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Beauty of the Beasts

Stroll along Holland’s coasts and you may encounter Theo Jansen’s remarkable strandbeests. With no electronic elements, these kinetic sculptures are powered by the wind to walk, can detect obstacles, and can anchor themselves into the sand to avoid strong gusts. Newer versions store wind as a source of backup energy. Jansen – an artist who trained as a physicist – has experimented for almost two decades with evolving generations of “beach beasts,” which begin life as complex computer algorithms. His models are inspiring similar designs in student engineering projects and have been hailed by the “green” crowd, as well. To see how the sculptures move, go to

Artist Theo Jensen demonstrates his lifelike strandbeests in this video for TED: Ideas Worth Spreading – ALISON BUKI

Not an Option

Engineers devise solutions for society, and many schools incorporate aid projects into their curricula. But now, a Christian college in Oregon has become the first American university to require students to undertake one or more service-oriented projects. Beginning in their sophomore year, engineering undergraduates at the George Fox University enroll in a four-semester “servant-engineering” program to research, design, and deliver solutions for charitable organizations. The program focuses on several areas: the developing world, K-12 outreach, community service, and industries for the poor. One group of students, for example, is working to help regulate power for a clinic in Burkino Faso. Says Bob Harder, head of the school’s mathematics, computer science, and engineering department: “We see it as an extension of our mission as a department and as a university – to produce engineers who are not only technically competent, [but] people who live out their faith and use the talents they’ve been given to make the world a better place.” Truly, that’s service with a smile. –TG

Robot Firefighter
The ’Bot Squad

First came the movie Robocop. Pure fiction. But now come robo-firefighters – and they’re the real deal. The London Fire Brigade (LFB) is halfway through a two-year trial of four firefighting robots, each with a different, specific function. Developed initially by defense contractor Qinetiq for bomb disposal in Afghanistan and Iraq, these ‘bots assist with industrial fires involving acetylene gas cylinders. Because cylinders can explode long after flames have been extinguished, an area of some 660 feet typically has to be cordoned off for 24 hours. But the LFB robot squad can inspect hot spots immediately after a fire and cut that time down to three hours. The firefighting quartet has been deployed 10 times in the past year, climbing stairs into storage units; locating and inspecting gas cylinders; and wetting, cooling, and removing any potentially hazardous equipment — all while their human operators watch at a safe, video-linked distance. Surely, Blazebots – the Movie must be in the offing. –TG

Four individuals who won grants from the MacArthur Foundation

Pictured clockwise from top left: Maneesh Argawala, L. Mahadevan, Theodore Zoli, and John A. Rogers


Engineering ‘Genius’

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation hands out no-strings-attached grants of $500,000 to 20 to 40 super-creative people, including scientists, artists, and activists whose work contributes to society. This year’s recipients include four from the world of engineering, pictured right, as listed: Maneesh Agrawala, L. Mahadevan, John A. Rogers, and Theodore Zoli. Agrawala is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. He designs algorithms that automatically visualize huge amounts of complex data. Mahadevan is a professor of applied mathematics at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. His complex equations analyze the shape and motion of everything from fluttering flags to wrinkling skin to crumpled paper. At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering, is developing flexible semiconductors to be used for a variety of applications. Zoli, a structural engineer and a vice president at New York’s HNTB Corp., designs long-span, cable-supported bridges that incorporate technologies to protect them from manmade and natural disasters. “For a lot of us walking between the boundaries of disciplines and a bit off the beaten path,” Rogers told the New York Times, “it’s good to get a confirmation that people think highly of your work.” –THOMAS K. GROSE

Waterstudio's Citadel

The great Pacific garbage patch: It’s a swirling thicket of trash, mostly plastic, that’s twice the size of Texas and caught in currents some 1,000 miles off the California coast. There are others out there, too. Visible ocean pollution is a scourge; but what we can’t see may be an even bigger worry. A new Japanese study says that plastics aren’t as indestructible as once thought. From styrofoam cups to water bottles and plastic bags, all types can break down in just a year’s time when exposed to the harsh ocean environment — and that releases toxic chemicals into the seas. “We are now convinced that plastic pollution is caused by invisible materials,” chemist Katsuhiko Saido of Japan’s Nihon University told the American Chemical Society. It could have “a great effect on marine life” — as well as human populations. –TG

Electric Powered Wheelchair

Let There Be Art

Walk past, and the 1,024 panels that make up the “You Fade to Light” wall mimic your movement. Dutch manufacturer Philips Organic Lights commissioned the stunning art installation from London design group rAndom Intl. to showcase its new OLEDs – organic (carbon-based) light-emitting diodes. Unlike the more familiar inorganic LEDs, which are bulbs, OLEDs are super-thin sheets that glow with a light as bright and even as sunlight. Electricity passes through one or more extremely thin layers of organic semiconductor material. Manufacturers have been working for some time to incorporate OLEDs into cellphone and flat-screen technology. The creative potential is also promising, and Philips is selling panel kits to designers and architects, encouraging them to experiment. At $100 per square inch, OLEDs are cost-prohibitive for most people but eventually may offer an affordable, efficient, and creative lighting solution. –TG

“The masters of light”

– Title bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, who invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor; and to Charles K. Kao, whose discovery led to a breakthrough in fiber optics.

SOURCE: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Regina Dugan

DARPA Reaches Out

Regina Dugan, a mechanical engineer and the new director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is on a round of visits to major research universities in a bid to re-establish ties that became frayed during the Bush administration. “It is our goal to strengthen this partnership,” she says. As of mid-October, she had been to Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, and Caltech. Funding for basic research shrank under her predecessor, Anthony J. Tether, who had invested in artificial intelligence, pushed the agency toward more classified programs, and tightened the period for research financing, according to the New York Times. “It sounds like a lot of that is changing now,” Peter Harsha, who represents academic institutions in Washington, tells the newspaper. – TG

Post-9/11 GI BILL

Desktop Manufacturing

Rapid Prototyping is a fast-growing industry that enables companies to create models and prototypes of products and parts quickly, cheaply, and with little or no waste, using a process called additive manufacturing. It’s also called 3-D printing because many of the machines use forms of inkjet and aerosol jet printer technologies. Models are fashioned one thin layer at a time, guided by 3-D CAD software. Larger, more complex machines can create actual parts, a type of rapid manufacturing. Boeing has used the technology to produce airplane parts; and companies as diverse as Timberland, Black & Decker, and Sony Ericsson use it to make prototypes. The printers aren’t cheap, of course – they range from around $10,000 to $1 million – but 3-D technology is catching on. At the University of Michigan, a student team used it to build a solar-powered car, Infinium. Using the printers and scanners of their sponsor, Z Corp., a maker of inkjet-based 3-D printers, the students were able quickly to produce prototypes of the parts they designed. And those parts are pretty smooth: Infinium is five times more aerodynamic than a Corvette. –TG

Details, Details

Artificial Retina

Our planet may be an orb, but it’s not perfectly round, so gravity varies slightly from location to location. And that presents challenges for GOCE, the low-orbit satellite launched by the European Space Agency to map “with unprecedented detail” the Earth’s gravity field. Hovering a mere 150 miles above us, GOCE skims along the bumpy edges of the Earth’s atmosphere. It needs to be completely free of drag to take its precise measurements, so ESA engineers designed it with a unique electric ion propulsion system that uses the inert gas xenon as its propellent. It produces just the right amount of gentle thrust to keep drag at bay. Now halfway through its two-year mission, GOCE began taking its sensitive readings of the Earth’s gravitational pull in September. Its findings will give researchers a better understanding of ocean currents, which are directed by gravity and affect air temperatures. The information should help improve climate change computer models. You don’t have to be a Newton to know how important that is. –TG

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Serpentine Strategies

A lot of engineering professors these days study animals, trying to decipher the secrets of their movement. It’s research that’s resulted in robots that swim like fish or fly like birds. But snakes? Is that one slither too far? No, says David Hu, a mathematician and mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology. One day, according to Hu, heart surgery may involve drilling just two small holes and inserting surgical snake robots that can slither forth to perform the procedure. Not having to open the chest cavity would greatly speed healing. Snakelike robots could also be used to slide beneath heavy loads that need lifting. In studying serpentine movement and measuring the friction coefficients of snakeskin, Hu and his colleagues learned that snakes slither by undulating, pushing down some parts of their body while lifting other parts. Having no limbs is an advantage for snakes, says Hu. “They can go into places that things with arms and legs can’t.” Now, isn’t that s-s-s-s-sensational? –TG

Bouncing Back

Bridge engineering has become so sophisticated, as The Economist recently noted, that a new or revamped bridge is one of the safest places to be when a quake hits. But Mehdi Saiidi, a University of Nevada, Reno, civil engineer, thinks they can be made even safer. He’s developed a nickel-titanium “shape-memory” alloy that can be severely distorted and still bounce back to its original shape. Bridges fall apart rather predictably, Saiidi discovered, and the earliest pieces to fail trigger collapse in other sections. Protect the parts most likely to fail first by constructing them with super-elastic alloy, he believes, and the rest of the structure – built with conventional materials – should remain intact.

Meanwhile, researchers led by Stanford University earthquake engineer Greg Deierlein have devised a system of rocking steel frames that should allow buildings to withstand quakes of magnitude 7 or greater. The frames sit within steel “fuses” that dissipate damaging energy caused by the rolling and shaking, thus protecting the building. The high-strength braided strands of steel cables pull the frames – and the building – back to plumb after the episode is over. The system was recently put to the test in Japan on a three-quarter-size model of a three-story building. Did it pass? Indeed, it rocked. –TG

$10 trillion

The International Energy Agency's estimate of the investment in renewable-energy and other carbon-abatement technology that will be necessary over the next 20 years to limit the rise in the Earth's temperature.

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, OCT. 6, 2009

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A Mom Tweets From Space

NASA’s Astronaut Corps was once the domain of white, male jet jockeys. But that exclusivity was breached 31 years ago by Guion Bluford and Sally Ride – the first African- American and woman, respectively. Over the years, NASA has selected more than 300 astronauts, including 57 women, 14 blacks, and 13 Hispanics. On the latest space shuttle mission in August, a two-week voyage to the international space station, two of the crew were Latinos: mission specialists Danny Olivas, who had one previous shuttle flight under his belt, and Jose M. Hernandez, on his first flight. Mission specialist Nicole Stott, also on her first flight, remained at the ISS for a three-month stint. That made her the first female astronaut with a young child at home to live and work there. Along with the rest of the world, her 7-year-old son could read his mother’s tweets from space – another 21st-century NASA innovation. China, meanwhile, which has sent six men into space since 2003, also will include women in its next tranche of astronauts. It’s expected that the 2012 team will consist of five men and two women. –TG



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