ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
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Shattering Illusions About Glass

Boxers susceptible to broken jaws are said to have “glass jaws,” glass being a material that's commonly viewed as easily shattered. So, irony upon irony, researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla are experimenting with special glasses that could be used to repair broken or diseased bones. They are mixing finely crushed, bioactive glasses with a polymer that could be injected into damaged bone. As the mixture hardens, it fills the cracks and acts as a super paste, adhering the reconnected bones to one another. Delbert Day, Curators' Professor Emeritus of ceramic engineering at Missouri, says these oxide glasses are not “foreign” to the body, like metals or pure polymers, because their ionic bonding is similar to natural bone. The glasses react with bodily fluids to form hydroxyapatite, a mineral component of living bone. “This is probably one reason why the family of bioactive glasses is not rejected by bone,” Day says. Glass gives the mixture increased mechanical strength and keeps the polymer composite from shrinking. Its reaction with bodily fluids also spurs the growth of new bone—so, in short, the glass acts as a template where bone cells can attach and multiply.

Day, a holder of 42 patents, was co-inventor of TheraSphere, a radioactive glass microsphere that's used to treat liver cancer patients. He is now developing radioactive glass spheres that could be injected into arthritic joints. The biodegradable orbs, each no more than one-fifth the diameter of a human hair, would safely deliver the radiation treatment, then dissolve. Tests on animals are promising, he says, but no human tests are in the offing any time soon. Injecting arthritic joins with radioactive particles is widely accepted in Europe as a treatment, but is not approved for humans in the United States. Thus, he suggests, it could be up to 10 years before the microspheres are commercially available. “It took over 15 years for TheraSphere to reach commercial use in humans. The wheels turn slowly,” Day notes. He has also worked on hollow, biodegradable microspheres filled with drugs, which gradually deliver therapies as they dissolve to precisely targeted areas of the body.


Space Walk for the Cure

OTTAWA—A Canadian-designed experiment aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is using technology that is helping to advance the treatment of cancer patients on earth. Since February 2002, nine astronauts aboard ISS have worn a .04-inch square silicon chip dosimeter that measures the levels of radiation they are exposed to during space walks. Similar devices are being used now in 400 cancer clinics worldwide to measure the radiation that patients receive. The chip is attached at the end of a strip of 1/16- inch-wide circuit-board tape that leads to instruments that record the radiation levels. “The tape is small enough that it doesn't absorb, deflect, or change the radiation beam at all,” says Ian Thomson, president of the Ottawa-based company Thomson Nielsen that developed the device. In recent experimental cases, the chip even has been inserted inside patients through catheters to measure radiation levels in sensitive internal organs. “It's a quality assurance thing,” Thomson says. “It helps fine-tune the treatment.” And what about those astronauts? So far, results have shown that astronauts receive 4.5 milliSieverts (mSv) per month—more than double what a radiation worker is allowed on Earth.


The Art of Doing Good

Ten years ago, Silicon Valley startup entrepreneur Tom Bakey watched a group of disabled students struggle through an art class. It occurred to him that the students' self-gratification would increase if they could make more life-like pictures, and that one way to achieve that would by be using computer graphics software. Then, he reckoned, all they would need was a basic ability to manipulate a mouse to compose realistic-looking “paintings.” He took his idea to local authorities in San Jose, but was told by the “bureaucrats” that it was too costly. “People thought I was crazy,” he recalls. So he called on a few of his Silicon Valley pals who let him use some of their companies' computers during evening hours, when they were idle. A decade later, nearly 500 disabled students ranging in age from six to their mid-20s have learned to “paint” with computers at CADartists Inc., the nonprofit organization Bakey founded. It now has its own facility in San Jose and access to around 200 computers donated by local businesses. The students—who have disabilities ranging from autism to Down's Syndrome—are taught by volunteers, mostly business folks from the community. Their computer paintings have won kudos from the likes of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. A recent series of paintings about the space shuttle was presented to NASA, and one of the works of art may be taken aboard an upcoming space shuttle flight.

The students also are becoming teachers. They recently began teaching elderly residents of local nursing homes—including one woman who is 106—how to paint with computers. “These kids have latent talents that no one was tapping before,” says Bakey, whose last startup was Tricad, a company that specializes in three-dimensional, computer-aided design. Bakey, who has an electrical engineering degree from Northeastern University in Boston, says he went into engineering to ensure that he would have a marketable skill. “But I've had a lifelong interest in art,” he adds. And now, thanks to Bakey, hundreds of disabled students are learning that making good art needn't be a struggle.


Quick, Nurse, a Flashlight

Ultrasound has been in use for many years now, and it's proven to be a boon in giving physicians an inside look at our innards. Ultrasound bombards the body with high-frequency sound waves. When they bounce back, they can be read to provide a detailed image of muscle, blood vessels, and other “soft” parts of our anatomy. But ultrasound still has drawbacks when used to guide doctors during invasive procedures, like needle biopsies, catheterizations, surgery, or just giving injections. That's because it requires them to look away from the patient and at a computer screen.

Now, a researcher in Pittsburgh is developing what he calls the Sonic Flashlight, which uses a half-silvered mirror to reflect back onto the patient the image showing up on the flat-screen monitor. The image superimposed on the patient, in real time, corresponds precisely to the part of the body being scanned. This will allow doctors to keep their eyes glued on the patient, and simultaneously see what they're doing both externally and internally. George D. Stetten, a bioengineer at both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, has devised two versions of the Sonic Flashlight—a larger stationary machine, and a portable, handheld device for use in doctors' offices. He calls the process “tomographic reflection” and is encouraged by experiments on butchered meat and a cadaver. “We are proposing animal tests to the NIH,” says Stetten, who is also a medical doctor. No license for the technology has yet been issued, so he guesses it will be “a number of years before it may become standard equipment.”


Less Paper for Academic Papers

SYDNEY—Soaring subscription costs for prestigious academic journals have spurred support for electronic publishing in Australia. And engineering educators are among the most enthusiastic backers.

Most academic publications come from the United States and Europe, which means they're paid for in U.S. dollars or Euros. Increasingly unfavorable exchange rates are putting Australian universities at a distinct disadvantage. Worse, these higher costs have come at a time of belt- tightening at many school libraries.

“When we opt not to renew a subscription, those affected protest loudly,” says Colin Steele, the director of scholarly information strategies at the Australian National University in Canberra. The University of New South Wales chief librarian Andrew Wells notes that “the buying power of our budgets is decreasing significantly as the (Australian) dollar's value against foreign currencies stays low.”

One consequence is that Australian universities are increasingly turning to IT and encouraging e-publishing. “The global trend is toward electronic solutions,” says Steele. He says engineers and IT types are the most comfortable with new technology, while the those in the arts still prefer hard copy.

The total number of academics publishing electronically still remains tiny—“far less than one percent of the total,” says Steele, but e-publishing is rising rapidly. He sees many papers being published directly on the Internet, with the hard copy journals perhaps concentrating on really major pieces of research.

Last September, the Australian National University launched the country's first academic electronic archive, encouraging authors to store papers, books, and monographs there. It currently houses little more than 100 documents because, says Steele, “we've been going such a short time. We expect a big spurt of interest over the next couple of years.” The University of Melbourne and University of Queensland have followed the ANU's lead, and others are poised to launch.

“It's a long haul,” says Steele, “but with ballooning library costs, we have no choice.”


Industry Ties Stronger in Europe

When it comes to working with industry on commercializing research, European academics tend to be more wary than their American counterparts. There is still a bit of an us-versus-them mentality. “They're still having to get used to the idea,” says John L. Anderson, dean of the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Nevertheless, when it comes to having input in the classroom, industry has a bigger say at European tech schools, according to a new study, Successful Practice in International Engineering. The survey, which interviewed 1,000 professors at 10 leading tech institutions in America and Europe, as well as company managers and experienced graduate engineers, found that in creating curricula, European schools forge closer links to industry than do their American counterparts. The survey included Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Georgia Tech, as well as seven European schools, including Imperial College in England, France's Ecole Centrale Paris, and the Kungle Tekniska Hogskolan in Stockholm, Sweden.

One big difference is the European emphasis on internships. Students in a five-year engineering program in Europe may be required to spend 26 weeks working in their field. “We do it on an ad hoc basis,” Anderson says. “Some (American) kids get a lot of experience, some get none.” The ties to industry in Europe seem especially close in the areas of computer and electrical engineering. Courses in Europe are much more applied, more about process and equipment, Anderson explains, while American classes focus on modeling. Industry in Europe is influential, he says, because it pours so much money into research. “But that's not necessarily good,” he adds. An American student, with a broader education, may not know every piece of equipment or process when he or she starts a job, but that's easily learned. On the other hand, he says, “they can do a wider variety of jobs.” Moreover, the influence its money buys may be self-defeating for European industry. Corporate America has learned that by giving schools more autonomy, students often come up with things that are not only useful but unexpected. For example, Ford Motor Co. underwrote the cost of an undergraduate course at Carnegie Mellon, then left it alone. The upshot: Three undergraduates came up with novel ideas that Ford ended up patenting. Sometimes it pays off for industry donors to put up and then shut up.


Buzzing the Enemy

Forget James Bond. The next generation of super spies may be micromechanical blow flies. Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley are developing the Robofly, a 100-milligram robotic fly that the Pentagon hopes will someday be used to buzz across enemy lines to pick up valuable intelligence. Also dubbed the Microfly, the critter is the result of research led by Ron Fearing, a professor of electrical engineering. He joined forces with two other Berkeley colleagues—professors Arun Majurndar and Michael Dickinson—in 1998 to sell the idea to the Office of Naval Research, which has spent about $2.5 million on the project. Key to the bug's development is research by Dickinson on how insects fly so expertly. For his efforts, Dickinson last year won a $500,000 “genius” award, a MacArthur Fellowship that's annually given to a handful of researchers. A zoologist, Dickinson studies the nerves and muscles that enable insects to fly. Three years ago, he concluded that flying insects use three, complex wing motions. “The aerodynamic models from Professor Dickinson are critical for obtaining sufficient flight forces, and hence have guided our electromechanical thorax design completely,” Fearing says. To achieve flight, the Robofly needs to have proper wing motion at a high frequency, 150 Hz, and the lab prototype is closing in on that goal. So far, it's attached to an apparatus that gives it balance and stability. Power and control come from offboard wires. But Fearing says they'll devise and install integrated electronics in the coming months, and free flight may be achieved in about a year. The Microfly's actuators are made of piezoelectric ceramic; its structure is ultrafine stainless steel; and its joints and wings are polyester. Its weight will include a 30 milligram battery that Fearing hopes will provide 10 to 20 minutes of flight time.

Beyond defense uses, Fearing thinks his Microfly could be handy for many other chores, including crop monitoring, artificial pollination, pest management, fire detection, air-quality monitoring, search-and-rescue needs, games, and kid-tracking. Electronic blow flies might even become popular as companions, he suggests. But would you pet it or swat it?


Engineering Intrigue at the Spy Museum

What connects Hammurabi, the Trojan Horse, and a through-the-wall camera? They're all part and parcel of the history of intelligence gathering and counterintelligence on display at Washington, D.C.'s newest museum, the International Spy Museum. The earliest recorded evidence of espionage dates back some 38 centuries to the era of the Babylonian king. The legend of the Trojan Horse, allegedly used by Greek soldiers to gain entry to Troy, was an ancient example of battlefield subterfuge. And the Czech-invented camera was used by Stasi, the East German secret police, to photograph through walls. While the museum is a paean to sleuthing, it's also a historical record of clever science and amazing engineering. If the Trojan Horse really existed, it was a prime feat of mechanical engineering. Most of the real tools of tradecraft are a testament to engineering ingenuity. Gadgets such as the lipstick pistol, the ring gun, the microdot camera, and the electric lock-pick are scattered throughout the building.

Civil engineers play a big role in spying, as well. The Chu Chi tunnels were used by the Vietcong in an area between Saigon and the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War. During the Cold War, CIA agent William Harvey designed and built a 500-yard tunnel into Communist-controlled East Berlin to listen in on phone messages between the German city and Moscow. “Harvey's Hole,” as it was called, operated for a year before it was raided by Soviet troops. But great engineering isn't always enough to ensure success. A British agent, George Blake, informed the Soviets about the tunnel before it was finished. From the start, the only intelligence gathered there was disinformation created by Soviet counterintelligence. The West shouldn't have been surprised: Many a good tunnel is home to a mole. For information about the museum, visit the Web site,