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Fair Catch?

The video boards of the new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas loom 90 feet above the playing field, well beyond the National Football League's 85-foot height requirement for hanging objects. So what's the problem? It's that they're so huge. Built by Mitsubishi Diamond Electric, the twin video boards, which project the game and score during play, measure 72 feet high and 160 feet long. And that makes a big target. The Tennessee Titans' A.J. Trapasso dinged the bottom of one screen during a preseason game. Faced with whether to order that the boards be moved - a 12-hour job - the NFL punted: It ruled that striking a board with a football will result in a replay. But the decision applies only to the 2009 season.

Cell Growth in 3-D

Could skin cells one day be used to cure diabetes? Yes, says Jeffrey R. Morgan, co-director of Brown University's Center for Biomedical Engineering. Morgan believes that within 10 years, it may be possible to transform a diabetic's skin cells into blank-slate stem cells that could be turned into the pancreas cells that produce insulin. The engineered cells would be transplanted into a patient's pancreas, making it healthy again. At present, cells cultured in standard Petri dishes result in two-dimensional tissues that have limited value. But Morgan's team has developed a three-dimensional Petri dish that can grow clusters of living cells into complex-shaped microtissues, which can be more easily transformed into useful tissue. Morgan's dishes are made from a gelatinous carbohydrate called agarose, and the cells grown in them don't stick to their surface but self-assemble into natural-shaped microtissues. Beyond creating organ tissue, Morgan's 3-D tissue-engineering technology may someday produce tissue samples laced with blood vessels that could be used to test drugs, thereby reducing the need for animals in medical research. –- THOMAS K. GROSE

Nuclear Bomb
Ultimate Excavator

As non-nuclear bombs go, nothing would be bigger than the bunker-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) that the U.S. Air Force wants to deploy next year. The USAF is asking Congress for $68 billion to buy four of these mega-bombs from Boeing; ultimately, it wants 16 of them. At 30,000 pounds, the 20-foot-long MOP is so heavy that B-2 or B-52 bombers can carry only one at a time. Some 5,300 pounds of that weight is explosives, making the MOP 10 times as powerful as its predecessor, the BLU-109. It's also laser guided and can burrow 200 feet into the ground before exploding. North Korea and Iran are both thought to have nuclear bomb-making facilities nestled in deep-earth bunkers. The massive MOP is designed to send a message to both regimes: You can dig, but you can't hide. – TG

Paul Webley holding silica gel granules
Soak it Up

AUSTRALIA — Ever notice tiny packets of silica gel granules in cardboard boxes containing consumer electronics? Sometimes they carry a warning: “Do Not Eat.” They’re meant to soak up moisture, but Australian engineers have found that these absorbent granules are also useful in reducing harmful gas emissions. Paul Webley (right), associate dean in the chemical engineering department at Melbourne’s Monash University, and his team developed a simple technique for capturing carbon emissions at power stations. Pressurized flue gas is passed through the granules, which absorb carbon dioxide. When the pressure is dropped, “desorption” occurs, allowing the carbon dioxide to be siphoned off for other industrial uses and the absorbent granules to be re-used. The process worked well at a test plant, removing 1.1 tons of carbon dioxide a day. Now Webley’s team is adapting the method to large power stations. Commercial development is expected within five years. – CHRIS PRITCHARD

Engineer to Lead Japan

Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, shares a distinction with several top Chinese leaders: He’s an engineer. Hatoyama – who recently led the Democratic Party to a stunning defeat of the long-entrenched Liberal Democratic Party – earned his doctorate in managerial engineering from Stanford University in 1976. In the past, he’s criticized America’s “unrestrained market fundamentalism,” and the continued U.S. military presence in Japan. But the Obama administration hopes to win Hatoyama’s cooperation on global warming and North Korea’s nuclear proliferation — both issues for which an engineering background will be helpful. – ROBIN TATU

Waterstudio's Citadel

Villa Flotilla

With 25 percent of the Netherlands already at or below sea level, the Dutch are better prepared than most for the rise in sea levels expected to accompany global warming. One example is the new, aptly named architectural firm, Waterstudio, which specializes in “building in, on, and at the water.” Its design for a water-based development features 1,200 homes. Work begins in March on the site’s centerpiece, the Citadel, a floating luxury apartment complex connected to the mainland by a floating road. Floating buildings have been done before, but Waterstudio is using the latest technologies to take the concept to new levels: 180 modular elements – 60 apartments in all – positioned upon a floating concrete caisson foundation. The Citadel will be energy efficient and make use of green-roof technology. Other Waterstudio projects include stilt houses for flood-prone land and the Watervilla house, whose lowest three stories are partly submerged in water. This innovative young firm should make a splash. – TG

Mind Your Way

Electric Powered Wheelchair

An electric-powered wheelchair that users can steer with their thoughts is being developed by Toyota Motor Corp. Monitors fitted into a cap measure brain waves every 125 milliseconds, then send them to an onboard computer. It’s done so rapidly that the time between thought and response is nearly simultaneous, allowing for a more fluid ride than voice-controlled chairs. Users train for three hours a day for a week, which gives the system time to tune itself to their thought patterns. To operate it, users imagine a hand or foot movement, and the chair responds in a corresponding manner, moving right, left, or forward, as well as stopping. As a failsafe, a brake springs into action when a user puffs out a cheek. Toyota’s “Brain Machine Interface” technology is part of Japan’s push to provide better assistance for handicapped and elderly people. The Japanese automaker hasn’t yet announced plans to commercialize the technology, but stay tuned for that next brain wave. – TG

NSF Video:

“A K-12 education that does not include at least some exposure to engineering is a lost opportunity for students and for the nation”

–Linda Katehi, Chancellor of the University of California, Davis. She chaired a National Academy of Engineering-National Research Council panel that urged, among other recommendations, that ASEE begin a national dialogue on preparing K-12 engineering teachers, and establishing a formal credentialing process.

SOURCE: National Academies Press Release

Recruited – Again

In August, a new and much more generous GI Bill became available to military men and women who have served since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Around 485,000 veterans and family members are expected to take advantage of the program. The National Science Foundation sees this as a unique chance to attract as many students as possible into engineering from a diverse, qualified talent pool. NSF is proposing a four-year project that would provide 100 postsecondary schools $1 million to $1.5 million to help develop tech programs at all levels that are “customized” to attract veterans. Since 30 percent of veterans are minorities, the project would be a good way to help diversify engineering ranks. At a workshop last April, the NSF called it an “opportunity for the United States to expand its technical workforce while serving those who served.” – TG

Bringing Light

Artificial Retina

People who have lost their eyesight, or are in danger of doing so, have new reason for hope. A global team of scientists – including researchers at the University of Southern California, the California Institute of Technology, and Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities – are developing an artificial retina that will restore some vision to people with degenerative eye diseases, the most common causes of blindness. The current version of the prosthesis, Argus II, uses a small camera affixed to glasses. It sends visual signals to the implant, which translates them into voltages, activating an array of 60 pixels, or electrodes. Attached to the retina, the prosthesis stimulates its neurons, so that vision results. Patients in clinical trials have been able to negotiate around large objects and find a door 20 feet away. A thousand-electrode version that would enable users to read large print and recognize faces might be ready for testing within five years. Researchers hope the next version will be so minute that all of the components, camera included, can be fully implanted into the eye.

Meanwhile, Australian researchers have used stem cells layered onto contact lenses to improve the sight of three victims of cornea damage. The cornea is a transparent film that covers the eye, but if it loses its transparency, sight is impaired. Stem cells, which can morph into other cell types, were harvested from other healthy parts of the patients’ bodies and grown onto contact lenses. The patients wore the contacts for 10 days, and during that time, the cells moved off the lenses, grafting onto the corneas. All three subjects reported much-improved vision – indeed, one was able to see well enough to pass a driving exam. – TG

Vanish Keyboard Button
'Delete' Means 'Delete'

E-mails, social-network posts, and chat messages can live forever, even if you delete them. Yes, much of this text may still exist somewhere, stored as archived data on Web services’ servers. That makes old messages vulnerable to court orders or hackers, even if they’re encrypted. Now two University of Washington computer engineering students – Ph.D. candidate Roxana Geambasu and undergraduate Amit Levy – have developed open-source software, Vanish, that permits sensitive messages to disappear forever after eight hours. Vanish makes use of the churn that occurs on large peer-to-peer networks. Each message using Vanish is encrypted by a secret key that is broken up into dozens of pieces, then dusted onto random computers in a large file-sharing network. As network users enter and leave the system, the key eventually becomes permanently inaccessible. Networks purge their memories every eight hours, and when that happens, the message can no longer be unscrambled – so only indecipherable gibberish will live on forever in the cloud. – TG

Bike Taxi Docking Station

Big-City Trend

CANADA — A Montreal bike-sharing system that won an International Design Excellence Award (IDEA) has proven so popular that Boston and London are coming along for the ride. The BIXI system – the word is a combination of bicycle and taxi – consists of a network of 3,000 bikes that can be picked up at 300 solar-powered docking stations around the city’s central core. The aluminum bikes feature concealed brakes and gear cables, as well as a Wi-Fi communication system that can, among other things, notify BIXI mechanics of defects. Veteran industrial designer Michel Dallaire obtained seven patents in creating the system. BIXI started operation in Montreal in May 2009, and in the first two months, riders took over 300,000 trips, saving 40,000 gallons of gas. Users can buy a yearly pass for $78 or a one-day pass for $5. The BIXI networks in Boston and London are scheduled to begin operation in 2010. – PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

Added Attractions

A number of small towns in Missouri’s Ozarks fell on hard times decades ago, and the current recession hasn’t made matters any easier. So an engineering management expert from Missouri University of Science and Technology and his students have been helping some of them devise economic-development plans geared toward revitalizing their town centers. In Newburg — pop. 484 — the students suggested turning 28 acres along the Little Piney River into an enclave featuring a soccer park and a rail museum. In Salem, their suggestions included a community center, a recycling center, and a hiking/biking trail. For each project, the students are required to develop a plan that includes a budget with cost and labor estimates and work schedule. Karl Burgher, who teaches the Introduction to Project Management class, says the experience the students get is unbeatable. “Students find out what it is like to have clients, make meetings, deal with conflicting schedules, and work around the weather.” In other words, it gives them a healthy dose of real life. –TG

River Protector

CAMBODIA — Few proper toilet facilities exist in the abundant “floating villages” of Cambodia, with stilted huts and shops crammed together along the banks of rivers. As a result, villagers often defecate in the same water they use for drinking, cooking, and washing. Now, a non-governmental organization in Singapore may have a solution in a floating toilet.

A typical river toilet is an open hole on wooden planks emptying directly into the river. By contrast, the Lien Aid toilet uses buckets to collect the waste, separating urine from feces, to reduce the bulk. Villagers then sprinkle soil, ash, or wood chips to dry the feces, decompose it, and keep out pathogens, says Vikram Rajola of the Lien Institute for the Environment (LIFE) at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, the research institute designing the toilets. Because urine is rich in nutrients and contains few pathogens, villagers can re-use it as a fertilizer, along with the feces, after both are treated.

To reduce costs, the NGO hopes to employ local materials and manufacturers. The price of each toilet, between U.S. $50 and $200, could be shared by several families. “The more difficult challenge is to help the community build up the human resources necessary to make the venture financially sustainable over the long term,” says Lien Aid head Sahari Ani. – GEOFFREY CAIN



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