HEAD START ON FIGHTING POLLUTION

Think about auto pollution, and it's easy to visualize heavy traffic grinding along expressways or cars idling in mid-town gridlock. But most vehicle emissions occur when you start your car, and in the first few minutes thereafter. Only a tiny amount of fuel needs to be injected into a car's intake valves to get the engine revving. But for a number of failsafe reasons, about 10 times the necessary amount is actually brought in. The little bit that's used to start the car is vaporized, the rest forms a puddle of liquid and eventually burns off as highly toxic emissions. Even the catalytic converter is of no help in scrubbing these unnecessary emissions because at this early stage, it has not warmed enough to operate.

Now researchers at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Engineering, working in conjunction with the Ford Motor Co., have developed a process—actually a system that works like a mini oil refinery—that could cut emissions by more than 50 percent. Ronald Matthews, a professor of mechanical engineering, says the notion of having two fuels—a small amount of a highly volatile one for ignition, and conventional gasoline for the continuing running of the engine—is one that automakers have long realized would cut pollutants. The trouble has been that there has been no practical or economically feasible way to accomplish that. Until now, he hopes.

The idea came from a former graduate student , Rudy Stanglmaier, who now works for Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It was a very clever idea he had when he was still a student,” explains Matthews, who with Stanglmaier and two Ford engineers has patented the system, which is a distillation process. Matthews explains that as the fuel first vaporizes, the system captures that part of it that's easiest to ignite and stores enough to start the car in an auxiliary tank. Each time the car is started, the process is repeated and the auxiliary tank is refilled. The system has worked well in the lab with ethanol 85, he says, “but gasoline is an even easier fuel to work with, so I'm optimistic.”

Matthews estimates that mass production could be 18 to 24 months away, as they work to prove its effectiveness and bring costs down to about $60 per unit. If he's right, we may all breathe a bit easier.

 

BLADE RUNNERS CYBER-STYLE

Saturday morning in suburbia and the drone of scores of lawnmowers fills the air. What a racket! Can't anyone design a quieter lawnmower?

Good question, thought Courtney B. Burroughs, an associate professor of acoustics at Pennsylvania State University. So he decided to give that problem to the 11 graduate students—all working engineers—who are taking his class, "Noise Control Engineering." Just one problem: it's a distance-learning class—part of Penn's online World Campus—and Burroughs' students won't even touch the mower, let alone hear it. To solve the dilemma, Burroughs had one of his on-campus graduate students measure all the relevant data, which has been put on a CD-ROM. Sensors to record some of the data were placed on the mower's blades.

Burroughs also had software designed that could mimic the lab equipment an engineer would normally use to analyze the data—virtual instruments, essentially. "It's been a real challenge," he admits. He relied mainly on students to design the "goof-proof" software. "I certainly didn't do it," he admits. But he calls the end result a reasonable duplication of the lab experience. Another hurdle was getting all the students to work as a team, since they're spread all over the country. That's mainly been accomplished via e-mail.

Quieting a lawnmower is a thorny problem—if the solution were obvious, mowers wouldn't be so noisy. So there is no "right" answer for the students. As the blades cut through the air, pressure builds on them and that causes noise—lots of it. It's not dissimilar to the whooping din of helicopters. The trick is redesigning the blades so they make less sound, but still effectively cut grass. "We wanted the kind of problem they [the students] see everyday, one with no clean solution," Burroughs says.

A lawnmower manufacturer donated the machine, a large riding model. If the students come up with a useful remedy, it'll be forwarded to the company. Who knows? Saturday mornings in suburbia may one day be a bit more ear-friendly. Then again, there are also those infernal leaf-blowers.

 

Battle of the Sexes

LONDON—Are British schoolgirls getting smarter than British schoolboys? Consider: Last year, Britain's 170 universities awarded first-class honors degrees to more than 11,000 women and 10,800 men. In 1999, men outpaced women 10,500 to 10,200. Moreover, high-school-aged girls last year for the first time did better than boys in college entrance exams.

Education experts and media pundits are of two schools of thought in explaining the trend. Some feel that years of efforts to bring female students on par with their male classmates are finally paying off, whileothers worry that too many young men are falling victim to a “laddish” culture that's overly macho and disdains education as uncool.

But Madsen Pirie, who heads the Adam Smith Institute, a conservative think tank, thinks both notions are wrong. Instead, in an article in The Spectator, Pirie says the reason for the
better performance among women is that tests have become unconsciously “feminized.” Boys, he posits, tend to not do well with details, but see the big picture and will take risks. Girls, he says, are more systematic, do well with details, but sometimes miss the overall theme.

Tests have been restructured since the late 1980s, Pirie says, and the old tests “favored risk-taking and grasp of the big picture, rather than the more systematic, consistent, attention-to-detail qualities which favor girls.” He adds: “It is not that one approach is better than the other, just that they are different. One brings out the strengths of boys, the other brings out the strengths of girls.” His is not a new observation. I.Q. tests have long realized gender differences in test-taking.

To which Joan Whitehead says, “Pshaw!” An expert in gender and academics at Cambridge University's School of Education, Whitehead says Pirie's article is a collection of myths “that could have been written in the 19th century.” Whenever female students do better than men, she says, the reaction is “something is wrong, there must be some explanation.”Most of that research, Whitehead adds, starts with the faulty premise that men are academically superior to women, so how come they're not performing? “Those kinds of arguments still underpin this debate,” she says, adding that collegiate assessment processes have changed in recent years, but not in any way that favors wo- men. Final university exams, for instance, now factor in other things beyond a final three-hour exam, including continual performance, projects, and lab work, if applicable. “How is keeping a lab notebook feminine?” she asks wryly.