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Deep Beauty

More than a spectacle for scuba divers, Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculpture offers a rich environment for restoring coral reefs, the endangered “rain forests of the sea” that host a quarter of the Earth’s marine species. To assemble The Silent Evolution recently in the clear waters off Cancún, Mexico, cranes lowered 400 concrete figures, totaling 198 tons, onto leveled sand beds measuring 4,500 square feet. The pieces were maneuvered into place with the aid of flotation bags. Once installed, Taylor’s works are propagated with live coral, and small holes are drilled into some figures to create a habitat for other sea life. After a period of growth, the scene becomes haunting and surreal, as shown here with The Gardener of Hope in Punta Nizuc. – ALISON BUKI

Green and Cheap

A new Massachusetts company says it can concoct green petrochemicals and fuels from biomass, which is sustainable, and do it much more cheaply than using petroleum – even if oil were selling at a lowly $35 a barrel. Anellotech’s technology is based on the research of founder George Huber, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It’s an improved version of pyrolysis, which superheats dried, ground biomass in an oxygen-free reactor. Oils derived from pyrolysis are cheap and contain the same amount of energy as gasoline, but they’re corrosive. Using a zeolite catalyst with hydrogen makes them less so, but it’s not an efficient enough process to be commercially viable. Huber’s team, however, has discovered a zeolite that, when used with a reactor designed to better control the process, is very efficient and can convert the base fuels to five of the seven chemicals most dear to the chemical industry: benzene, toluene, xylene, propylene, and ethylene. In a recent Science report, Huber’s team also says it can tailor the process to focus on any one of those five building-block chemicals. Anellotech plans an initial pilot plant to produce benzene, toluene, and xylenes (BTX), for which there is a $100 billion global market. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Gabe Carimi - PHOTO CREDIT: Mike McGinnis/Icon SMI CCE/NewscomFOOTBALL
Budding Superstar

Given the academic demands they face, you don’t often find engineering students on first-string collegiate teams. Jeffrey Russell, head of the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recalls having taught a few players over his 22 years there, “but most were second string or played on specialty teams.” Yet for four years now, Russell also has been faculty adviser to a budding superstar: Gabe Carimi, left tackle and cocaptain of the Badgers, this year’s Big Ten champions. Moreover, the 6-foot-7, 327-pound Carimi — also the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and winner of the Outland Trophy as the top interior lineman in the United States — is a likely first-round NFL draft pick. Carimi’s gridiron duties kept him busy nine hours a day during the season. But his studies never suffered. He’s been named Academic All-Big Ten for four straight years. “It’s like having two jobs,” Russell says. “It’s very, very demanding, physically and mentally.” The pressure on Carimi will actually ramp up this spring: He’ll have to mix Senior Bowl and NFL scouting demands with working on a senior capstone design project with a team of classmates. But with assists from Skype, E-mail, and videoconferencing, Russell’s sure Carimi will successfully tackle that challenge, too. Says Russell: “It actually makes it more real-world.”– TG



Clean clothes using a mere cup of water and just a drop of detergent? That’s the promise of a new washing-machine technology being developed by British company Xeros Ltd. It’s based on more than 30 years of research by Stephen Burkinshaw, a professor of textile chemistry at the University of Leeds’ faculty of engineering. The clothes rotate in the washer’s drum with dirt-absorbing polymer beads, which are automatically separated from the garments when the cycle’s finished. Xeros claims the system uses 90 percent less water than conventional machines, and because there’s no rinsing or spinning required, it uses 98 percent less energy than water-based washers. More energy is saved once the clothes are cleaned – they’re barely wet, thus require much less time in a dryer. The beads are good for around 100 loads – about six months’ worth of washing – before they need replacing. Xeros hopes to launch commercial versions later this year. This could give “dry cleaning” a whole new meaning. – TG


Not a Mirage?

As optimists delight in saying: “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Ergo, when nature subjects one part of the globe to 3.5 million square miles of sand and unrelenting sunlight, make solar panels. Or so goes the theory behind the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, which has the staggering goal of building enough solar plants in Africa’s Sahara Desert to provide half the world’s electricity needs by 2050. The key to the joint project between Japanese and Algerian universities is to process the Saharan silica into the high-quality silicon needed to manufacture photovoltaic panels – which in itself would be a first, since so far the technology to do so doesn’t exist. The notion is that excess energy from the first plants would be used to build more and more plants. All that Saharan sun is attracting attention. Last year, a group called the Desertec Foundation said it wants to build solar plants there to provide 15 percent of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050, but it doesn’t plan to manufacture its own panels. Oddly, the Breeder Project would use superconductors – which operate at a temperature of around 464 degrees Fahrenheit and have to be cooled with liquid nitrogen – to transmit the electricity to where it’s needed. Project leader Hideomi Koinuma of the University of Tokyo shrugs off the seemingly insurmountable hurdles, telling New Scientist that the electricity it will produce will be “cost competitive.” –TG

Outsourced Math

Only around 6,000 British students graduated with mathematics degrees in 2009. Accordingly, math tutors are as scarce as sunny summers in Britain, which is why they can charge around $32 an hour. Meanwhile, India graduates 690,000 math and science majors a year. So start-up BrightSpark Education has begun offering U.K. students online math tutors based in Punjab for the bargain price of around $19 an hour. And no, it’s not ripping off the tutors; they’re paid around $11 an hour – a nice salary in a country where the minimum hourly wage is $4. Unlike in the United States, where using online Indian math tutors has become increasingly popular over the past five years, it’s still a novel concept in the United Kingdom. The company markets the service not only to parents but also to schools. So far, three state schools have signed on. North London’s Ashmount Primary School is using BrightSpark to help tutor both gifted and struggling 10- and 11-year-olds. Teachers unions are not impressed, fearing that with government budget cuts looming, BrightSpark represents a trend to replace teachers. Not at all, says founder Tom Hooper. He tells the New York Times: “This is supplementary and in no way replacing teachers.” Ashmount Headteacher (principal) Pana McGee agrees, telling the Guardian that the online tutors work in the same capacity as teaching assistants. But the service is much cheaper . –TG

QUOTED: “If we could replace the bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers with an average teacher — not a superstar — we could dramatically improve student achievement. The U.S. could move from below average in international comparisons to near the top.” – Eric Hanushek, economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University - Source:  Wall Street Journal Opinion page, Oct. 19, 2010FOR-PROFIT COLLEGES
Gainful Employment

Students at for-profit universities are three times more likely to default on their government loans than their peers at nonprofit schools. And the graduation rate at four-year for-profits is less than half that of both state and private nonprofits. Moreover, for-profit schools get as much as 90 percent of their income from federal financial-aid programs. But despite that less-than-stellar record, the top executives of the companies that run these schools are very well remunerated indeed. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Silberman, CEO of the Strayer Education chain of schools, pocketed $41.9 million last year — or more than 24 times the $1.75 million paycheck earned by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, the top-paid Ivy League school head. Moreover, the news service Bloomberg reports that executives at 15 publicly traded for-profits topped up their bank accounts to the tune of $2 billion over the past seven years by selling company stock. Peter Sperling, vice chairman of Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix, was the champion stock-seller: He’s cashed in shares totaling $574.3 million. But it looks like the gravy train is slowing. The Chronicle also reports that enrollment increases are ebbing at many profit-making schools – and that’s a trend set to continue as new federal regulations force the schools to tone down aggressive marketing and recruiting ploys. – TG

A Chevrolet Volt receives a charge in one of 10 solar-powered charging stations at General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center in Michigan. PHOTO CREDIT: STEVE FECHT/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom


Automotive engineers working for Detroit’s Big Three carmakers haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years – the Great Recession and near-collapse of the domestic auto industry decimated their ranks. But it appears that a change in their fortunes is under way. General Motors and Chrysler each plan to hire an additional 1,000 engineers and technicians. GM will add them over the next two years to work on developing improved electric motors as well as battery and power-control technologies. It’s placing a big bet on electric vehicles and hybrids -- the first of which, the Volt, went on limited sale last month. GM expects to sell 10,000 Volts by the end of the year, and 45,000 in 2012. Chrysler is bringing its additional engineers on board by April – 60 percent will be put on the payroll, the rest will be contract hires – and is recruiting at 35 colleges. Chrysler was bought by Italy’s Fiat after emerging from bankruptcy in June 2009, and the engineers will work on new-model small and midsize cars it’s developing with Fiat. Both companies were bailed out by the Obama administration but are now rebounding. That bounce is creating more engineering jobs among suppliers, as well. Around 80 percent of automotive suppliers told a trade-group survey that they also will be hiring more engineers within the next six months. Vroooom! – TG

Stripping banana fiber for sanitary padsWOMEN’S HEALTH
SHE’s Got It

For young women in developing countries who don’t have access to sanitary pads, their monthly period can get in the way of education. In Rwanda, 18 percent of girls miss an average of 35 days of school a year because they don’t have access to pads or can’t afford the brand-name ones. Elizabeth Scharpf, founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises, thinks she’s found a solution after consulting with textile engineering professors, among others: a cheap and environmentally friendly pad made from banana tree-trunk fibers. SHE, with $60,000 in funding from Echoing Green, a venture fund that backs sustainable projects, hopes to start manufacturing the pads early this year in Rwanda. It also wants to set up women-run franchises to sell them. Experts suggested a whole host of materials that are inexpensive, widely available, and highly absorbent, but field tests run by Scharpf proved that banana fibers worked best. The banana-fiber pad won the 2010 Curry Stone Design Prize, but Scharpf’s no designer. She’s a healthcare industry entrepreneur and consultant with degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. But like an engineer, she’s a problem-solver. – TG

Hands-on Learning

Turning Technologies is a software company that’s really clicked. Based in Youngstown, Ohio, it’s a leading manufacturer of the hand-held remotes, or “clickers,” that are becoming as common as laptops in college classrooms. Professors use them to take attendance and, more important, to give quizzes; the immediate feedback lets teachers know if their students are grasping lessons. Turning, launched in 2002, now sells clickers to more than half of all U.S. colleges, and its higher-education sales have jumped 95 percent since 2006. Use of clickers was championed in 1998 by Harvard physics Prof. Eric Mazur. They’re not, of course, universally loved. In a 2008 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary, Michael Bugeja, an Iowa State University journalism professor, said schools using them were falling for marketing ploys and that the devices imperiled academic integrity. But studies at several universities, including Ohio State and the University of Colorado, Boulder, show they increased student learning. A 2008 Ohio State study found they not only improved student scores in physics classes, but helped female students reach par with their male counterparts. To be sure, some students find them intrusive, but Jasmine Morris, an industrial engineering senior at Northwestern, told the New York Times she’s not one of them: “It makes you pay attention. It reinforces what you’re supposed to be doing as a student.” Click “A” if you think that’s the right answer. –TG

Look This Sway

The 1,667-foot-tall Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taiwan may have lost its title as the world’s tallest building this year to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. But, hey, it still has the globe’s biggest tuned mass damper, which essentially is a large pendulum that counters building sway caused by earthquakes or strong winds. Many skyscrapers use a form of these dampers. The 101’s hangs from the 92nd to the 88th floor of the tower’s 101 stories, is built from 41 steel plates, and is supported by eight steel cables. Designed by Thornton Tomasetti Engineers and Evergreen Consulting Engineering, it weighs a whopping 730 tons. If you’re going to build a very tall building in an area notorious for typhoons and seismic activity, you gotta know how to swing big-time. – TG

Tired of Waste

Tired of WasteOld tires are an environmental headache. According to a 2007 EPA report, 7.5 million tons of rubber a year end up as waste, most of it from vehicle tires. And only around 35 percent of tires are recycled. Now civil engineers at Purdue University have come up with a process that mixes shredded tires with sand to create a useful, cheaper fill for road construction. Prof. Rodrigo Salgado and Monica Prezzi, an associate professor, began research into this use of shredded tire chips in the late 1990s. From 2008 through 2010, the process was used on nine different Indiana Department of Transportation projects. So far, 1.1 million tires have been put to use, resulting in a material cost savings of $1.2 million. The mixture can be designed to be lightweight, making it useful for constructing fills that support road and bridge abutments built over soft, weak soil deposits. The mix also can be used as backfill behind retaining walls and to strengthen slopes prone to landslides. It’s more easily compacted than other materials, and so uses less energy. That’s a money-saver, too. –TG



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