interested? Better get your pilot’s license. – TG

How App-ropriate

SensorsThird-party applications for Apple’s iPhone have captured everyone’s interest – not the least among them, university students. So now, a growing number of colleges – including Stanford and the Universities of Maryland and Washington – are teaching how to program and develop apps. Maryland professor Adam Porter tells Fortune magazine that his iPhone app class “gives students the chance to work with cutting-edge technologies” – and to produce an app that might stand out among the 300,000-plus already on the market. Professional programmers are also taking note. Computer engineers Barry Braksick and Charlie Hitchcock started their audio equipment company, Frontier Design Group, 15 years ago. But after the iPhone’s 2007 launch, they realized that it “was going to be one heck of a platform,” Hitchcock says. Today, half of Frontier’s revenues come from making iPhone music apps. But it was another tech platform that shot Frontier’s iShred electric guitar app to the top: a YouTube video. Posted last fall, it spotlighted the New York band Atomic Tom riding the subway and playing only virtual iPhone instruments – including the iShred. The clip went megaviral, and faster than you can say “Jimi Hendrix,” the iShred app became a global bestseller. Talk about striking the right chord. – TG

Tech Sector
Google Widens Net

In 2005, Google bought a small wireless company called Android; a year later, it snatched up YouTube. Both acquisitions are now paying off for the Internet search giant, though they initially puzzled investors and analysts. More recently, some of Google’s ventures have wandered further afield from its core business. The firm funded the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize contest to land a robot on the moon. It announced testing of self-driving cars on 140,000 miles of tough-to-drive California roads. And it has joined forces with an investment company to bring electricity from offshore wind farms to the Eastern Seaboard. Why? “Google is a company that likes to solve problems of scale using technology,” Nikesh Arora, Google’s global development chief, explained to the Los Angeles Times. And since its main business is booming – it has a market value of around $155 billion and is sitting on a $33 billion pile of cash – it can afford to indulge an altruistic streak. But some of Google’s non-core projects could also turn hugely successful and help boost its Internet business. As financial analyst Rob Enderle noted to the Associated Press, commuters in self-driving cars will have more time to surf the Web. – TG

2.5 Million - The number of engineers and technicians needed in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the United Nations’  Millennium Development goal of improving access to clean water and sanitation by 2015. Source: UNESCO report, Engineering: Issues, challenges and opportunities for development

In the Swim

NeptuneFit and athletic amputees – like sprinter/long jumper Aimee Mullins – have proved over and over that the loss of a limb is no reason to give up sports. Earlier this year, Colombian Nelson Cardona became the first amputee to climb Mount Everest, Earth’s highest peak. Amputee swimmers, however, have been held back. While other athletes benefit from well-designed prosthetic limbs, prostheses for swimmers have remained clunky, at best. Enter Neptune, a colorful but functional superflipper designed for competitive amputee swimmers. The creation of Richard Stark, an industrial design student at Sweden’s Umea Institute of Design, Neptune rests in an adjustable cup-shaped holder, and the fin itself consists of a rigid center strip and two flexible flaps. The flaps can be adjusted to require different degrees of muscle power. The fin also rotates 90 degrees so it can accommodate side kicks and up-and-down crawl motions. And judging from the video, it works swimmingly. – TG



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