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 BRIEFINGS

INSIDE: FOOT POWER + OLD-BOY CULTURE + LUNAR LIVING

NANOTECHNOLOGY: THE ART OF SCIENCE
NANOTECHNOLOGY
THE ART OF SCIENCE

Don’t be fooled. This garden of golden sunflowers is actually a SEM (scanning electron microscope) image of silicon and oxygen nanowires, each no more than 10 nano-meters in diameter. With molten gallium and gold acting as catalysts, SiOx nanowire bundles self-assemble into various shapes, including these florets. The image was captured, then artificially colored, by physics professor S.K. Hart of Hong Kong’s Chinese University. His artistic rendering took first prize in the 2008 Science as Art competition of the Materials Research Society — demonstrating once again the beauty of small things. — Robin Tatu



SYNTHETIC FUEL: A CLEANER BLUE YONDER
SYNTHETIC FUEL
A CLEANER BLUE YONDER

Soaring oil prices are clipping the wings of most airlines. And the U.S. military, which consumes some 340,000 barrels of oil per day, is anxious to find cheaper — and more secure — aircraft fuel. So it’s giving serious consideration to synthetic jet fuels derived from coal or natural gas. In March, the Air Force B-1 bomber “Dark 33” successfully tested a 50-50 synfuel blend at sound barrier-breaking speeds, proving the fuel’s robustness. Synthetic fuels burn more cleanly than those from petroleum, but spew more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during the refinery process. Manufacturers claim that this problem can be solved with capture technologies, however. Synfuels also cost more than oil-based jet fuel, but experts believe that once these fuels are pressed into widespread commercial use, the price could dive to $55 a barrel. —Thomas K. Grose



ELECTRICITY
SMALL STEPS, GIANT LEAP

UNITED KINGDOM— In 2000, the Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian walkway over London’s River Thames, opened to great fanfare. But it soon had to be closed, as the force of thousands of human footfalls caused it to wobble. The problem was fixed with the installation of dampers, but consulting engineers at the Scott Wilson firm believe such strong kinetic energy could be put to use. They set out to harness energy created from human footfalls in railway stations and malls. Pads beneath floors would capture then send “heel strike” energy through mini-turbines that generate electricity. Their model, based on London’s Victoria Underground, indicates that the 34,000 passengers an hour could light 6,500 light bulbs. David Webb, a structural engineer at Scott Wilson, notes that all buildings move, and “this technology says, ‘Okay, we can do something useful with that energy.’” It’s a real a step forward for alternative energy. —TG



GENDER BIAS
ASSAULT ON THE ALAMO

Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers caused a stir in 2005 when he suggested that women may lack innate ability in science and engineering. Now a Harvard Business Review study identifies what its authors claim is the real culprit behind the dearth of women in the two fields: a deeply ingrained sexist attitude in science, engineering and technology. The authors liken these professions to “the Alamo” — the last redoubt of an old-boy culture that’s largely disappeared from other occupations. Lead author and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett told the New York Times that “it’s almost a time warp.”

At the early career level, 41 percent of science, engineering and technology hires are women, who tend to get strong performance reviews. But by the time they reach their mid-30s, 52 percent of these women quit. Why? Beyond tiring of the prevalent “lab coat” and geek cultures, women report problems with macho attitudes: 70-hour work weeks, sexual harassment, and no clear roadmap for career advancement. Jobs in the science, technology, engineering and math sectors are expected to grow five times faster than any other, and already companies can’t find enough qualified workers. If the female attrition rate could be slowed by just 25 percent, the authors note, it would boost this specialized workforce by 220,000. “The scale of the loss is enormous,” they write. —TG



CIVIL ENGINEERING
EVERGLADES' SALVATION

Florida’s Everglades swamp once covered more than 6,250 square miles. It’s now half that size, thanks in part to a 2,000-mile network of flood-control canals built over the past century to drain water to the ocean and make room for 5 million people. The result was a huge loss of wildlife and a water runoff problem blamed for dangerous coastal algae blooms. To save the evaporating Everglades from ecological collapse, a multibillion-dollar, 30-year wetlands restoration project was approved in 2000, though legal disputes and funding delays have slowed its progress.

At the heart of the project is a massive civil engineering undertaking: an $800 million, 25-square-mile, aboveground reservoir. Begun last year and expected to be finished in 2010, it will hold 62 billion gallons of runoff water diverted from the canals, redistributing much of it back into the swamp. Some 30 million tons of earth are being removed from the site near Lake Okeechobee. To hold the water, engineers have designed a 26-foot- high, 21-mile levee of soil and crushed rock, supported by a 2-foot-thick concrete wall. Once completed, the reservoir will be larger than the island of Manhattan. —TG



TRAFFIC CONTROL: UNLOCKED GRID

TRAFFIC CONTROL
UNLOCKED GRID

Timing lights so that traffic flows smoothly is an almost impossible art — ’til now, thanks to new camera and software technology from Tennessee’s Aldis Corp. The GridSmart system uses a single fisheye-lens camera that hangs below a traffic signal, monitoring traffic in all directions some 600 feet out. From the images received, the software calculates the speed of approaching vehicles and triggers green, yellow and red lights accordingly to improve traffic flow. If an intersection is free when a car approaches, the driver gets a green light. The camera can also clear intersections for emergency vehicles. And it may even improve safety: If it determines a car is about to run a red light, it can hold up cross traffic. Fewer stops and starts would certainly improve the fuel efficiency of cars, reducing emissions. Though potentially a smart option, at a cost of $15,000 per intersection, GridSmart’s not necessarily a cheap one.—TG



NANOTECHNOLOGY: SPONGE FOR OIL SPILLS

NANOTECHNOLOGY
SPONGE FOR OIL SPILLS

It may not be the quicker-picker-upper, but a super-thin mesh of nanowires developed at MIT acts like a paper towel that’s ultra-efficient at sopping up oil spills. Only 50 micrometers thick, the membrane of nanowires can sponge up to 20 times its weight in oil, but it’s also strongly water-repellent. It “can be left in water a month or two, and when you take it out, it’s still dry,” says Francesco Stellacci, the professor of materials science and engineering who oversaw its development. Because the nanowires are made from potassium manganese oxide, they can be heated to 600 degrees Celsius. The heat evaporates the oil, which then can be condensed back to liquid for reuse. Unlike real paper towels, the membrane, once clean, can be used over and over again. —TG



AIRPORT SECURITY
VIRTUAL DANGERS

ISRAEL—Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport might be one of the best-protected places on Earth, but its managers remain alert to vulnerabilities. One of their latest tools is an incident management system designed to anticipate what might go wrong in an emergency.

A common failing of security systems is that they swamp operators with too much information. Ben Gurion’s SimGuard 3000 addresses that problem by fusing data collected by numerous sensors into a single 3D virtual reality display. This provides what Rontal Applications Ltd., SimGuard’s makers, call “situational awareness.”

A recent demonstration showed how SimGuard operates, using as an example a motorcycle left in a restricted area outside a building. The cycle’s presence was detected by cameras, then relayed to a computer screen, where its location was highlighted in red. A few quick clicks on a keyboard showed what would happen if the motorcycle were wired to explode: Certain areas of the building would be devastated by the blast, while others would be only partially damaged. Based on this simulation, occupants could be quickly directed to the safest areas.

Ben Gurion officials tested the new system by firing virtual-reality missiles at planes as they landed, taxied and took off. The results weren’t comforting, revealing weak spots requiring added precautions. But officials were convinced of SimGuard’s usefulness and the need to expand the area covered by the system. —Joshua Brilliant



SUSTAINABILITY I: A DESERT OASIS

SUSTAINABILITY I
A DESERT OASIS

In the shimmering sands of the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi, the world’s biggest eco-town is being built. Masdar City will be home to 50,000 residents and 1,500 businesses, including a new university and innovation center. It will also be car-free and carbon-neutral, and produce zero waste. The eight-year, $22 billion project is being masterminded by the famed British architectural firm Foster + Partners.

What’s planned is a walled city based on the region’s traditional low-rise architecture — low-energy buildings that use wind towers to create natural air conditioning. Power will come from solar energy drawn from the searing desert sunlight. A solar-powered desalination plant will provide water. Narrow, shaded streets will encourage walking, but residents can also travel in pods along magnetic tracks.

Because Abu Dhabi is a major producer of hydrocarbons, some critics think this environmental oasis is an exercise in greenwash. But government officials insist it’s no mirage, noting they will invest $15 billion in clean energy over the next five years. The World Wildlife Fund’s convinced: It’s endorsed Masdar City. —TG



SUSTAINABILITY II
EMERALD ISLE'S GREEN TOWN

Far from the desert, on the eastern coast of Ireland, the town of Dundalk, population 30,000, is another new site for emerging green technologies. It’s one year into a $40 million, five-year European Union-funded initiative to test the regional and national potential of three alternative-energy towns — Dundalk, Modling, Austria, and Neuchatel, Switzerland. Within Dundalk’s 1.5-square-mile Sustainable Energy Zone is a 200-foot-tall wind turbine on the Dundalk Institute of Technology campus. A second one is being planned to power an industrial park anchored by a Xerox plant. Also in the works is a wood-fueled system to provide heat and hot water to homes and businesses. Self-powered street lamps will be run by mini-turbines or solar panels. By 2010, it is hoped, 20 percent of the zone’s heat and electricity will derive from renewable sources. Local politicians and business leaders have embraced the project, believing it will make the town a magnet for new energy technologies and jobs. As the local newspaper the Irish Independent noted, green is the new black.—TG



PRODUCT SAFETY
FEAR OF NANOHAZARDS

Few dispute the great and wide-ranging promise of nanotechnology: more accurate drug therapies, longer-lasting batteries, self-repairing concrete . . . the list goes on. Global sales of nanoparticle products totaled $88 billion in 2007, and could top $2 trillion by 2015. But scientists warn that more safety studies are needed to determine potential dangers to humans, animals and the environment.

A recent Nature Nanotechnology study found that some carbon nanotubes closely resemble asbestos fibers — and could be just as hazardous. In addition, socks treated with silver nanoparticles to keep them odor-free tend to leach those elements after several washings, according to an Arizona State University study. The silver is great at fighting harmful bacteria, but researchers fear it could also destroy toxin-eating bacteria used in wastewater treatment plants. Congress is debating legislation to require more environmental and safety testing of nanoparticles, while the European Union is also pushing for more public discussion. In short, nanosafety could become a big issue.—TG



INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
‘PIRACY’ ON CAMPUS?

Did America’s college students go on a file-sharing binge last spring? Many universities reported a huge surge in notices received from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) fingering students suspected of illegally downloading or trading pirated music or videos via campus networks. Wired magazine says that some schools saw a 20-fold increase, with most of the affected campuses located in the Midwest. RIAA believes the spike was caused by the newer, more robust software it now uses to snoop out piracy. Some school officials aren’t so sure. They charge that the trade group was simply seeking to bolster its argument that the next Higher Education Act should require university investment in illegal file-sharing detection software.

According to college administrators, Internet piracy is hardly confined to campuses, so it’s not fair to target schools. Moreover, officials told Wired, past studies grossly overstated the magnitude of campus piracy, while newer estimates indicate that campus networks account for only 3 percent of illegal trading. In other words, say the schools, it’s a bad rap. —TG

FACTOID
15 - 30%

The proportion of food price increases that can be attributed to the growing use of biofuels, according to the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. government's estimate is lower.




LUNAR RESEARCH: DESIGN FOR LIVING

LUNAR RESEARCH
DESIGN FOR LIVING

Putting humans on the moon is nothing new for NASA. But housing teams of astronauts on its surface for extended periods of time will require some new thinking. So the space agency is reaching out to industry to devise innovative ideas for constructing a manned lunar outpost. NASA hopes to return to the moon by 2020 and establish a base there by 2024. It’s considering a modular system of living and working quarters that four or more astronauts can call home for several weeks. Air, food, water and equipment must be readily available, and the base must also handle waste, heat and pressure, while protecting inhabitants from radiation and moon dust.

Meanwhile, NASA faces some rivalry in its effort to return to the moon. Google‘s Lunar X Prize, a $30 million international competition, is inviting privately funded teams to send up a robotic mission by Dec. 31, 2012. The X Prize Foundation earlier sponsored the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which challenged teams to launch a manned craft into space. That competition, won in 2004 by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, kick-started the new burgeoning space tourism industry. —TG



AERONAUTICS: SOLAR TAKES FLIGHT

AERONAUTICS
SOLAR TAKES FLIGHT

Planes that employ solar energy have been around since the 1970s. But Swiss scientist and pilot Bertrand Piccard is developing a sun-powered plane that’s truly revolutionary. He expects his Solar Impulse aircraft to circumnavigate the Earth by 2011 in a five-leg, monthlong mission. If he succeeds, it will be the first manned solar-powered plane to take off under its own power and remain aloft once the sun’s gone to bed. At night, the plane will glide at lower altitudes to conserve power. Already, Piccard has raised $62 million in corporate sponsorship. It’s more than just a stunt, he says. It’s a means to push the envelope in developing solar energy technologies with commercial potential.

Certainly as fossil fuel costs soar, solar’s future is looking brighter. A recent report commissioned by the environmental nonprofit Co-op America says that solar power will reach cost parity with traditional fuels within 10 years and that 10 percent of the country’s power will be solar by 2025. Though photovoltaic solar panels grab headlines, the power industry is more serious about thermal solar power, which uses arrays of mirrors to collect then turn sun rays into steam to turn turbines. Thermal solar systems are cheaper to build than solar panels and don’t rely on increasingly scarce silicon. Who says there’s nothing new under the sun?—TG



HIGHER EDUCATION
ENGINEERING AT YALE

Harvard and Yale often spring to mind when it comes to educating the country’s top doctors, lawyers and politicians — but engineers, not as often. That may change. Harvard established a separate school last year, and now Yale has opened the doors of its new school of engineering and applied science. According to Yale’s president, Richard C. Levin, it’s “part of our broader strategy of enhancing Yale’s excellence in science and technology.” Also underway are plans for an expanded complex, likely to house the nanotechnology and quantum engineering facilities.

Yale has made history in another way, as well — by appointing its first female dean of engineering, T. Kyle Vanderlick. “We need to build a better culture of engineering on campus,” the new dean told the Yale Daily News. “[Students] need to feel like they’re part of something special and unique.” To help meet this goal, she aims to increase engineering faculty by 17 percent over the next five years to a total of 70. —TG



PARTNERSHIPS: CAPITAL INVESTMENT

PARTNERSHIPS
CAPITAL INVESTMENT

Washington, D.C., ranks among the top five U.S. cities in high-tech employment, with the most engineering services positions — 44,400 — and most computer systems design jobs — 137,100 — according to the American Electronics Association report Cybercities 2008. Nearby Arlington, Va., houses the largest concentration of science research agencies in the country, including the National Science Foundation. Yet the metropolitan area still lacks the renown of high-tech sectors like California’s Silicon Valley or Boston’s Route 128.

The Chesapeake Crescent Innovation Alliance aims to change that, joining together government, university researchers and private industry to “drive regional prosperity and global competitiveness.” This academic initiative, led by the University of Maryland, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and George Mason, George Washington and Johns Hopkins universities, emphasizes public-private collaboration, as well as entrepreneurial development, investment and commercialization. —TG

QUOTED
“Once the cost of burning fossil fuels doubles, the
renewable energy options begin to look really good.”

—Jon G. McGowan, a mechanical engineer at the University of Massachusetts,
commenting on how energy prices can drive innovation



TOPˆ

 


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