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FIRST LOOK - Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Photos courtesy of james balog /

climate science
Extreme Ice

Breathtakingly vast, Greenland’s ancient ice sheet turns out to be as fragile as it is formidable. Huge chunks—one twice the size of Manhattan—splintered with thunderous cracks from its giant glaciers this summer. NASA scientists also were stunned to see the whole 660,235-square-mile surface briefly turn into slush. Environmental photographer James Balog has spent the last five years documenting the impact of Earth’s big thaw on 16 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska, and the U.S. Rocky Mountains. His stunning new book, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, culls glittering images of frozen landscapes transformed by erosion and meltwater from among scores of photos snapped every half-hour by 34 time-lapse cameras. Each freezes a fleeting moment in our changing climate. – Mary Lord

Photo courtesy of james balog /


crop science

Are hybrid farms the future of American agriculture? An eight-year study conducted at Iowa State University indicates the idea is worth further cultivation. Researchers divided a 22-acre plot of prime farmland into three fields. In the first, they planted corn one year, soybeans the next—a crop rotation typically employed by Midwest farmers—and used lots of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Crops in the second field were on a three-year rotation cycle using corn, soy, and oats, with red clover planted during the winter and plowed into the soil in the spring to replenish it. In the third field, corn, soy, oats, and alfalfa were rotated on a four-year cycle; the alfalfa was fed to animals whose manure fertilized the field. Rather than eschew chemicals, the researchers just used them tactically, and in low doses. Result: After eight years, the longer-rotation fields used eight times less herbicide than the traditional field, and 86 percent less chemical fertilizer. There was also a 200-fold reduction in toxins leaching into groundwater in the experimental fields. The study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also determined that the experimental fields were as productive and profitable as the conventional one. Though the hybrid approach requires more labor, higher wage costs were offset by savings from reduced chemical use. As one University of Illinois crop scientist told Wired: “Needing more labor means more jobs. It will be good for rural communities.” Not to mention the environment. – Thomas K. Grose

Photo courtesy of istock


advanced manufacturing

Quick Sanitation

A University of Washington student group has won the $100,000 3D4D Challenge, sponsored by, a British charity that sees additive manufacturing as a means to bring social benefits to the developing world. The students designed Big Red, a 3-D printer that takes shredded plastic waste, melts it, and uses it as its “ink” to print composting toilets and parts for rainwater collection systems. Matthew Rogge got the idea while working with the Peace Corps in Africa and Latin America, where he realized it isn’t easy to build irrigation and sanitation systems without customized parts. The team will use the money to partner with the nonprofit company Water for Humans to try out the technology in Oaxaca, Mexico.

New York City sees 3-D printing as a budding new industry. Using a pair of nylon scissors only just printed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently cut the ribbon at the groundbreaking in Queens of the 25,000-square-foot Factory of the Future. The Dutch company behind the facility, Shapeways, offers people the opportunity to make, buy, and sell customized products fabricated by state-of-the-art 3-D printers. The site will house 50 giant printers capable of using a variety of materials, including acrylic, nylon, glass, ceramic, and precious metals. In true New York fashion, it will operate around the clock. – TG

Photo courtesy of istock


Genetic Makeup

For $470 a pop, the Organic Pharmacy, in London’s chi-chi Chelsea district, offers customers a DNA test that will match them with skin-care and beauty products best suited to their skin. The 30-minute test is provided by geneOnyx, a cloud-based analysis company, which has licensed technology originating with Christofer Toumazou, a professor of biomedical engineering at Imperial College. Toumazou developed what the company says is a new class of semiconductor sequencing that’s relatively inexpensive and offers results quickly at the point of care. A saliva sample is deposited on a chip, which is plugged into a USB stick and inserted into a PC or smartphone, which, in turn, shoots the data to a cloud-based lab. The analyses can be tailored to any sequence of interest, and a version of the technology is already being used by several major drug companies in their genetic research. – TG

Photo courtesy of istock

Photo courtesy of Google / Connie Zhou

Energy Usage
Servers’ Big Appetite

Cloud computing. It sounds so, ahhh . . . airy, light, and clean. In actuality, it’s anything but, the New York Times reports. The super-warehouse-size data centers, crammed with servers, which make up the “cloud,” waste about 90 percent of the electricity they consume. Only 6 to 12 percent of the power is used to do calculations; the rest keeps servers idling, just in case they’re needed. They also have to be kept cool, so require a lot of air conditioning. Drawing around 30 billion watts of juice a year, the output of 30 nuclear power plants, the world’s data centers consume 1.5 percent of the globe’s total electricity. Search giant Google claims to be an exception. Not long after the Times article appeared, Google let the press into its Lenoir, N.C., center for a one-time-only peek and posted video tours on YouTube and Street View. Google says only 10 percent of the electricity it grabs from the grid is wasted. It has figured out a way to keep temperatures inside a comfortable 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the heat generated by its servers flows into an enclosed “heat aisle” — where temperatures hit 120 degrees — and is then absorbed by coils and pumped outside. – TG

Photo courtesy of Google / Connie Zhou


Audio Engineering
Adjustable Ambience

After lousy service, what diners dislike most in restaurants is noise, a survey by restaurant guide Zagat found. Earlier this year, the New York Times sampled 37 restaurants, bars, stores, and gyms, and found that noise levels were dangerously high in a third of them. Sound engineers told the Times that people drink and eat more when music is loud and fast. Such music also attracts a younger clientele. So how can a restaurant maintain a fun “buzz” without annoying customers? When John Paluska, who managed the band Phish for 17 years, opened a 3,000-square-foot Mexican restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., he contracted audio engineer John Meyer to install a sound-control system. Hidden within the restaurant are a variety of materials that dampen reverberation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But the restaurant, Comal, has also been fitted with 123 speakers, subwoofers, and microphones. The system captures the sound and then feeds it back into the restaurant. With an iPad, Paluska can microprogram the sound levels to vary from area to area. He tends to keep things hushed in the dining rooms and a bit louder in the bar area – enough, perhaps, to drown out stale pickup lines. – TG

Photo courtesy of istock

Photos courtesy of The University of Manchester

Slime Fuel

You’ve heard of Minute Rice? How about 60-second Biocrude? Researchers at the University of Michigan have figured out how to “pressure cook” wet algae for no more than a minute, transforming 65 percent of the slimy plant into biofuel. “We’re trying to mimic the process in nature that forms crude oil with marine organisms,” explains chemical engineering Prof. Phil Savage. To do that, Savage’s team buries a capped steel pipe filled with Nannochloropsis micro-algae in sand heated to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. After a minute, the algae reach 550 degrees; most have become biocrude, with 90 percent of the plant’s energy retained. The breakthrough could prove cheaper than current $20-a-gallon methods for making biofuel from algae, which require the algae to be dried first. Meanwhile, a recent National Research Council report warned that the massive amounts of energy, water, and nutrients needed to turn algae into biocrude remain big barriers to mass production. The report also noted “uncertainties” about the level of greenhouse gas emissions that would be released during production. A process like Michigan’s, that takes drying out of the equation, might one day make a more sustainable option. – TG

Photo courtesy of iStock


Singapore Showplace

When the new Singapore National Sports Stadium opens in 2014, it will boast the world’s largest domed roof. Constructed of ultrathin steel and retractable, the roof will weigh in at 8,881 tons and cover 215,278 square feet. The roof’s two sides will also house what the architecture and engineering firm Arup calls “the largest addressable LED screens in the world,” while around 3,000 LED lights will dot its steel trusses. Built to host soccer, rugby, cricket, and other athletic events, the 55,000-seat stadium will use an energy-efficient cooling system that delivers pockets of cool air to each seat. Such creature comforts will no doubt help to sell the 61 executive suites, which start at around $59,000 and top out at around $222,200. – TG

Photos courtesy of singapore sport hub / oaker


Flying Objects

If the U.S. Air Force had had its way back in the 1950s, residents of Roswell, New Mexico, wouldn’t be the only ones claiming to have seen flying saucers. Recently declassified documents, including schematics, from the National Archives reveal plans to build a fleet of aircraft that looked like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. A cutaway view of Project 1794 from 1956 shows a saucer-shaped vehicle with a pilot’s cockpit housed in a bubble-like protuberance in the middle. The craft was designed for vertical takeoff and landing and flying at speeds of up to Mach 4 with a ceiling of 100,000 feet. Two prototype “proof of concept” subsonic versions of Project 1794 were built by the Canadian aeronautical firm Avro Aircraft. Tests, however, showed both to be unstable, and the Air Force canceled the project in 1961. – Pierre Home-Douglas

Photo courtesy of istock


Naval Engineering

Craft Warning

Should conflict break out in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian navy cannot come close to matching the U.S. fleet in firepower. But Iran is capable of launching suicide attacks using small, fast boats. To counter this kind of threat, the U.S. Navy recently developed a robotic, 36-foot speedboat with an inflatable hull, equipped with Israeli-made Spike missiles, a .50-caliber machine gun, and night-vision cameras. In three days of tests off Maryland’s coast, the drone successfully launched six missiles at a target a mere two miles away. While the Air Force has for more than a decade used drones to fire air-to-surface missiles, the Navy has used them only defensively, mainly for sweeping mines. It hopes, however, to eventually use a flotilla of drones to patrol waters around its larger ships. But the robotic patrol boats could also be used to guard coastlines and to protect shipping traffic from pirate attacks. – TG

Photo courtesy of Rafael Advanced defense systems ltd


Disaster Engineering
Water Works

When floods inundate huge swaths of your city, who are you going to call? The Unwaterers! Part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Unwatering SWAT Team is a civilian crew of around a dozen engineers based in Rock Island, Ill. After Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast on October 29, parts of New York City were submerged in 13 feet of water. Hundreds of millions of gallons filled five city subway lines, two train tunnels, and three major roadways. The SWAT team—composed of electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic engineers as well as emergency management experts—arrived a day later with a variety of impressive pumps, including one so powerful it can drain an Olympic-size swimming pool in 15 minutes. Unwatering, the art of removing water from places where it’s not meant to be, differs from dewatering, which is sucking water from places where it is OK for it to be. While New Yorkers may have chuckled at the team’s name, they clearly appreciated engineers who knew how to unwater their city’s critical transportation infrastructure. – TG

Photo courtesy of istock

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