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FIRST LOOK - Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Photos courtesy of The Dark Energy Survey

Civil Engineering
Grand Vision

A cavernous concourse and imposing façade qualify New York’s Grand Central Terminal – 100 years old in February – as an urban icon. But the innovations that made it the city’s most important transportation hub lie mostly belowground and in plans envisioned by William John Wilgus, a railroad engineer trained on the job and through a Cornell correspondence course – that era’s MOOCs. Removing surface tracks that separated Manhattan’s east and west sides, he devised a two-level underground station, freeing 30 city blocks for lucrative development, writes structural engineer and author Richard G. Weingardt. With electrical engineer Frank Sprague, Wilgus invented the third-rail electrical track system and replaced fume-spouting steam engines with electric power. The building above, the platforms, and the new structures nearby were surrounded by what has been described as “the most elaborate system of steel framing ever built.” Wilgus also introduced air-rights leases that helped cover construction costs. With justification, the Western New York Railway Historical Society called Wilgus (inset, right) “a civil engineering genius well ahead of his time.”

Photos courtesy of iStock


Wind Bag

Green, renewable energy from the wind and sun has two hurdles to overcome. It’s intermittent, so green power can’t work as a baseline source the way nuclear or fossil-fuel plants can. And production often far outstrips demand. Since electricity is hard to store, all that excess power typically goes to waste. Belgium—which hopes to wean itself off nuclear power and also has extensive North Sea offshore wind farms—has come up with a novel solution to both problems. The country plans to build a two-mile-wide, doughnut-shape artificial island made of sand — about two miles off the coast. When nearby wind farms produce more power than needed, that electricity will be used to pump water out of the central reservoir. When demand is high or when winds have slackened, the water will be let back in, turning electricity-producing turbines in the process. Belgium could eventually generate 2,300 megawatts of power from its wind farms. Its two nuclear plants now generate around 3,000 MW. Officials say it could take at least five years to construct the island. But what to name this manmade atoll? The Isle of Homer, of course, after the doughnutloving Simpsons character. – Thomas K. Grose

Photos courtesy of istock



Additive Manufacturing

Time Warp

Just when folks have gotten their heads around the concept of 3-D printing — where machines construct objects one thin layer at a time by following three-dimensional, computer-aided designs — an MIT researcher has introduced what he calls 4-D printing. Skylar Tibbits, an architecture lecturer, says his innovation adds time to the traditional three dimensions. What he’s demonstrated, with the help of Stratasys, an Israeli 3-D printer company, is a self-assembly construct. It’s essentially a jointed strand of standard, rigid plastic that’s combined with another polymer that absorbs water and expands. As the absorbent plastic expands, it pushes the other strand into a new shape, based on a blueprint worked out in advance. In a video, one strand self-forms into a cube; another spells out the letters MIT. Tibbits says that depending on the types of polymers used, other ambient energy sources, including light, sound, or heat, could be used to generate assembly. One possible use, he says, would be underground water pipes that grow or shrink to handle varying flows of water—eliminating burst pipes—or self-assembling furniture. That said, even the most sophisticated CAD programs would most likely crash trying to figure out Ikea assembly instructions. –– TG

Photos courtesy of istock

Photos courtesy of UCLA & istock

Optical Implants

Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare genetic eye disease that strikes around 100,000 Americans. Sufferers initially lose their peripheral vision and eventually go blind. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the world’s first retinal implant that allows sufferers to regain some vision. The disease destroys the retina’s photoreceptors, the cells that convert light into electrochemical impulses that travel up the optic nerve to the brain, where they are decoded into images. Second Sight Medical Products’ Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System implants 60 electrodes into the retina and uses special glasses affixed with a tiny camera to send them images. Of the 60 patients treated so far, all have had varying degrees of vision restored, though mainly just an ability to detect dark and light. A few, though, were able to read newspaper headlines. The Argus II system already has been approved in Europe, where it costs around $100,000, with surgery an additional $16,000. The company expects it will cost more in the United States. Meanwhile, at MIT, electrical engineering professor John Wyatt is working on an implant system that would use 400 electrodes. And at Stanford, Daniel Palanker, an associate professor of ophthalmology, has been experimenting with a system that would implant 5,000 photovoltaic cells to help those blinded by macular degeneration, a condition that typically strikes the elderly. – TG

Photos courtesy of Second Sight Medical Products & Hamel

Photos courtesy of enable talk

Food Supply
Midas Touch

Golden Rice has long been the cause célèbre of bioengineered foods. Developed around a dozen years ago by German and Swiss researchers, the grain is engineered to help combat vitamin A deficiency, a cause of blindness and death in the developing world. A Lancet study estimated that 668,000 children younger than age 5 die from this scourge each year. Greenpeace and other environmental groups opposed to genetically modified foods have long fought against Golden Rice, stymieing planting efforts. Anti-Golden Rice activists claim it’s better to treat vitamin A deficiency with supplements or food-fortification programs. But, as a recent article on the website Project Syndicate explains, supplemental programs cost $4,300 for every life saved, and fortification efforts cost $2,700. The engineered rice? Just $100 for each life saved. Two new studies found that two ounces of Golden Rice can provide 60 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin A. As this evidence mounts, the Philippines will allow Golden Rice to be grown there later this year, and Bangladesh and Indonesia are set to soon follow. The Guardian now reports that Australian researchers are working on a banana that will boost not only Vitamin A levels, but iron levels, too. – TG

Photos courtesy of International Rice Research Institute


Chemical Engineering

Hangover “cures” typically require ingesting something disgusting or reaching for that old standby: the hair of the dog that bit you. The only real cure is waiting many hours for your liver to filter the booze from your bloodstream. But another treatment may be in the offing. A researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has mixed two complementary enzymes into a chemical cocktail that could ease the effects of imbibing too much. Yunfeng Lu, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, says the enzyme concoction works just like the liver to rid the body of alcohol — only faster. One enzyme turns the booze into hydrogen peroxide. But since hydrogen peroxide is toxic, the second enzyme immediately kicks in and forces it to decompose into harmless water and oxygen. Tipsy mice treated with the enzymes had blood alcohol levels 34.7 percent lower than untreated mice after three hours. Rodents given the treatment and the fed alcohol had levels that were 36.8 percent lower after three hours. In capsule form, the enzymes could work as a prophylactic that helps protect the body from a heavy night out or as an after-the-fact cure that offers speedier relief. Cheers! – TG

Photos courtesy of istock


Fuel-efficient Fuselage

Aircraft designers have known for years that a blended-wing-body fuselage, which resembles a manta ray’s silhouette, would be more efficient and consume less fuel than a tubular-bodied plane. But the traditional fuselage is easier to construct in a way that keeps the cabin pressurized while also withstanding outside forces, notes Technology Review. Now, engineers from NASA, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney have developed methods to construct a sturdy hybrid-wing aircraft that would use just half the fuel of today’s jetliners. The hybrid wing is constructed from a carbon-fiber fabric stitched over carbon-composite rods and then coated with an epoxy to make it rigid. Tests showed that sections of the fuselage could withstand the outside forces that jets typically face and maintain cabin pressure. If some part failed under extreme pressure, the stitching stopped cracks from spreading. The plane would be powered by the new, fuel-sipping Pratt & Whitney ultrabypass ratio engine. Because the engine’s front fan is larger than the engine core, it’s hard to attach beneath standard wings, the magazine explains. But the hybrid flying wing uses a top-mounted engine configuration. Some of the manufacturing techniques NASA developed could be ready to use within 10 years to improve conventional aircraft construction. The flying wing itself is at least 20 years away from commercial takeoff. – TG

Photos courtesy of NASA Photo/Carla Thomas

Photos courtesy of The University of ManchesterRobotics
Class Act

TOKYO – Students at Kyoto’s Higashihikari Elementary School have a new classmate – a 47-inch robot named Robovie. Despite primitive conversation skills, the android has already wowed the children with its formidable memory: It has been programmed to recognize every one of the 114 kids in the fifth grade and their teachers by face and voice. And since it already has the class science textbook on its hard drive, Robovie is way ahead of even the class geeks – and has its own nerdy sense of humor. “What’s another word for curly copper wire?” the teacher asked. “A coil,” came the reply. “I’ve got one in my body – it moves my motor!” “What do you use for food?” a child asked. “I eat electricity,” the bot replied. “Not crazy about water, though.” The first-of-its-kind, 14-month experiment started in February 2013, and while teachers are hoping the project will inspire kids in science class, the maker aims to reap reams of observational data to help make future robots behave more naturally around their human overlords. Masahiro Shiomi, a researcher with the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute, says, “We want the robot to learn right alongside the children. Just think of it as the slightly odd new kid, who hangs out in the lab.” – Lucille Craft

Photos courtesy of Robonable JP and © 2010 Vstone Co., Ltd.


Biomedical Engineering
The Beat Goes On

If the U.S. Air Force had had its way back in the 1950s, residents of Roswell, New Mexico, wouldn’t be the only ones claiming to have seen flying saucers. Recently declassified documents, including schematics, from the National Archives reveal plans to build a fleet of aircraft that looked like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. A cutaway view of Project 1794 from 1956 shows a saucer-shaped vehicle with a pilot’s cockpit housed in a bubble-like protuberance in the middle. The craft was designed for vertical takeoff and landing and flying at speeds of up to Mach 4 with a ceiling of 100,000 feet. Two prototype “proof of concept” subsonic versions of Project 1794 were built by the Canadian aeronautical firm Avro Aircraft. Tests, however, showed both to be unstable, and the Air Force canceled the project in 1961. – Pierre Home-Douglas

Photos courtesy of IStock


Smart Sensors
Feel No Evil

As fans of Spider-Man comic books know, protagonist Peter Parker gained “spider sense”—an ability to detect danger—after he was bitten by a radioactive arachnid. Why not build a suit to mimic that skill for real, thought Victor Mateevitsi, a University of Illinois at Chicago computer science postdoc. Mateevitsi’s version has seven modules, each containing sonar sensors that can pick up ultrasonic reflections from nearby objects. As the wearer gets closer, the sensor triggers a small, mechanical arm, which presses down with ever increasing force, warning of lurking perils much as Spider-Man can sense punches before they land. “You can feel imminent danger,” says Mateevitsi. To test his SpiderSense suit, a blindfolded Mateevitsi tossed cardboard ninja stars at colleagues who moved at him as if to attack. He reports an impressive 95 percent accuracy rate. That’s a fun stunt, but Mateevitsi envisions serious, practical applications for his invention: helping the blind to better navigate the physical world and enabling firefighters to maneuver through dark, smoky environments. If they materialize, such useful applications would make Mateevitsi a true superhero — of research. – TG

Photos courtesy of Rafael Advanced defense systems ltd


online learning
Never Sets

Behold, the mighty MOOCs. Coursera and edX, two leading companies providing these massive open online courses, have recently doubled in size by greatly expanding their global reach. Both are but a year old. The Harvard-MIT nonprofit edX is an open-source education platform that, along with offering free online courses, also researches how students learn. The newest six universities joining edX are the Australian National University, the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, Switzerland’s EPFL, McGill and Rice universities, and the University of Toronto. Meanwhile, for-profit Coursera, created by two Stanford University computer science professors, added 29 more partner-universities to its platform, bringing the total to 62. Among them: Penn State, the University of Rochester, École Polytechnique of France, the Technical University of Denmark, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and National Taiwan University. Coursera has received about $18 million in venture capital money, while MIT and Harvard each kicked in $30 million to launch edX. Like many digital start-ups, however, both pioneers are still trying to figure out how to make money. Now there’s an idea for an online course. – TG

Photos courtesy of Coursera

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