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Hidden Graves + dry water + submerged giant

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

Standing Tall

Electrical pylons, often considered an unsightly blight upon the landscape, could take on a stylish new person-ification. The “Land of Giants” design concept, created by Massachusetts’ Choi + Shine Architects, took honorable mention at the Icelandic High-Voltage Electrical Pylon International Design Competition. The firm suggests that these 150-foot tall caryatids, which can assume various poses, could be configured with only minor alteration to traditional steel-framed electrical towers.

Science and Religion
God and the Big Bang

Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s most famous scientist, has ignited a controversy with his latest tome, coauthored by American physicist Leong Mlodinow. In The Grand Design, the British physicist argues that the universe could have formed without divine help. The laws of physics, Hawking says, particularly the law of gravity, explain the big bang with no need for a creator. As he told ABC News, “Science makes God unnecessary.”

Not surprisingly, religious leaders have been quick to respond: Faith is about interpretation, they said; science explains things. Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, stated that “the Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.” Scientists also took issue with Hawking. Oxford University mathematics professor John Lennox wrote in the Daily Mail that the laws of physics can explain how a jet engine works, but the laws of physics couldn’t build one. –THOMAS K. GROSE

All Ph.D.’s (2008-9): Men - 28,469 | Women - 28,962. Engineering Ph.D.’s: Men - 7,155 | Women - 1,928. Sources:  Council of Graduate Schools and ASEE Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology CollegeS


Send in the 'Bots

After BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded last April 20, it spewed some 4.9 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico before finally being capped in mid-July. More than 800 oil skimmers were used to help clean the mess, but they collected only about 3 percent of surface oil. Gotta be a better way, right? That’s what the folks at the X Prize Foundation, which jump-started the private spaceflight industry, believe. In June, they announced a $1 million challenge, with the prize offered for the best new cleanup technology. Already in the running: Seaswarm. Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s a fleet of low-cost, oil-absorbing robots that move autonomously using swarm behavior technology. Each robot has a conveyor belt covered in a nanomaterial that can absorb up to 20 times its weight in oil. Developed by materials engineer Francesco Stellacci, the material also repels water and can be heated to burn off the oil it collects. MIT says it works “like a paper towel sliding atop of the water.” Each robot is solar powered and can run for weeks on just 100 watts of electricity. Researchers claim that 5,000 of them could have cleaned the Gulf spill within a month. –TG

Out of Harm’s Way

AUSTRALIA – Junk isn’t a problem only here on Earth. Up in space, it can be downright dangerous. Some half-million chunks of debris litter Earth’s orbit, falling from functioning spacecraft or off discarded satellites. Some pieces are as big as buses, others the size of refrigerators, and many are no larger than flecks of paint. But even tiny bits can cause major damage to spacecraft when hurtling at speeds of 22,500 mph. So, partly funded by a $3.15 million government grant, engineers at the Australian National University have collaborated with a local Canberra company, Electro Optic Systems, to develop a sophisticated tracking system. Lasers beamed from Earth pinpoint space junk, allowing satellite owners to maneuver their craft and evade the flying trash. Craig Smith, chief executive officer of Electro Optic Systems, envisions tracking stations in various countries, operating automatically with software that can be set to adjust flight paths. – CHRIS PRITCHARD

Deceased Detector

BloodhoundCadaver-sniffing dogs and ground-penetrating radar are indispensable tools when police are searching for hidden graves. But bloodhounds and radar don’t work in every situation – such as when a corpse has been covered in concrete. Now, two researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have devised a solution: a probe not much thicker than a human hair, attached to a motorized pipette. The probe sucks up air samples to allow for detection of ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen (NRN), a chemical released from decomposing bodies. Concrete? No problem. First drill a small hole, then slide in the probe. When researchers Thomas J. Bruno and Tara M. Lovestead tested the device using rat corpses, they found that NRN was at its most detectable at five weeks, but could still be discerned after more than 20. For now, the air samples will be tested in the lab. But dig this: Bruno is working on a portable version that will allow investigators to test for NRN in the field. – TG

Anybots’s QB

Hope I’m Not Interrupting

Anybots’s QBYou’re a corporate CEO on a trip, and you want to check on the home office. Now you can send QB to stroll the cubicles for you, allowing you and your employees to see and talk to one another. QB is a tele-presence robot that glides on two wheels, balancing like a Segway. Manufactured by the Silicon Valley firm Anybots, it relies on a guidance system to maneuver around obstacles, while the user controls it via a standard Web browser. A live webcam video of the user – that would be the CEO – is projected on a screen atop of QB, while the robot’s camera “eyes” enable him or her to see the employee remotely. QB weighs 35 pounds, has six to eight hours of battery life, can travel 3.5 mph, and has a neck that can adjust its height from 3 feet to 5 feet 9 inches. “It’s like a videoconferencing system, but you can drive it around,” Anybots CEO Trevor Blackwell says. QB, which was scheduled for release this fall, isn’t cheap: $15,000. Then again, Gartner Research predicts that the value of the videoconferencing market should total $8.6 billion by 2013, a nearly 18 percent increase over 2008. So, Anybots’s QB could become a hot item.—TG

Going Dry

Dry water? It may be an oxymoron, but it’s also the real deal. Chemists at Britain’s University of Liverpool have developed a process that coats droplets of water with silica – yes, sand – that’s been treated with a chemical liquid repellent. The resulting talclike powder is dry, but if you squeeze it, the liquid inside is released. One use could be soaking up carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Dry water, researchers found, absorbs three times as much CO2 as the wet stuff. Another possible application comes in storing methane – which burns more cleanly than petroleum – to make it easier to it use as a transportation fuel. When Liverpool’s researchers mixed methane with dry water, they produced methane gas hydrate, a crystalline material. Natural gas is mostly methane, so it’s likely that it, too, could be solidified. Hurdles remain. The hydrate must be kept at -94 degrees Fahrenheit to remain stable. And Researcher Andrew Cooper says while that and other problems can be solved, “we’re not anywhere close” to working out the economics. -TG

For-Profits Feel the Heat

The reputation of for-profit colleges has been tarnished by a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which found that some schools urged applicants to make fraudulent statements on loan applications and that many gave prospective students misleading or erroneous information about costs and future prospects. GAO, Congress’s auditing arm, used investigators posing as potential students at 15 colleges to uncover the practices. Four schools encouraged applicants to lie about their finances to ensure eligibility for federally subsidized financial aid, with one recruiter in Texas assuring an investigator-student that his $250,000 in savings was “not the government’s business.” The probe also found that for-profit tuitions were six to 13 times higher than those at nearby public colleges. A computer-aided drafting course that could be had for $520 at a California community college cost $14,000 at a for-profit school. Industry group Career College Association called the GAO report “deeply troubling” and pledged to strengthen members’ compliance with regulations. They had better. Last year, profit-making colleges received more than $4 billion in federal grants and $20 billion in federal loans. So legislation tightening the screws on them would likely find a welcome reception in Congress. –TG


Come On Down

Down Under, maybe – certainly not down and out. Australia sidestepped the global recession and is this year enjoying strong growth, adding thousands of jobs. There are, moreover, huge infrastructure projects underway nationwide and a construction industry that is busier than ever. But all that also serves to exacerbate the country’s chronic engineering shortage. In recent years, its universities have managed to increase engineering graduate numbers from 5,000 to 6,000, but that’s still too few to meet demand, according to Engineers Australia. In August, the group reported shortages in much-needed disciplines, including mechanical, electrical, civil, and structural. So when the government staged a September jobs fair in London to woo skilled workers to Oz, engineers were high on the list of desired candidates. As the U.K. magazine, The Engineer, reports, emigration to Australia is relatively easy for British engineers because the country recognizes their accredited qualifications. Another lure: Australia’s semiarid climate and sun-drenched beaches. –TG

Some New Blood

GENETIC ENGINEERINGThe race is on to see who will be first to bring genetically engineered synthetic blood to market, and the finish line is not far away. The leading American contender is Ohio’s Arteriocyte, which two years ago received $1.95 million from DARPA to develop its “blood pharming” technology. Arteriocyte uses hematopoietic stem cells from discarded umbilical cords for a method that mimics bone marrow functions to produce red blood cells. Cells from one cord can produce around 20 pints of O-negative blood, a universal type that all patients can use, no matter their own blood type but that only 7 percent of humans are born with. Advanced Cell Technology, another U.S. company, in 2008 developed a technique to produce artificial blood from stem cells harvested from unused invitro fertilization embryos. Its research has suffered numerous political stops and starts. DARPA’s interest comes in treating wounded soldiers in war zones, where blood shortages are common. But synthetic blood would also be a boon in disaster areas and help to ensure that supplies are free of HIV or hepatitis viruses. – TG

Political Funding
On the Right

The New Yorker magazine reports that billionaire industrialists and brothers Charles and David Koch have spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding groups and think tanks that promote radical libertarian policies, cast doubt on global warming, and helped organize and train the Tea Party movement. Charles Koch, notes writer Jane Mayer, “seems to have approached both business and politics with the deliberation of an engineer.” Not surprising, since he and his brother David both have MIT engineering degrees. With estimated annual revenues of $100 billion, Koch Industries is an oil-to-chemicals conglomerate. It’s America’s second-largest privately held company and, according to some reports, one of its major polluters. Together, the Koch brothers are worth $35 billion. Their late father, Fred Koch, also an MIT alum, invented a better way to refine oil into gasoline and got his start creating big oil refineries in Stalinist Russia. Years later, back in the United States, Fred became a founding member of the John Birch Society. – TG

AK1000 tidal turbine

Tidal Power
Give It a Wide Berth

The churning waters of Pentland Firth off Scotland’s north coast have been dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of tidal power” – which is why the U.K. government located the European Marine Energy Center in nearby Orkney. EMEC is a test bed for full-sized wave and tidal energy devices, and its newest arrival is the world’s largest tidal turbine. Built by Singapore’s Atlantis Resources Corp., the AK1000 tidal turbine is 73 ft tall, weighs 1,300 tons, and boasts a twin set of 60-foot rotors. Atlantis – whose investors include Siemens and Swedish power company Vattenfall – took over 10 years for development, at a cost of $7.75 million. Recently fitted into its berth 115 feet below the surface, the turbine is designed to deliver up to 1MW of power, enough to provide electricity to 1,000 homes. It will do just that during the three-year trial in Scotland – but at what cost per unit? EMEC commercial director Richard Morris claims to know but declines to discuss figures, citing proprietary concerns. But is it competitively priced? “I can’t tell you that, either.” In other words, probably not. – TG


Engineering Workforce
Civil Plight

In India, roads are pockmarked with potholes, bridges are crumbling, and the electric grid is totally unreliable. To address the problem, the country is spending $1.5 trillion on infrastructure over the next seven years. But, as the New York Times reports, money alone may not be the answer, since the subcontinent suffers from a major shortage of civil engineers. That may seem surprising in a country with a rich civil engineering heritage and huge numbers of engineers graduating each year. Yet, most of those newly minted workers gravitate to the computer industry, drawn by higher pay. After five years’ experience, according to the Times, civil engineers earn about the same as those in IT; but before that, engineers who specialize in software can earn twice as much.

The World Bank says India will need to triple the number of graduating civil engineers to meet its needs. The government is funding 30 new universities and may allow foreign schools to set up shop there. But there’s no guarantee that grads will remain in the field. Take Vishal Mandvekar, a 26-year-old civil engineer who now develops software for a Japanese car manufacturer. His previous construction job was “fun,” he told the Times, but paid one-third his his current salary of $765 a month. – TG



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