Visitors to the Grand Canyon can now stroll
out 70 feet beyond its western rim to gaze upon the Colorado
River—some 4,000 feet below. The engineering marvel
that makes this possible is the Skywalk, a cantilevered, horseshoe-shaped
bridge with special 3-inch-thick glass floors. Secured by
steel rods set nearly 50 feet into the canyon wall, the Skywalk
was built to withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, 100-mile-an-hour
winds, and 71 million pounds of pressure. Since its opening
in March, the $30 million wonder has been attracting some
2,000 visitors a day. The scene is so vast that the helicopter
at right appears bird-sized.—ROBIN TATU
The i-LIMB Hand, which uses human thought
and muscles to move, is the world’s first commercially
available bionic hand. The amazing prosthetic device is the
invention of David Gow, an engineer who works for Britain’s
National Health Service (NHS). “It’s the first
hand to come to the market that’s actually had bending
fingers, just like your own hand,” Gow, head of rehabilitation
engineering services for the NHS in Lothian, Scotland, told
the BBC. Each of the artificial hand’s four fingers
and opposable thumb has three articulated joints, just like
real digits. And each is powered by its own individual motor.
Movement is controlled by myoelectric sensors (myo is Latin
for muscle) that pick up electrical signals from the arm’s
remaining muscles. As a result, the prosthetic hand has a
very human-like grip, and users are able to master it within
The i-LIMB Hand was tested at a prosthetics center within
the engineering department of Scotland’s Strathclyde
University. The manufacturer and distributor is Touch Bionics
of Edinburgh. One of the amputees who tested the device is
retired U.S. Army sergeant Juan Arredondo of Universal City,
Texas, who lost his left hand in Iraq. Says Arredondo: “Every
day I have the hand, it surprises me.” —THOMAS
Human skin and plastics have one thing in common:
Both are highly susceptible to the sun’s UV rays, which
they are inclined to absorb. Damage begins once skin or plastic
soaks up UV light, because the rays break the bonds that hold
molecules together. But different forms of plastic may react
differently, posing a challenge for manufacturers that want
Enter the National Institute of Standards and Technology
(NIST). This government agency in Gaithersburg, Md., has produced
the SPHERE, which stands for “simulated photodegradation
by high-energy radiant exposure.” It’s another
way of saying that this device is capable of simulating the
sun’s effects at mach speed. Covered in specially coated
aluminum, the SPHERE contains six mercury lamps that generate
36,000 watts of power. The light it emits is 22 times the
strength of the sun’s. Twenty-four hours inside the
fake sun would be tantamount to spending 35 days basking ‘neath
the rays of the real ol’ sol.
The SPHERE is used to test plastics and coatings, to see
how they hold up under unrelenting sunlight. Everything from
paint to body armor to outdoor furniture and firefighters’
overcoats has been tested within the SPHERE. “You don’t
want to wait 15 years to find out if your material will last
15 years,” NIST materials engineer Joannie W. Chin told
the Washington Post. Another NIST researcher calls it the
ultimate tanning booth—though, clearly, spending just
a few seconds inside the SPHERE would send you diving into
the nearest pool. —T.G.
Is it better to switch to alternative fuels
to combat global warming or simply cut use of fossil fuels?
It doesn’t matter, say a growing number of scientists;
there’s too little time either way. Instead, these scientists
propose various climate engineering methods to cool off the
Earth—essentially, applying advanced technologies to
control the weather.
In a lengthy article in the Wilson Quarterly, James R. Fleming,
a professor of science, technology and society at Maine’s
Colby College, highlights some proposals—but injects
a note of skepticism.
Ideas include shooting millions of tons of material—perhaps
specially engineered nanoparticles—into the stratosphere
above the Arctic to deflect the sun’s heat and bulk
up the ice cap; or building giant pumps and “eggbeaters”
to froth the ocean to make thicker, more reflective clouds.
Fleming’s article also recounts the rather stormy and
dubious history of weather control (weather weapons have long
been a military dream) and warns against such “quick
fix” measures. For one thing, he notes, there’s
a dearth of evidence that the billions of dollars spent over
many decades to manipulate the Earth’s complex weather
system actually produced results.
Even if some methods proved effective, Fleming says, there’s
no way to predict unintended—and possibly nasty—consequences.
And he asks who’ll decide when and how to use them,
as there’s never going to be global unanimity on what
constitutes good climate. One person’s garden-saving
rains are another person’s ruined weekend. —T.G.
JAPAN – At a time of growing international
collaboration in science, Japan is missing out. So argues
Peter Osborne, a neuroscientist at Asahikawa Medical College
in Hokkaido. He is well-placed to make a comparison, having
lived and researched not only in Japan but in a half-dozen
other locales. While Japan offers an impressive array of fellowships,
grants and other support to attract foreign academics, these
programs are of brief duration. Researchers tend to leave
after three years or less, with the result that permanent
foreign staff are a rarity at Japanese universities. The heavy
turnover not only disrupts the pursuit of science but also
prevents most Japanese students from ever hearing a lecture
by a foreign scientist. Recent university belt-tightening
has exacerbated the problem, according to Osborne.
In a recent Japan Times article, Osborne urged a major change:
Given the heavy investment of time necessary to become proficient
in the Japanese language—essential as most classes are
still taught in Japanese—Japan needs to invest in retaining
foreign staff over the long term. Universities can’t
afford it, so the government-subsidized Japanese Society for
the Promotion of Science ought to pick up the tab, he writes.
Last April 16, a mentally ill student went on a
shooting rampage that left 32 students, faculty and staff
dead and 25 wounded on the campus of Virginia Tech.
Among the slain were three engineering professors. The bulk
of the violence occurred in Norris Hall, which houses engineering
classrooms and labs. It has since been reopened on a limited
basis, with offices and 16 labs back in operation. However,
all of its classrooms remain shut, and there are no plans
to use them this fall. VA Tech spent $400,000 giving the 45-year-old
building a fresh coat of paint and installing new floors.
Ishwar K. Puri, head of the engineering, science and mechanics
department, told the Washington Post that he wanted there
to be no visual reminders of that day.
Some victims and relatives have lobbied to have Norris Hall
demolished and replaced. But as Puri explained to the Post:
“The faculty members we lost died as heroes. We would
not be honoring their heroism if we decided to quit. If we
didn’t move back, I think we would have been defeated.”
The decision to reopen Norris Hall is a practical one, too.
Officials say tearing it down would have meant closing labs
containing millions of dollars of equipment for several years,
which would severely damage the engineering program. While
there was also a campaign to rename Norris Hall after Liviu
Librescu, the 76-year-old aeronautical engineer who died barring
his classroom door so that students could escape through the
windows, officials say that’s not going to happen. Once
a building’s been dedicated, its name can’t be
CANADA – The soaring price of gold
in the past decade has expanded interest in finding more reserves
of the precious metal. It has also created a serious side
effect: Some 15 million small-scale gold miners around the
world use mercury, a toxic substance, to trap fine particles
of gold. The amalgam is then heated up in bonfires to separate
the two metals. This process not only puts miners’ health
at risk but releases 1,000 tons of mercury into the environment
each year, affecting up to 100 million people, according to
Marcello Veiga, a mining engineer at the University of British
Columbia in Vancouver.
For the past five years, Veiga and members of the Global
Mercury Project have worked in six countries—Brazil,
Indonesia, Laos, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe—to reduce
the use of mercury in mining and teach miners how to work
more safely. In field demonstrations, the team teaches
the miners simple new techniques, such as heating mercury
in a covered bowl to prevent the spread of toxic fumes.
Veiga, a Brazilian native, hopes the United Nations-backed
project can be expanded to 20 countries in Asia, Africa and
South America. “Governments and companies don’t
recognize the problem because it’s largely part of an
illegal, informal economy,” he says. “The time
for analyzing the situation is over; it’s time for action.”
In one fell swoop, a recently signed agreement
has given Google’s Book Search Library Project a big
boost, allowing it to digitalize an additional 10 million
books. The agreement ups the number of universities involved
in the project from 15 to 25. The deal was made with the Committee
on Institutional Cooperation, a 12-member group that includes
the University of Chicago and the 11 members of the Big 10
Conference. (Two members, the University of Michigan and the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, had already joined the project.)
Google’s goal is to digitalize every book printed—both
public domain and copyrighted—making them all searchable
by word or phrase. Toward that goal, it’s already digitalized
a million books. While publishers of copyrighted books are
critical of the plan and have sued, Google argues that only
small portions of copyrighted books can be read online. Barbara
McFadden Allen, the committee’s director, says that
despite the controversy, the project is exciting.
“In seconds, we’ll be able to browse across the
content of thousands of volumes,” using just a key word
or phrase to make links between them, she says. That’s
an effort that would otherwise take months or years to accomplish.
Call it super-speedy scholarship. —T.G.
A revolutionary scanner being developed
by Brown University researchers will mimic Superman’s
X-ray vision powers, says Elizabeth Brainerd, the biologist
leading the team of engineers, physicians and computer scientists
working on the project. “Imagine animated X-ray movies
of flying bats or flexing knees. It’s very cool technology
that’s also very important from a biomedical standpoint.”
Called CTX, it’s a new class of high-speed, high-resolution
imaging technology that will allow researchers to peer through
skin and muscle to see human or animal bones moving in three
Current computed tomography (CT) scanners can capture detailed
3-D images but not those of moving subjects. Cinefluoroscopy,
a technology that snaps X-rays in quick succession, produces
video images but only in two dimensions. CTX combines the
two processes, using animation software to merge CT scanner
data with cinefluoroscopy’s X-ray tracking images. CTX
images should help doctors devise better therapies for bone,
joint, ligament and back ailments. They will also enable scientists
to more closely study the biomechanics of animals, from slithering
snakes to leaping frogs to soaring birds—T.G.
Since it began operating a year ago, an
anaerobic digester built by University of California, Davis,
researchers has been producing up to 600,000 liters of bio-gas
a day—both methane and hydrogen. The resulting fuel
is used to make electricity to power a nearby wastewater treatment
plant, but it’s also enough to light 80 homes.
Anaerobic (oxygen-free) digesters rely on gas-producing microbes
to break down matter, and they’re fairly common at wastewater
treatment plants and livestock farms. But the Davis processor—designed
by Ruihong Zhang, a professor of biological and agricultural
engineering—is different. It works with both solid and
liquid wastes, mainly food scraps and yard clippings, as well
as animal manure. In addition, it’s 50 percent more
efficient than other digesters, which also only produce methane.
The hungry-bug technology is environmentally friendly on two
fronts: it produces clean fuels, and it could greatly reduce
the amount of rubbish that now ends up in landfills. —T.G.
Universities in Australia are joining the global mix in establishing
campuses abroad, though with varied results. Two months after
its gala opening, Sydney’s University of New South Wales
enrolled half the projected number of students at its new
facility in Singapore and abruptly shut it down. UNSW faces
continuing disputes over some $US 11.3 million in startup
funds and costs of dismantling its structure. Overseas campuses
operated by Melbourne-based Monash University—one in
South Africa, the other in Malaysia—are also losing
money. Yet the school, among Australia’s biggest and
wealthiest, says it has no intention of shutting them down.
By contrast, Australia’s University of Newcastle plans
to expand its successful engineering and IT undergraduate
programs at Singapore’s PSB academy, while Western Australia’s
Edith Cowan University has newly inaugurated the Center for
Security and Aviation Excellence in Dubai, a joint venture
with the Emirates Group. Clearly, overseas partnerships beckon
Australia, despite operational difficulties.—Chris
Pritchard and Robin Tatu
What’s the biggest reason foreign engineers and scientists
immigrate to the United States? According to a recent National
Science Foundation survey, 37 percent, the single largest
segment, moved to America for family reasons. That mainly
means they were traveling with their parents. Many were under
18 when they immigrated. Education was the second-most-cited
reason: Thirty percent came to the United States to study.
Economic opportunity was the third-most-popular reason, claimed
by 21 percent. Of the approximately 21.6 million engineers
and scientists working in the U.S., 3.3 million are immigrants.
Fifty-six percent are Asian, while nearly 19 percent are European.
South Korean students are increasingly opting to study overseas.
In 2005, 214,000 Korean students were enrolled in foreign
schools; that’s nearly double the 1998 figure of 109,000.
Destination of choice? the United States. In the 2005-06 school
year, 58,847 Koreans were attending U.S. universities, an
annual increase of 10.3 percent, according to the Institute
of International Education. Experts say many top Korean students
head abroad because their own educational system stifles innovative
thinking. The Hyundai Research Institute reports that nearly
50 percent of Koreans who receive Ph.D.s in engineering and
science at American schools opt to remain in the U.S.
Outsourcing has generally meant U.S. firms sending work overseas.
But several Indian software-writing companies—including
Infosys Technologies, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services—are
ramping up hiring in the United States. Wipro expects to open
two centers in the United States and says its goal is to increase
its non-Indian global workforce within a few years from 2.5
percent to 10 percent. About 10 percent of Tata’s U.S.
workforce is American, but the company plans to hire 2,000
more Americans by 2010. Economic factors, including the weak
dollar, make U.S. employees an attractive option. The hiring
spree may also help ease American concerns over outsourcing.