Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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Plastic Cars, Sneeze-free cats, Fashion's shock

Rolling Out a New Plastic

Researchers have made an environmentally-friendly hubcap from elephant grass.

Automobile 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 little—if any—pesticides or fertilizers.

“The 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.


Trouble in High-Tech Land

We've 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 consequences—from the breakup of the space shuttle Challenger to a series of crumbling dams in China—Chiles says disasters are not inevitable quirks of fate. What Edward Murphy actually said back in 1949—when he learned of a technician's mistake—was 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.

Nevertheless 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 events—a 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 ground.

All worthwhile 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 started.

Often we 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.

Buy a copy of "Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology" at


Brits Join the Real World

It's 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.

Forward Group, 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.

Forward Group 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 best—research—while 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.

Its first 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.


Fashion With Shock Appeal

With this new high-tech jacket, the hands remain free for other activities while the wearer talks.

Electronically-enabled 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.

Now comes 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.

Eventually, 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 items—and risk a short shelf life—by 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.


Allergy-Free Cats

Can 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 cat—with the help of a little bit of genetic engineering and cloning. Operated by Dr. David Avner—a resident emergency room physician—and 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 them.

It's 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 company's labs.

The Avners 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.


Surprising Shift in Student Aid

As every 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.

But students 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 list.

And those 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.

Projects 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 competition—a friendly rivalry between departments—during 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.”

Making Every Vote Count

After 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 wizardry—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology—found 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.

What works 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.

Registration 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 issue—especially 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.

Meanwhile, 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.”