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 BRIEFINGS

HER MAJESTY´S TURBINE + DROUGHT CROPS+ E.R.-ON-A-CHIP

ENVIRONMENT
ABCs OF POLLUTION

Scientists call them atmospheric brown clouds (ABCs). They’re noxious plumes of soot, sulfates, and other chemicals that are darkening skies over Asia, threatening water and agriculture, disturbing the monsoon system, and shrinking glaciers and snowpacks — not to mention contributing to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Five ABC “hot spots” are East Asia, including Hong Kong, above; South and Southeast Asia; southern Africa; and the Amazon basin. Caused by autos, slash-and-burn agriculture, dung or wood fires, and coal-fired power plants, they’re an added reason for tougher antipollution laws, say authors of a recent United Nations report.



TURBINES
BRITANNIA RULES THE WHIRL

The queen of England already owns countless acres of land in the United Kingdom, and quite a few buildings, too. Now she owns the world’s largest wind turbine. Under construction in northern England by Clipper Windpower of California, the 10-megawatt behemoth will tower 574 feet — that’s 258 feet taller than Big Ben. It’s a prototype for Clipper’s Britannia Project, a new class of massive turbines that will operate from deep-sea floating platforms. The Crown Estate, which manages Queen Elizabeth II’s property holdings, bought the megaturbine earlier this year. Once in operation off England’s coast, it will supply electricity to 3,700 homes and, over its lifetime, will displace 2 million barrels of oil and 724,000 tons of carbon dioxide. At 10 megawatts, the turbine will produce five times more electricity than average windmills. Britain has set a goal of producing 33 gigawatts of electricity from offshore wind turbines by 2020. Getting the crown estate involved was essential, since the royal holdings include the seabed around Britain. As the queen herself might say, “We are blown away.” – Thomas K. Grose



GEOTECHNOLOGY - STREET SMARTS
GEOTECHNOLOGY
STREET SMARTS

OK, you’re walking down a street, and you point your cellphone at a movie theater. Onto your screen flashes a list of what’s playing and the running times. You point it at a restaurant. It shows you the menu. When you point it at an office building, you get a directory of the businesses inside. Welcome to the world’s first intelligent city — which is what researchers at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth are hoping to create. Prof A. Stewart Fotheringham, director of the $12.3 million project, says a key challenge is developing a common language for closed-circuit cameras, satellites, and radio-frequency ID monitors and then processing the collected data into useful information. Already researchers are building a three-dimensional computerized replica of Maynooth’s North Campus. The immediate goal is an emergency management plan, but the same technology could be used to send live traffic updates to cars’ satellite navigation systems or to help the visually impaired maneuver around unexpected obstacles. We are, Fotheringham told the Irish Times, “entering what was once thought to be the realm of science fiction.” – TG



BIOENGINEERING - GROWING DRY
BIOENGINEERING
GROWING DRY

Drought — partly caused by global warming — is becoming a worldwide plague. The amount of drought-affected land has doubled since the late 1970s. So genetic engineers at universities around the world, as well as at companies like Monsanto and DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, are racing to develop drought-resistant crops, from corn to canola, based on a single “drought gene.” The first crops could become commercially available in about four years. Performance Plants of Canada is tweaking plants to speed up their water preservation processes as soon as water becomes scarce. At the University of California, Davis, scientists have engineered tobacco plants to hold on to their leaves when drought hits. They picked tobacco because it has large leaves but say the technique should work with many food crops, too.

Genetically modified foods are anathema to many environmental groups, which worry they’re dangerous and have been oversold to the public. Nevertheless, some scientists say that transgenic crops that require only a modicum of water could help whet the appetite for GM foods — especially in hard-hit regions of Africa. –TG



SOCIAL NETWORKING
WOMEN TO WOMEN

Call it the Facebook of budding scientists and engineers. Underthemicroscope.com is a new social-networking website geared to young women interested in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM subjects. They can blog, link to resources, read science news articles, and post stories about themselves (one recent topic: What Got You Hooked on Science?). The site also plans to offer information on internships and scholarships. It’s part of the Women Writing Science project, an effort launched by the Feminist Press at New York’s City University to get young women interested in all things STEM. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the site will also publish books ranging from biographies to histories to how-to guides and fiction — all of which will be offered as free downloads. The site should have no shortage of Friends. –TG

QUOTED
“As challenging as these times may be for the university, they will be temporary.”

—from a letter to Stanford University faculty and staff by Provost John Etchemendy announcing the need for budget cuts. He and President John L. Hennessy each took a 10 percent reduction in salary.



DIGITIZATION
BOOKS AND MORE BOOKS

When Internet giant Google launched its Book Search project in 2004, it aimed to digitize millions of books, in print and out, allowing readers and researchers to do full-text searches. But the scheme ran afoul of many writers and publishers of books still in copyright. The Authors Guild filed a class-action suit, and the Association of American Publishers sued, as well. Now, as a result of two years of quiet negotiations, an agreement has been reached that will allow the project to continue. Google will spend $125 million to set up the nonprofit, independent Book Rights Registry. For copyrighted books already scanned, it will dispense payments to writers and publishers, and pay their legal costs. In the future, it will manage revenues from the project that will be split between copyright holders and Google. Universities can purchase subscriptions for their students and faculty, while public libraries will be given free portals for users. Other customers will be charged pay-to-view fees. Additional potential revenue streams include print-on-demand books and advertising. The publishers’ group called it a “win-win agreement.” Google, by the way, never stopped scanning — it already has some 7 million books digitized. –TG



FACULTY HIRING
BOOM AMID GLOOM

With the economy slowing, many states are forced to cut higher-education budgets. But a handful of mineral-rich states are still booming, and their engineering schools benefit. Texas is one. Last August, Mark W. Spong, an esteemed electrical engineer and roboticist, was considering retirement after 24 years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. But then came the offer to be dean of engineering and computer science at the University of Texas at Dallas, overseeing 90 faculty members and 2,600 students. Spong took it, not wanting to miss the chance of leading a school in “a growth mode,” as he told the Chronicle of Higher Education. After UT Dallas President David E. Daniel, the former dean of engineering at Illinois, came onboard in 2005, the school opened an $85 million science and engineering research building and has been on a hiring spree. Daniel hopes to draw an additional $210 million from Texas’s expected surplus.

Meanwhile, North Dakota State University at Fargo plans to recruit dozens of new faculty and build a supercomputer, thanks in part to the state’s estimated $1 billion surplus. And Wyoming, with a surplus that may hit $100 million, is hiring faculty, funding scholarships, and erecting new buildings. It’s an academic gold rush out West. –TG



ARCHITECTURE - DREAM FACTORY
ARCHITECTURE
DREAM FACTORY

A recession and credit crisis are shutting down U.S. automobile plants, but Ferrari remains confident it can still find 6,000 people a year willing to shell out $200,000 for one of its iconic sports cars. So it’s continuing to turn its factory complex in Maranello, Italy, into something the New York Times calls a “museum of architecture.” The wind tunnel was designed by Renzo Piano, whose previous works include the Pompidou center in Paris. The assembly hall is by Jean Nouvel, winner of the prestigious 2008 Pritzker Prize. The structures aspire not just to be works of art — to which Ferraris themselves are sometimes compared — but to boost efficiency. According to the Times, they save energy by using solar cells and trigeneration systems, which produce electricity, heat, and cooling simultaneously from a single energy source, like a gas burner. They also feature indoor gardens, where workers can meet or rest between shifts. –TG



NANOTECHNOLOGY - SOLDIERS´ AID
NANOTECHNOLOGY
SOLDIERS´ AID

Most soldiers killed on the battlefield die within 30 minutes of being wounded. So the faster they can be diagnosed and treated, the better their chances of survival. At the University of California, San Diego, Joseph Wang is working on a “field hospital on a chip” that could start treating wounded GIs well before they reach a real field hospital. A professor of nanoengineering, Wang received a $1.6 million four-year grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to develop a device that would continually monitor sweat, tears, and blood for biomarkers that indicate common injuries, including trauma, shock, brain injury, and fatigue. Once an injury is detected, it would automatically trigger a dispenser to administer the correct medication.

Wang is working with Evgeny Katz, a chemist at Clarkson University who recently demonstrated that enzymes can measure biomarkers — including lactate, oxygen, and glucose — as well as provide the necessary logic to make diagnoses based on multiple biological variables. Wang says he hopes to “revolutionize the monitoring and treatment of injured soldiers.” –TG



CONSTRUCTION - VENICE OF THE EAST
CONSTRUCTION
VENICE OF THE EAST

If you visit Shanghai and get a sinking feeling, you’re on to something. China’s most populous coastal city has had a subsidence problem for decades. This was due, first, to its swampy terrain. Second, there was too much pumping of groundwater. City officials successfully waged a determined effort to replenish depleted aquifers with treated water; they also placed tough restrictions on the use of groundwater. But now, the sinking has returned with a vengeance — at a rate of around 7 millimeters a year. This time, the cause is the city’s high-rise building boom, one key result of Shanghai’s transformation into a global financial center.

Researchers believe that improved technology may help limit the damage: deeper basements to offset building weight and arrays of piles to relieve pressure. But subsidence isn’t Shanghai’s only construction-related problem. Last year, the Shanghai Daily reported that, based on samples taken by the city’s Industrial and Commercial Administrative Bureau, half the steel sold wholesale to construction companies was lighter than the legal standard, and a quarter flunked tension tests.

And a future scare looms: Researchers say Shanghai is among cities vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by global warming. –TG



AGRICULTURE
SHREDDING OLD WAYS

CAMBODIA — Rice farmers in this Southeast Asian nation have traditionally cleared the land by hand. At the 500-acre farm in northwestern Battambang province where Sam Pov works, for instance, 30 people would shred the weeds and trees before planting. But large-scale migration for construction jobs in Phnom Penh, the capital, has created a rural labor shortage, forcing Cambodians to shift to newer technologies. With outside aid, including a new $600 million loan from Kuwait, they are adopting modern farm machinery. Sam Pov’s farm now uses a $2,000 waste shredder, which he says “makes our lives so much easier.” The result: Cambodia is poised to become the region’s next big food exporter. It could produce 15 million tons of rice per year, up from the current 6 million tons, if it relied more on machines and cultivated all available land, according to the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development. –Geoff Cain



HIGHER EDUCATION - STICKER SHOCK
HIGHER EDUCATION
STICKER SHOCK

At a time when the economy demands a knowledgeable workforce, access to higher education in the United States is slipping, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. A key factor is cost. Since the early 1980s, inflation in tuition has far outpaced the rise in household income and even healthcare costs (see chart). Once a leader in educational opportunity, the United States now ranks seventh in college graduates age 25 to 34.

SOURCES: NATIONAL CENTER FOR PUBLIC POLICY AND HIGHER EDUCATION, AND THE WASHINGTON POST

Note: Growth rate is calculated from a baseline average of 1982, 1983, and 1984.



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