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Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
African Agama lizard
PHOTO CREDIT: D. Gordon E. Robertson

Leapin’ Lizards

A team of engineering and biology students at the University of California, Berkeley, used high-speed video and motion-capture technology to learn how leaping African Agama lizards maintain their balance when they land on surfaces with poor traction. Turns out they swing their tails up or down, as necessary, to counter their bodies’ rotation and remain stable. After that discovery, the team attached a tail to a toy car, dubbed Tailbot. Tailbot also has a gyroscope and sensors to give it feedback on its body’s position—information it uses to move its tail and leap like a lizard. Directed to drive off a ramp, Tailbot stabilized itself in midair and landed correctly. The technology could be used to build agile search-and-rescue robots. –THOMAS K. GROSE

Smart Meds

Fully half of patients who are prescribed medications take them incorrectly, the World Health Organization says. It’s estimated that improperly used medicines cost Britain’s National Health Service around $690 million a year. But “intelligent medications” could help solve that problem. Proteus Biomedical, a California company, has developed a system called Helius that includes a pill containing a digestible microchip and battery, a skin patch, and a smartphone app. The chip, activated by stomach acid, sends signals to the adhesive patch. The patch, changed once a week, transmits the data to the app. It can tell patients and caregivers if medicine has been taken and monitors other useful information, including heart rate, body temperature, respiration, posture, and sleep patterns. U.K. drug-store chain Lloydspharmacy recently inked a deal with Proteus to launch Helius in Britain this September — in a sugar pill taken with other medications. But future versions could include chip-embedded meds. Do those ingestible chips come with guacamole? –TG

Patching Potholes

Two things Kansas has a lot of: unpaved roads and wheat fields. Of the Sunflower State’s 98,000 miles of road, 70 percent are dirt. Such dusty byways are prone to erosion—think ruts and potholes—which can make driving unpleasant as well as potentially dangerous. Now, about that wheat. Much of it gets used to make biofuels like ethanol, and a byproduct of that process is lignin, a nontoxic biomass present in wheat straw and other plants that becomes adhesive when wet. So Wilson Smith, a civil engineering graduate student at Kansas State University, is working on ways to use lignin as a binding material to make dirt roads more erosion resistant. The filler also would make them less dusty, safer, and cheaper to maintain. If it works, lignin offers a solution tailor-made for Kansas. - TG

Quoted: “Merely increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40% to 50% would generate three quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees over the next decade.” —Letter to President Obama from his Council of Advisers on Science and Technology - Source: PCAST report “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”


Enlighten Up

Apple founder Steve Jobs spent the last years of his life thinking about how to reinvent the textbook. His dream now has come to fruition with the recent launch of the iBooks 2 app for the iPad. Apple’s digital textbooks, some 350,000 of which were downloaded in the first three days after debuting in January, include not only audio and video, but also such interactive touchscreen features as word definitions at the tap of a finger; review questions with instant feedback; text highlighting by fingertip; and instant, personalized study cards. Apple has a deal with top publishers to make their textbooks available at its iBooks store for $14.99 or less. While an iPad costs at least $499, an analyst at Gartner consultancy group told the Guardian newspaper that the price should soon drop; he expects Apple’s foray into textbooks will quickly attract rivals like Amazon, maker of the Kindle e-reader. Will students buy in? A 2011 survey found that 75 percent would choose print over digital, but that could change. E-textbooks have doubled their share of the market since last year. -TG

Diabetes Detector

Glucose in human saliva is about 100 times less concentrated than in blood, which is why America’s 26 million diabetics must prick their skin to effectively monitor sugar levels. Researchers at Brown University may soon take the sting out of glucose checks. They’ve developed a small biochip that can detect low concentrations of glucose in saliva with as much accuracy as in blood samples. The device uses nanotechnology to monitor the interaction of electrons and photons, or surface plasmonics. The Brown team devised nanosize plasmonic interferometers—each consisting of a slit and two grooves etched into silver metal film—and placed thousands of them on each square millimeter of the chip. As light moves through the slits, its intensity changes, allowing researchers to deduce the concentration of glucose molecules in a solution. Domenico Pacifici, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of engineering, says the technique could be used to look for many other chemicals, including anthrax, “and to detect them all at once, in parallel, using the same chip.” -TG

New Helmswoman

Only a handful of female engineers have become university heads. Cheryl B. Schrader, 49, just increased their ranks by one. The Missouri University of Science and Technology’s new chancellor took over from John F. Carney III, who retired last August. She is the 141-year-old school’s 21st head. Over the past year, Schrader served as associate vice president for strategic research initiatives at Boise State University, following a six-year stint as its engineering dean. During her time as dean, Boise State’s College of Engineering saw undergraduate enrollment increase by 60 percent, while graduate school enrollment grew by 36 percent. Schrader has also taught at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and at Rice University. She has a B.S. from Valparaiso University and a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, all in electrical engineering. Much of her current research has focused on creating and assessing new ways of teaching STEM subjects. Missouri S&T is a technical research school with a student body totaling 7,521. - TG

meshlike metal object resting atop a fuzzy dandelion perfectly captured the essence of a unique new material, “ultralight metallic microlattice.electrical ENGINEERING
Scan Me Up, Scotty

In the far infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum reside terahertz waves, or T-rays, whose wavelengths are hundreds of times longer than those that make up visible light. T-rays can detect everything from explosives to gas pollution to tumor cells. That’s why they’re used at airports in full-body scanners. But current T-ray scanning technology is limited. It can operate only at very low temperatures, requires huge amounts of energy, has low power output, and is expensive. But researchers at Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and at London’s Imperial College have figured out how to use a nano-antenna to produce stronger, more efficient T-rays—a breakthrough that could make the technology more useful to medics. The nano-antenna, which is integrated into a semiconductor chip, amplifies the wave generated, making its power output 100 times as high as what commonly used THz sources are capable of. The invention could lead to medical devices similar to the tricorders featured in Star Trek: portable sensing and computing devices that can transfer large amounts of data quickly and wirelessly. That could put the research team in the lead for a new $10 million X Prize. Funded by the Qualcomm Foundation, the prize will go to the inventor of the first workable tricorder. Paging Dr. McCoy . . . –TG


What’s in a name? Plenty, if it’s one of just 22 top-level Internet domains that start with a dot, such as .com or .edu. A new effort by domain regulator ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, could add hundreds, perhaps thousands, of suffixes to that exclusive club by letting websites customize their addresses. The range extends from brands (.Canon, for instance) to cities (.nyc) to generalized communities, including .ngo and .bank. Vanity plates don’t come cheap, however. The application fee alone is $185,000, with up to $100,000 in annual maintenance costs. The large registration fee covers the ICANN’s cost of criminal background checks — applicants must prove their legitimate claim to the name — as well as financial evaluations, technical assessments, and possible litigation. It also should deter fraudsters from “squatting” on famous brands. Operating an Internet registry “is an expensive and highly technical operation,” explains ICANN spokesman Brad White, who expects some 1,500 organizations and businesses to apply by the March 29 deadline. Given the expense and hassle, most small businesses will say, ICANN’T. But they still can apply, as usual, for a “second-level” name — the one preceding the dot. At $10, it remains a steal. -TG

EyeAsteroidsGame Technology

Eye-tracking technology has been used to help paralyzed people operate computers. It has also become useful to marketers who want to gauge the effectiveness of online advertising. Now the technology is working its way into more commercial products. Swedish tech company Tobii has introduced Gaze, a software developed for its PCEye peripheral device, which shoots near-infrared light at a user’s eyes via four LED sensors. Using Gaze and PCEye with a laptop, a user can initiate most PC commands including activate, zoom, and scroll, by staring. It’s not entirely hands free. You use your eyes to point to a command, then select it by tapping on the laptop’s touchpad. For now, Gaze only works with the new Microsoft operating system Windows 8, but may eventually be adapted for Apple or Linux operating systems. Tobii also recently introduced an arcade game called EyeAsteroids, where players blast asteroids using only a menacing stare. Using your eyes as a game controller, Tobii says, “is an almost magical experience.” - TG

Britain’s Isle of Wight seeks to become a net exporter of energy.

How Safe?

Engineered nanomaterials—infinitesimal substances developed at the molecular level—have swept into the marketplace, enhancing products from sunscreen to medicine to stain-resistant clothing. Little is known about the potential risks to health and the environment, however, a new National Research Council report warns. Nor is there much capability to monitor the rapid changes in nanotechnology applications, or to identify and address potential consequences. No one knows the effect, for example, of ingesting nanomaterials. To close such “critical gaps” in understanding, the NRC panel, chaired by Jonathan Samet, a University of Southern California medical professor and director of the Institute for Global Health, called for a cohesive research plan to help manage and avoid potential risks. The four-pronged approach includes identifying and quantifying the nanomaterials being released and the populations and environments exposed, understanding processes that affect potential hazards and exposure, examining interactions at the subcellular to ecosystem-wide level, and supporting a “knowledge infrastructure” to advance research. Because the nanotechnology sector is expanding — it represented $225 billion in product sales in 2009 and is expected to grow rapidly in the next dec-ade — “today’s exposure scenarios may not resemble those of the future,” the report says. – Mary Lord

Lost Creativity

When it comes to innovation, engineers are supposed to lead the way. But how to teach it? That’s a problem the mechanical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, has been wrestling with following a three-semester study involving 94 of its undergraduates. Roughly half were freshmen, and half seniors. Both sets of students were given the assignment of designing a next-generation alarm clock. The result, as published in the January 2012 Journal of Engineering Education, would perplex any educator: “Freshman students generated concepts that were significantly more original than those of seniors, with no significant difference in quality or technical feasibility of the concepts generated by the two levels of students.” The findings “suggest that freshman engineering students can be more innovative than their senior-level counterparts,” write the authors, two of whom – grad student Nicole Genco and Assistant Professor Katja Hölttä-Otto – are part of the department. Chair Peter Friedman says, “We do recognize that creativity needs to be improved.” The curriculum is being revised, and the school has a National Science Foundation grant to monitor creativity.  

Soap Operation

The use of cleansers, or surfactants, to clean oil spills has long upset environmentalists, because the detergents also can pollute. Now a “magnetic soap” discovered by researchers at Britain’s University of Bristol may ease that problem. A team led by chemistry professor Julian Eastoe dissolved iron-rich salts in a soapy solution and found they could draw the soap out of water using a magnet. Scientists at France’s Institut Laue-Langevin later used neutron-scattering technology to reveal that the iron particles had clumped together into nanoparticles large enough to be drawn to a magnetic field. The attraction of this invention is obvious. Beyond making oil spill cleanups more efficient, it could lead to improved water-treatment technologies and new types of industrial cleaners. - TG



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