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The geothermal wastewaters of California's inland Salton Sea are awash with lithium, according to a start-up California company, Simbol Mining. And that's good news, with the demand for the chemical ramping up as a key energy source of batteries fueling electric and hybrid cars. Past efforts to separate lithium from these boiling-hot geothermal waters 10,000 feet below the earth's surface failed because high levels of silicates clogged equipment, New Scientist reports. Simbol, however, has licensed technology from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that removes the silicates, making it easier to extract lithium and other minerals from the waters using nanofilters. If it succeeds, Simbol could give similar operations in Bolivia and Chile stiff competition - and do so with greater care for the environment. The company is building a demonstration plant it says will produce a ton of lithium a month, as well as quantities of zinc, manganese, and silver. As Simbol CEO Luka Erceg told the magazine: "The Salton Sea's got half the periodic table in it." - Thomas K. Grose

Dubai Building
Burst Bubble

Many of America's premier universities have in recent years rushed to open satellite campuses in the Persian Gulf. In August 2008, both Michigan State University (MSU) and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) opened their doors in Dubai. Unlike its neighbors, however, this emirate is not oil rich, relying instead on high-end tourism and hopes of becoming a financial center. But Dubai's been hard hit by the recession. As its economy headed south, huge numbers of its vast expatriate population headed out - along with Dubai's main pool of prospective college students. Last fall, RIT accepted 100 graduate students, but only half showed up. MSU anticipated 250 undergraduates, including electrical and computer engineering students - but got 80. To shore up its numbers, MSU offered the first 100 qualified transfer students a 50 percent reduction in the $15,840 yearly tuition. Both universities remain confident: MSU told the New York Times it is determined to remain in the Gulf, though it may now take five years to break even, instead of three. Meanwhile, RIT pledged that all enrolled students will be able to finish their degrees - even if they have to do so in Rochester. -TG

SOURCE: Science and Engineering Indicators, 2010; National Science Board

Portobello Packaging
Portobello Packaging

Polystyrene, better known by the brand name Styrofoam, is a useful building insulation and packaging material because it's cheap and lightweight. But it has long been the bane of environmentalists, since it's also petroleum based and not biodegradable. Now, a graduate from New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has devised an affordable all-natural alternative. Eben Bayer, who is a keen wild-mushroom hunter, concocted the material by mixing water and flour with mushroom roots and seed husks. It is so biodegradable, it can also be used as a compost. Moreover, it requires eight to 10 times less energy to produce than chemical-based foams. Bayer earned dual degrees in mechanical engineering and product design in 2007 and, with classmate Gavin McIntyre, started the company Ecovative Design to market his creation. EcoCradle, the company's organic packaging material, was named one of the top inventions of 2009 by Popular Science. Its insulation material, Greensulate, got a great product plug when featured on a recent episode of CSI: NY. Not surprisingly, Ecovative's business is already, ahem, mushrooming. -TG

Lightning on Purple sky
Atmospheric Research
Taming Zeus

Lightning is as common as, well, thunderstorms. Still, atmospheric scientists can't explain what causes it, nor can they predict where it'll strike. So in a project code-named NIMBUS, DARPA, the Pentagon's R&D agency, is asking researchers to solve one of nature's enduring enigmas. A better understanding of the physics of lightning could result in "revolutionary advances in the state of the art of lightning protection," the agency believes. Each year, this natural phenomenon causes death and $5 billion in property damages. DARPA hopes researchers can find a way to either inhibit lightning's formation, or block or divert bolts of it, helping to protect personnel, equipment, and ordnance. That tall order may require more than a flash of inspiration to fulfill. -TG

“There never was any allegation of criminal behavior.”

– Jim Walsh, chair of Stevens Institute of Technology's Finance and Investment Committee, commenting on the settlement of a lawsuit brought by New Jersey's attorney general that alleged mismanagement of the school's finances and endowment. The resignation of President Harold J. Raveche helped clear the way for the settlement.

Needs Work, Leonardo

Call it the da Vinci coda. More than 500 years ago in his Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo da Vinci sketched out a rough design for a hybrid musical instrument: the harpsichord-viola. It has a bow that strokes the strings, but it is played by a keyboard. It also has a wooden motor powered by a pump fastened to the musician's leg. The triangular-shaped, 33-pound instrument has now been built by Italy's Leonardo3, a company that has constructed re-creations of some of the master's other 15th-century designs. The harpsichord-viola got its first public airing in December at a New York exhibit, Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop. While the strings produced a sweet sound, they were nearly drowned out by the loud noise generated by the wooden gears. What to do? Massimiliano Lisa, Leonardo3 CEO, says the upcoming harpsichord-viola V.2 will be racket-free, thanks to an electric motor replacing the wooden one. It's an update to the instrument that Leonardo himself would probably greet with a hearty "Bellissima!" -TG

Point and Search

Augmented Reality (AR), which lets users mesh information from the Web with the physical world, is set to become a $730 million business within four years, says Juniper Research. Folks using an app from the social network Brightkite can, for example, point their cellphones' cameras at nearby buildings to learn if their friends are in the vicinity. Now Google has joined AR in a big way with its experimental app, Goggles. Smartphones that run Google's Android operating system can take pictures and get search results back within seconds. Snap a pic of a landmark building, and learn all about it - no need to type in words. Take a shot of a wine label, and read reviews about the beverage. Computer vision isn't new technology, but it requires huge amounts of computing power to cull through billions of images. Yet, with its powerful data centers, Google has the muscle to pull it off. "The breakthrough is doing this at this scale," Gary Bradski, a computer scientist at Stanford University, told the New York Times. Google admits the app needs work. Use it on landmarks, book jackets, works of art, and logos, and results are impressive. Plants, animals, and items of clothing, less so. But it's still early days. Google's Goggles, goal is to recognize any image. A picture was once worth a thousand words. The value may soon skyrocket. -TG

Cyber Security
Help Wanted

Cyber attacks on the U.S. government's computer networks are occurring at a fast and furious rate. They're also becoming more sophisticated. Yet Washington is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit skilled computer defense experts with the necessary security clearances, the Washington Post reports. Over the next three years, the Department of Homeland Security wants to bring 1,000 computer scientists on board. To beef up its cyber workforce, the government has relied on a National Science Foundation program, Scholarships for Service, which pays for two years of college in exchange for two years of federal service. But between 2001 and 2009, fewer than 1,000 students applied for the stipend. And those who have used the program are often cherrypicked by industry once their two-year stint is up. Conversely, computer software engineers were fifth on a list of hardest-hit job categories in 2009. Perhaps the best advice to laid-off computer engineers is: Move to Washington. -TG

Hope in Sight
gene research
Hope in Sight

The goal of giving eyesight to the blind may be closer to becoming reality, thanks to the work of two ophthalmologists at the Eye Institute of the University of Washington, Jay and Maureen Neitz. They have injected genes with color-detecting proteins into the eyes of two color-blind monkeys, enabling them to see the colors red and green for the first time. Color blindness isn't usually a debilitating ailment, but the results of the experiment suggest that gene therapy procedures might eventually be used to treat other forms of blindness. The Neitzes' procedure was cited by Time magazine as one of the top science discoveries of 2009. However, Jay Neitz cautions that there will be "a lot of steps before we actually cure real blindness in people." Indeed. But the research seems to be heading in the right direction. -TG

Mass Production
Mass Production

When it opens in 2012, the Shepherds Flat wind farm in north-central Oregon will be the world's largest. Owned by independent producer Caithness Energy, it will support an 845-megawatt operation capable of generating 2 billion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity a year - enough to power 230,000 households. A fossil-fuel plant of the same size would produce 1.5 million tons of greenhouse gases a year. Caithness awarded General Electric a $1.4 billion contract for 338 of its 2.5-megawatt wind turbines. Overall, the project will cost $2 billion to complete. Caithness is selling the juice to Southern California Edison, which signed three 20-year purchase agreements. The current record-holder is a 781.5-megawatt wind farm 200 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas, which opened last October and is operated by Germany's E.ON. The Caithness-GE deal caps a two-year period that's seen rapid growth in the U.S. wind-energy market. But Steve Bolze, head of GE's power and water unit, tells the Financial Times that gale-force growth could soon peter out if the United States doesn't enact a national renewable energy standard. "Without it, momentum will move to Europe and China, which have clear standards." -TG



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