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Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
photo courtesy national park service

Monumental Thrill

Emma Cardini has inspected some impressive facades, including the neo-Gothic spires of Chicago’s Tribune Tower. Still, nothing compared with the capital view she enjoyed on her latest job: rappelling down the Washington Monument to assess damage from the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck August 23. “For an engineer, it’s Disney World,” she told the Washington Post.

A licensed professional engineer with civil and structural engineering degrees from Tufts University, Cardini was one of five members on the “difficult access team” dispatched by Chicago-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to examine each marble stone in the national landmark. Along with professional training, team members must qualify for certification by the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians–including familiarity with general rigging and self-rescue techniques. Rappelling down facades not only allows for close inspection of areas unreachable by scaffolding or aerial lifts; it’s faster and cheaper because fewer personnel need to be on site.

The “vertical engineers” captivated the capital as they slowly descended the 555-foot monument, the world’s tallest free-standing stone structure. Tourists squinted up as if watching high-wire daredevils. Local news featured progress reports, and the National Park Service posted photos and “helmet-cam” videos.

It took less than two weeks, including weather delays, for team members to work their way down each side from the pyramid-shaped apex where a large, inchwide crack was discovered soon after the earthquake. Comparing each numbered block with photos from a 1999 renovation loaded into iPads, the engineers searched for fractures and loose mortar. They gently tapped with soft mallets, “sounding” the monument for weakness like a physician examining an elderly patient.

The survey, which wrapped up October 5, found classic shear cracking near the top associated with movement caused by the earthquake. Engineers removed some loose chunks — they ranged from 10 to 30 pounds — and found fewer fissures as they descended. The loss of joint mortar and patching material detected lower down probably was due to weathering. The monument remains closed indefinitely; the engineers will return to winterize it. Overall, however, the 127-year-old monument seems to have survived the earthquake in good shape. “She’s kind of an old lady,” Jennifer Talken-Spaulding, chief of resource management with the National Mall and Memorial Parks, told the Post. “But she’s doing great.”

Not so the cellphone service aloft, as Cardini learned. Married to an engineer, she was working on the monument when a text arrived from their real estate agent about an offer to buy the couple’s condo. Could she talk? Demurring, Cardini explained her location, adding that reception up there was “not great.” The vista, however, was awesome. — MARY LORD

Water Balloons

We’ve all seen TV news reports of planes swooping low over wildfires to drop many gallons of water (or fire retardant) onto the flames below. It can be an effective firefighting ploy, but it takes a specially built air tanker to do the job. And the United States has only 21 of them. A solution may soon be at hand, however, that would allow any cargo plane, including the military’s massive fleet of C-130s and C-17s, to be pressed into use. It’s called the Precision Container Aerial Delivery System (PCADS), and it has been in development for nine years – with government funding – by California-based Flexible Alternatives Inc. and Boeing, the aerospace giant. The precision containers are made from cardboard with plastic liners — all biodegradable — and pop open when dropped from a plane, releasing their liquid cargo onto the fires below. The water containers don’t open until they’re close to the ground, allowing for more precise targeting of the flames. Flexible Alternatives says it has recently received funds to work with the U.S. Army to certify the containers for use by the Air National Guard and Forest Service. Spokesman Ty Bonnar tells Prism that operational testing of PCADS, including tests on live fires, will begin next year and “hopefully will be ready for deployment at the end of 2012.” – THOMAS K. GROSE

Solar Decathlon - Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Natural Imprint

The wings of Costa Rica’s beautiful blue morpho butterfly are so iridescent their shimmer can be spotted more than a half mile away. Yet they contain no pigments. Instead, they have nanostructures that reflect and refract wavelengths of light to produce the vivid blue hue. Researchers at Canada’s Simon Fraser University have developed a printing method that produces nanoholes 1,500 times thinner than a human hair that can, like the morpho’s nanostructures, each trap a single light wave. The resulting 3-D images change color as they are moved, much like holograms. However, nanoholes are printed rather than fastened to materials, as are holograms. The process can be used to make banknotes more secure, since nanohole-derived images can’t be copied. The idea came from Clint Landrock, an applied sciences graduate student at Simon Fraser working under the guidance of Bozena Kaminska, a professor of engineering sciences. The anti-counterfeiting technology — called Nano-optic Technology for Enhanced Security (N.O.T.E.S.) — has been licensed to Nanotech Security Corp., which this fall unveiled a shim, or master die, it says can reproduce the nanoholes in banknotes and other materials, cost-effectively and in large volumes. Treasuries from around the world have expressed interest, and Nanotech says it is producing shims for several agencies for commercial trials. Can the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings produce a hurricane half a world away? Perhaps not, but the blue morpho has unleashed a brainstorm that could prove a counterfeiter’s bane. – TG

Mommy Tenure Track

Women earn 41 percent of Ph.D.’s in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics yet account for only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in those fields. Why? Probably because it’s harder for female researchers to juggle career and family commitments. To help close the gap, the Obama administration recently announced a new Career-Life Balance Initiative at the National Science Foundation to provide early-career STEM researchers more flexibility in meeting family needs and job demands. While its provisions cover both genders, women are more likely to benefit than men since they tend to postpone or abandon promising careers to focus on their families. The initiative will let researchers delay NSF grants for up to one year to care for a new baby. Researchers also can apply for extra money to staff their labs while on family leave. NSF is encouraging universities, industry, and other government agencies to incorporate similar family-friendly policies. Director Subra Suresh said it was designed to recruit and retain talented scientists and engineers and help them advance to leadership positions. Women researchers, he said, “should not have to choose between their baby and the lab bench.” – TG

E=mc2 … Never Mind

Particle physics rarely makes prime-time news. Yet when CERN, the European particle physics lab outside Geneva, announced that an international team of physicists had detected neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, the buzz could be heard around the world. That’s because if the finding is verified — a big if — it would upset Einstein’s special theory of relativity that nothing is faster than light. It also would make a casualty of causality, or cause and effect, because time no longer could be viewed as a one-way arrow. And that opens up the possibility of traveling backward in time. The CERN group fired neutrinos from Switzerland to a lab in Italy; measurements showed the particles arrived 60 nanoseconds faster than light. Skeptics rushed out papers at lightning speed that either trashed the findings or sought plausible alternative explanations. Several critics said that neutrinos speeding faster than light would lose energy en route to Italy and degrade. Others noted that if the CERN calculations were accurate, neutrinos traveling from supernovae would have reached Earth several years ahead of photons. And that hasn’t happened. Some explanations suggest that neutrinos are not faster than light but can take shortcuts through other dimensions, or wormholes. Most doubters just think that the CERN group made a measurement error. Scientists at the Fermi particle accelerator near Chicago quickly geared up to try and replicate the CERN findings. By now, Fermi’s results already may be known. Then again, perhaps you read about them light-years ago. –TG

Dan Shechtmanprizes
Ultimate Vindication

Back in 1982, materials scientist Dan Shechtman quick-chilled a mix of molten aluminum and manganese, then viewed a chunk of it through an electron microscope. Common theory held that he should have seen an incoherent jumble of atoms; instead, he found the atoms were packed together in nonrepeating patterns. These unique chemical structures – quasi crystals – can now be man-made, and are used to make a highly resilient steel used in razor blades and eye-surgery needles. But at the time, fellow scientists and research colleagues at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) dismissed his findings. So did Linus Pauling, winner of two chemistry Nobels.

When Shechtman eventually was proved right, the accolades started coming. Elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 2000, he won this year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry, an honor that’s normally shared by two or more scientists. Now 70, Shechtman is a professor of materials science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State University. “What Danny did was fantastic science. He instigated a scientific revolution,” says Iowa State colleague Pat Thiel. That pretty much crystallizes his achievement. – TG

QUOTED: “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” - – Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, delivering a Stanford University commencement address, 2005

Nothing Sticks

Slide over, Teflon and make room for SLIPS. Man-made, nonstick Teflon currently holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s slipperiest material. But SLIPS — or slippery, liquid-infused porous surfaces — is even slicker. Developed by Tak-Sing Wong, a postdoc at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, SLIPS mimics the outer lips of the pitcher plant, which are so slick that nectar-seeking bugs quickly slide into the plant’s gut. The plant’s rim consists of microscopic ridges and troughs created by overlapping cells. That uneven surface holds secreted nectar in place, creating an ultraslippery surface. To get the same effect, Wong designed nanosize stacks of tiny posts and networks of fibers that can similarly retain a lubricant in place. SLIPS could one day be used for low-friction water and oil pipes, self-cleaning windows, and bacteria-resistant materials. How slick is that? – TG


Sun Screen

In traditional Arab architecture, intricately carved wooden lattices called mashrabiya cover windows to provide cooling shade without blocking light. Now the same concept is being used for a new set of 25-story office buildings under construction in Abu Dhabi. The Al Bahr Towers will be partly cloaked in a secondary skin composed of 2,000 translucent units that mitigate solar glare while allowing for greater use of natural sunlight. The computer-controlled facade — made from Teflon-coated fiberglass mesh — is called a dynamic mashrabiya because it can open and close with the sun’s rays. Solar panels on the tubelike towers’ south-facing roofs will power the protective veil. The engineering firm Arup says the mashrabiya will reduce cooling needs by 20 percent, cutting energy use and carbon emissions by a similar amount. The Abu Dhabi Investment Council commissioned the towers for its new headquarters via a competition and asked for designs that were both environmentally friendly and evocative of traditional Middle Eastern architecture. London architectural studio Aedas won the competition. –TG

Open Minds

Mind reading crops up in science fiction. Now real science is borrowing the plot line. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology with algorithms to delve into the human mind and unearth mental images. A team led by neuroscientist Jack Gallant had volunteers remain still inside an fMRI scanner for hours watching movie trailers. Their recorded brain activity was fed into a computer program that matched it with corresponding visuals from the trailers. A computer program was then fed 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos, and used that material to predict the type of brain activity each image would evoke. The program then spliced the video images together to match as closely as possible the film clips the subjects had watched. The results were often eerily close. “This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds,” Gallant says. Machines that can read people’s thoughts and intentions are decades away. More likely, the technology may one day be used to understand what’s happening in the minds of stroke victims or comatose patients. It also could lay a foundation for linking brains to machines, enabling people with cerebral palsy or paralysis to operate computers. – TG

New Word on the Street

Engineering is taking center stage in an early childhood staple: Sesame Street. Now in its 42nd season, the educational program and its cast of bright-colored puppets is focusing more on science, technology, engineering, and math. Murray’s Science Experiments shows the furry orange monster posing a scientific question and setting up an experiment to find the answer. In his Word on the Street segment, he sets out to find “engineer.” The new curriculum is intended to give children a better understanding of how things work and build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Engineering means asking questions, observing, and testing hypotheses — and kids as young as 2 can get it, the show’s executive producer, Carol-Lynn Parente, tells ABC News. If history is any guide, the STEM thrust could eventually boost achievement by U.S. students, who rank in the middle of the pack on international math and science assessments. A 30-year study showed that children who watch Sesame Street earn higher grades later in life. Even Oscar the Grouch would applaud. – Jaimie N. Schock

Chill Out

Refrigerants containing chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, can damage the ozone layer and contribute to global warming. That is why the United States banned them. But refrigerators are built to last, and older ones are tricky to recycle because those ozone-depleting CFCs can be released during the process. Europe has long had tougher standards on the release of refrigerants, so it’s no surprise that two German companies are world leaders in devising robotic systems that can dismantle old fridges while safely capturing most of their coolants. Untha Recycling Technology’s giant machine does the dismantling within a vacuum to keep the CFCs from hitting the atmosphere; only 0.2 of the coolant remains once its shredders turn a refrigerator into recyclable piles of metal and plastic, the New York Times reports. A portable system manufactured by another German firm, SEG, sorts 95 percent of the materials from old fridges for recycling. The German companies may soon see a potentially huge U.S. market opening up. According to the Times, some states, like California, will offer financial incentives to encourage the capture and destruction of CFCs. – TG

Gem of an Idea

Computer chips and electronic circuitry made from diamonds? That sounds posh, but nanodiamond-based components for microelectronic devices not only are very robust; they’re inexpensive. Developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University, the devices are made by depositing a thin nanodiamond film on a layer of silicon dioxide and then vacuum-packaging it. Electrons flow through the vacuum between the components rather than through materials like solid-state chips, so they don’t produce as much heat. Potentially, they can operate at higher speeds while using less power than silicon-based devices, says Jimmy Davidson, a research professor of electrical engineering. They’re also very tiny. One diamond carat would create a billion chips, so they’re cost-competitive with silicon, and sturdy enough to withstand temperatures ranging from 900 degrees to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Possible applications include military electronics, circuitry for spacecraft, and sensors that operate in high-radiation areas. In fact, Davidson says, his nanodiamond chips would be ideal for fail-safe circuitry in nuclear reactors. Perhaps Pink Floyd said it best: Shine on, you crazy diamond.– TG



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