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 FIRST LOOK

NSF ALARM + BORDER SECURITY + SMART FOOD WRAP

ocean engineering
ocean engineering
Doomed Again

It has rested for almost 100 years in the eerie darkness at the bottom of the ocean. But according to an adjunct civil engineering professor at Halifax’s Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, the Titanic won’t be around for anyone to celebrate its bicentennial. Henrietta Mann says that a new bacterium, fittingly called Halomonas titanicae, is consuming the ship’s hull at an alarming rate. She predicts the ocean liner may completely disintegrate within 20 years. According to Mann, the decaying process has sharply increased since submersibles have started diving the wreck, spreading the bacteria with their propellers and speeding up its growth with the vessels’ underwater lights. Still, she says, it’s all part of a natural process. “Nature makes it, and nature takes it back. This will be the end result of the Titanic – rust on the ocean floor.” Mann adds that studying the bacteria may yield practical benefits, enabling scientists to create coatings that could prevent similar disintegration in subsea structures such as offshore oil and gas pipelines. –PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS



CAPITOL HILL
Targeting NSF

The new Republican majority in the House is vowing deep cuts in federal spending — and they want your help. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., launched the YouCut Citizen Review website to let voters pinpoint wasteful spending. The site’s first target: the National Science Foundation. In a webcast, Smith declared he supports basic research but contends NSF has funded some “questionable projects.” He singled out two: $750,000 to develop a computer model to analyze soccer players on the field, and $1.2 million to model the sound of breaking objects for video games.

The blogosphere’s scientific community reacted with alarm. New Scientist called the idea “especially chilling.” Charles Day, a Physics Today blogger, noted that Smith attended Liberty University, an evangelical school that teaches creationism. USA Today’s Dan Verango quotes a science historian calling the attacks “just anti-intellectualism, a blast at eggheads, basically.” It also was widely observed that the research Smith derided was hardly wasteful. The soccer study will help improve how remote teams of scientists collaborate. The sound modeling was done by acoustics experts working to improve combat simulators for U.S. troops. Day, however, says all scientific research should be able to withstand scrutiny. So he’s hopeful that if folks troll NSF’s grant approvals “they could be surprised, relieved, and intrigued,” causing the stunt to backfire on the GOP. – THOMAS K. GROSE



STATE BUDGETS
Squeeze on Colleges

Most public universities faced cuts in state funding last year, so it’s unsurprising that net tuition revenue jumped an average of 11 percent at nearly every state college. A survey by Moody’s, the bond-rating agency, also found that 81 percent of public schools expect to raise tuition this year by an average of 4.4 percent. The smaller anticipated increase in tuition isn’t a result of better prospects for improved state aid. Quite the contrary. Public schools are reluctant to hike tuition too much because of pressure from politicians and students. Meanwhile, universities may face even bigger cuts in public funding as states deal with ongoing revenue shortfalls and stimulus funds run out. Last year, 46 states cut programs and raised taxes to deal with a combined $130 billion budget gap; so far, 40 states are projecting gaps totaling $113 billion. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts that next fiscal year could be the worst ever. Total state revenue slumped 30.8 percent last year, to $1.1 trillion. That blow was softened by the $814 billion stimulus bill that pumped $165 billion into state coffers, and much of that went to higher education and health care. Congress is unlikely to bail states out again. –TG



Self-Made Robots
ADVANCED MANUFACTURING
Self-Made Robots

The technology behind 3-D printing, or rapid prototyping, has been developing, well, rapidly. It’s also quickly branching out far beyond its initial use of making prototypes of industrial components. Guided by 3-D CAD software, the machines typically use ink-jet technology to manufacture objects from the bottom up, thin layer by thin layer. At Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, researchers are now using 3-D printers to create “genetic robots” that automatically design and manufacture themselves. So-called genetic algorithms consider the job that needs to be done, then design a number of different robots and select and build the one best suited for that task. Meanwhile, 3-D printer manufacturer Stratasys recently teamed up with Kor EcoLogic to use two of its machines to create the entire outer body — including windshields — of the Urbee, an electric/gasoline hybrid car. There are no plans yet, however, to mass produce the two-passenger, three-wheel vehicle. Finally, researchers at Cornell University are developing a 3-D food printer. The device’s “inks” are raw food ingredients. For now, that’s limited to ingredients that can be squirted from a syringe — cookie batters or melted chocolate, for instance. But researchers envision a machine that one day could dish out an entire gourmet dinner. An acquired taste, for sure. – TG



TURBINES
TURBINES
Fresh Breezes

Wind turbines may have become much more efficient over the years, but most still are shaped like windmills. Now WinFlex, an Israeli company, has grabbed a GE Ecomagination Challenge prize for its design of a turbine that’s inflatable – like a bicycle tire, which it resembles. The air-filled wheel is made from a light, flexible composite material, as are the clothlike spokes connecting it to the hub. WinFlex says the design will cut installation costs by half, and that it’s more efficient and requires less maintenance than traditional turbines. Meanwhile, Francis Moon, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University, working with a team of undergraduate students, developed a wind-power device that is turbine free. It’s called Vibro-Wind and uses 25 foam pads that oscillate when the wind blows. Those vibrations are turned into electricity by piezoelectric transducers. Unlike turbines, they’re fairly quiet, making them better suited for urban use. Moreover, unlike turbines, they pose no risk to birds, bats, and bees. They’re also much less expensive to make and require less space than turbines. Looks like renewable energy is feeling the winds of change. – TG



The percentage of Americans in a survey who are willing to see cuts in education as a way to reduce government spending. They were more willing to cut infrastructure (34 percent); science and medical research (26 percent); and aid to the unemployed and poor (21 percent). Eleven percent had no opinion. *

*FACTOID SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES FEB. 21, 2011, BASED ON A NEW YORK TIMES/CBS NEWS POLL OF 1,036 PEOPLE NATIONWIDE CONDUCTED JAN. 15-19



border security
border security
Try, Try Again

The United States and Mexico share a 1,900-mile-long border, and efforts to use technology — grids of sensors and virtual fences — to seal it off from illegal immigrants and smugglers have proved costly and largely ineffective. Can a new system called Helios, devised by a British company, finally provide a workable solution? Researchers at the University of Arizona, working with Tucson geophysical engineering firm Zonge, are trying to find out. Made by Fotech Solutions, a maker of optical fiber monitoring devices, Helios is a mix of fiber-optic cables, lasers, and detectors. If anything moves over the buried cables, it creates distortions in the laser pulses traveling through them. Those signals can be deciphered to indicate if the movement comes from humans, animals, or vehicles. The same technology has long been used to monitor things like bridges and dams for cracks and strains. “It’s a matter of scale,” Scott Urquhart, Zonge’s president, says of this version of the technology. Each section of cable would stretch for around 30 miles, so conceivably it could be laid in 64 end-to-end sections to monitor the entire border.

The Arizona researchers say it’s too early to tally costs, though they think it would be a cheaper remedy than others that have been tried. Oh, and the cable can’t be disabled by cutting through it. A severed cable will still issue an alert. – TG



urban planning
Less Is More

In the aftermath of the property-market crash and subsequent Great Recession, Atlanta is suffering a major real-estate-in-the-red crisis. One of America’s most overbuilt cities, Atlanta now has 24 million square feet of empty office space. So what would happen if big chunks of those buildings were torn down and the space used to create parks? According to researchers at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, it would create $20 billion worth of economic development, 175,000 temporary jobs, and 100,000 permanent ones. In a project called Red Fields to Green Fields, the researchers are now studying whether similar results would befall five other metro areas across the United States.

The idea comes from fund manager Michael G. Messner, who financed the study. To pay for the acquisitions, a land bank federally funded with $200 billion would issue loans to developers. Adjacent land would be bought and banked for future sustainable development to help retire the loans. Studies show that land values near parkland typically increase and nearby businesses thrive. Meanwhile, shaky banks finally could take billions of dollars worth of toxic loans off their books. Writes Messner in a Washington Post op-ed piece: “Philanthropic entrepreneurs could use leverage to remake America, just as some of our bad developers used easy bank financing to help create the excesses.” Sounds like a walk in the park. – TG



Cyber Security

firefighting
Through the Haze

To fight forest fires, responders must be able to locate the source. And firefighters mostly rely on infrared cameras, which measure the intensity of heat radiation, to help pinpoint and target the flames. But if a fire is particularly smoky, the resulting dust particles make detection of infrared rays almost impossible. To the rescue come researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute. They’ve developed a radiometer that can scan forest fires no matter how thick the smoke is. Its sensors work at low-range microwave frequencies of 8 and 40 GHz that are less affected by particles in the air. From a height of around 330 feet, a prototype – attached to the underbelly of an unmanned airship – was able to locate fires as small as 16.5 feet by 16.5 feet in very low visibility conditions. It can also help detect fires burning underground. That’s a big help, because after a forest fire is extinguished there are still dangerous pockets of fire smoldering beneath the earth. TG



Mass Production
ARCHITECTURAL ENGINEERING
Last Resort

Above the water line, it looks like a floating Slinky toy. But the concept hotel nicknamed the Ark is actually more clam shaped, its bottom half submerged below water. Designed by the Russian architectural firm Remstudio, the Ark is intended both to endure floods and to be environmentally friendly. The lower half would house its self-contained life-support systems. The arch shape would allow for the positioning of solar panels to more effectively capture the sun’s rays. It’s wrapped in a transparent polymer called Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, which is not only energy-efficient, durable, self-cleaning, and recyclable, but lighter than glass. ETFE also was used in the recently opened, 495-foot-tall Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center in Kazakhstan designed by British architect Norman Foster. – TG



sustainability
Arid Rain?

In Abu Dhabi’s eastern desert, where summer showers are very rare, a Swiss technology company claims it caused it to rain 52 times last summer during an $11 million government-funded experiment. Metro Systems International attributes the downpours to Weathertec, its “innovative rainfall-enhancement technology.” The device uses “ionizers” that release trillions of negatively charged particles into the atmosphere. As they rise with the hot air, they attract dust, and when moisture in the air clings to the clumps of dust, rain clouds form. MSI says it works when atmospheric humidity reaches 30 percent or more. Peter Wilderer, a sustainability expert at the Technical University of Munich, witnessed Weathertec in action and tells Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper that he’s convinced it works. Are desert rainbows on the horizon? – TG



Mass Production
Shore Protection
Big Price, Little Result

Soon after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and began spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last April, a Dutch engineering firm recommended building 40 miles of sand berms — at a cost of $360 million — to stop the oil from reaching shore. Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who oversaw the spill response, balked; a panel of experts told him it wouldn’t work. But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal backed the plan and lobbied the federal government hard for construction of the berms. So late last May, Allen relented and OK’d them. But the presidential commission investigating the spill calls the effort “underwhelmingly effective” and “overwhelmingly expensive.” As of October, two months after the wellhead was capped, only 10 miles of a planned 40 miles of berms had been built – at a cost of $200 million. They had captured only 1,000 gallons of oil, a “minuscule” amount of the 4 million gallons released, the report says. The cost of the berms was paid by BP, which also doubted their efficacy, calling them at the time a “hurricane relief project.” Jindal has accused the commission of “partisan revisionist history.” Meanwhile, the commission’s final report says the catastrophic explosion and leak were avoidable and resulted from “a failure of management” by BP and its subcontractors Halliburton and Transocean. According to the Financial Times, the finding strongly raises the likelihood of criminal charges. –TG



FOOD PACKAGING
FOOD PACKAGING
Color Me Spoiled

A staggering 27 percent of all food sold for consumption in the United States ends up in dumps. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food scraps constitute 12 percent of municipal landfills, making food the single largest component of the country’s waste stream. A lot of perfectly edible food is tossed out by consumers who think it may have “gone bad.” To help reduce that kind of waste, researchers at Scotland’s Strathclyde University are developing a plastic wrap that would change colors and warn consumers when the food inside is no longer fit to eat. “At the moment, we throw out too much food, which is environmentally and economically damaging,” says Andrew Mills, the professor of chemistry leading the project. The research has gotten $504,000 in funding from Scottish Enterprise, a government board. Some food-industry packaging has freshness indicators inserted inside labels, but that’s a costly technology. Mills seeks to develop an inexpensive wrap. It would have obvious health benefits, too. An estimated 76 million Americans contract food poisoning every year, and 5,000 of them die. So a smart wrap could help save lives. – TG



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