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 FIRST LOOK

Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Photo: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Nuclear Contamination
Rx for Radioactivity?


They’re bright, cheerful, and the epitome of yellow. But can sunflowers help Japan recover from last March’s meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years? Japanese researchers think so. They note that sunflowers and canola blossoms were used to cleanse contaminated soil in Ukraine after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. To avoid releasing radioactive cesium into the air, researchers want to use a hyperthermophilic aerobic bacteria to decompose rather than burn the sunflowers. The effort has been pushed by the Buddhist Joenji temple some 30 miles from Fukushima, which estimates that at least 8 million sunflowers now blooming in the region originated from seeds it distributed. The plants have their work cut out for them: Radioactive hot spots have been located well beyond the evacuation zone, and excessive radiation levels have been detected in vegetables, seafood, tea, and rice, all mainstays of the Japanese diet. –THOMAS K. GROSE



Meredith PerryInventions
Power Surge


When Meredith Perry, 22, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last spring, she didn’t need to job hunt. She already was CEO of uBeam, a company she co-founded based on her invention: a device to wirelessly recharge gadgets from laptops to cellphones. The uBeam system is actually two devices — a transmitter that plugs into an electrical outlet and emits ultrasonic waves, and a piezoelectric transducer that plugs into a PC and converts those waves to electricity to recharge batteries. Perry has filed a provisional patent and now hopes to raise cash to hire a couple of engineers and a business partner. She’s off to a good start. Earlier this year, uBeam won the university’s $5,000
PennVention award. That got the attention of Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg, who invited Perry and cofounder Nora Dweck to his annual All Things Digital conference. Though not an engineer, Perry does have a science background; her degree’s in paleobiology, and she’s been a NASA student ambassador. Still, how did she learn about ultrasound and piezoelectric transducers? Easy: Wikipedia. – TG



Antiviral Drugs
Zombies, for Real


When a virus attacks a healthy cell, it essentially zombifies it, using the host to create copies of itself in a process that results in double-stranded RNA not found in human and animal cells. Human cells have proteins that latch onto those rogue strands to stop them, but often the viruses figure out how to block that process. Human cells also have a protein that can sometimes induce cell suicide, for instance when it becomes precancerous. Todd Rider, a senior scientist at the Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, has developed an antiviral drug that mimics and links the two proteins. It targets the dangerous RNA strands and before the virus can outsmart it, activates the cell’s suicide mechanism. The treatment is broad based and has proved effective in tests on lab-cultivated human and animal cells, and in mice, against 15 different viruses, including those that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza, polio, and dengue fever. Says Rider: “In theory, it should work against all viruses.” He expects to begin trials soon in larger animals en route to human clinical trials. Given that so many human ailments—perhaps including some cancers—are viral infections, a therapy that halts all would be a wonder drug. Accordingly, when news of Rider’s potentially life-altering invention hit the blogosphere, it went . . . viral. – TG




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

COMPETITIONS
Eye on the Bottom Line


Every Solar Decathlon – this year’s was the fifth – seems to raise the bar for elegance and ingenuity in student-designed solar homes. But the engineering, architecture, and art majors on the 19 teams competing near the Washington Mall in September had to work within new constraints. In addition to size limits, real-world livability, curb appeal, and functional efficiency (sun-powered clothes dryers have to dry a load of soggy towels in two hours), sponsors at the U.S. Department of Energy set standards for affordability. In the past, students with great fundraising chops produced high-end entries out of reach of most homeowners. This year, they lost points if their houses cost more than $250,000. In another new twist, the home-entertainment trial required teams to host a dinner party for neighbors, with marks awarded for meal quality and ambience – i.e., can the beer kegs. – MARY LORD



Semakau Landfill in Singapore

Waste Disposal
Tourist Dump


Semakau Landfill in Singapore is perhaps unique in the world. Based offshore on two linked islands, it’s also a thriving ecosystem that’s home to many species of wildlife, some endangered, and has tourists signing up four months in advance to visit. Tiny Singapore created Semakau in 1999. Bargefuls of wet ash from incinerated trash – nearly 10 million tons so far – are dumped into pits and covered with soil where plants now grow, the New York Times reports. The system reduces the city-state’s volume of rubbish by 90 percent while the incinerators generate 2 percent of its power. That may sound idyllic, but environmentalist critics, including Greenpeace, call it a junk idea because it relies on burning trash, which is a major source of air pollution. Moreover, some experts warn that the waste will eventually leak from the protective polyethylene geomembrane that lines the island, though that may take decades to happen. Nevertheless, officials from other Asian countries, including Japan, Samoa, and New Zealand, have flocked to Semakau for inspiration. – TG



University Research
Multitasking


Forget that tired old bromide “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” For graduate students in STEM disciplines, a new study finds that teaching boosts their research skills. The study, conducted by David Feldon, an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, found that grad students who mixed teaching with research during an academic year improved their research skills more than peers who spent the entire year in a lab. The study of 140 master’s and doctoral students at three universities had participants write a research proposal in the early fall, which they were then asked to revise and resubmit in the spring. Students and their advisers were also interviewed, with students given several scientific reasoning tests during the year. The key finding: Those who taught had statistically significant improvements in their ability to generate testable hypotheses and design experiments. Why? Feldon reckons that having to help struggling undergraduates think through problems hones grad students’ deductive skills. Spending more time explaining their own approaches to forming hypotheses, he adds, may also sharpen those skills. – TG


MABEL

Robotics
See How She Runs


You know a technological breakthrough has captured the zeitgeist when it becomes a YouTube hit. Such is the fate of MABEL, arguably the world’s fastest bipedal robot with knees. Built in 2008 by a team led by Jessy Grizzle, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, MABEL — and her algorithms — have been tweaked ever since to avoid danger.In July, she clocked 6.8 mph on her first real jog. MABEL’s weight is distributed like a person’s: heavy torso with light, flexible feet. Possible applications include exoskeletons that could help paraplegics walk and powered prosthetic limbs that act more like their biological counterparts. There’s also the possibility of building robotic soldiers or rescuers that can better navigate the human environment. In Britain, MABEL’s a media star. At least she can run from the paparazzi. – TG




FACTOID - 252: The number of specific federal programs in science, technology, engineering, and math education at all levels, spread across 13 government agencies, according to a White House inventory. Despite congressional concern about overlap and waste, the inventory found each program to be different. The annual cost — $3.5 billion — is less than 0.001 percent of total federal spending. Sources: Office of Science and Technology Policy press release; Office of Management and Budget



ContagionHealth Technologies
Spread the Word


The potential for digital technology to transform public health is limitless. Consider HealthMap. The interactive website gathers information at the very local level to track contagious diseases well before they develop into global pandemics. The five-year-old project, based at Children’s Hospital in Boston, recently was relaunched to focus on “participatory epidemiology,” or the gathering of data from social media like Twitter and Facebook so that it’s even more up to the minute. HealthMap also partnered with the producers of the film Contagion (pictured), a thriller about a super-deadly global pandemic, on a public-awareness campaign about disease transmission and tracking. Meanwhile, a team led by John Rogers, a materials scientist and engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has developed an “electronic tattoo,” a stick-on device that can monitor vital signs including heart rate, brain waves, and muscle activity. The rubbery substrate of the temporary tattoo is only 50 microns thick, less than a human hair, and can bend, wrinkle, and stretch like real skin. Says Rogers: “It’s a technology that blurs the distinction between electronics and biology.” Finally, H. Tom Soh, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is developing a disposable chip that could quickly diagnose infectious particles at the point of care. Currently, tests to determine if a patient has a seasonal flu or the potentially more dangerous swine flu must be sent to a lab, and it can sometimes take days to get results. The Magnetic Integrated Microfluidic Electrochemical Detector (MIMED) can detect microbes within four hours. – TG



VenturebineAlternative Energy
Windy Cities


The winds that whip around urban buildings are rarely harvested by wind turbines and converted into electricity. One reason: aesthetics. Skylines skewered by wind turbine towers could be quite unsightly. Moreover, most turbines aren’t efficient enough to merit installation. But Enatek, an Italian start-up based in Tuscany, has designed a building-integrated turbine that solves both problems. The Venturebine features three blades that rotate horizontally, somewhat like the turning blades on an old-fashioned manual lawn mower. The units — which weigh just 440 pounds each and are roughly 10 feet in length — can be placed end to end along a roofline, so they blend in more readily with their surroundings. Enatek engineers got help from the Universities of Florence and Prato. – TG



device that immediately can measure and display the impact of a blastBiomedical Engineering
Shock Treatment


One hazard common to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the use of bombs, particularly roadside booby traps and land mines. Over the past decade, nearly 190,000 American soldiers have suffered traumatic brain injury from exposure to blasts, whose shock waves can cause damaging stresses and strains to tissue. What’s particularly insidious about these types of brain injuries, especially if they are relatively moderate, is that both physical and cognitive symptoms may not appear for weeks or months. That makes diagnosis and treatment difficult. A team led by David Borkholder, an associate professor of electrical and microengineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has designed and tested a device that immediately can measure and display the impact of a blast — a function that could help field medics make quicker diagnoses and treatment. The device is small, too—about the size of a PC memory stick, thus easily carried. – TG





computer-generated imageAnimation
Virtual Vestments


Computerized tomography (CT) uses a series of two-dimensional X-rays snapped as they rotate around an object to produce a 3-D view of its interior structure. Accordingly, CT technology has been a boon to disease detection. Now Steve Marschner, an associate professor of computer science at Cornell University, is developing a new use for powerful CT scans: using them on fabrics to create more realistic computer-generated images of superhero capes. Virtual garments already look quite authentic — until the camera zooms in. That’s because the way they reflect light is determined by their internal structures, and the software aces who write the algorithms used for CGI animation can only guess what those structures look like. Instead of modeling, Marschner’s team uses a CT scan of small swatches of material to feed the actual inner workings of fabrics into their computers. The result is a virtual garment that looks so realistic it’s ready for its close-up — as long as it’s not moving. The team’s working on speeding up the process so that it also can handle billowing capes. – TG



Space Travel
Star Trek

It’s not quite a plan to go to infinity and beyond — but it’s close. The Pentagon’s weird-science agency, DARPA, is winding up a yearlong 100-year Starship Study, which asked academics, students, industries, and researchers to consider how mankind should undertake interstellar space travel. In November, it will award $500,000 to a nongovernmental organization as seed money to commence the financing and drafting of a blueprint for travel to the stars, a research effort that itself will most likely take the better part of a century. Human spaceflight to even the closest star would almost certainly cost many trillions of dollars and take centuries to complete. The study will need to go beyond the massive technical challenges and also encompass sociology, ethics, biology, psychology, and economics. Wasteful government spending on science fiction? Not at all, DARPA responds. The century-long effort will cut across so many disciplines and require so much new science that it practically guarantees development of breakthrough technologies, which the agency calls “ancillary results. . . that will benefit mankind.” To be sure, it was DARPA that funded the research into computer protocols that led to the Internet, and NASA’s space programs have spun off myriad life-enhancing technologies ranging from water purification systems to breast-cancer detection. And, of course, it may also result in Earthlings venturing to the stars. – TG






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