Prism - January 2002
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Faulty Flotation Devices, Snapping Sea Species, Having a Ball

For Safety's Sake

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—With fear of flying at an all-time high, here's one more worry: life jackets. An Australian researcher notes the devices are engineered in so many different ways that passengers can easily become confused during life-threatening crises when every second counts. Based on recent research, she calls for a standard design to be used globally by the aviation industry.

Irmgard Bauer, senior lecturer in the school of nursing sciences at James Cook University in the northeastern city of Townsville, examined 98 safety cards from 53 airlines around the world, categorizing them to identify the range of designs in use. She found that 12 different categories of life jackets were carried, with some airlines using more than one type. What's more, not all seat-pocket safety cards accurately depicted the jackets actually on board.

Two airlines pictured two different jacket designs on the same card. Two carriers' cards even changed the type of life jacket half-way through their step-by-step illustrated donning procedure. Some cards failed to give clear and easily-understood instructions.

“Seasoned travelers routinely ignore in-flight safety demonstrations and may therefore remain unaware that life jackets on board differ from those depicted on safety cards,” she observed.

“There are too many designs,” said Bauer, whose study was sparked by air crash photographs showing empty jackets bobbing among debris in the water. She believes that some passengers, in their rush to escape, simply gave up trying to don them.

Bauer is calling for large-scale studies of the life-jacket issue, including simulations with passengers in aircraft cabins to evaluate jackets and procedures.


Deep Sea Digital

Marine biology, admits Dave Smith, a computer engineer at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) in Fort Pierce, Fla., still relies on nets to learn about species of the deep. “It is the only science still using 150-year-old technology,” he complains. The sea creatures we know anything about are “the slow, the stupid and the greedy,” Smith says, because all of the other countless ocean denizens avoid the nets. Submarines and robotic submersibles equipped with cameras haven't proved too useful, either, because not only are they expensive to operate but the lights they need to illuminate the underwater world scare off most animals. Enter the “eye-in-the-sea” camera, developed for HBOI by Harvey Mudd College, an engineering and science school in Claremont, Calif. The digital camera—which takes both still photos and videos—can operate to a depth of 3,000 feet. The Phillips black-and-white surveillance camera uses 20 LED light sources that produce an infrared light that most sea creatures cannot detect, yet is sufficient to capture images of anything up to six feet away. It also is fitted with a sensitive image intensifier and a fairly fast lens. The camera's computer, designed by the HMC students, is connected to a sensor that detects bioluminescence. Smith explains that most sea creatures—in some regions up to 90 percent—are luminescent to varying degrees. The sensor activates the shutter. The camera also can be programed to snap photos every few seconds—or sooner if the sensor detects something near by. All images taken by the camera are saved on a hard drive, and the camera can be reprogrammed from above the surface. Sounds like a net technological gain for marine biologists.


A Hole in One

Nanotechnology, the science of building and operating machines atomic in size, will require drills that can make holes one-thousandth of a millimeter in diameter. Clearly, nanotechnologists can't run down to Home Depot for a drill bit that size, so laser beams are the likely solution. However, while beams projected through a glass lens create a sharper ray, they don't quite do the job. Now researchers at Iowa State University may have the answer: shooting pulsating, high-intensity laser beams through a beaker of liquid. Mechanical engineering professor Palaniappa Molia and graduate student Diwakar Ramanathan use a beaker full of carbon disulfide, a toxic chemical. Ramanathan notes that that chemical is one of several liquids with the properties “that bring the laser beam to focus over a very short distance.” Liquid lenses should prove useful in the “micro-machining of holes and patterns on different materials,” including computer chips, he says. Not only does a liquid lens create a finer, more precise beam, but it may have a longer shelf life. Glass lenses eventually wear out after constant zapping by laser beams. Then, too, so do the glass beakers holding the liquid. But as Ramanathan points out, it's much, much cheaper to replace a beaker than a precision-made lens.


The Nobel Prize for Water

While the fields of medicine and information distribution have made huge leaps forward devising and implementing new technology, environmental engineering—water quality in particular—subsists on advances made decades or even centuries in the past. It is with this in mind that the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) has started a new award, the Paul L. Busch Award, for innovation in applied water quality research.

The $100,000 award is the most prestigious of its kind. But unlike most prizes that are doled out to scientists generally at the end of their career, this award will be given to an individual or research team who shows promise by making big contributions to research and its practical application early or in mid-career.

WERF's new award seeks to support and promote work that blazes new trails and brings new benefits to the water quality community, such as utilities, industries, environmental firms, and the water-using public. The inaugural recipient of the award is Nancy Love, associate professor of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on studying the molecular-level mechanisms that govern activated sludge systems, the bacteria that keep most wastewater in check.

She's seeking to develop a fingerprinting sensor technique to be used at wastewater treatment plants so that operators can figure out what is upsetting the bacteria.

Paul L. Busch was the CEO of Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. environmental engineers and researchers until his death in 1999. A graduate of Harvard and MIT, Busch pursued innovation in environmental management. He was president of the American Association of Environmental Engineers, a National Academy of Engineers member, and chairman of WERF. During his 40-year career, he encouraged many environmental engineers in academia to make research relevant to practitioners, legislators, regulators, and the public and to seek new technologies for environmental problems.


Bridge Over the River Tyne

GATESHEAD, ENGLAND—Some products or structures serve their functions so well that's it hard to think how they can be improved. Take the drawbridge. When a boat that's too tall to pass beneath it comes along, the bridge opens up to let it through. Hard to beat the logic in that design. But the town of Gateshead in northeast England may have come up with a better idea. To connect a new arts and leisure development with Newcastle Quay across the River Tyne, it built a foot bridge. But instead of opening to let tall ships pass, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge rotates skyward, like a gigantic blinking eyelid. To accomplish that feat, it uses a “world-first” tilting mechanism that turns on pivots on each bank. In its “up” position, the $32 million bridge has a clearance of 164 feet. Its total span is 413 feet, but it's manufactured to a tolerance of just 1/8th of an inch to accommodate the pivoting action. Each opening and closing maneuver takes four minutes. And because it's built so efficiently, it uses only about $5 of electricity each time it's operated. City officials expect it will be rotated open about 200 times a year. The Millennium Bridge has other cool features, as well. It's whitish-blue in color in daytime. But at night, it's lit by a multi-colored light show that's further enhanced by its reflection in the river. And any litter on the bridge automatically slides into special traps at each end when it opens, helping to keep the river clean. So proud of the edifice were city officials, that celebrations—including a foot race and the brewing of special ale—were held to commemorate its opening in September.

Let's hope that Gateshead's Millennium Bridge meets a better fate than the Millennium Bridge built across London's River Thames for pedestrians. Two days after it officially opened in June 2000, the London bridge was closed because of excessive sway. The beautifully-designed span, meant to connote a blade of light, apparently wobbles because of the synchronized footfall that occurs when hundreds of people walk across it. Engineers say the bridge is not unsafe—merely disorienting. Still, it was closed while special shock absorbers were installed beneath it to correct the problem. The London Millennium Bridge was scheduled to reopen last month—if there was no footdragging on the repair work.


Toss Me That Robot

In science fiction, robot sidekicks are usually vaguely human-looking, like Star Wars' 3CP0. And even R2D2 had head and arm-like features. But in science fact, the first android helper in space will look more like, well, a softball. NASA is developing what it calls a PSA, or Personal Satellite Assistant, to help astronauts aboard space shuttles and the International Space Station. The autonomous, floating sphere will not only be self-propelled, but fitted with sensors to allow it monitor environmental conditions, including oxygen, carbon dioxide, bacteria growth, temperature, and air pressure. Sound cool? But wait, there's more.

The smart orb will also have wireless network connections, a camera for video conferencing and a voice-recognition system to receive commands from its human masters. It's “an intelligent robot that essentially can serve as another set of eyes, ears, and nose for the crew and ground-support personnel,” says Yuri Gawdiak, principal in-vestigator for the project at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. Gawdiak says shuttle crews suggested the development of handheld, wireless por-table data assistants, and NASA scientists took that, er, ball and ran with it. The idea is that the PSA can zip around in the tight spaces of a space ship, and keep the astronauts' hands free to do other chores. NASA expects to have PSAs aboard shuttles in two years, and working in the space station a year later. Maybe it could at least paint a happy face on them.


Filtering Out Foreign Students

Foreign students have long been an important resource for American universities. In 1999-2000, 514,723 students from overseas attended U.S. institutions. Just over 66,300 of them were in California, where their presence contributed $1.6 billion to the state's economy. Moreover, as David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, a lobbying organization for U.S. universities, points out, the advances in high technology that lit the last decade's economic boom “would not have occurred without student and faculty exchange programs that brought so many talented people to this country.” But the door to U.S. schools may be partly closed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Higher-education officials worry that the government may further tighten visa rules and that will lead to a fall off in enrollments from overseas. Even before the attacks, Washington was taking a tougher stance on student applications from China. Ward, in testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee, agreed that the government must ensure that “foreign students do not become a source of criminal behavior,” and that schools must cooperate with these efforts. And toward that goal he suggested better funding for the State Department offices that vet student applications. But that said, Ward also made a plea for allowing more, not fewer, foreign students into American classrooms. “If we wish to increase international understanding, we ought to increase the opportunities” for foreign students, he said, providing that there are safeguards that “students who come here to study pose absolutely no threat to American safety and security.” Ward noted that the vast majority of international students return to their homes as fans of America, making them goodwill ambassadors. Moreover, he said that, so far, no one directly involved with the September atrocities had a student visa. U.S. universities also welcome a long-delayed plan to better monitor foreign students and to more quickly alert the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) when a student's status changes, Ward said. But the schools strongly oppose an INS plan to make the students pay a $95 fee to finance the program. That could reduce the number of foreign student applications, he said, and force schools into acting as “bill collectors” for the government. Ward urged Congress to provide government funding to implement the program. Another group, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, accepts the need for the monitoring system as well, but also wants Washington to foot the bill.




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