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gray tech + kelp fuels + electronic skin


The New Top Gun

When a bat-winged, tailless X-47B took off in early February from Edwards Air Force Base, soared into clear skies for 29 minutes, and returned to land smack on the runway centerline, it cleared a hurdle to the next stage of aerial warfare. Built for the Navy by Northrop Grumman, the pilotless strike aircraft is intended to be the first plane to land on an aircraft carrier without an experienced flier at the controls. And unlike other drones, it won’t even need a deskbound pilot to steer it remotely. All humans do is design a flight path and send the X-47B on its way. Then a computer takes over, guiding the plane as it takes off, makes a bombing run, and returns to the carrier. Red Baron, call your office.

Playing Catch-up

In fiscal 2009, the Great Recession whacked college and university endowments. Their valuations slumped an average of 18.7 percent. So it’s welcome news that endowment values perked up in 2010, increasing on average 11.9 percent. Nevertheless, total endowment assets have not returned to prerecession levels, according to the NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments, which surveys 850 schools. Moreover, on a long-term basis, values remained anemic. On average, over three years, endowments sustained a net loss of 4.2 percent; over five years, a net gain of 3 percent; and over 10 years, a net return of 3.6 percent. But schools typically spend around 4 to 5 percent of their endowments annually. Given those long-term trends, however, that may prove a stretch for many of them. – THOMAS K. GROSE

nuclear reactors
An Engineer’s Lament

Mitsuhiko Tanaka had a special reason for dread when an earthquake-triggered tsunami led to a power failure, explosions, and radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The former Hitachi Ltd. engineer claims that four decades ago he helped conceal a manufacturing flaw that warped the steel walls of a reactor pressure vessel at the plant, according to Bloomberg. Regulations would have required that the vessel be scrapped, at high cost to the firm. The reactor in question, No. Four, was shut down for maintenance on March 11, the day of the quake. “Who knows what would have happened if that reactor had been running?” says Tanaka. Trained at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tanaka left nuclear engineering after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. A Hitachi spokesman said the company met with Tanaka in 1988 to discuss his allegations, but concluded there was no safety problem and has not revised its view since then.

SIMULATIONS - © patsarts - Fotolia.comSIMULATIONS
Walking in Their Shoes

There are around 76 million U.S. baby boomers. The first of them turned 65 in January, and most can look forward to long life expectancies. Globally, the 65-plus population will double to 1.5 billion by 2050, and folks older than 65 will — for the first time in history — outnumber kids younger than 5. Many companies are developing technologies — nicknamed gray-tech — that cater to this aging cohort: robot nurses, sports shoes fitted with GPS to monitor the movements of Alzheimer’s patients, wireless pillboxes that keep tabs on medication use, and motion sensors that monitor mobility. Now MIT’s AgeLab, which seeks to solve problems of the aged through technology, has created AGNES, which stands for Age Gain Now Empathy System. AGNES is a helmet and suit that, once donned, simulate for the wearer the decreased dexterity, mobility, and balance of a 74-year-old. Elastic bands, knee pads, and neck braces hinder movement and bending. Yellowed goggles fog vision, while earplugs muffle sound and gloves diminish the sense of touch. For product designers, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, AGNES offers a short, sharp shock of the reality many of us eventually will face. – TG

$1 Trillion: Estimate of annual spending worldwide by 2020 on technologies and services to meet growing demand for water. These include efforts to discover, manage, filter, disinfect, and desalinate water; improve infrastructure and distribution; mitigate flood damage; and reduce water consumption by households, industry, and agriculture. source: Agence France Presse, Feb. 27, 2011


Cruising to the Top

AUSTRALIA — One thing you can say about sun-powered vehicles: They won’t get you fined for highway speeding. The world’s fastest, at least according to Guinness World Records inspectors, is the Australian Sunswift IV. It clocked in recently at 54.7 mph, shattering a 1987 record of 49 mph set by U.S.-built Sunraycer. Designed and built in 2009 by students at the University of New South Wales, most of them mechanical or electrical engineers, the three-wheeled IVy is made mostly of carbon fiber sculpted into an aerodynamic winglike shape covered in solar panels. It’s the fourth vehicle produced by the 60-member group, launched by previous students in 1995. Project leader Daniel Friedman, who happens to be an economic history student, says the aim isn’t to hasten the arrival of solar street vehicles but to “draw attention to energy use and encourage efficient use of energy.” What’s learned in improving IVy “will have uses and applications totally unrelated to solar cars.” – CHRIS PRITCHARD

Edward Crawleyeducation
Salute to an Innovator

Eleven years ago, Edward Crawley devised a new way to educate engineering students, calling it Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate, or the CDIO Initiative. Crawley, a professor of engineering at MIT (as well as professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and of engineering systems), created the initiative using an open-architecture model so it could be adapted in many ways by many universities. And so it has. The CDIO Initiative now includes more than 50 schools in 25 countries, which collaborate and share ideas and materials. Within the next few years, more than 10,000 students will have either graduated from, or be participating in, a CDIO program. At its heart, the initiative emphasizes problem-solving exercises and hands-on projects, so students do not merely discuss theories in class but have experiences that will better suit them to the 21st-century workplace. Industry has given CDIO the thumbs up, saying it produces graduates better able to work in teams and handle problem-solving and product development. In recognition of that achievement, Crawley was named the 2011 recipient of the Bernard M. Gordon Prize by the National Academy of Engineering, which salutes innovations in engineering and technology education. Half the $500,000 prize will go to Crawley, with the other half going to MIT to help expand and refine the program. – TG

Better Than Corn?

Producing biofuels like ethanol from corn and other crops uses land that could otherwise grow food, potentially causing shortages and hiking prices. So researchers have for some time considered using seaweed as a fuel source. It grows in abundance, uses no arable land, and certainly doesn’t require watering. Moreover, seaweed needs no pretreatment before it’s turned into fuel, and it sucks up seven times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than does wood. The stumbling block? The main sugar in seaweed is galactose, and unlike the glucose in corn, the process of fermenting it into ethanol is slow. But now researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have bioengineered seaweed so that the conversion rate from galactose to ethanol is improved by some 250 percent. But don’t start investing in kelp farms just yet. It’s not yet clear how easy it would be to maintain and harvest seaweed in rough ocean environments – especially those areas prone to hurricanes. – TG

Man on a Mission

His Nobel Prize for physics notwithstanding, Carl Wieman faced an uphill climb when he first set out to change the way science is taught at universities. But along the way, he caught the attention of the Obama White House, which tapped him as associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Wieman now has a bully pulpit to promote research-grounded techniques that he argues can boost student learning dramatically. No fan of traditional lectures, he recommends exercises requiring students to work through an escalating series of challenges. Instructors can facilitate this with classes built around questions and tasks, along with testing (one of the most effective ways of ensuring retention). Key to expertise in practically any field, Wieman says, are a mental organizational framework for retrieval and application of knowledge, and being able to monitor one’s own thinking and learning. We’re not born with these traits; they take thousands of hours of “deliberate practice.” But in the course of practicing, the brain actually changes, says Wieman, citing neuroscience studies. The new presidential aide stopped by ASEE headquarters for help in getting engineering faculty to join his campaign. Stay tuned.

Skin in the Game

A future where there’s greater interaction between humans and robots will require the machines to display a gentle touch. An “electronic skin” developed by Ali Javey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, may ensure they do. The thin, flexible sheets of polymers he’s developed are sensitive enough to detect a fly’s landing. Javey coats a glass cylinder with silicon-germanium nanowires, then rolls it over the plastic sheets, creating an array of nanosized sensors equal to the number of nerve endings in human skin. Javey has said he would like to cover an entire robot body with the skin, but it also could be used to give prosthetics a lifelike sense of touch. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine have developed a spray-on human skin to treat burn victims. Currently, sheets of replacement skin are grown in a lab, a process that can take more than a month. Once the sheets are grafted onto a wound, recovery can require weeks or months. The new technique harvests stem cells from a small section of the patient’s healthy skin, mixes them in a solution, and sprays it on the wound. It’s all done within 90 minutes, and the wound heals within hours or days. So far, more than a dozen burn victims have been treated successfully with the stem-cell spray gun. – TG

Weight of the World

“The mass of a kilogram is a kilogram,” explains William Phillips, a physics professor at the University of Maryland. That’s easy enough to understand. But here’s the problem: The mother of all kilograms – the international prototype that’s been housed in a bunker in suburban Paris since the 19th century and sets the standard for all others – has shed a bit of weight. Not a lot: about 50 micrograms, roughly the mass of a speck of sand. Why? No one’s entirely sure, but the main suspect is cleaning. Of all the international base units of measurement, including the meter, the second, and the kelvin, only the kilogram is still linked to a man-made object. The meter, for instance, is now officially measured by how far light travels in a certain length of time, which is a mere 1/299,792,458 of a second. Phillips calls that “a particularly appropriate and beautiful definition.”

Many scientists would like to see a lovely, new definition for the kilogram – one not subject to the ravages of time and dustcloths. The most likely solution: linking the kilogram to Planck’s constant, a basic unit of measurement in quantum physics. “With this new definition, even if the International Bureau of Weights and Measures [where the prototype is housed] burned down, we would still know what a kilogram was,” Phillips notes. An international conference set for October is scheduled to vote on a draft proposal, but it could take the better part of a decade for the change to become official. And that’s a fairly long wait, no matter how you measure it. – TG

courtesy daily mail

A Chinese Megalopolis

Give China credit for thinking big. Planners there want to link nine cities along the Pearl River Delta into one 16,000-square-mile megalopolis with a total population of 42 million. Geographically, the future city would be 26 times bigger than London, or roughly the size of Switzerland. Then again, it wouldn’t be any bigger than greater Los Angeles. The Turn the Pearl River Delta Into One project would cost around $305 billion and take six years to complete. Planners say it would result in better transportation links and improved infrastructure, including more efficient energy, water, and telecommunications networks. The area is in China’s industrial heartland, where pollution is a major problem. What’s not clear is how the creation of a new megacity would help tackle that problem. – TG

Students’ Rights

If a student invents a hot app for smart phones, does the university get a piece of the earnings? It depends. On their own, Tony Brown and three other University of Missouri undergraduates developed NearBuy, an iPhone app that tracks local apartment rentals. Since its release in March 2009, it hasgotten more than 250,000 downloads. Initially, Missouri demanded 25 percent ownership and two-thirds of the profits. Ultimately, the university backed down and has since rewritten its rules to give students exclusive rights to inventions derived from contests, extracurricular clubs, and individual initiative. Only if an invention is nurtured with faculty guidance, or uses college facilities or grant money, will the school now claim part ownership. Missouri and some other colleges, including Carnegie Mellon and Yale, think a more liberal view of student inventions will help them attract smart, entrepreneurial students. A student club at Yale has spawned 40 businesses, created 90 full-time jobs, and garnered $25 million in startup funding. – TG

Plant Security

Genetic engineers are finding novel uses for their handiwork — and inviting new controversy. Swiss seed company Syngenta has developed Enogen, corn containing a microbial gene that produces the enzyme used to break down corn starch into sugar in producing ethanol. Currently manufacturers add a liquid version of the enzyme to corn during processing. The genetically modified (GM) corn could make ethanol production more efficient and cleaner, Syngenta claims. However, American corn millers and food industry groups, usually big supporters of GM crops, are railing against the ethanol-boosting corn, saying if it gets mixed with food corn it could ruin the processing of corn starch used in a wide variety of foods, from corn chips to cereals.

MEASUREMENT STANDARDSMeanwhile, a British company, Oxitec, has developed a GM Aedes aegypti male mosquito to help battle dengue fever, a tropical, mosquito-borne disease that strikes 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and can be deadly. The male is sterile, so no offspring result from mating with female mosquitoes. In one recent trial in the Cayman Islands, introduction of the GM males cut the mosquito population by 80 percent. But in Malaysia, site of another trial, health and environmental groups fear the new mosquitoes could lead to mutations in the wild that create new, uncontrollable breeds.

So far, no one seems to be opposing efforts underway at Colorado State University to insert computer-designed proteins into plants to make them chemical detectors. The proteins are redesigned versions of naturally occurring receptors, and they enable modified plants to sense specific chemicals in the air, such as traces of explosives. If the plants detect a bad agent, they change color, from green to white. Beyond obvious homeland security applications, chemical-sniffing plants could be used to monitor pollutants. Currently, the lab plants require several hours to change from green to white, but researchers are confident they can shorten the time to a few minutes. –TG



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