Prism Magazine - March 2003
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Helping Terrorists Byte The Dust

Can biological or chemical terrorists be thwarted by microscopic dust? Michael J. Sailor thinks so. He's the chemical and biochemical expert at the University of California at San Diego who's been working on silicon-technology solutions to terrorism. His team has devised a "smart dust" that may one day be used to detect chemical or biological agents. The special dust could be sprayed on walls or sprinkled into drinking water samples to hunt for such lethal agents as sarin, smallpox, or anthrax.

His team begins with a wafer of silicon that's treated with thin layers of film that can react to specific chemicals, bacteria, or viruses. The wafers are then pulverized, using ultrasound, into microscopic particles of dust. Each particle acts like a supermarket bar code that, when hit by a special laser beam, can detect if it has interacted with a toxic agent. "The idea is that you can have something that's as small as a piece of dust with some intelligence built into it so that it could be inconspicuously stuck to paint on a wall or to the side of a truck or dispersed into a cloud of gas to detect toxic chemicals or biological materials," Sailor says. Each wafer, hence each particle, is treated to detect a specific agent or class of agents. "To scan for thousands of agents at once you would need 1,000 different particles," he explains. Anthrax detection is made a bit harder because the nasty stuff is encased in a spore coating. "It's like a little Christmas package. You don't know what you have until you open it up." So more sophisticated gear is needed that can crack open the spore, extract its DNA, then amplify and analyze it.

In the lab, Sailor's team has been able to detect dust interactions from 20 meters away; he's confident the technique will eventually work .6 miles away. The particles remain intact in the open air for a few weeks before they degrade to sand and a reapplication becomes necessary. Thankfully, unlike the smart particles featured in the bestselling thriller, Prey (see page 13), Sailor says his won't have the ability to self-replicate.


Narrowing The Gap

LONDON—The "digital divide" is the gap that keeps high technology beyond the reach of the world's poorest residents, especially those in Third World countries. Now a British business group is working to help bridge that virtual chasm by funneling thousands of discarded corporate computers to schools in disadvantaged parts of the globe. Within the next five years, more than 600 million PCs will be junked by U.K. companies. Because companies have to upgrade their technical equipment so often, most of these redundant machines are in perfect working order. Yet many are broken up and buried in landfills. So the Prince of Wales's International Business Leaders Forum created an initiative called the Digital Partnership to put some of those computers into the hands of children and teachers in the developing world. "The digital divide is real," the Partnership says. "Access to the Internet and computers does not in itself solve poverty, but it provides an essential and transforming means . . . to improve education, build vital skills, and contribute to health, social, and enterprise development." Companies ultimately benefit by helping to develop better-trained future employees and customers.

The first 4,000 computers have already been sent to schools in South Africa, and by later this year, it's hoped that 170,000 computers will reach about 4,000 schools there. Workshops are being established to help train locals to refurbish the machines, and teachers are being shown how best to utilize the computers in classrooms. The machines will run the Windows XP and Office XP suite of programs, and Microsoft is waiving software fees for the schools. Locals will be offered fee-based lessons, and it's hoped those fees will help pay for maintaining the computers. The Digital Partnership wants to initiate further pilot programs in Brazil, India, and possibly Russia and Poland. It's a good effort that should help make the digital divide a bit narrower.


Robots That Keep Going And Going

The potential for mobile robots is huge. They can help scope out disaster areas too dangerous for humans to tread. They can be built for domestic applications, like butlers. They can be useful in manufacturing processes. But that potential won't be realized until robots have a better power supply—one that lasts. Today's state-of-the-art robots, powered by a combination of a lithium battery and a DC electric motor, poop out after only 15 to 25 minutes. Not a lot of commercial appeal there.

But two researchers at Vanderbilt University are developing a rocket-powered actuator for mobile robots. The device not only weighs much less than batteries, but can repeatedly lift a 51 pound load five times longer than the most efficient batteries or motors. It runs on about 1 gallon of liquid hydrogen peroxide mixed with iridium, a precious metal that acts as a catalyst. This is nearly pure hydrogen peroxide, not the 3 percent stuff the drug store sells, notes Michael Goldfarb, who is overseeing the project with Eric J. Barth. The pair are co-directors of Vanderbilt's Center for Intelligent Mechatronics. Eventually, using that same amount of fuel, a human-size robot could be powered for up to 8 hours, Barth says, which is more like a human work schedule, minus the coffee and lunch breaks. Barth admits there's some risk to having hydrogen peroxide in a pressurized tank, but no more than having gasoline in a car tank. "That's something that society has managed to deal with fairly safely," he says. Moreover, he adds, batteries aren't exactly risk-free, either. "The contents of the lead-acid battery in your car are pretty nasty, but packaged correctly, they are not a major safety concern."

The Department of Defense funds the actuator research and eventually wants to develop robotic exoskeletons to boost soldiers' strength. Exoskeletons could help a soldier carry, say, a 160-pound load because it would only feel like 10 or 20 pounds. So, in theory, tomorrow's infantry soldier may be jet-propelled.


Snow in July

TOKYO—Most of the Japanese islands are under snow in winter, and with the exception of ski resort owners, coping with and clearing the white stuff has always been considered a costly nuisance. But in recent years corporations and local governments have invested in a blizzard of ways to harvest and exploit this bounty of winter precipitation. Among the most aggressive in snow-harvest technology is the village of Numata, population 4,000, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Averaging almost 400 inches of snowfall a year, Numata tops the list of Japan's snowiest localities. Six years ago it began research into storing snow for use in refrigerated rice warehouses during the summer months, when air temperatures reach around 86 degrees. A producer of cut flowers such as larkspur, the village has also tapped snow as a coolant for cultivating heat-sensitive flowers during summer. Last year, exploring non-agricultural uses for their winter resource, the village began using snow to air-condition the library. "Usually snow is simply tossed on the sides of the road," says Numazu village researcher Hiroki Itoh, who has received inquiries about the system from as far away as Germany and Scandinavia. "We're at the forefront of efforts to harness it." A neighboring city, Bibai, has built an apartment house cooled by snow.

Itoh acknowledges the start-up construction costs of snow-coolant systems are high but mitigated by the innovation's two great virtues: By storing snow nearby, the costs of melting and removal are reduced. Just as important, this natural coolant, unlike "dirty" conventional air conditioning systems, is environment-friendly.


Looking For Light In San Francisco

Fog is to San Francisco what snow is to Buffalo—a given. So the city doesn't necessarily spring to mind as a leader in solar power. But within five years, the Bay City wants to add 10 megawatts of solar power to its electricity grid—enough to power, on average, 10,000 homes. Eventually, it wants solar power to generate 5 percent of its peak power needs, about 40 megawatts. The city issued $100 million in revenue bonds to pay for installation of renewable energy sources—part of the fallout from 2001's energy crisis that hit residents with brownouts, rolling blackouts, and skyrocketing energy bills. So to determine where best to position solar panels around Fog Town, local officials com-missioned the engineering firm Augustyn + Company of Berkeley to erect 11 monitors around the city that register and measure solar energy. The idea is to create a fog map. Correction, says Jim Augustyn, "it's a solar map."

The monitors should make the capturing of solar energy more efficient. Mere observation gave engineers a pretty good notion where the sunniest spots are, mainly around Bay Side, an area sheltered from serious fog. "The question is," according to Augustyn, "how much better are the good spots?" He thinks San Francisco's solar-power goals are reachable. "There's quite a bit of potential in the city." The main surprise so far, he adds, is that the foggiest parts of town still capture a fair amount of solar power, far more than he would have reckoned. "The difference between the best and worse areas is not as bad as I though it would be," he admits. That's got to be encouraging news for the city's energy-beleaguered and fogbound denizens.


A Fishy Way To Build Submarines

The idea behind submarines is stealth. Underwater warships and missiles are harder for the enemy to detect. But because they're propeller-driven, subs create a wake that can be spotted, especially by satellites. So the Navy is keen to develop unmanned subs that create little or no wake, and are also more maneuverable—propeller-driven watercraft cannot exactly turn on a sand dollar. The best way to do that is to mimic fish, which wiggle through the water and create nary a surface ripple. Toward that goal, two professors of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University—Othon Rediniotis and Dimitris Lagoudas—are leading a team that's devised a prototype sub that shimmies through the water as smoothly as a hunting shark. To accomplish that feat, they use Shape Memory Alloy wires made from nickel and titanium that are filled with ethylene glycol (antifreeze). The wires are then alternately heated and cooled, causing them to expand and shrink, respectively. As the wires move, they move the sub's metal skeleton, causing it to flex like a fish. The sub's skin is a series of overlapping aluminum plates. The initial three-foot-long prototype used battery power to heat the wires, but batteries take up too much space. So the team is now working on using a fuel engine—probably running on propane—to supply the heat. Rediniotis says full-production subs could be as big as 20 feet in length. Possible military applications include underwater de-mining, intelligence gathering, and ocean mapping. The technology could potentially make smart torpedoes. There are no plans at present to make manned versions. The big problem would be "human comfort," Rediniotis says. Riding inside the belly of a fish could give the passenger a unique sea sickness. Even if the Navy doesn't want to use this technology, it may have a future as an amusement park ride.


Putting The Arts Back In The Picture

AUSTRALIA—The science and engineering disciplines in this island nation have the highest profiles on campus—and get the most grants. But now educators in the arts, social sciences, and humanities are demanding a larger share of the pie. Forty-five deans from Australian and New Zealand universities met recently to map out a strategy.

" We're not asking specifically for more public and private-sector funding—though that inevitably would flow from what we are demanding, which is: more recognition of our importance in broad-based universities," says Janet Greeley, executive dean of arts, education, and social sciences at James Cook University in North Queensland. "We don't question the importance of science and engineering—but there's room for much more collaboration with the arts. For instance, major scientific and engineering breakthroughs often raise questions of social importance—ethics, impact on society, cultural shifts, and the like. We have a role to play."

In Europe and Canada, she says, there's been a focus on science—such as biotechnology—but with a strong arts component. In Australia and New Zealand, the arts tend to be overlooked in the rush to embrace science and engineering. "We are trying to correct this," she says.

The hugely successful export industry in selling education to students from mostly Asian nations to Australia's north plays a large part in the problem. "Many of these students demand science, engineering, IT, and business. So, social sciences, the arts, and philosophy increasingly have been overlooked," Greeley says. However, she has observed that as countries become more prosperous—as with, say, Singapore—"there's a shift again toward the social sciences. There's growing interest there in political science," she adds.

The deans plan to lobby the government in a more collective way. "Arts faculties are doing exemplary research that may surprise people," says Adam Shoemaker, dean of arts at Australian National University in Canberra. Through lobbying and media campaigns, the deans will highlight the importance of the arts and social sciences in well-rounded academic institutions.


Nanotechnology Conquers The World

Eleven years ago, two eminent scientists–Doyne Farmer and Alletta Belin—warned that humans will eventually design and create a new class of organisms that will be able to reproduce and evolve. For all intents and purposes, these organisms "will be ‘alive' under any reasonable definition of the word." They cautioned that the impact of these critters on society and our planet could be "larger than the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution." Famed sci-fi writer Michael Crichton—the physician-turned-author who's penned such blockbusters as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain—takes that concept and runs with it, as usual, all the way to the bank. His latest megaseller, Prey, is based on the chilling notion that when nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computer science merge, the result could be technology run amok. It's a cautionary tale of what could happen if cutting-edge science is tainted by corporate greed and human hubris. His menace in Prey are clouds—swarms actually—of microparticles that are the odious offspring of the marriage of the three aforementioned disciplines. And it's also a real page-turner that still manages to be a basic primer on those technologies.

Nanotechnology is the craft of manufacturing machines at the nanoscale, machines that are 1,000 times tinier than the diameter of a human hair. And Prey's basic premise is this: Xymos Technology, a Silicon Valley company with a fabrication plant in the no-man's-land of the Nevada desert, is working on a Pentagon project to create a swarm of nanoparticles that can be an eye in the sky. Each of the particles is a teeny-weeny camera, but as they swarm together, they network and form one larger flying camera that can't be shot down by enemy firepower. The nanocameras communicate with one another using agent-based algorithms, or distributed processing. As Crichton points out, when birds flock or ants forage, it's the combined intelligence of dozens or hundreds or thousands of small brains that allow them to function, and to function without any leadership. This so-called "emergent behavior" occurs even though it's not programmed into any member of the group. Agent-based programming is a hot field these days because the mimicking of successful biological populations—like ants or termites—can have real-world applications, like controlling big communications networks.

Prey explains that the problem with trying to build molecules from scratch is time. So complex is one molecule, Crichton writes, that it would take human manufacturers 3,000 trillion years to build it. Not exactly feasible—even with lots of overtime. It's expected the eventual solution will be nano-assemblers—super-miniature machines that will build molecules. That's a solution, however, that's probably decades away. Enter biotechnology. The book's fictitious company solves the problem by using bacteria—in this case, ubiquitous E. coli, which can feed on almost anything—to build the molecules. Writes Crichton, ". . . there wasn't much difference between creating a new bacteria to spit out, say, insulin molecules, and creating a human-made, micromechanical assembly to spit out new molecules."

Things go wrong for Prey's boffins when their swarm cameras fall apart in wind. As the Pentagon loses interest, and funding begins to dry up, Xymos executives and researchers—fearing for their livelihood—panic and make some bad decisions. They code the molecules to have memory, which means they can learn. They also give them the ability to self-replicate and run on solar power. They then release them into the environment to let them solve the wind problem on their own. Which they do. Trouble is, they continue to evolve. By the hour. And they evolve into something scary and deadly.

How feasible is Crichton's nano-thriller? Well, clearly scientists have already warned about the need to keep strict controls on these technologies. And Crichton, in an introduction to Prey, certainly makes clear his own concerns. Still, for the sake of having a story to tell, Crichton has his scientists—motivated by cutthroat corporate realpolitik—give their nanobugs a combination of powers they don't really need. Would real scientists act so lamely? That's anybody's guess, but as we've seen in the last few years, corporate greed can surely seduce smart people into stupidity.


Engineer Leads The Columbia Probe

Engineer Leads The Columbia Probe

- By Thomas K. Grose 

The videotape footage of the white contrail streaking across the blue sky was aired repeatedly by TV stations the morning of February 1. It confirmed the obvious: The space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated in the upper reaches of our atmosphere and plummeted to Earth. But what caused the accident, which killed all seven crew members? An independent panel has been selected to find out. It's headed by retired Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr., a trained engineer who also led the probe into the October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

Gehman, 60, who was the Navy's second-highest ranking officer when he retired a few months before the Cole attack, received his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering from Penn State in 1965. He also once headed the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which develops concepts to ensure that the various branches of the military work effectively as a team. That unit's commanders are considered innovative thinkers, says retired Adm. Kendell Pease, who has known Gehman since 1985. "They're real visionaries." Gehman's duties there included evaluating new technologies, training methods, and hardware, Pease adds. "He's very comfortable around technology." NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe says Gehman is "well-versed in understanding exactly how to look at the forensics in these cases and coming up with the causal effects of what could occur." Pease agrees, saying that Gehman knows how to stick to relevant facts and not be swayed by emotion.

His engineering background will serve him well in this investigation. "An engineer learns how to get his arms around a problem; what's important and what's not," says Graham Candler, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota. The shuttle is a very complex machine, he says, but Gehman "need only understand a piece of it to figure out what went wrong." Eugene E. Covert, a professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was a member of the team that investigated the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle 17 years ago, says a well-trained engineer knows how to "avoid jumping to conclusions…If you form a premature hypothesis, you tend to look for evidence to support it and you might overlook something important." Donna Shirley, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Oklahoma, who worked 32 years at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says the panel will likely face mountains of contradictory evidence, but engineers know how "to sort out conflicting ideas."

Typically, Covert says, accident investigators list all the things that could go wrong and trace them forward, "like a decision tree." They will also work backward from the explosion, looking at the things that could have caused it. Hopefully, the processes converge on plausible explanations that can be tested. Such inquiries also sift through tons of data and whatever physical evidence that's collected. Often, investigations into airplane crashes reconstruct the demolished aircraft. "When you put it back together, if you find a big hole, well, that tells you something," Shirley explains. What is the most helpful is finding those pieces that first fell from the doomed spacecraft, because they can pinpoint where the trouble originated.

Faulty sealers and O-rings were blamed in the Challenger disaster, and that theory is universally accepted. But Candler says the O-rings were an "obvious smoking gun," and this accident may prove harder to solve. But Gehman vows "to get it right. The astronauts who will fly in future orbiter missions need to know we have done everything we possibly can to come to the bottom of this and fix it."    


Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer baed in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at



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