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Images of Mars sent from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed details of the Red Planet never seen before, providing clues to its history of complex climate change. The mission’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera was developed with the aid of planetary geologist Alfred S. McEwen at the University of Arizona. Zooming in on features as small as a square yard, the device allows five times the resolution of earlier orbit cameras. And now everyone can have a closer look: In conjunction with NASA, Google has produced an online 3-D map of Mars. – ROBIN TATU




Instant replay cameras are a boon to NFL referees who don’t have a clear view of a play. But occasionally the cameras don’t manage a clear shot of things, either. The solution, says an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is embedded sensors. Priya Narasimhan and her students are stuffing footballs with GPS receivers and accelerometers to track their location, speed, and trajectory, and fitting gloves with pressure sensors. Similar sensors could also be embedded into shoes and pads, she says. Narasimhan grew up in India and Africa but became a rabid Steelers fan since moving to Pittsburgh seven years ago. And like all good fans, she often finds herself screaming at the television when it looks like the officials made a bad call. She thinks technology could clearly determine such things as who has the ball in a pileup; if a carrier actually crossed a goal line; and if a receiver had full control of the ball before going out of bounds. If Narasimhan is right, technology could solve the problem of questionable calls once and for all. –THOMAS K. GROSE


The Islamic University of Gaza is trying to raise reconstruction money following a late-December 2008 bombing by Israeli jets, which it says destroyed the two main laboratory buildings for science and engineering and partially damaged other campus structures. Israel says Hamas militants used university facilities to develop and store weapons, charges the school denies. Israel conducted a three-week military campaign to halt Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli civilian areas close to the Gaza Strip.

No casualties resulted from the airstrikes on IUG because the campus had been evacuated, according to reports. The university, which posted photos of the destruction on its website, puts the cost of rebuilding at $14 million. IUG and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology were featured in the November 2008 Prism.


Loofahs — they’re not just for showers anymore. Those scratchy scrubbing sponges come from a cucumber-like plant that’s indigenous to Paraguay. Now a Paraguayan industrial engineer, Pedro Padrós, has developed a way to mix loofahs and other vegetable matter with melted plastics to create a strong, lightweight building panel that’s also recyclable. The idea came from social activist Elsa Zaldivar, pictured at right. Some years ago, Zaldivar successfully organized a rural women’s cooperative to grow and dry loofahs for sale overseas. But she wanted to find a way to put excess loofahs and waste to use in a building material. So she approached Padrós for help. After a lot of trial and error, he developed a workable formula, as well as a machine that mixes the materials and produces the panels. The panels cost about $3 per square meter, and that’s crucial, since Zaldivar wanted a product that could be used to build affordable housing for Paraguay’s poor. Zaldivar’s efforts won her one of the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. With the $100,000 prize money, she plans to open a promotion center and build three model houses using loofah panels. –TG


Ready for biodiesel that’s good to the last drop? Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, have developed a process that creates the fuel from spent coffee grounds, which contain 10 to 15 percent oil by weight, depending on the variety. If all the coffee grounds in the world were collected and processed, around 340 million gallons of fuel a year could be produced, says Mano- ranjan Misra, a professor of chemical and metallurgical engineering at Reno. Of course, that’s less than 1 percent of the amount of diesel fuel burned annually in the United States.Not much – even if all the java grounds could be retrieved, which is unlikely. But the technology is simple and inexpensive, and Misra believes it’s worth producing even small amounts of energy from waste or renewable materials. The leftover grounds can be used as ethanol feedstock, garden fertilizer, or fuel pellets. One other pleasant selling point: The fuel’s aroma is redolent of brewing coffee. Ahhhhh. –TG


Celebrities and science: not always a good mix. Every year, Sense About Science, a British nonprofit that promotes public understanding of science, highlights the more outrageous “scientific” claims made by celebs. 2008, it seems, provided a bumper crop. There was Kelly Osbourne saying her mother’s colon cancer was caused by birth-control pills and further implying that microwave ovens are a cause. Experts say neither the Pill nor microwaves are linked to colon cancer. Genetic testing company 23andMe, cofounded by Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google cofounder Sergey Brin, was slammed for hosting a celebrity spit party. Both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain were knocked for suggesting a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccines and autism. Then there was Mariah Carey calling her latest album E=MC² and saying it meant “Emancipation equals Mariah Carey times two.” Except the sequence means C squared, or “Emancipation equals Mariah Carey Carey.” Oh well, Einstein probably couldn’t sing. –TG


Construction work can be dangerous. In 2006, 1,226 construction workers were killed on the job, 809 of them in falls. But a trio of serpentine, pole-climbing robots designed by graduate mechanical engineering students at Virginia Tech — outfitted with cameras and sensors — could soon take over many dangerous chores from human workers, including inspection of high-rises and underwater bridge piers. The three-foot-long, autonomous robots wrap themselves around a pole or beam in a helical shape, then use an oscillating joint motion to inch their way up or down the structure, employing either electricity or compressed air for power. “These are really wicked cool robots,” says Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanics Laboratory. Judges at the 2008 International Capstone Design Fair at the Seoul National University of Technology agreed. Virginia Tech’s snaky robots beat out 44 other entries from 15 countries. –TG


In 2007, Paris launched a bicycle-sharing operation called Velib. Some 20,000 bicycles in and around the French capital are stationed at 1,400 stands. For a small fee, a Parisian can take a bike from a site near the Louvre, say, and drop it off later at some other location. It has been a huge success. So now the city’s Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, is planning a scheme for cars, Autolib. It will distribute 4,000 electric cars from 700 sites around town, 200 of them underground. There will also be 1,400 charging stations. The mandate is for the vehicles to be 100 percent electric, capable of carrying four passengers safely, and have a top speed of 50 mph. Autolib’s concept borrows from an idea suggested by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Smart Cities group: a small electric car that’s foldable so that up to eight can be stacked in one parking space. The hourly rate for Autolib? Perhaps around U.S. $5.55 to $7. A bargain, n’est-ce pas? –TG


Back in 2004, the U.S. Defense Department urged researchers to develop better methods to decontaminate soldiers and equipment hit by a chemical weapons attack. Now a group of engineers at Texas Tech University has come up with one: a nonwoven, dry wipe called Fibertect. A recent study at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found the wipe outperformed 30 other decontamination products in cleaning up mustard gas and other toxic chemicals. The wipe was developed by Texas Tech materials scientist Seshadri Ramkumar. It uses an activated carbon core that’s nestled between a top and bottom layer of absorbent cotton and can also be used to line protective suits, filters, and masks. Says Ramkumar: “It’s capable of cleaning intricate parts of everything, from the human body to the control panel of a fighter jet.” –TG


Technology may soon take all the fun out of being a teenage driver: no more racing along at top speeds, music blaring while talking on a cellphone. Ford’s MyKey is a computer chip inside a car key that limits teen drivers to a top speed of 80 mph. It also sounds an alert once the car exceeds 45, 55, or 65 mph. Parents can program it to sound a continuous, annoying chime until the seatbelt is buckled; mute the car’s stereo to 44 percent of maximum volume; and activate a “low fuel” alert when the tank has 75 miles’ worth of gas left, instead of just 50. The technology debuts in late summer with the 2010 Focus, but Ford expects to eventually make it available in all Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln lines.

Meanwhile, engineers at the University of Utah have come up with a technology that disables a cellphone while the car key is in the ignition, so teens can’t use their cells to talk or text while driving. Xuesong Zhou, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, invented the device with former graduate student Wally Curry. It slips over the key and must be removed for the key to fit into the ignition — a process that sends a wireless signal to the phone, temporarily disabling it. Zhou notes that at any given time, 10 percent of teens are yakking or texting while driving, and studies show that drivers using cellphones are four times as likely to get into an accident. Says Zhou: “The key to safe driving is to avoid distractions.” –TG



Shape-shifters are a phenomenon usually associated with horror stories, not buildings. But Italian architect David Fisher’s Dynamic Tower, a $700 million apartment complex planned in Dubai, will continuously change its looks. That’s because each of its 80 prefabricated floors can rotate 360 degrees, independent of one another. “The building never looks the same, not once in a lifetime,” Fisher says. Power to operate the spinning stories will come from wind turbines. Apartment prices are said to be a head-spinning $3.7 million to $36 million. But amid a global recession that has halted other Dubai real estate ventures, these may now be out of sync. –TG


Each year, 4 million newborns die worldwide, 98 percent of them in developing countries. Many could be saved if they were placed in incubators to keep them warm and monitored.Thousands of incubators have been donated to these regions from richer nations, but a 2007 Duke University study found that 96 percent of them break down within five years and are too costly and complex to repair. So a Boston group has devised an ingenious fix: an incubator made from old car parts. The notion behind the contraption is that junkyards around the globe are literally filled with potential replacement parts, and local auto mechanics can be easily trained to make repairs, when needed. A car-parts incubator could be built for about $1,000, around 3 percent of the cost of a new, state-of-the-art model.

The project was created by the Global Health Initiative of the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, a consortium of teaching hospitals and engineering schools, including MIT and Boston University. CIMIT, which has put $150,000 into the project, contracted with the nonprofit engineering firm Design That Matters to construct a model, and Rhode Island School of Design students disassembled a Toyota 4-Runner to find suitable parts. –TG

“The national security controls that regulate access to and export of science and technology are broken.”

—An expert National Academies panel, urging the new Obama administration to change or scrap Cold War-era regulations on high-tech exports and on immigration by foreign scientists and engineers

Sources: “Beyond ‘Fortress America’;” The New York Times



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