Swizzle sticks and paper umbrellas have met their match. Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineer Lisa Burton has just invented Cocktail Cruisers, which sail merrily across the surface of a drink, dodging ice cubes and bouncing off the glass. Their only propulsion for the one-minute ride is the difference in surface tension between alcohol and water.
The idea bubbled up when the Ph.D. candidate and her supervisor, John Bush, were discussing Marangoni-effect equations. These show that the meniscus of a liquid at the edge of a floating object exerts a pulling force — the higher the surface tension, the stronger the force. Eureka: Why not liven up drinks with a miniature boat steadily leaking a low-surface-tension liquid out the back to allow it to move forward?
Burton, who is as comfortable in the kitchen as she is in MIT’s Fluids Lab, emptied her pantry to test the hypothesis and search for a potable but potent fuel for a Marangoni-powered fleet. Tabasco and Bacardi came out tops, with the rum winning the tie-breaking taste test.
She has since perfected the design with colleague Nadia Cheng, constructing edible Cocktail Cruisers from gelatin. Burton even floated the idea with avant-garde chef José Andrés, who is adapting the concept for minibar, his restaurant in Washington, D.C. – Don Boroughs
The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is already being hailed as a potential Nobel Prize for the discipline. The clearly lofty goal of the recently announced £1 million (around $1.6 million) prize is to “identify and celebrate an outstanding advance in engineering that has created significant benefit to humanity,” says Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering, which is overseeing the award. It’s hoped the high-profile prize will inspire more young people to pursue engineering careers. “Too often the engineering and engineers behind even the most brilliant innovations remain hidden from public view,” contends John Parker, Royal Academy president. The prize is open to any engineer – or a team of up to three – from anywhere in the world. It’s funded by a trust seeded with donations from several large corporations, including BP, GlaxoSmithKline, Siemens, and Sony. An international judging panel will be appointed in February and start accepting nominations. The process closes in July, and the winner will be announced in December. Although it’s a global award, Imperial College engineering Prof. Jeffrey Magee tells the Sunday Times of London that it should also help remind the world of Britain’s long history of engineering excellence. “Banking is not the only thing we do in the U.K.” – THOMAS K. GROSE
Animal-to-human transplants are problematic because recipients’ immune systems attack the new tissue. To counter that effect, patients are given powerful antirejection drugs. Now researchers at Britain’s University of Leeds’ Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering have come up with a better idea. Codirector Eileen Ingham devised a low-cost method of treating animal tissue in solutions that remove living cells. What remains is a bio-scaffold that, once implanted in a human, is repopulated by the recipient’s own cells, which effectively renders it safe from rejection. The technology recently earned the center the U.K.’s Queen’s Anniversary Prize, the highest accolade for a British academic institution. So far, 70 U.K. patients have been successfully treated with arterial patches made from pig heart sacs. Meanwhile, clinical trials are underway using treated pig heart valves, and trials for ligaments and knee cartilage are expected to start within the next two years. – TG
A reliable earthquake predictor is the elusive holy grail of seismologists. But Raul A. Baragiola may have found one. The sudden release of ozone from underground rock might act as an advance warning of a temblor, according to a discovery by the University of Virginia professor of engineering physics. Baragiola’s team found that ozone – a byproduct of electrical discharges in the air – is emitted by rocks fracturing under pressure. If further research shows a positive correlation between ground-level ozone near faults and earthquakes, Baragiola says, detectors could be used to monitor for sudden increases in the gas. “Such an array, located away from areas with high levels of ground ozone, could be useful for giving early warning to earthquakes,” he says. Ozone monitors might also one day act as “canaries,” predicting cave-ins at mines and at tunnel-excavation and landslide sites. – TG
Refrigeration hasn’t changed much in 50 years. It still relies on compressors, evaporators, and refrigerants that increase greenhouse gases and deplete the ozone layer. That’s not cool. Cleaner thermoelectric systems have proved to be inefficient and costly – until now. New solid-state technology by Texas start-up Sheetak that uses thermal capacitors and thermoelectric coolers claims to have overcome the twin hurdles of inefficiency and cost. In October, Sheetak and partner Delphi Automotive got a $4.7 million ARPA-e grant from the Department of Energy to develop a thermal storage system that handles the heating and cooling needs of electric vehicles. Sheetak also got a $1.2 million ARPA-e grant in 2010. The company founder is Uttam Ghoshal, a former master inventor at IBM, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. Ghoshal — who has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas, Austin — also invented the cooling chip that’s at the heart of a battery-operated, $69 mini-fridge being test marketed in rural India by Indian conglomerate Godrej and Boyce. And that really is cool. – TG
The confluence of facial recognition – or detection – software, social media, and marketers could force consumers to reconsider their definition of privacy. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used readily available facial-recognition software, information from social media sites, and cloud computing to see what they could learn about strangers. They were able to identify some folks on a popular dating site despite using pseudonyms. They could also correctly ID some students on campus based on Facebook photos. And, starting with just a photo, they were able to successfully predict the interests of some students, even finding the Social Security numbers of several. The team, led by Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information technology, also developed an “augmented reality” smartphone app that seeks sensitive information about people in real time. Meanwhile, New York start-up ImmersiveLabs recently rolled out digital billboards that use facial detection software to target ads to different people in real time. If it spots a young man, it might cue a beer ad. A young woman? Up pops a perfume ad. ImmersiveLabs tells the New York Times that its systems store no data and it doesn’t analyze the emotions of passersby. But undoubtedly other high-tech marketers will soon venture where ImmersiveLabs dares not. Just imagine: sensitive billboards that suggest products because they know if you’re feeling sad or happy. Uh, no, thanks. – TG
A photograph of a small, meshlike metal object resting atop a fuzzy dandelion perfectly captured the essence of a unique new material, “ultralight metallic microlattice.” As the picture connotes, the metal is only slightly heavier than air. Indeed, it’s 99.99 percent air, which makes it 100 times as light as Styrofoam. “The trick is to fabricate a lattice of interconnected hollow tubes with a wall thickness 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” says Tobias Schaedler, a researcher at HRL Laboratories, who developed the material with colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, and Caltech. The 0.01 percent of the lattice that’s not air is 90 percent nickel, because nickel is easy to work with, but the process could be duplicated using other metals. The researchers, funded by DARPA, took inspiration from the weight-efficient architecture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Eiffel Tower, then applied it at the nano level. The lattice can be squeezed to half its size and bounce back, so it’s highly energy absorbent. Possible applications include shock absorbers, acoustic dampeners, battery electrodes, and insulation. This invention could have a heavyweight future. – TG
PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Little, HRL Laboratories LLC
A standard biosensor has a metal electrode coated with enzymes. The enzymes react with compounds in a solution, producing a measurable electric signal. It’s a way to detect some diseases. The process is inefficient, and the measurements are far from perfect. Researchers have for some time considered using carbon nanotubes on the sensors because of their strong electrical properties. Nanotubes don’t mix well with liquid. However, two Purdue University engineers — Marshall Porterfield, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and Jong Hyun Choi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering — may have solved the problem. Choi developed a synthetic, self-building DNA that readily attaches itself to carbon nanotubes, making them water-soluble. When they’re in a solution, an electrode is dipped in and the charge attracts the nanotubes, which coat the electrode’s surface. Once covered in nanotubes, the electrode attracts the enzymes, and the necessary reaction starts. Their biosensor was developed to detect glucose, but it could be adapted to find many different compounds, Porterfield says. The technology might one day be used for personalized drugs that self-test their effectiveness in real time. –TG
At the Rochester Institute of Technology, three engineering-technology courses were notorious for high withdrawals: pneumatics and hydraulics, applied dynamics, and applied fluid mechanics. Nearly 23 percent of students in fluid mechanics received low or failing grades. A trio of mechanical engineering technology faculty wondered if immersing students in a technology-rich learning environment would help. So over a six-year period, some 500 undergraduates were taught in RIT’s Teaching and Learning Technology Studio, an interactive test-bed classroom that features 26 tablet PCs loaded with DyKnow collaborative software, a projection system that can display three different images simultaneously, and flexible seating. It worked. The technology helped students visualize complex materials, made it easier for them to model problems, and improved interactions with faculty. The number of students earning D’s and F’s or withdrawing from fluid mechanics is under 10 percent. Other classes have seen similar results, with 90 percent of students saying the high-tech teaching tools helped them learn and retain information better than traditional lectures. – TG
Britain’s Isle of Wight, located about three miles off England’s south coast, is mainly famous for its annual music festival. But now, with backing from the government, it aims to be the U.K.’s largest sustainable energy project. Just 23 miles long and 13 miles wide with a population of 142,500, the island seeks to become a net exporter of energy, cutting residents’ energy bills by half and eliminating waste going to its landfill — all by 2020. The so-called Ecoisland partnership includes some impressive corporate names, including Toshiba, IBM, Cable & Wireless, Silver Springs Networks and wind-turbine maker Vestas, which has a large research center on the island. A $3.9 million solar energy project would provide electricity to 3,500 homes, and power also would come from geothermal, wind, and tidal sources. Electric cars, smart-grid technology, improved building insulation, and a rainwater-capture system would be part of the mix. The island has a head start on its green future. Impressively, it already recycles half its trash. – TG
Think your documents are safe, now that your computer has the latest security software? Maybe not, once you click on “Print.” Columbia University researchers say they’ve discovered “a whole new class of flaws” that leave printers vulnerable. The problem, says computer science Prof. Salvatore Stolfo, lies in updates of so-called firmware sent over the Internet. When dispatched by the manufacturer, these updates are intended to make your device work better. But not all updates are sent by trustworthy sources. Stolfo and colleagues at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science found that certain HP LaserJet printers accept firmware updates without verifying their authenticity. This could allow unscrupulous firmware providers to make a printer erase its operating software and install a booby-trapped version.
HP doesn’t reject the researchers’ findings. “While HP has identified a potential security vulnerability with some HP LaserJet printers, no customer has reported unauthorized access,” a company press release says. “The specific vulnerability exists for some HP LaserJet devices if placed on a public internet without a firewall.” Some private-network printers could be vulnerable to malicious modifications, it adds. An upgrade to mitigate the problem is being developed.