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 BRIEFINGS

ROBOTIC JAWS + POLITICAL PULL+ UNSAFE LABS


WhiteBuilding
GEO-ENGINEERING
Old Tradition, New Benefit

One way both to save energy and curb climate change is to make surfaces — roofs, even streets — a light color. Solar radiation would be reflected into space rather than absorbed by buildings and pavement. Less air conditioning would be needed. If this were done uniformly, says Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the results could be huge — “the equivalent of reducing the carbon emissions due to all the cars on the road for 11 years.”

This cool idea suddenly puts a longtime Bermuda practice on the cutting edge. With no freshwater streams or lakes, Bermudians rely on roofs to catch rainwater, which flows by way of gutters and downspouts into underground storage tanks. By tradition and, since 1949, law, roofs must be whitewashed or coated with a nontoxic white paint, something intended to keep the water pure. “It seems highly unlikely that heat reflection would have been a consideration in the early 18th century,” says the island’s building control officer, Gordon K. Ness. now it is — even in paradise.



Submarine
SUBMERSIBLES
A Very Fine Line

Late last May, Nereus, a 3-ton, unmanned submersible vehicle, made its way down to the deepest part of the world’s oceans, tethered to the mother ship, some 6.8 miles above, by only a fiber-optic cable that’s about the diameter of a human hair. The vessel, developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spent hours exploring the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench of the western Pacific Ocean, sending back video and data, and collecting samples. In past years, two other submersibles have reached that same depth, but only for short stays. Nereus, who in Greek mythology is the father of Aegean sea nymphs, can explore for up to 10 hours. The fiber cable not only allows the robotic sub to send video and data, but gives it much more maneuverability. It also means that the size, weight, and cost of the sub could be greatly reduced. The 14-foot-by-8-foot Nereus can also skulk the murky depths autonomously, collecting data. Power comes from 4,000 lithium ion batteries. Oceanic depths remain largely unexplored, which is why Nereus is such a breakthrough.– Thomas K. Grose



LABORATORIES
Great Mines at Work

In 1876, the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, S.D., opened for business. In 2001, 125 years and 40 million ounces of gold later, it was shuttered, leaving behind a warren of tunnels, some 8,000 feet deep. That's when a group of physicists — at institutions ranging from the University of California - Berkeley to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland — got the idea of reopening the mine as the world's deepest underground lab. Thanks to $19.9 million in state funding and a $70 million donation from a local philanthropist, work has now begun on an initial lab 4,850 foot below ground, as well as a visitors' center. Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation is considering whether to fund the $550 million needed to expand the lab at Lead (pronounced "leed") to the 8,000-foot level. Super-deep labs are important to physicists because cosmic rays don't penetrate that far into the Earth, which makes it easier to conduct research into dark matter, the theorized mass that scientists think comprises 25 percent of the universe. Physical science isn't entirely new to Homestake. Back in the 1960s, physicists Ray Davis Jr. and John Bahcall set up a lab there, where they proved the existence of solar neutrinos, a Nobel Prize-winning discovery. It also made them the original, ahem, Lead Researchers.– TG



Large Telescope
TELESCOPES
Probing the Farthest Reaches

Canada – The initial design of what will be the world’s largest optical telescope has been completed by a British Columbia-based company. Construction is set to begin in 2011 on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a joint Canadian-U.S. venture led by the Associated Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy and the California Institute of Technology. The telescope will be built at Dynamic Structures Ltd. in the Vancouver area and then shipped to a site either in Chile or Hawaii for optimal observing conditions. The telescope, with an estimated cost of close to $1 billion, will feature 492 glass segments that operate as a single mirror with a sensitivity nearly 100 times that of existing telescopes. It will be equipped with adaptive optics that will enable the device to sense atmospheric disturbances in real time and minimize their effects, creating a telescope with space-based ability for a fraction of the cost of an orbiting telescope like the Hubble. Scientists predict that the TMT will be able to gaze into the most distant reaches of the universe and help answer questions ranging from when galaxies first formed to whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. It is scheduled for completion in 2018. – PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS



Large Telescope
MATERIALS
In Perfect Foam

Petroleum-based polystyrene is the bane of environmentalists because it doesn't biodegrade. But that everlasting property sometimes makes it a useful building material. In St. Louis, engineers plan to use 100,000 cubic yards of the foam to shore up downtown Tucker Boulevard, which is in danger of caving into a disused railroad tunnel beneath it. Large blocks of polystyrene, coated in a 6-inch layer of concrete to protect them from water damage, will be used to fill in the tunnel. Why not use dirt? Soil expands outward, and the resulting pressure could cause three nearby buildings to tumble. Often referred to as Styrofoam, a Dow Chemical brand, polystyrene has become a regularly used construction material because it’s long-lasting, rigid, and lightweight. It was used to build embankments when 3.5 miles of Interstate 93 in Boston were channeled underground, and for the recent reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in suburban Washington, D.C. Think of that next time you crush a foam coffee cup in your bare hand. – TG



ADMISSIONS
Clout in Illinois

The University of Illinois employed a shadow admissions process “perhaps unparalleled among universities” for applicants sponsored by politicians, donors, and other prominent figures, a state commission found in early August. The panel’s scathing report named several high-ranking participants, including President B. Joseph White and Chancellor Richard Herman, and urged trustees to resign. The report did not mention former Provost (and ASEE member) Linda Katehi, who had been cited by the Chicago Tribune. Now chancellor of the University of California, Davis, Katehi says she “never attempted to alter, influence, or interfere with” admissions decisions.



RANKINGS
Woops . . . Recount!

When U.S. News & World Report's America’s Best Graduate Schools guidebook came out last April, the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering was at an impressive no. 7, one notch higher than the previous year. But USC’s opportunity for bragging rights was short-lived. One criterion U.S. News uses to rank engineering grad schools is the number of faculty who are members of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering. USC had listed the number at 30. But after an article in the online journal Inside Higher Ed indicated that that figure was substantially inflated, USC did a recount. It then informed the newsmagazine that the true figure was 13. In his blog, Bob Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, says the smaller number would have likely resulted in a slightly lower ranking for USC. U.S. News can’t publish a revised guide, but Morse says it’s working on a method for updating its website so that future “changes such as this can be noted.” Moreover, ASEE’s engineering deans have told U.S. News they’ll develop a system to ensure that schools more accurately count and report NAE faculty members to the magazine. – TG



QUOTED
“There's a building base of evidence that global warming is contributing to much of the instability of the world today.”

—Retired Sen. John Warner (R-VA), a former chairman of the armed services committee, warning about risks to U.S. National Security From Climate Change

SOURCE: New York Times Magazine, July 31, 2009




DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT
IMAGING
Phone It In

More and more, modern medicine depends on imaging technologies. But 70 percent of the world's population doesn't have access to them. That could change, thanks to a breakthrough invention that allows a USB-based ultrasound probe to work with smartphones that run on Microsoft Windows. Developed by William D. Richard, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, with his research associate, David Zar, the probes, once plugged into a smartphone, can be used to image everything from kidneys, livers, and eyes to prostates and blood vessels. Even in the developing world, as much as 90 percent of the population live within range of a cellphone tower. That means the device could save countless lives. The probe can gather patient data and wirelessly shoot it to expert analysts many miles away. The probes now cost around $2,000, while other portable ultrasound devices already on the market can cost up to $30,000. And Williams thinks the price of his will eventually drop to $500. – TG



K-12 EDUCATION
Math Made Real

America's future workforce needs to be well-educated and adept at math, because so many jobs will involve technology. So, a few years ago, the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Louisville developed a model program called Math-in-CTE. The program has teachers of career-and-technology classes teaming with math readers to help students see the real-life applications of the math they're taught. Initially, the program focused on five occupational areas: agriculture, automotive technology, business/marketing, healthcare, and information technology. But school districts have also successfully used the model in other areas, including cosmetology and biotechnology. A national study found that students in the program got higher math test scores than students in regular CTE classes. So far, school districts in 12 states have adopted the model, and a pilot program begins in Kansas this fall. Students like it, too. In a technology class at the Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, N.J., students got a better handle on trigonometry as they designed, built, and flew a rocket, and also put their geometry lessons to use when they built cars from mousetraps. Student Gabe Gittens, 15, raved about the class to the Philidelphia Inquirer."It actually makes math easier," he told the newspaper. "It helped me get an A." – TG



DENTAL ROBOTICS
Chew on This

Film actor Mike Myers's comic spy, bucktoothed Austin Powers, got a lot of mileage from the old joke that Britons are dentally challenged. In truth, the United Kingdom spends around $4 billion a year on dental materials to replace or strengthen teeth. Yet the dental-wear properties of the metals, polymers, and ceramics typically used to fashion crowns, bridges, and other oral infrastructure still aren't fully understood. That's because it's costly and time-consuming to conduct the necessary clinical trials on humans. Now, researchers at Bristol University have invented a chewing robot to test materials and help develop new ones. The human jaw is an amazing bit of machinery; the lower jaw and teeth move with six degrees of freedom, translating and rotating along each of the Cartesian axes. Kazem Alemzadeh, a Bristol mechanical engineering senior lecturer, conceived the toothy robot after realizing he could use the same platforms that give aircraft simulators the same six degrees of freedom. Though the masticating machine looks nothing like a human, it perfectly mimcs how we chew, and can do it 24/7 to test materials. As Austin Powers would say, "Yeah, baby!" – TG



CRICKET
SENSORS
Critter Power

Bugging the enemy could take on a whole new meaning if a Pentagon-funded research project is successful. The idea is to deploy networks of insects to detect chemical weapons. Researchers are hoping to implant noisemaking bugs — think cicadas or crickets — with micromechanical chemical sensors. each time a bug twitches in a way that indicates a chemical agent is nearby, a muscle actuator would pick up that signal, and a chip would then get the critter to send out a modified chirp. Transceivers embedded into a network of bugs would pass that signal along, in a sort of peer-to-peer fashion, and ultimately, to their human handlers. according to Wired’s Danger Room blog, the military has contracted Agiltron Corp. of Massachusetts to develop the mechanized bugs. But wait. Terrorists could also easily put insects to cunning — and nefarious — use, says Jeffrey Lockwood, author of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War. The University of Wyoming entomologist recently warned that terrorists could mount a highly effective attack by unleashing bugs capable of spreading a lethal disease. Army ants to the rescue? – TG



LAB SAFETY
LAB SAFETY
Workplace Hazards

On Dec.29, 2008, 23-year-old research assistant Sherharbano “Sheri” Sangji suffered severe burns while working in a University of California-Los Angeles lab. On January 16 she died, joining a list of victims of university lab mishaps that have killed or severely injured professors and staffers.

Injuries are far more frequent in academic labs than in industry, says James Kaufman, director of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Mass. The difference? In industry, serious incidents carry career consequences for lab chiefs, while many universities show “a disregard that runs from the top of the organization to the bottom,” he says. All too often, Kaufman believes, pressure to produce data takes precedence over necessary safety training and procedures for students and staff.

“Having safety rules and enforcing safety rules are two different things,” agrees Russell Phifer, chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health and Safety. On May 4, California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety cited UCLA for three “serious” (potentially life-threatening) violations that included inadequate training and lack of required protective apparel. UCLA paid fines totaling $31,875. Following the citations, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block announced plans for a comprehensive review of lab inspection programs and implementation of revised safety procedures. “We all have a responsibility to ensure safety — from professors and their staff and student researchers, to the Office of Environment, Health and Safety, as well as research administrators and campus leaders,” he said. — BERYL LIEFF BENDERLY



BATTERIES
Infinite Resource

Researchers at Scotland's University of St. Andrews have devised a lithium battery that runs on the most renewable fuel of all: air. Not only would it be cheaper than the current crop of lithium batteries; it should produce five to 10 times more power. That would be welcome news to automakers trying to develop electric cars that can travel hundreds of miles on one charge. "Our results so far are very encouraging and have far exceeded our expectations," says Peter Bruce, the professor of chemistry leading the four-year, $2.5 million project. The battery replaces the lithium cobalt oxide electrode that batteries now use with an electrode composed of porous carbon. The porous carbon reacts with oxygen, drawn in from outside air, to release the electrical charge. But don't hold your breath waiting to buy one. The STAIR (for St. Andrews air) cell is perhaps five years away from commercialization. – TG



UNDERGRADUATES
Life Imitates Myth

It’s a common corporate complaint about engineering grads: they know the tech stuff but they can’t do teamwork. Who’s to blame? The media. Or so claims Paul Leonardi, assistant professor of industrial engineering at Northwestern University. The image of the engineer as a lone expert who eschews teams and directions is a popular “lay stereotype” perpetuated by TV and movies, he says. And like all stereotypes, it’s baloney. Nevertheless, it’s one that many undergraduate engineering students have taken to heart. Leonardi’s team spent several years talking to more than 130 students, observing them at work in labs and on group projects. What they found was a host of bad habits that students believed were the hallmarks of “real” engineers. Given a group project and told to work as a team, students regularly split up the work. Detailed instructions on how to build something given to them by instructors were often ignored. “It was a mark of distinction not to follow the task,” he says. They were also big on procrastinating to prove they could do the work at the last minute. Leonardi says it’s not enough for universities to combat these misconceptions. Industry has to pitch in, too, providing internships and co-op jobs to students early on, so that the reality of the workplace trumps the fiction of the stereotype. –TG



OVERSEAS STUDENTS
Feeling Vulnerable

AUSTRALIA - About 30 Indian students have been attacked – mostly beaten – in Australian cities this year, prompting a rebuke from the Indian foreign ministry and charges of racism from Indian politicians. Australian officials deny that the attacks are racially motivated. Rather, police contend, hoodlums target Indians commuting late at night from shift jobs (foreign students are allowed part-time employment in Australia) carrying cash and laptops. Nevertheless, since foreign students represent a major source of export earnings here, and 65,000 of them come from India, this is not something Australia can take lightly. China, too, which sends 130,000 students, has demanded better protection for its citizens. The organization representing Australia's 39 universities has urged a greater investment in security. – Chris Pritchard



PARTNERSHIPS
Research Takes Flight

A new Commonwealth Center for Aerospace Propulsion Systems planned by Rolls-Royce, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Polytechnic Institution will create nine new, endowed professorships, mainly in engineering – six at Virginia Tech, and three at Charlottesville. Rolls-Royce and the state government are each providing $2.5 million in funding, and the schools are contributing funding, as well. Aerospace giant Rolls-Royce says the research center will “advance the boundaries of propulsion systems” and will “tackle the technology challenges of today and tomorrow.” It’s a virtual center, inasmuch as it will use existing lab space at both schools. It’ll employ graduate research assistants and undergraduate interns, and also be involved in teaching and curriculum development. Research areas will include materials science, and mechanical and aerospace engineering. Rolls-Royce’s interest in the state is not merely academic. It’s also building a new, 1,000-acre aerospace manufacturing plant in Virginia’s Prince George County. – TG



MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY
Diagnosis at Hand

Physicians in developed countries typically use molecular testing of bodily fluids to detect disease-specific proteins. Poorer countries lack the necessary labs and technicians, so doctors often can do no more than make diagnoses based on symptoms. Two Stanford University graduate students set themselves the task of resolving that dilemma, and their invention -- the NanoLab -- won the top prize at this year’s IEEE Presidents’ Change the World Competition. The competition, which had entries from 200 students from around the world, challenges students to find unique engineering solutions to real-world problems. The winning device is an easy-to-use handheld lab. A fluid sample is placed into a reaction well, along with a few drops of a solution with magnetic nanoparticles and a detection antibody. Different colored lights indicate if a protein is detected, and in what concentration. Up to eight different proteins can be monitored at once. Drew Hall, an electrical engineering student, and Richard Gaster, a bioengineering and medical school student, say they’ll likely use their $10,000 prize to fund further research. They’re also hoping to patent and commercialize the NanoLab. – TG



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