Prism Magazine - February 2002
Waging War
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Waging War

By Bruce Auster

Engineering schools across the country are taking to the trenches in the fight against terrorism, using the weapons they know best: their research facilities.

The White House was calling. Tom Ridge, the President's new Director of Homeland Security, approached the engineering faculty at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University recently with a simple request. As a former governor of Pennsylvania, Ridge knew all about the university's expertise in fields such as computer security and robotics. But when he came calling last fall, he was looking to find specialists he could rely on in a crisis. So the university passed along a list of some dozen faculty members with special expertise who could help Ridge and the nation in the fight against terror.

Ever since the horrific attacks of September 11, the engineering community has been asking how technology might have averted the tragic events—and whether scientific know-how might help prevent other catastrophes in the future. Perhaps not surprisingly, the list of almost-ready fixes is a long one. And it is no wonder that former Gov. Ridge turned quickly to engineering educators for ideas. Across the wide spectrum of engineering disciplines—from civil engineering to materials to computer sciences and beyond—work in the labs offers promise that the unthinkable can be anticipated and that new threats to America's infrastructure or to the public health and safety can be averted.

Still, technology is not a cure-all. Engineers know this better than most in the scientific community. “One of the definitions of engineering is the application of science to solve real problems,” says Carl Locke, Jr., the dean of engineering at the University of Kansas. “We can dream up all sorts of structures, but we can't always afford them.” Recent technology has revolutionized society, and in the process, the scientific world is being reshaped in three dimensions at once, as knowledge is advanced in the fields of information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. The wizards of the laboratories can conceive of and invent devices that might detect biological pathogens or that might prevent a fully-fueled airliner from collapsing a skyscraper. But engineers know that the challenge is to devise technologies that can be used to solve real problems, and that is a different matter entirely.

So the task is not merely to invent the latest and greatest gadget. The technology already exists to equip airports with advanced systems to detect weapons or explosives (one version, for example, called ion mobility spectrometry, is not unlike CT scanners used in hospitals). And civil engineers who have studied the collapse of the World Trade Center towers are already brainstorming to discover ways to make the skyscraper invulnerable (imagine reinforced concrete plates bolted onto steel walls). But there is no way to predict whether airports or building developers will be willing to pay the premium to avert an ever-so-unlikely but truly catastrophic event.

After all, the events of September 11 were not the first hint that America was vulnerable. Three years ago, after bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorists struck two American embassies in Africa, the engineering community engaged in the same debate. “Engineering has a unique role to play in advocating appropriate policies [in the defense against terrorism]... and in encouraging the public to assess intelligently the issues of cost versus risk,” wrote George Bugliarello of Polytechnic University in, The Bridge, which is published by the National Academy of Engineering. At that time, the nation remained willing to take its chances. But after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the calculation may have changed. The task for engineers, however, remains the same: to offer technological solutions to combat terrorism that can find their way into everyday use rather than languish on a white board.

This is not a new mission. In times of crisis, the university has always rushed to serve the country's aid, says Ilene Busch-Vishniac, the dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. “We also have served by identifying key scientific and technical obstacles that could be turning points in wars and working to overcome those barriers,” she said in a speech shortly after the attacks. There is a long history of such assistance, dating at least to the Manhattan Project during World War II. “Postwar science policy was born from the significant contribution science made in winning the war and from the recognition that a vibrant research enterprise could equally serve the nation's needs in peacetime,” explained Rita Colwell, the director of the National Science Foundation, in a recent lecture.

Immediate Assistance

In the days following September 11, a number of engineering schools mobilized to offer Washington advice and expertise. “We do try to provide critical rapid response for the government as needed,” says Busch-Vishniac. After deans and directors at Johns Hopkins held an emergency session in September, the university established its own counter-terrorism program, headed by the director of Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory. Even before the terrorist attacks, a university department had been awarded a Hazardous Substance Research Center by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The center had planned to study the propagation of aerosols in urban areas; now the research can be tailored to consider how a crop duster might deploy airborne anthrax spores. At Carnegie Mellon, Dean John Anderson tapped one of his professors to head the small office that serves as a clearinghouse for any government requests, whether they come from Ridge's Office of Homeland Security or from members of Congress. Anderson named electrical engineer Ken Gabriel to the post because the professor served the Pentagon as an official at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency prior to joining CMU four years ago. “He knows Washington,” says Anderson.

Scientists and engineers in Oklahoma, it turns out, are particularly well equipped for a quick response. The 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City jolted the community there. That is one reason, says David Thompson, an associate dean at Oklahoma State University's engineering school, that his school is the world's largest publisher of emergency personnel training materials and can quickly help train disaster response personnel in the latest techniques. “We're in a unique position to look at training, preparation, and materials,” says Thompson. “This is not something that takes five years; within months, this will have an impact.”

But many critical solutions are still in the lab, and the task for engineers will be to turn smart ideas into practical applications. The surprise nature of the attacks of September 11—a low-cost, low-tech effort in which hijacked jets were used as guided missiles—has forced engineers (and government officials) to recognize that terrorists determined to do harm to America will not oblige and attack where the defense is strongest. That means the hunt for answers cannot be limited to fixes for what has already happened. “I think there are other kinds of terror we're vulnerable to that we're not paying attention to,” says Janie Fouke, the dean of engineering at Michigan State University. “We're always acting in a way that made sense for the last event. Overcoming that is the most difficult challenge.”

If Fouke is right that engineers must do more than guard against another anthrax scare, then the political and technological challenge is as vast as the list of potential targets. There is the nation's transportation infrastructure: the bridges, train stations, and tunnels that carry people safely to and from work everyday. There is the national power grid, which must be centralized enough to deliver power efficiently but not too centralized lest an attack shut down the system. There is the water supply, which must be protected from contamination. And there are information networks, which are still vulnerable to cyber attack. “Something that brought down electronic networks could bring horrific economic damage,” says Fouke.

The scope of the challenge means that every engineering discipline has a part to play in the search for solutions. Civil and mechanical engineers have already studied the collapse of the World Trade Center to discover why the towers collapsed and to learn whether the catastrophe might offer insights into how to safeguard buildings in the future. Environmental engineers will study means to protect water supplies from contaminants. Electrical engineers will be studying new ways to transmit data; another lesson of September 11, after all, was that more traditional methods of communication, like land phone lines, were unreliable. Instead, people communicated by BlackBerry, a handheld wireless e-mail device. Computer scientists, for their part, are renewing efforts to ensure that information networks are robust. (At the University of Kansas, a new course on the Internet and security is wildly popular. “You may see more courses like that develop,” says Dean Locke. “There were concerns about terror before, but not like now.”)

Change in Direction

Many engineering schools are discovering that work that was already underway can, without much trouble, be refocused to help in the war on terror. That was true of research on the propagation of pollen at Johns Hopkins, which was undertaken to help inform the debate over genetically modified corn. Now it has other applications: “The research doesn't change much if you refocus on crop dusters releasing anthrax and ask how it would propagate,” says Dean Busch-Vishniac. “You can typically adapt without a major shift in focus.” At the University of Kansas, faculty members had traveled to Turkey to examine damage after devastating earthquakes there. What they learned may help as they work now on the problem of strengthening structures—and not only skyscrapers—to withstand attack. “It is rare that you start research activity from zero,” says Dean Fouke. “You start from somewhere, take something that is known, and look at something that is unknown. That is what innovation is; it is different from discovery.”

Of course, many of the ideas getting attention do involve technological answers to the questions of the moment—which means that much of the work now underway involves making air travel safer or averting biological terror. One approach, according to Dean Anderson involves what he calls data-mining in real time. In other words, computer scientists can help spot patterns that could alert officials to danger. “If people were simultaneously infected with smallpox, and two got to one emergency room and two go somewhere else, how do you connect that information so you see a pattern?” Anderson asks. “How do you get that first alert quickly?” Carnegie Mellon is studying that very problem at its Center for Automated Learning and Discovery.

Most of the current research, however, involves finding ways to detect an attack. That is why the development of new sensors is a critical part of the anti-terror effort. “Sensor technology is a hot area for research in a number of areas,” says the University of Kansas's Locke. Among them: the detection of biological threats, the detection of explosives, and even the detection of computer viruses. The fascination with sensors is not new. Locke recalls plans for the development of sensors during the Vietnam War that the military intended to use to spot infiltrators on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Projects being considered now are more promising. Detection of biological agents, such as anthrax, is at the top of the list. “Envision if we'd had a sensor in place at the postal service that could sense anthrax,” says Locke. The trick will be to develop a sensor sophisticated enough to detect the wide range of chemical and biological agents that can be lethal. “The question,” says Carnegie Mellon's Anderson, “is how to combine [sensors for all threats] in a small element and then to get the information out.” Cutting edge research, combining the fields of nanotechnology and distributed detection systems, holds promise. The “canary on a chip” concept marries detection systems with computing and networking. “You can detect something and get information to somebody,” says Anderson.

New sensors also are being developed to detect bombs and explosives; there are almost as many approaches as there are engineers working the problem. At the University of Louisville, for example, says dean of engineering Thomas Hanley, the faculty is undertaking a “Biomems” program, which could result in the use of microdevices to diagnose or treat biological problems. “You could use it in a variety of ways,” says Hanley, “including as a sensor device that could detect explosives.” Other approaches include ion mobility spectrometry, a technology that can spot the distinct electrical properties of explosives; such systems are already being built.

But the sensors, whether they are intended to detect bombs or smallpox, are still not entirely practical solutions to the terrorist threat. Some cannot identify a wide enough range of biological pathogens. Others require large quantities of support equipment to process the results. And then there is the matter of cost. The Federal Aviation Administration recently told Congress that it will cost at least $4 billion to acquire advanced bomb scanners, a move that new air safety legislation passed in November requires. Others argue that the cost could be more than double that. So far, despite the new law, no one has stepped up to determine what technology will be selected or how to pay for it.

Design Dilemma

Designing buildings that might withstand terror assaults—even attacks as destructive as flying a jet into a skyscraper—presents perhaps the starkest example of the dilemma engineers face as they seek ways to prevent future catastrophe. Almost immediately after the planes brought down the World Trade Center towers, civil engineers began seeking to understand why the buildings toppled. Early on, of course, it was discovered that the heat from the fires, not the impact of the planes, was the cause of the collapse. But scientists and
engineers are seeking to learn much more. The National Science Foundation is providing $300,000 in grants to eight research teams to learn critical details about what actually happened on September 11. The NSF wants the researchers, among other things, to: evaluate how the structural steel at the towers performed; develop a land-based laser to map the site; examine the seismic effects of the collapse on nearby buildings; and learn about the interplay between systems, so that the organization can understand what happens to the rest of the building, for example, when electrical power is lost.

One person who received an NSF grant has already conducted on-site research at Ground Zero. Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl is a professor of civil engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, and barely a week after the attack he visited the Trade Center site as well as the scrap yard in Jersey City where the twisted remains of the building are being brought. His initial observations support the theory that the heat of the fires (which may have ranged from 1,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) brought the building down; he has found, for example, pieces of structural steel that show signs of having been sliced by the airplane; other pieces are still bolted together, which suggests they bent, under the heat, but didn't break from impact. Other pieces of evidence indicate that the columns of the building remained sturdy but that the floor supports gave way, which helps explain why the building pancaked, rather than tipped over. Astaneh wants to develop a computer model that explains how the buildings fell.

Once civil engineers like Astaneh understand what happened, they will try to find ways to prevent such a thing from happening again. Astaneh's work on steel structures in the past has led him to design a unique system that involves bolting reinforced concrete plates to sheer steel walls. But will developers, governments, or taxpayers be willing to endure greater construction costs to make buildings safer? After all, the World Trade Center had been designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707; no one anticipated an attack by a larger, fully-fueled jet. “It's not that we couldn't have figured it out,” says Thomas Hanley, the dean of engineering at the University of Louisville. “What we're looking at here becomes a real expensive proposition. What kind of materials would you use? Are there ways to reinforce buildings? If it's too expensive, we may see a move away from large buildings.” Other solutions might be less drastic but more practical: Better sprinkler systems, for example, might have suppressed the fire and kept the steel from losing integrity. Other solutions might simply allow buildings to stand longer, so that more people might escape.

For Astaneh, the exercise is not purely academic. When the Iranian-born engineer came to the United States in 1978, his first stop was New York City, where he visited the Twin Towers. Later, he studied the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The reason: He had been a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and the Alfred P. Murrah building was the location where he began the process that made him a naturalized American citizen. While Astaneh's story is unique, in one way it is typical: Many engineering students at American universities were born overseas. Locke guesses that about half of his graduate students at the University of Kansas come from abroad.

Foreign Born

Some engineering deans, therefore, worry that the anti-terror campaign may have perverse consequences—and perhaps even undermine the openness that is a hallmark of education. “Universities have always been the epitome of open institutions and, in light of terrorist activity, the first question is should we continue to be so open,” says Busch-Vishniac. “I'd argue the answer is a resounding yes. If the university loses its openness, then we wreck the very institution that has promoted understanding and built bridges between people.”

So immediately after September 11, a number of universities worked to ensure that Muslim students were not targeted or discriminated against. But the risk remains that a backlash against foreign-born students could prevent academicians like Abolhassan Astaneh from helping to safeguard the nation against terrorism. “We have serious concerns that Congress might take action to limit students coming to us to do graduate study,” says Kansas's Locke. “I think we get a decided advantage from students who come to study here.” One solution might require universities to screen and track foreign students more closely, to be sure that if they are in the United States on a student visa, they really do study. “I think universities are willing to cooperate,” says Locke, with agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Once the engineering community does take on the terrorists, the only limit on what is possible will come from outside the lab. “Engineers can do anything you ask,” says Louisville's Hanley. “It's usually the corporate world and the public that determine what's the tradeoff. It doesn't make sense to design a system that's cost prohibitive. That's not an engineering decision, that's a cultural decision. Once those parameters are set, we engineers respond.”

In the end, the events of September 11 may well mark the moment—as the Manhattan Project or Sputnik did long ago—when science, technology, and engineering embraced a new challenge and reinvented the world. Things long neglected, like the roads and bridges of America's physical infrastructure, may be modernized; aging power plants may be upgraded. “Ten years from now we will see it was the long-term responses that were most important,” says Busch-Vishniac. “Only in the fullness of time will we look back and say, ‘Aha.'”


Bruce Auster is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at