Out a New Plastic
have made an environmentally-friendly hubcap from elephant grass.
manufacturers are coming under increasing pressure to build cars
that won't just rust away in junkyards once they've
reached the end of the road. That means recycling most metal parts.
But plastic components don't recycle all that well. And today's
biodegradable plastics are too weak to be of much use for most
car parts. Now, researchers in Britain may have come up with a
solution: Miscanthus, a cane plant that's informally known
as elephant grass. Scientists at the University of Warwick's
Warwick Manufacturing Group are collaborating on the project with
the company Biomass Industrial Crops Limited (Bical), which was
founded to explore Miscanthus' industrial potential by a
group of farmers who grow it. It's already used for animal
bedding and thatching. Warwick's researchers have found that
short lengths of elephant grass used as a filler will stiffen
and strengthen biodegradable plastics. Moreover, there's
no worry that the plastic will start to degrade while the vehicle
remains in use. It has to be composted, explains Nick
Tucker, an expert in composite manufacturing at Warwick, who's
heading the research. Miscanthus has other properties that should
endear it to environmentalists. It's a hardy perennial which
requires very littleif anypesticides or fertilizers.
auto industry likes this idea a lot, says Tucker. But to
make it worthwhile, automakers need a plastic that could be used
in all applications, because the cost of stripping out some plastics
before shredding the rest would be too costly. That's potentially
doable, Tucker says, but will require more experimenting.
in High-Tech Land
all heard of Murphy's Law, which posits that whatever can
go wrong will go wrong. That would seem to be the point of a recently
published book by technology writer James R. Chiles, Inviting
Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (Harper Business).
But, no. While Inviting Disaster is a catalogue of technological
breakdowns that have had deadly consequencesfrom the breakup
of the space shuttle Challenger to a series of crumbling dams
in ChinaChiles says disasters are not inevitable quirks
of fate. What Edward Murphy actually said back in 1949when
he learned of a technician's mistakewas if there were
any way for that man to mess up his job, he'd do it that
way. What's wrong with the popular view of Murphy's
Law, Chiles says, is that time and time again, huge disasters
have been prevented in just the nick of time.
Chiles' book is a warning that technological disasters do
happen, and frequently. And, he writes, they always involve not
just one failure, but a chain reaction of eventsa systems
breakdown that usually includes a human error. A classic example
was last year's fatal crash of the supersonic passenger jet,
Concorde. A strip of metal caused one of the jet's tires
to blow. A chunk of rubber slammed against a fuel holding tank,
which burst. Kerosene, which was sucked into the left engine,
ignited, causing an alert to sound in the cockpit. The fuel system
was not on fire; nevertheless, the pilots shut power to the left
engine. The Concorde then rolled, causing the right engine to
stall, and it crashed, killing 109 people on board and 4 on the
systems are hit daily by errors and malfunctions, he notes, but
these rarely cause problems because of redundancies built into
mature systems. What troubles Chiles is that we are building machines
at such increasingly complex and mammoth levels that it may prove
harder to stop catastrophic chain reactions once they've
rely on technology to act as a fail-safe barrier, and this is
worrisome, as well. The time between invention of new technology
and putting it into the field is growing ever shorter, he
notes, Chiles warns that we need to acknowledge the extraordinary
damage that ordinary mistakes can now cause. And then be
ready to exercise a much higher level of caution.
a copy of "Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology"
Join the Real World
only been in the last decade that British academics have, by and
large, become comfortable with the notion of commercializing their
research. And much of the development so far has been confined
to the country's top institutions: Oxford, Cambridge, and
Imperial College. Now a private company, Forward Group, sees potential
in helping researchers at less well-known schools that consistently
turn out applied technologies.
a fund created by high-tech entrepreneur Ray Chamberlain, is signing
contracts with schools to provide them with management and commercial
skills, as well as capital. In return, it receives preferred access
to their research.
works from a fairly obvious starting point: that scientists often
lack entrepreneurial skills, and few are particularly interested
in business. Basically, says Andrew Mitchell, managing director,
his company frees up scientists to continue doing what they do
bestresearchwhile letting them reap the financial
benefits of their work. The group has put together a significant
fund, and has a team of people who not only have entrepreneurial
and commercial skills but understand technology.
contract was a $29 million agreement with Leeds University, and
it recently signed a second, $14.5 million contract with Heriot-Watt
University in Edinburgh. Areas of research that interest Forward
Group include wireless communications, cancer treatments, CAD
software, and new materials for optical components. Dealing with
scientists who are not always commercially minded has not proved
easy, Mitchell says, but the group understands that universities
want to manage, not sell, their intellectual property rights.
Now Forward Group expects to eventually form partnerships with
at least 10 other schools.
With Shock Appeal
this new high-tech jacket, the hands remain free for other activities
while the wearer talks.
clothing has been speculated about in the technology and fashion
media ever since comic spymeister Maxwell Smart chatted into his
shoe-phone. But so-called wearware has been rare-rare on store
shelves. A year ago, jeansmaker Levi Strauss joined forces with
Phillips, the Dutch consumer-electronics company, and released
a few expensive togs with stitched-in GSM (Global System for Mobile
communications) network cellphones and MP3 music players in some
European capitals. But it was a small pilot program that wasn't
deemed too successful.
Finnish company Clothing+, which released the first of several
lines of wearable technology this fall. Selling for about $700,
under the brand Reima, is the Smart Shout parka. It's being
marketed to skiers, climbers, and hikers across Europe. It has
a detachable body belt that has a built-in loudspeaker, microphone,
and GSM mobile phone that can be activated using tags, so hands
can be kept free. In the coming year, Clothing+ will release other
jackets that incorporate a wireless Web browser and Bluetooth
wireless technology, which allows electronic gadgets to communicate
with one another.
the company expects to sell fashionable outerwear that could help
save a skier's or climber's life in case of an accident.
The coat's software would monitor the wearer's vital
signs and send SOS messages through a GSM network to emergency
patrols. Pentti Hurmerinta, Clothing+ managing director, says
the company wants to avoid having its products seen as novelty
itemsand risk a short shelf lifeby focusing on practical
clothes that have a serious function. For the time being, Hurmerinta
admits, the consumer market for this apparel will remain a niche
one, but hopes that Nordic companies may help build demand
by buying the coats in bulk for their mobile sales forces. Clothing+
expects to sell a few thousand parkas this year, and around 30,000
next year. It's selling the jackets through sportswear outlets,
as well as electronic goods shops. And, sorry about that, Agent
Smart, it has no plans to make a shoe-phone.
science help create the pur-r-r-rfect cat? Well cat fanciers might
argue that our feline friends can't be improved upon. But
for 27.5 million Americans, cats are a source of real discomfort:
itchy eyes, sneezing, and wheezing. That's because they're
allergic to cats. And for them, the perfect cat would be one that
doesn't cause allergies. Now a Syracuse, N.Y., company, Transgenic
Pets, says it's on the verge of creating such a catwith
the help of a little bit of genetic engineering and cloning. Operated
by Dr. David Avnera resident emergency room physicianand
his wife, Jackie, Transgenic Pets has enlisted the expertise of
Xiangzhong Yang, an expert in animal cloning at the University
of Connecticut, in hopes of creating the first allergy-proof pussy
within two years. Millions of cat-allergic people who now
suffer with itchy eyes and runny noses, and millions of others
who live without the love and companionship of a pet because of
allergies, will soon be able to keep a pet of their own,
says Avner. Both he and his wife love cats but are allergic to
not the cat's hair that makes people sneeze. Most often,
it's a protein released by cats to moisten their skin. However,
Avner claims they don't really need it. What Transgenic Pets
has in mind is removing the gene for that protein. The allergen-free
cells will then be merged with egg cells and the eggs grown in
an allergy-free embryo. Avner says these are well-established
techniques that have been used to clone cattle and sheep. It
is simply our application of the technology to turn off the allergen
gene in cats that is new, he says.
Once a few
cats of each sex have been produced, then traditional, ahem, breeding
methods can be reintroduced. Cats sold to the public will be spayed
or neutered first to keep the trait from spreading beyond the
expect to sell their cloned cats for between $750 and $1,000.
But finances may stall their progress. They have yet to raise
the $2 million they need to pay Yang for his work. And it remains
to be seen if cat lovers will welcome this newest and rarest of
breeds. Now, if scientists really wanted to create the perfect
cat, they'd turn them into dogs.
Shift in Student Aid
alumnus knows, the ol' alma mater counts heavily on their
generosity to help fund such things as expansions, projects, and
scholarships. And in gratitude for the institution's help
in launching their careers, many grads gladly write out checks
every year to help keep the school running smoothly. But, beyond
tuition, current students rarely think about donating money to
their schools. To be fair, that's partly because they're
often short of bucks themselves.
at the College of Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute
and State University, over the last few years, have found that
coughing up cash for their college can be mutually rewarding.
Virginia Tech's Student Engineers' Council (SEC) has
given more than $80,000 to the college over the last three years,
and has ponied up $123,000 overall. How, you might ask, do impoverished
students come up with such huge sums? Well, the SEC operates an
Engineering Expo each fall, a two-day career fair. It attracts
more than 200 fee-paying companies and has another 50 on a waiting
fees add up. Four years ago, SEC advisor Lynn Nystrom, who is
also the college news director, was uncomfortable with so
much money not earmarked for any purpose floating around.
She suggested the group spend it on funding proposals made by
faculty and students. The winning suggestions would be those benefitting
the largest number of students.
funded so far include a student assistance center, the Firth Freshman
Design Engineering Lab, several scholarships, a freshman engineering
program, and the renovation of a well-loved engineering classroom.
The SEC also sponsors a Penny Wars competitiona friendly
rivalry between departmentsduring the annual Engineers'
Week. Each penny donated to a department is worth a point, and
the SEC provides a one-to-one match, with the proceeds going to
the local public school district. Junior engineering student Vinny
Menon, who is chairman of the SEC's executive council, says
the program has been eye-opening. I've come to see
the effects of philanthropy in terms of how it really benefits
the students, Menon explains. I was unaware of how
much a student organization could really do.
Every Vote Count
the debacle of last year's presidential election, which was
turned into a weeks-long cliffhanger because of confusing or soiled
ballots, there has been bipartisan agreement that perhaps America's
electoral system needs a high-tech fix. But a recent $250,000
study by two bastions of electronic wizardrythe Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technologyfound
that there is no computer-age solution to voting glitches. At
least not yet. Electronic voting machines are error-prone, as
are touch-screen machines, the 100-page report said. And forget
about Internet voting for at least a decade. It's too vulnerable
to fraud and hacking.
best? The 10-strong MIT/ Caltech team of mechanical engineers,
computer scientists, and political scientists determined that,
for now, the best method was using optical scanning of paper ballots.
That could cut the number of unusable ballots in half, it claimed.
It recommended that scanners be placed in every polling station.
The study concluded that between 4 million to 6 million votes
in the last election were not counted because of problems with
ballots, machines, or registration. Of two million ruined ballots,
1.5 million of them were damaged by bad equipment. The worst culprits
are punch-card ballots and lever machines, which often jam. The
research said both methods should be junked.
questions also disenfranchised too many voters, the study determined.
It suggested that each precinct be issued with a laptop computer
linked to full voter registration lists. It also recommended that
all states follow the lead of California and use provisional
ballots to handle some registration issues. Provisional
ballot votes are cast, but not verified, until questions about
the voter's eligibility are cleared up.
Cost is an
issueespecially since replacing outdated systems with optical
scanners would be an expensive, but only a temporary, solution.
The MIT/Caltech report said it would cost $400 million to implement
its recommendations. We think the price of these reforms
is a small price to pay for insurance against a reprise of November
2000, said Thomas Palfrey, a Caltech political scientist.
Still, for a city of 250,000, the outlay would be about $5 million,
which outstrips the election budgets for most cities that size.
the study team remained hopeful that technology will ultimately
improve our electoral system. The report urged the creation of
a National Elections Research Lab to foster the development
of better voting equipment and voting systems. All those
in favor, say, Aye.