ASEE Prism Magazine  - November 2002
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A corny way to make plastic

Think biotechnology, and chances are genetically-modified foods or bio-engineered medicines come to mind. But quietly over the last two years, biotechnology has been gaining importance within manufacturing, as the potential of using modified enzymes to create stronger, cleaner, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier materials becomes more evident. In May, Cargill Dow, a partnership between Dow Chemical and Cargill, an agricultural products company, opened a $360 million plan in Blair, Neb., to manufacture polylactic acid, known as PLA. That's a polymer created by using a modified enzyme that transforms corn sugar to lactic acid. The resulting corn-based plastic can be used to duplicate any petroleum-based plastic now in wide use, says Brent Erickson, a vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Already in Germany and other parts of Europe, plastic yogurt cups made from PLA are in wide use. But within a few years, corn-based plastics will be used to manufacture everything from food wrap to car parts to clothing. And while many protest groups bitterly oppose GM foods, PLA is seen as an ecological boon.

The manufacturing process doesn't produce dioxides, and gene drift isn't an issue because a so-called "closed loop"production system is used. Waste from the manufacturing process can be heat treated and used as fertilizer. Because the products are essentially sugar-based, they are biodegradable. And unlike plastics based on petroleum—a finite resource—there's an endless supply of corn. Moreover, within a few years, the process will use only the plant's stalks and leaves, which are now waste. That will essentially give farmers two cash crops in one plant. One issue is that many enzymes don't do well in high temperatures. But researchers are starting to use "extremophiles," microbes that can survive in extreme environments, to create modified bacteria that can easily withstand anything a factory has to offer. And, as Erickson notes, because researchers are now discovering a thousand new enzymes every month, "the possibilities expand exponentially."

There are other industrial biotech breakthroughs on the horizon. Nexia, of Canada, has spliced the genes that spiders use to create silk into the milk glands of goats. From the resulting milk, spider silk can be extracted and woven into an incredibly strong fabric. A spider's silk dragline is tougher than steel and weighs less than cotton. The Pentagon has funded Nexia's research because it wants to use the fibers to make body armor. Industrial biotechnology, it would seem, may soon create products that weave their way into every aspect of our lives.

Nosing around

BRITAIN—Blue cheese excepted, things that smell bad often are bad. Anyone who has even gotten a whiff of a musty corked wine or rancid milk can attest to that. Now some researchers in Britain are developing the world's smallest nose—actually an odor-detecting device on a silicon chip—to help detect harmful pathogens. Julian Gardner, an engineering professor at the University of Warwick in England, is working on the project with colleagues at the universities of Leicester and Edinburgh. If they succeed, the device would be cheap—retailing for around $100—and have many medical applications. "It will not only sniff out bacteria but recognize the species and strain," Gardner says. Other potential uses are as a spoilage detector in the food industry and as a monitor of air and water supplies in buildings. The researchers want the device to be "neuromorphic," or possess many of the same features as the human olfactory system. Sensors composed of electrically conductive polymers will detect odor molecules and send signals to a processor, just like the olfactory receptor neuron in a nose detects molecules and sends signals to the brain for processing. Gardner says the team hopes to have a working prototype of its proboscis ready for a sniff test later this year.

Submarine Built For Two

A new two-person submersible built in North Vancouver, British Columbia, promises to open up a world of undersea possibilities for everyone from scientists to the general public. The first production model of DualWorker rolled off the assembly line at Nuytco Research Limited's factory in October, according to company owner and sub-sea engineer Phil Nuytten (pronounced Newton), who led the craft's design team. DualWorker's first voyage is scheduled to take Florida Governor Jeb Bush down to explore the vast Wakulla underwater springs near Tallahassee, Fla. But its real commercial possibilities will be more fully on display next spring when the craft is flown up north of the Arctic Circle in Canada to transport scientists, tourists, and filmmakers down to the wreck of the Breadalbane, the world's northernmost shipwreck. The sailing ship sank in 1853, 75 miles north of
Resolute, the closest outpost to the Magnetic North Pole. The Breadalbane was on a mission to find Sir John Franklin, the British explorer who disappeared in 1847 while searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient.

DualWorker is equipped with either four or six single-horsepower thrusters (depending on the mission), which can propel the 10-foot-long craft at up to 3 knots. The flying-saucer-shaped vessel is constructed of A516 grade-70 steel. An optional titanium hull is also available. The craft, which costs more than $700,000, features hydraulic manipulator arms with a reach of five feet and can remain submerged for up to three days. Normal passenger dives typically last several hours.

The Breadalbane sits upright at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, below eight feet of ice and 350 feet of sub-zero water. "It's covered with beautiful, cold-water coral growth—soft, like those feathered boas women used to wear around their necks," says Nuytten, who was the first person to see the wreck when he dove to the ship in a submersible in 1982. "The coral has a gorgeous vermilion color and the hull is the light tan color of natural wood. The lower part is sheathed in copper, which has turned turquoise green. The whole thing is spectacular to see." Film director James Cameron is planning to accompany the expedition and film the ship from DualWorker with the help of high-intensity lighting, also built at Nuytco Research's factory. Nuytten met Cameron when he supplied all the submersibles for the underwater film "The Abyss." He also later worked with Cameron on the blockbuster film "Titanic."

The 60-year-old Nuytten, a part-time writer, archeologist, and carver, has been involved in developing underwater diving systems since the 1960s. In 1985, he unveiled a one-atmosphere diving hardsuit rated to 1,000 feet. Called the Newtsuit, the revolutionary apparatus featured articulated joints that allowed workers to work in depths where the pressure reaches 500 pounds per square inch. The suit became a mainstay in deep-sea industries like oil drilling and salvaging operations.

Since 1998, Nuytco Research has also built 20 one-person submersibles called DeepWorker 2000. The "underwater sports car" has been used by 200 scientists who have been trained to pilot the craft. In 2001, the National Cancer Institute hired one to explore parts of the South Pacific looking for new species with potential anti-carcinogenic properties. Traveling through water up to 2000 feet deep, scientists uncovered 125 new species in their two-month-long survey using the craft.

Watering down warfare

Ridding war-ravaged countries of land mines is an expensive, dangerous, and arduous process. And a seemingly never-ending one. In 1995, the U.N. estimated that there were 120 million land mines worldwide, but experts now say there is no reliable figure. Nevertheless, it's guessed that there are as many as 10 million in Afghanistan alone, where half the victims are under 18. Now researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla have developed a remote-controlled robot that uses water jets to safely detect, uncover, and disarm mines. David Summers, director of the school's Rock Mechanics and Explosive Research Center, says that ever since he wrote his doctorate on water jets 30 years ago, he's worked to prove "there are all sorts of neat and crazy things" that they can accomplish. To defuse land mines, Summers and his colleagues worked backwards. For the past 20 years, he's worked on devices that use high-pressure plumes of water to slice into and washout explosives, rendering them harmless without exploding them. "We know we can cut them up and neutralize them," says Summers, a mining engineer. He also knew the technology existed to gingerly and safely use water to unearth the mines. Using an approach developed to excavate radioactive waste from underground burial sites, the robot shoots a small amount of water onto and around the mine, then a vacuum device on an arm sucks up the dirt and water. The process is so gentle and exact that it can leave two or three pebbles atop the mine. It exposes a mine within 15 to 20 seconds using less than a gallon of water.

The quandary was how to use water jets to find the mines. Current minesweepers use metal probes beneath the ground to feel for them. But Summers got to thinking about the water pistols of his youth and how they would make different sounds, depending on what the squirt was hitting. He correctly theorized that if ultra-high speed jets of water were fired into the ground, the audio feedback would vary depending on what they hit.

Prototypes can now differentiate between metals, plastics, wood, and rock. And because most land mines are hollow, Summers explains, their acoustics are unique. To improve the precision of the algorithm used to decipher the feedback, researchers are still building a library of sounds. Summers says the final version should cost less than $10,000, which is cheaper than other de-mining machines under consideration. That means that only the land mines will get soaked, not the agencies working to clear them.

The Road To Safety

When it comes to driving, "speed kills," we're often reminded. While certainly the speed of vehicles involved in an accident will affect its severity, there is no reliable data showing how often speed is a factor in causing accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that speed is a contributing element in 30 percent of accidents. But as Jennifer Ogle, a researcher at the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, notes, "We know very little about pre-crash speeds." That's because information from participants, witnesses, and reconstructions is prone to error. She's now involved with the school's $3.1 million Drive Atlanta project, which will use sophisticated data collection and telecommunications equipment installed in the cars of 1,100 Atlanta-area drivers to determine the roles of speed, driver behavior, and environmental elements in causing accidents. Atlanta is an ideal location for the two-year study. It has the dubious distinction of having an accident rate above the national average.

The data recorder prototype being used is a MACBOX, which automatically records high-resolution data each time a car is used, including trip length, duration, route, speed, and acceleration. The data will be sent weekly to the researchers' server. Supplemental information on traffic and weather conditions will come from the Atlanta Traffic Management Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The MACBOXES also have vehicle theft-tracking and automatic 911 notification systems built into them. Within the 13 metro counties of Atlanta, if a test car is involved in a crash, a GPS signal will tell 911 where it occurred. And its software will analyze data, including impact velocity and severity, to notify rescue workers as to the likelihood of injuries or casualties. Ogle says automatic crash notification devices like MACBOX will soon become standard equipment in cars, as prices fall and telecommunications systems improve.

Once the data is collected and analyzed, it's hoped that the information can be used to make recommendations to reduce the number of accidents, including better road designs that force slower speeds, enhanced safety equipment, and better road signs. Sadly, the likelihood that there will be plenty of data is high. Statistically, during the two-year period, those 1,100 Atlantans will be involved in at least 100 wrecks.

Hands-on Approach to Computing

Carsten Mehring is a mechanical engineer specializing in computational fluid mechanics at the University of California, Irvine who likes to revise his papers during his coffee breaks. Problem is, he then has to go back and type in the revisions at his desk. Wouldn't it better, he thought, if he could type in his corrections while taking his break? So when Mehring read that wearable computers would soon be a reality, it hit him that that could be a solution to his dilemma. But how would he precisely type in the revisions? That's when Mehring, a German native, set to work inventing a hand device that mimics the "qwerty" keyboard we're so familiar with. To type alphabetic letters, his device uses conductive contacts on the tips of all eight fingers and six divided between the front and back of each thumb. The contacts are meant to align with the standard keyboard. Thus, if the right index finger touches the front, top thumb contact, a "u" is produced; if it hits the middle contact, a "j" appears. Additional contacts on the sides and nails of the fingers allow for numbers and special characters, like brackets, periods and quotation marks. The prototype is a pair of gloves. But other possibilities would be a skeletal structure that clicks on or a flexible circuit wire that spirals around the hands and digits, but is rigid enough to maintain the shape of the users' hand. Mehring says one study estimates that by 2006 or so, a majority of 16- to 35-year-olds will spend at least four hours a day "wearing" computers. "That's a very good potential market," he enthuses. And one he hopes to tap into.

How Do You Say "Research" In French?

PARIS—Too many and competing political promises made by French President Jacques Chirac in his successful re-election bid last spring could mean a cutback in government funding of research and development in France. A sluggish economic recovery has cut into anticipated government revenues, forcing new Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin to seek budget cuts. But Chirac promised to spend more money on defense and law and order and made a 5 percent tax cut the centerpiece of his campaign rhetoric. That means Raffarin has to look to other areas to slash spending, and R&D looks vulnerable—even though Chirac also pledged to increase R&D spending to 3 percent of GDP by 2010, up from its current level of 2.17 percent. Leaked reports indicate that the center-right government will cut the $9 billion R&D budget by more than 7 percent. If France fails to reach the 3 percent of GDP level for R&D funding, it won't be alone. Among the 29 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only one country—as of 2000—was spending 3 percent of GDP on research: Finland, which was at 3.35 percent. Japan was close at 2.98 percent. The OECD average that year was 2.24 percent; the European Union average was 1.88 percent.

Trading Places

Many newly-minted engineering, mathematics, and science Ph.D.s anticipate spending their lives as researchers, either within academia or the private sector. But the uncomfortable truth is, the number of permanent research positions is dwindling. A recent report suggests the creation of a national fellowship program to encourage postdocs to consider careers in K-12 education—primarily as teachers, but also as administrators. The proposal is aimed at the thorny, two-pronged problem facing primary education: a shortage of teachers—particularly math and science instructors—and the poor performance in those subjects by U.S. students. The report from the National Research Council (NRC) recommends a two-year fellowship program to place doctorates into K-12 posts, paying them a stipend of $35,000 a year. The fellowship would pay the first year; the school district the second. The program would also train them to be teachers. Patricia Morse, the University of Washington professor who chaired the committee that authored the report, says candidates "would have to show a willingness to teach before considering the fellowship." The idea is to train people who want teaching careers and are not just looking for a stopgap position before returning to research. A NRC study found that 36 percent of recent doctoral graduates expressed an interest in teaching at the K-12 level.

The American Federation of Teachers says it applauds any idea that brings more people into the profession, especially in the areas of science and math. But John See, an AFT spokesman and former math teacher, questions whether Ph.D.s will be satisfied working with youngsters. "They'll have to teach things that they haven't really thought about in 15 or 20 years," he notes. See has a master's and was trained to teach high school math, but found himself teaching basic fractions to junior high school students, some of whom hadn't mastered the multiplication table. See admits that it was frustrating. And while it would not be impossible for these doctorates to continue to do research, most would find the demanding hours and workloads of a teacher would leave precious little time for lab work. One potential benefit: The Ph.D.s who venture into K-12 classrooms should at least understand what they're teaching.

 

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