PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - JANUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 5
briefings
PRISM - BRIEFINGS

INNOVATION - SPINACH POWER

Next time you're eating lunch at your desk, consider this: a laptop powered by a spinach sandwich. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have figured a way to harness the energy conversion prowess of the vegetable every kid hates. Leafy green plants like spinach are extremely efficient machines for converting sunlight into energy. Scientists have had difficulty using plant proteins that control photosynthesis because plant cells need water and salt to survive for more than a few hours. And water and salt are anathema to electric circuits. The solution turned out to be a membrane of peptide surfactants, basically soap. MIT bioengineer Shuguant Zhang manipulated the peptides to form a new natural emollient that keeps the spinach proteins alive and working on a dry surface for three weeks. How? He's not sure, but Zhang thinks the peptides carry small amounts of trapped water inside them. The spinach proteins are then sandwiched between gold-coated glass and a soft, organic semiconductor. A laser beam activates the veggie power cell. Early versions converted about 12 percent of the light to power, and Zhang thinks that can be boosted to 20 percent or more by stacking additional layers atop one another. In other words, by supersizing the spinach sandwich.
Thomas K. Grose


EDUCATION - TENURE TROUBLE

Is Harvard University falling down on the job when it comes to granting tenure to female professors? That's the considered opinion of many women academics at the Ivy League school. The issue came to a head early in the fall when 26 female senior professors from 17 departments wrote a letter to Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers citing a worsening trend in the tenuring of female faculty that's contemporaneous with his appointment. In the 2000-01 academic year, the last before Summers came on board, 37 percent of Harvard's tenure offers to professors in the arts and sciences went to women. Last year, the percentage fell to 11. In October, more than 50 faculty members met with Summers. They presented him with a two-page set of recommendations to improve diversity at the Cambridge campus. Summers has noted that Harvard has implemented a $25 million outreach fund to improve minority hiring, and pointed out that three of the school's deans are females, as are four of its six vice presidents. He termed the meeting "very constructive," and said improving diversity would be a "major focus" in future recruitments. —TG


NOW YOU KNOW: - PERCENTAGE OF PH.D.S IN ENGINEERING AWARDED TO WOMEN IN 2003: 17.5%


ROBOTS - INSIDE INFORMATION

Courtesy the University of NebraskaSeconds count when someone is injured and has internal bleeding. So researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are developing a "mini-robot" that could be inserted into an incision in a patient's abdomen and transmit images to surgeons back at a hospital. Ideally, the robots would be 5 to 15 mm in diameter and 30 to 50 mm in length. Depending on what images the robot sends back, a doctor could, if necessary, give paramedics instructions to stop dangerous internal bleeding. "The first step is getting the little guys inside to look around," says Shane Farritor, a professor of mechanical engineering. But the ultimate goal is tele-surgery. Future versions of the robots will likely be remote-controlled by surgeons to carry out basic clamping, cauterizing, or clotting procedures. And, Farritor adds: "They may also be of use in operating rooms to give surgeons an extra point of view." —TG


NANOTECHNOLOGY - THE PROMISE AND THE PERIL

LONDON—Certainly nanotechnology is becoming megapopular, in both academic and industrial labs. Researchers see huge potential benefits in the manipulation of materials at the atomic, molecular, and macromolecular levels. Their results could lead to improved and new drugs, better ways to fight water pollution, and stronger, lighter materials. But how much risk to the environment and human health do nanoparticles and nanotubes pose? Britain's Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society looked into that issue. Their recent study concludes that although most current nanotechnologies probably pose no new threats, there hasn't been enough research to fully determine what if any dangers are lurking in the labs. So it recommends that until there is a better understanding of the risks involved, the release of nanoparticles in the environment "be avoided as far as possible." Manufacturers should treat free (as opposed to embedded) nanoparticles as hazardous materials and keep them out of waste streams. It does not, however, think that a moratorium on the development of nanoparticles is warranted. The study further recommends the creation (in the UK) of an interdisciplinary, independent research center dedicated to studying potential risks so that health, safety, and environmental practices can keep pace with developments in the field. —TG


CYBERCRIME - HANDS UP, HACKER

Cybercrime is on the increase. The FBI estimates that computer-generated crime, including identity theft and fraud, costs business and government $11 billion annually. And that's probably a very conservative number since the majority of cybercrimes go unreported. Moreover, computers often contain evidence about other more traditional crimes, including murder and drug trafficking.

So cops need some high-tech help. To their rescue come some top schools like Purdue University, Carnegie Mellon University, Northwestern University, and Dartmouth College. These schools are partnering with law-enforcement agencies to fight computer-assisted crime. Purdue's department of computer technology last year held three workshops on computer forensics. Department head Lonnie D. Bentley says interest in those sessions among law-enforcement officers, students, and academics was keen. The burgeoning discipline of computer forensics, he says, "is just exploding."

There is already a waiting list of students who want to enroll in Purdue's program. Currently, however, there are no national standards for computer forensics education and certification. That gives defense lawyers a big loophole to disqualify damning evidence in court. Marcus K. Rogers, an associate professor in the department and a former police officer, is focusing on that issue. He's been involved in setting up Purdue's computer forensics curriculum and helping to establish national standards for such programs. Criminals are often early adaptors of the latest in hardware and software, Bentley says. Authorities are concerned about Web browsers that don't leave trails and wireless technology that's highly vulnerable to hacking. That means that the bad guys will always be somewhat ahead of the white hats chasing them, he says. But with ongoing help from academia, the cybergap separating good and evil can be substantially narrowed. —TG


INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY - YEN FOR PATENTS

Tokyo—Second only to the United States in the number of patent applications filed, Japan has always been stingy about rewarding the employees who dream up breakthrough products. But the tide has finally started to turn in favor of inventors—a flurry of recent court rulings has frightened corporations into raising the bar for compensating innovation. The revolution was fomented largely by a rebel named Shuji Nakamura, whose research at a small chemical firm in western Japan led to the invention of the blue light-emitting diode (LED) used in DVD players. In a country where engineers were accustomed to meekly accepting a few hundred dollars for their labors and lawsuits were unheard of, Nakamura early this year won a suit against his former employer, earning $183 million in exchange for handing patent rights to the company.

The Tokyo High Court has since ordered Hitachi Metals to pay over $100,000 to an ex-employee who devised a method of using nitrogen for manufacturing permanent magnets. Hitachi's argument—that it was burdened by the costs of research and commercializing the idea—didn't wash with the court.

Such litigation has prompted many firms to act pre-emptively: The Hiroshima-based Mazda Motor Corp., for instance, has announced it will abandon a $9,000 limit on compensation for inventions, and instead reward inventors according to their share of the research. Mazda and other leading corporations such as Matsushita Electric and Sony each file nearly 1,000 patents annually. The pharmaceutical company Takeda Chemical Industries was also prompted to expand its invention compensation budget to $1.8 million. —Lucille Craft


INNOVATION - A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR LIGHT

Academic Entrepreneurship: University Spinoffs and Wealth Creation by Scott Shane; Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.; 332 pages.

Next time you're doing a bit of "Googling," give thanks to the concept of the university spinoff because the technologies behind Google and many other successful companies, including Cirrus Logic and Genentech, were all hatched in academic labs. The recently published book, Academic Entrepreneurship: University Spinoffs and Wealth Creation, is a massive overview of the commercialization of university research. Written by Scott Shane, an economist at Case Western Reserve University, it notes that companies formed by spinoffs tend to be robust: They're 108 times more likely to become publicly traded than other new businesses. He also finds that potentially commercial research, while still in the lab, is very embryonic and typically needs four more years of nurturing and $4 million of investment money before it's ready for prime time. Although Academic Entrepreneurship discusses what's necessary for successful spinoffs, Shane admits he can't say for sure why some work and some don't, or how spinoffs affect their schools. "Our knowledge of spinoffs is still fragmentary and limited." —TG


POLYMERS - A KNIGHT IN NYLON ARMOR

POLYMERS - A KNIGHT IN NYLON ARMOR: New protective fabric that can stop bullets and knife stabbings.University of Delaware chemical engineering professor Norman Wagner spent 10 years conducting government-funded research into liquids whose viscosity increased when they were agitated. For many manufacturing processes, like paper coating, the stiffening of fluids was a major headache because it gummed up machines. After devising ways to solve those problems, Wagner then wondered if there was some "good" use for these "shear-thickening fluids." Meanwhile, after the infamous Blackhawk Down episode in Somalia, in which U.S. military personnel were ambushed by urban guerilla fighters, the Pentagon began looking for ways to improve body armor. One of the most popular fabrics for stopping bullets is Kevlar, but it's costly, bulky, and not easy to wear. Moreover, because it's used to make vests, it doesn't protect arms and legs. Wagner became convinced the thickening fluids might provide a solution. He started working with former Delaware mechanical engineering graduate student Eric Wetzel, now a researcher at the Army Research Lab at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. They developed a fluid that's a mix of superfine particles of silica glass floating in a liquid polymer. Dip a piece of cloth in it, dry it, and the material seems no different than before, just slightly oilier to the touch. But strike it with a knife or shoot it with a gun, and it instantly stiffens on impact and can't be penetrated. Talk about faster than a speeding bullet! It then returns to its usual flexibility.

"The [treated] material is smart," Wagner says. Initially, his team worked with Kevlar, which can stop bullets but not knives. Sure enough, the treated Kevlar warded off knife stabs, too. And they've since shown that the treatment works with nylon and other materials that are much less expensive than Kevlar, more comfortable to wear, and could be used to make clothes that protect more parts of the body. Police officers and prison guards, for instance, often need stab protection more than bullet protection. Other civilian uses are in the works, too, Wagner says, including outfits to protect people in cars or motorcycle riders, and to toughen sports apparel. Perhaps someday we'll all routinely be wearing clothes that keep us covered in every sense of the word. —TG


ENERGY - REALLY STEAMED OVER HYDROGEN

The centerpiece of any future hydrogen economy—in which energy needs are met by an endless supply of nonpolluting hydrogen—must be fuel-cell cars that run partially on gasoline. But while hydrogen is omnipresent in our environment, there's no ready supply of it. It must be extracted. One option is reformers that use steam to remove hydrogen from gasoline. But current versions of reformers take 15 minutes to produce enough hydrogen to get a car going. No driver is willing to wait that long. However, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have developed a reformer that starts pumping out hydrogen in 12 seconds. It conducts the reforming in microchannels, which allows for faster reactions. But the Department of Energy has since decided to stop funding reforming technologies and concentrate instead on the onboard storage of hydrogen, says Larry Pederson, a PNNL lab fellow. Certainly, reforming is problematic. It's still dependent upon nonrenewable gasoline, though much less of it. The process isn't clean, either: carbon is a byproduct. And reformers need a lot of energy to warm up. But the lab's breakthrough may not go to waste. Pederson says the lab's working on a reformer that could be combined with a membrane separator to produce high-purity hydrogen from clean alcohol fuels at filling stations. —Lucille Craft


WIRELESS - AFTER THE FALL

Professor Tay wearing the device in a vest.SINGAPORE—An aging population means more elderly people falling down. But a Singaporean engineer's invention may ensure that help arrives quickly after someone takes a bad spill.

The new alarm involves a sensor-transmitter system attached to a piece of clothing that sends messages even if the wearer is sprawled unconscious and unable to activate the alarm. With currently available systems, the injured person must press a button and a message is relayed through telephone networks.

"We use Bluetooth wireless technology," says National University engineering professor Francis Eng Hock Tay, who developed the device. "The fall is communicated to the victim's home computer or cellular phone, which in turn alerts a family member, friend, or a doctor."

A small sensor, which is fitted on the left side of a person's chest, detects the speed and tilt of the wearer. After a fall, the device triggers a tiny transmitter attached to the bottom of the person's garment, and their emergency contact is notified immediately. —Chris Pritchard


WORKPLACE - DEGREES OF ENGINEERING

America's entire science and engineering workforce totals 4.7 million, according to statistics recently released by the National Science Foundation. But surprisingly, more than a fifth of those workers do not have at least a four-year degree: 811,000 have associates' degrees, and 225,200 just have high school diplomas. The vast majority of the workforce, 48 percent, have bachelor's degrees. Twenty-two percent have master's, 7 percent have earned doctorates, and 2 percent professional degrees. Most of those without a four-year degree, 492,900, work in engineering, although they represent just 20 percent of the 2.5 million workers classified as having engineering jobs. Another 454,200 work in computer and math science jobs, but they make up 40 percent of the1.15 million workers in that category. Only 29,000 employees in the life sciences have less than a bachelor's degree. Gender doesn't seem to matter: About a fifth of the 3.6 million men employed in science and engineering, and about a fifth of the 1.1 million women, haven't earned four-year degrees. —Lucille Craft


 

FEATURES
Lending a Hand - By Margaret Loftus
Crafting a New Curriculum - By Lucille Craft
Measure for Measure - By Alvin P. Sanoff
horizontal line
COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS
E-MAIL
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
Tech View - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
TEACHING TOOLBOX
THE SCIENCE OF FUN: Entertainment engineering programs are sprouting up. - By Linda L. Creighton
TEACHING: The Voice of Experience
FACULTY'S FINEST: Marcus D. Ashford
ON CAMPUS: A River Runs Through It
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: 2020: It's Sooner Than You Think - By Stephen W. Director
BACK ISSUES

3rd Nano Training Bootcamp - July 12 - 15, 2005 - Washington D.C.

 

ASEE logo