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Ice Drilling + Thorium Buzz + Perrier Effect

The “Land of Giants” design concept, created by Massachusetts’ Choi + Shine Architects

Tomorrow's Engineers?

An estimated half-million people, many of them young, thronged the National Mall Oct. 23 and 24 for the USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo. Hundreds of varied displays and hands-on activities captured the excitement and challenge of engineering and the possibilities of science.

Photos by Jaimie Schock and Stacie Harrison

If You Can’t Beat ’Em

Computer science has been something of a bête noire of the news business, what with the Internet practically crippling the newspaper industry. But if a way can be found for techies and newshounds to benefit each other, Columbia’s journalism school wants to be in on it. It has teamed up with the university’s engineering school to offer a joint master’s degree in computer science and journalism. The idea is to train journalists to design tools for information gathering, synthesis, analysis, and circulation. And engineers? Academic Dean Bill Grueskin tells the New York Times that “one of the things engineers want to do is find practical, intractable problems society is facing and help come up with ways to solve those problems” – one being the state of journalism. Computer science Prof.Julia Hirschberg tells the Times that graduates will be “in a great position” to contribute to all kinds of companies — Yahoo and Google come to mind. Not a bad career option.


Here’s the Drill

Later this year, a very specialized drill will be operating at the South Pole. The “shot-hole drill” has been used by Antarctic researchers since 2002 to bore deep holes in the continent’s ice. Yet, unlike most drilling devices used in polar regions, this one doesn’t rely on a hot liquid to melt the ice. University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Ice Coring and Drilling Services geophysicists needed a drill for seismic experiments that involve dropping explosive charges down Antarctic ice holes and then monitoring and measuring the resulting sound waves. Extra water or liquid in the holes would alter the reflection of the waves and skew the findings. So Wisconsin’s Physical Sciences Laboratory was asked to design a machine that could “dry cut” through many feet of polar ice. Working with the school’s Space Sciences Engineering Center, the lab engineers produced a drill driven by two turbines run on compressed air. They shunt exhaust air from the motors down the hole to blow out the ice cuttings – a process that creates a huge plume of ice chips. The shot-hole ice borer is capable of drilling through nearly 20 feet of ice a minute. Now, that’s cool. –THOMAS K. GROSE


Extended Coverage

Mosquito-borne diseases like malaria remain an ongoing risk in tropical countries, such as Thailand. Indeed, in recent years, the World Health Organization has spent millions of dollars to contain the spread of a drug-resistant strain of malaria along the Thai-Cambodian border. One method of keeping mosquitoes at bay is a bednet coated with the insecticide pyrethroid, which kills mosquitoes that land on it. But after a year’s use and repeated washing, most bednets have to be replaced or recoated with the chemical. Now, researchers at Thailand’s National Nanotechnology Center, Nanotec, have developed a net that lasts five times longer than standard ones. They’re coated with pyrethroid nanoparticles that are so small they’re more easily incorporated into the fabric’s fibers and don’t wash out so quickly. Conventional nets retail for between $7 and $15, but it’s likely that the new nano nets will cost more – initially. Sirirurg Songsivilai, Nanotec’s executive director, believes competition between manufacturers should eventually push prices lower, giving buyers a net savings. –TG

Women in Science
Bias and Sacrifice

When it comes to advancing their careers, male and female scientists agree that the three most significant barriers they face are obtaining enough grants and funding, too few job openings, and balancing personal and professional life, according to a recent survey of 1,301 science Ph.D.’s commissioned by cosmetics company L’Oréal USA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Yet, the respondents, all of whom were registered users of Science online, said male colleagues were more likely to leave their fields because of insufficient funding or a lack of job security, while females were more likely to leave because of gender bias or conflicts between work and personal lives. Women said gender-related problems were the fourth-biggest hurdle they faced, but for men, they ranked a lowly ninth place. Fifty-two percent of females reported experiencing gender bias at work, and 92 percent knew a female colleague who had left science because of barriers encountered.

While 78 percent of females were married or in long-term relationships, 91 percent of males were. And 77 percent of the men had children, but only 53 percent of women did. Men were also more likely than women to say they would recommend a career in science to others – 81 percent versus 72 percent. –TG

8 Million - The likely number of university students worldwide who will be studying outside their home countries by 2025. This year’s total is 3.3 million. The United States is currently the top choice for advanced degrees in science and technology. Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Dawn Song, John Dabiri, and Kelly Benoit-Bird AWARDS
Engineering ‘Genius’

Each year, the MacArthur Foundation selects a highly diverse group of artists, scientists, teachers, and other creative types as fellows, awarding each a no-strings grant of $500,000 over five years. Among the 23 “genius grant” winners this year was Dawn Song, 35, a computer security expert and associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. BitBlaze, the program developed at her lab, scans and analyzes the binary codes of vulnerable software and malware, identifying root causes of an attack in order to deflect it.

Biophysicist John Dabiri, 30, is an associate professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology. His studies of jellyfish have not only advanced understanding of the evolution and hydrodynamics of aquatic animals but have also informed issues in fluid dynamics ranging from blood flow to the design of wind power generators.

Kelly Benoit-Bird, 34, is a marine biologist, not an engineer, at Oregon State University. Yet, Benoit-Bird has modified and optimized complex acoustic engineering technologies to help monitor and solve the mysteries of the structure and behavior of undersea food chains. Now that Benoit-Bird’s been certified as a genius, she can surely be considered an honorary engineer. –TG

Photos Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Alternative Energy
A Silver Bullet?

Nuclear power plants are staging a comeback, albeit one that still leaves people with misgivings. While uranium-based plants don’t emit greenhouse gases, they do produce radioactive waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years and that can also be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. Enter thorium. This silvery-white metal is three to five times more abundant than uranium, and when used to produce power, it consumes most of its waste. What waste remains can’t be used for weapons and needs to be buried for only a few hundred years. Ultimately, thorium plants may produce electricity at cut-rate prices.

Accordingly, thorium is starting to create a buzz as a green yet practical solution for the global energy problem. Russia, China, Australia – and, in particular, India – are all pursuing thorium technologies. Thorium’s über-champion is Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA aerospace engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown. For several years, he’s run a pro-thorium blog, energyfromthorium, and has pushed for a new type of reactor designed especially for thorium that uses a liquid fuel based on molten-fluoride salts. –TG

Classroom Technology
My Teacher the Robot

SEOUL – Learning English is a national fixation in South Korea, where the government and large companies like Samsung seek out university graduates with high fluency. Yet, a shortage of native English-speaking teachers in the countryside and limited interest among younger students ensure that many fall behind early in the race. To bring them up to speed, Seoul is promoting a novel solution: English-teaching robots. The Ministry of Knowledge Economy, charged with keeping the workforce abreast with technology, is testing two different machines. The autonomous model operates without a human controller to independently recognize students’ voices and present English lessons. The tele-presence robot is operated remotely by a human teacher, whose image and voice are projected onto a computer screen embedded into the robot’s “face.” With ‘bots still in the testing phase, the government declines to say when they’ll be ready for greater deployment. – Geoffrey Cain

Weather Patterns
Going to Extremes

Superheavy monsoon rains drenched Pakistan this summer, unleashing devastating floods over a fifth of the country. The cause, experts say, was higher-than-average Atlantic Ocean temperatures exacerbated by La Niña lower temperatures in the central Pacific. The same weather patterns caused mayhem elsewhere, including record heat waves and raging wildfires in Russia and mudslides in China. While experts remain wary of blaming global warming for a single horrific natural disaster, the World Meteorological Organization states that the number of disasters in 2010 is beyond coincidence and that climate change played a leading role in causing them. But skeptics remain unconvinced. Yes, hotter-than-normal weather helped cause the catastrophes, Henning Rodhe, a professor emeritus of chemical meteorology at Stockholm University, told Reuters. “But you can’t draw the conclusion that this is caused by global warming.” Still, reinsurance company Munich Re says its natural disaster database shows that extreme-weather events have tripled since 1980, and the upward trend is continuing. –TG

college costs
Grads Are Wealthier, Healthier

Is it worth going to college for four years, paying increasingly higher tuitions and racking up a ton of debt – all by the age of 22? Yes, says a new study from the College Board. From income to job security to health, the payoff of a bachelor’s degree is well worth the time and cost, it states. By the time most graduates are 33, their earnings will have more than compensated for toiling in school and repaying the tuition and fees – plus interest – of a typical public university. In 2008, full-time workers with a degree had a median income of $55,700, nearly $22,000 more than workers with only a high school diploma. And the gap between degree- and nondegree-holders is increasing. Among workers age 25 to 35, female college grads earned 79 percent more than diploma-holders, while male collegians earned 74 percent more. That’s a jump of around 20 percentage points in just 10 years. The study says college grads also weathered the recession better, with a jobless rate nearly half that of high school graduates. Graduates are also less likely to smoke, have low-birth-weight babies, or be overweight, and are more likely to vote, exercise, and have health insurance. Some conservative economists fume that the College Board overestimates the payoffs and underplays the true costs of a college degree. But College Board President Gaston Caperton argues that the evidence is strong: “It should be abundantly clear now that a college graduate is far more competitive in today’s workplace.” –TG

Fewer Idle Moments

SensorsEfficiency is key to running a successful global delivery service like the United Parcel Service (UPS). Now, Big Brown is starting to use telematics to ensure its fleet of delivery trucks not only uses less gas but is safer. In a test last year, 334 UPS trucks in Roswell and Athens, Ga., were fitted with more than 200 sensors that streamed data into analytical software created by the company’s engineers. Among many other things, the sensors checked each truck’s speed, oil pressure, how often it was idling, how regularly it was put into reverse, and how often its brakes were applied. The resulting info was used to improve driver efficiency. The Georgia trucks cut daily idling by 24 minutes, and each driver saved $188 worth of fuel a year – a hefty savings, if spread out over UPS’s fleet of 90,000 trucks. The Georgia test proved so successful that UPS is expanding it to 10 more American cities and one in Canada. – TG

Waste Reduction
Fizzy Fountain

SensorsCall it the Perrier effect. The French love their water, especially when it’s sparkling. France is the eighth-largest consumer of bottled water in the world. The result: 262,000 tons of plastic waste a year. To wean the French off the bottle, public water company Eau de Paris opened the country’s first public water fountain capable of dispensing sparkling water. It’s called La Pétillante – literally, “she who sparkles” – and is located in a park in southeast Paris, the Jardin de Reuilly. The water is tapped from a public supply, chilled, and then given an injection of carbon dioxide to make it fizz. The fountain also dispenses still water. Anne Le Strat, head of Eau de Paris, tells Britain’s Guardian newspaper it’s about giving consumers a choice: “Lots of Parisians have told me that they would consume more [tap] water if it were fizzy.” Not only is La Pétillante’s water fizzy; it’s free. Eau la, la! – TG



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