weeks after the September 11 terror attacks, bioterrorism quickly
went from being a theoretical threat to a real one as cases of anthrax
exposure multiplied, infecting 15 people and leaving five dead. In
response, an alarmed American government began enlisting biotechnology
companies to help defend against a large-scale biological attack.
Erickson, a spokesperson for the Biological Industry Organization
(BIO), said "the campaign against bioterrorism will create a
boon for smaller companies," many of which have "some really
neat stuff that's been sitting on their shelves" that could prove
useful in combating germ warfare. While the initial anthrax scare
faded as the number of cases of contamination dwindled to nil, the
notion of vulnerability that it created still exists, and the demand
for technology that might work as a defense against bioterrorism has
company that has benefitted from the bioterrorism threat is Avant
Immunotherapeutics, based in Needham, Mass. It is a leading developer
of oral vaccines that protect against such diseases as cholera and
typhoid fever. In October, it licensed some of its vaccine technology
to DynPort Vaccine Co., which has a government contract to develop
products to protect against biological warfare agents.
Cepheid is another biotech company that's been drafted into the bioterror
war. It makes a portable DNA detection kit that can, within minutes,
determine if biological agents have been released in an area. The
company's device uses a real-time chemical reaction that is capable
of detecting trace levels of a target organism's DNA. "Rapid,
accurate test results are critical for emergency preparedness and
response, and our DNA detection technology has demonstrated its value
for these types of time-critical applications," says Chairman
and CEO Tom Gutshall.
also located in California, is working on creating chemicals that
bind and neutralize the DNA of harmful bacteria. No one wishes that
any of these defensive technologies will ever need to be used. But
there is a certain comfort factor in knowing that if a bioterror attack
can't be thwarted, there are technologies in the offing that may help
mitigate its effects.
myth or dirty secret? There have been news reports that some microbiologists
routinely take samples of pathological agents to conferences to swap
with colleagues. "I've never heard of anyone doing that. I just
don't believe it," says Janet Shoemaker, spokesperson for the
American Society for Microbiology (ASM). "Who in their right
mind would want to carry vials of ebola virus or anthrax in their
briefcase?" she asks.
Congress--alarmed by last fall's anthrax attacks--is cracking down
on the handling of the most dangerous biological agents in university
labs. Researchers who work with radioactive material or plant or animal
pathogens already labor under much stricter controls, proponents say.
And although some scientists have groused that the incoming regulations
will have a chilling affect on research, the ASM says that's not likely.
"It won't be unduly burdensome," Shoemaker says. Much of
the legislation is aimed at increasing somewhat lax lab security:
making sure freezers are locked, people have security cards, and that
lab employees have undergone background security checks. "In
our opinion, this is something labs should have been doing all along"
under existing guidelines, she explains. The ASM did successfully
fight a proposal to ban all foreign nationals from working with the
36 most pathological agents, a deadly list of viruses, bacteria, and
fungi. Now, only those researchers who come from the seven countries
designated as sponsoring terrorism (Iraq, North Korea, and Cuba, among
them) are banned. After the anthrax attacks, law enforcement officials
were astounded to discover that there are no databases listing which
U.S. labs store these materials, and what and how much they have in
stock. That's an oversight that will quickly be remedied.
Jaw takes a Bigger Bite
at the Sandia National Laboratories have created the world's first
microjaw. It may have only a minuscule bite, but it could pack a big
wallop in the fields of drug discovery and delivery and bioengineering.
The tiny apparatus, which is about one-third of the width of a human
hair, opens and closes in a split second. And with each chomp, its
small teeth are capable of puncturing 10 cells flowing through a microchannel.
In the prototype, researchers have used red blood cells, but it will
work with other types of cells. The masticating machine, nicknamed
Pac-Man by its creators because of its resemblance to the video game
figure, could be used to implant DNA or proteins into a cell. The
teeth will soon be replaced by tiny needles that could inject drugs
to battle bacterial or viral infections. Another possible application
of the microjaw is implanting genes in stem cells. Stem cells can
change into a variety of tissues if given the proper genetic orders.
We've shown that we can create a micromachine that interacts
at the scale of cells, says Murat Okandan, a Sandia researcher.
a demonstration tool with a flexible technology that may have a wide
number of applications, he adds. Moreover, the microjaw relies on
computer-chip production techniques, so it can be manufactured cheaply
and easily. Sandia anticipates a huge appetite for the jaw from biotech
companies and hopes to start licensing the technology later this year.
Space Age Technology
TV show Star Trek calls space the final frontier. And
just like previous Earth-based exploration efforts helped bring about
advances in shipping, railroads, and communications that had commercial
applications, many of the technologies needed to explore space have
industrial and consumer uses as well. For example, a sensor developed
by NASA to monitor atmospheric air quality may soon help smokestack
industries reduce pollution. But getting space technology into the
hands of businesses that can adapt it is not always easy. In a new
commercial effort, the European Space Agency (ESA), in partnership
with D'Appolonia, the Italian engineering company, has launched T4Tech
(www.t4tech.com), an online portal aimed at transferring space technology
to small- and medium-sized companies.
portal includes an online consulting service that has access to 200
experts drawn from Europe's leading research labs. And a partnership
formed with the European Association of Research and Technology Organizations
will soon increase that pool of experts to 20,000. Another goal is
to put manufacturers of space technology in contact with small companies
that can adapt those technologies to their needs, explains Raimondo
De Laurentiis, project manager. Because space-age technology isn't
cheap, the site also offers information on European Commission and
ESA funding programs that are available to small businesses.
already has had several success stories. ICOP is a company that develops
landslide containment systems, and it wants to incorporate robots
in its work. T4Tech put the company in contact with experts at the
University of Genova, and they are now involved in a $805,000 project
with ICOP called Roboclimber. In a $40,000 deal, a company that makes
highly specialized gears for satellites will make its hardware available
to a railroad company that wants to use it to help move huge shipping
containers from roads to railways.
T4Tech's revenues are derived from corporate sponsors of the Web site.
The site's first-level consulting service will remain free, but royalties
will be charged to those companies that want more in-depth expert
help. And T4Tech also plans to charge a finder's fee when it successfully
brokers deals between companies. Helping transfer space technology
to industry has its rewards.
Off the Old Block
who has walked amid urban canyons of tall buildings on a blustery
day knows just how much city blocks spilling over with offices can
affect the wind. But imagine if those buildings could capture that
wind power and transform it into energy. That's exactly what a group
of academic and private-sector engineers in Britain set out to do.
They've come up with a conceptual prototype to incorporate wind turbines
into buildings. Project WEB, or Wind Energy for the Build Environment,
combined the talents of engineers from London's Imperial College of
Science, Technology, and Medicine, Germany's University of Stuttgart,
BDSP Partnership (a London engineering firm), and Mecal Applied Mechanics
(a structural and mechanical engineering company, also based in London).
funding from the European Union, the project's goal was to design
a building that could produce at least 20 percent of the energy it
required. As BDSP says, These buildings must be energy efficient;
otherwise the turbines risk becoming a purely aesthetic feature.
The finished product is an aerodynamic, twin-tower design that bookends
the huge turbines. The design is rounded to channel the wind into
the turbines' blades. The project's goal was to develop wind enhancement
and integration techniques that make the most out of available wind.
A small-scale prototype was field tested and passed with flying colors,
though Neil Campbell, a BDSP engineer, says that a real building would
require solving a few detailed design problems.
wind energy comes from wind farms, a collection of land-based turbines.
Project WEB hopes that building-based turbines sidestep the problem
of gaining planning approval that wind farms often face. Alison Hill,
spokesperson for the British Wind Energy Association, applauds the
idea of placing turbines into urban towers, but says the notion that
wind farms face NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition is largely
a myth, at least in Britain, Europe's windiest country. About 74 percent
of Britons approve of wind power, and that approval rating shoots
up to 79 percent among people who live close to wind farms. Perhaps
the British have come to accept turbines because wind power has proven
cost-efficient in their country. Compared with traditional fuels,
only gas is marginally cheaper than wind there. In the last decade
turbines have become bigger, and technology has made them better at
transforming wind into energy. Says Hill: Wind will be a significant
power producer in the future no matter what country you're in. The
technology is well established. And it makes for pretty neat
a Class of His Own
Class Cadet Brendan Gavin, a senior in mechanical engineering at the
U.S. Coast Guard Academy, was initially a bit wary when he got Commander
Vince Wilczynski as a professor this fall. Something like Experimental
Methods of Fluid and Thermal Systems doesn't have the most inviting
sound to it, he explains.
his apprehension about the classes was for naught, however. Commander
Wilczynski taught them in a way that made sense to me and everyone
else. He is one of the best instructors I have ever had, Gavin
was selected from more than 400 nominations to win the Outstanding
Baccalaureate College Professor of the Year awardand even more
impressive is the fact that he is only the second engineering professor
to win the award in its history. The annual award is sponsored by
the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
helped develop the Academy's mechanical engineering program six years
ago and has held administrative positions as both department head
and associate dean. He reports, however, that his heart lies with
his interactions with the students. Although he has been asked to
take administrative positions again, he has turned them down. I
suspect that it would cut down on my chance to work with cadets building
autonomous submarines, table top robots, and thermal measurement systems,
so I'm holding out a bit longer, he says.
to his work at the Academy, Wilczynski is involved in FIRST (For Inspiration
and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization
created by famed inventor Dean Kamen that brings high school students
together with professionals in the fields of science, mathematics,
donated his award money to the Academy's alumni association to
be used to help provide a margin of excellence to cadet learning,
he said, another way for him to give back to the community he so clearly
works to develop.
States fares poorly in Science
important is science to the America of today and tomorrow? Unparalleled.
The war on terrorism, for example, will require advances in everything
from microbiology to structural engineering to telecommunications.
And, recession aside, huge increases in U.S. wealth and productivity
in the last decade were largely hatched in laboratories.
science remains of utmost importance to American economics and security.
Eerily, a report released early last year by the U.S. Commission on
National Security likened poor math and science results among American
students to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in
a U.S. city. Nonetheless, educators fear that Americans still don't
give science enough respect. Those worries were underscored by the
recently released results of the National Assessment of Educational
progress, a quadrennial report card on how American students are faring.
And when it comes to science, the answer is, not very well.
The performance of high school seniors in the test's science sector
was down from 1996 levels, indicating that student understanding of
the fundamentals of science is declining. Eighty-one percent of 12th-graders
scored below proficient in science, as did 71 percent of 4th-graders
and 68 percent of 8th-graders.
Wheeler, national director of the National Science Teacher's Association,
says the results prove that U.S. parents and school districts don't
place nearly enough importance on science teaching, which he says
should be the fourth 'R. This lack of emphasis on science
exacerbates an acute problem in education, he says: A lack of qualified
teachers. Retention and recruitment of science teachers has been hit
by the demand for scientific skills in industry, which lures away
many good or potentially good teachers to better-paid, private-sector
jobs. Wheeler acknowledges that teacher pay will never achieve parity
with industry, especially in highly compensated jobs in engineering
and information technology, but says the gap should be greatly narrowed.
Today's classroom salaries are an injustice that don't
reflect the professional status of teachers, he adds. As a result,
many school are finding it harder and harder to keep good science
teachers in the classroom. Proposed federal legislation will
provide more money for differential pay, bonuses and merit pay, but
it won't come close to bridging the salary gap. Wheeler says.
safe to say that if science were considered an essential subject by
the general public, additional supportand fundswould be
allocated accordingly, Wheeler claims.
Whole Lot of Shakin'
few years, designers of buildings and bridges who are working in,
say, Texas, will be able to operate earthquake or tsunami simulation
experiments at a lab in California. Or one in Colorado. Or any one
of 20 engineering centers that will comprise a grid called the Network
for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. The broadband, Internet-based
virtual lab should be available for limited used as a prototype in
2003, and fully operational in fall 2004.
will also be able to quickly share data and software. It is
absolutely a goal of the (network) to encourage collaboration
among structural engineers, earthquake researchers, tsunami specialists
and emergency-response experts, says Tom Prudhomme, a scientist at
the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University
of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which is designing the grid. The project
has received a $10 million National Science Foundation grant.
that can be used from afar are becoming de rigueur. For instance,
astronomers can access some telescopes remotely, and materials scientists
can peer into online electron microscopes. The network's objective,
Prudhomme adds, is to comprise a collaboratory for the earthquake
engineering community to use to get more work done, better and faster.
Structural engineers will be shaking with anticipation to log on.
Trash into Cash
AustraliaSlag heaps are mountainous eyesores of waste found
on the fringes of steel mills. But Australian engineers say they have
found a way to turn trash to treasure by recycling more of this byproduct
is currently used worldwide in buildings and roads for cement blending
and improving the life expectancy of concrete structures. But, explains
Vute Sirivivatnanon, head of the sustainable materials engineering
unit research team at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organization (ASCIRO), that is blast furnace slag resulting
from production using mined raw material.
group's research involves another type: electric arc furnace slag,
a byproduct of the process in which scrap metal is used rather than
the output of mines. And after a year of testing, ACSIRO business
development manager Robert Baker is confident that this form of slag
promises a number of commercially viable options.
them are anti-skid surfaces for paved highways. The highways department
in Victoria tested slag from the mill and found that it provides an
excellent skid-resistant material for roads. The researchers believe
it will be popular for stretches along curves or near dangerous intersections.
Other uses include blending it into asphalt or concrete for different
types of road surfaces and as an inexpensive additive instead of stone
and sand to low-strength concrete for sidewalks and bicycle paths.
found a way to turn something ugly that just sat there into a useful
and profitable product, Sirirvivatnanon said.