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Aerial photo of Ferrari World

Built for Extreme Thrills

The United Arab Emirates already boasts the world's tallest building. Now its capital, Abu Dhabi, is about to chalk up a new record with the largest indoor theme park. Sprawling across the desert like a giant racing-red starfish, Ferrari World's 2.15 million-square-foot, plastic-coated aluminum roof was inspired by the side profile of a Ferrari GT. As you'd expect, it boasts the world's largest Ferrari logo. Inside, the park aspires to live up to a name that evokes excitement. One ride, the G-Force, will shoot passengers 200 feet in the air and through the central funnel before plummeting back to Earth. Another, Formula Rossa, faces competition for the title of world's fastest roller coaster, but it will be plenty fast: 150 miles per hour. Pack some Dramamine®.

Photo of nasa's new aircraft design

Aircraft Design
New Shape of Flight

Most aircraft silhouettes haven't changed much over the last 50 years - until now. Here's a quick peek at three potential future aircraft.

Color this plane green. An MIT-led team has come up with designs for short- and long-haul carriers that use 70 percent less fuel than current commercial planes, emit 75 percent fewer nitrogen oxides, and are much quieter, to boot. The researchers worked on a $2.1 million NASA contract to generate ideas, develop next-generation aircraft. MIT's smaller D-series plane would carry 180 people; its H-series, 350. D-series planes would use a "double-bubble" design: two partial cylinders adjoined side by side, instead of a single fuselage. H-series planes would feature very wide, triangular-shaped winged bodies - and no tail fins. Both have tail-mounted engines.

SUV helicopterThe Fort Worth company AVX has designed an SUV capable of sprouting dual rotors that enable it to take off vertically and fly - and land - like a helicopter. On the ground, the aircraft would traverse rough terrain like a rugged 4x4, with a top speed of 80 mph. Airborne, its ducted-fan engine propels it along at 140 mph. Conversion time from SUV to helicopter, or back: one minute. AVX developed the four-man flying 4x4 in response to a DARPA request for a concept flying off-road car.

Airfish blimp mimicked after troutAircraft designers often look to birds for inspiration. But materials engineers at the Swiss government lab EMPA focused instead on trout, which are equally adept at acceleration and maneuverability when they swim, bending their bodies in one direction while simultaneously moving their tails the other way. To mimic trout, EMPA's team devised for their Airfish blimp a hinged tail and "muscles" made from an acrylic polymer that move whenever voltage is applied from lithium-polymer batteries. Software prompts the blimp to flex its manmade muscles in a troutlike fashion. But the Swiss researchers believe the Airfish will eventually swim the skies with the slippery agility of a brook-navigating trout. -Thomas K. Grose

education research
A Broad, Deep Look

One of the most sweeping studies of engineering education ever undertaken is about to be published. "Enabling Engineering Student Success" is the culmination of a seven-year, $12 million exploration backed by the National Science Foundation. It involved 5,400 students and 21 campuses, an investigation of faculty approaches, graduate students' teacher training, and engineering education scholarship.

Highlights of the student study, including marked differences in the experiences of men and women, were reported in the January 2010 Prism. But the final 230-page report by the five-university Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education offers intriguing additional findings:

  • Students in the lowest economic quartile were "more involved in engineering extracurricular activities . . . and expressed greater intention to continue in engineering after graduation."
  • Underrepresented first-year minorities showed "significantly more interest" in graduate school than did others.
  • Engineering students who planned to devote themselves to the field after graduation were, in general, "less confident in their professional and interpersonal skills than those considering non-engineering professional endeavors."

View the report at

Mothers Derailed

More women than men attend graduate school, and the number of university women has more than doubled over the past two decades. Yet, the academy's top rungs are largely populated by men: Only 43 percent of female faculty are tenured, while 61 percent of males are. Women also receive only 26 percent of full professorships, and just 23 percent of college presidents are female. A new study from Barnard College found that a key reason for the gender gap is that many women find it nearly impossible to straddle an ambitious, tenure-track career while raising a family. Most women receive their Ph.D. at age 34, around the same time they start families. The seven-year tenure-track system forces women who opt to have children to juggle the requirements of motherhood with the long hours of a publish-or-perish career. The Barnard study was based on interviews with 21 academics, several of whom said their careers inevitably lost out to family needs. The report recommends that schools not only improve on-campus day care but consider changing the tenure-track cycle, providing credit for part-time work and lengthening the time frame to 10 to 12 years. "Slower doesn't equate to less worthy," Tovah Klein, the paper's lead author, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed article. -TG

Power Sources
Double-A, R.I.P.

Batteries operate countless products, ranging from electric cars to laptop computers. But despite improvements, their capacity remains limited. Hence a continuing search for new ways to run low-power devices. One promising source may be ambient radio waves, the New York Times reports. Researchers are hoping to tap TV, radio, and WiFi transmitters and cellphone antennas. Already, radio waves are replacing batteries in some calculators, sensors, and clocks. Other researchers are developing devices that consume only minute amounts of power. Those two camps will invariably meet at some point, says Brian Otis, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, and then, "we will have devices that can run indefinitely."

Meanwhile, Japan's Brother International recently unveiled a battery powered by vibrations - just a few good shakes enables the Vibration Energy Cell to run some low-power devices, including TV remote controls and LED flashlights. Inside each cell are a coil, magnet, and condenser. Can't wait to get shaking? Relax: Brother has no current plans to commercialize the technology. -TG

Vine and Dandy

Photo of green vinesWhen biomedical engineering professor Mingjun Zhang learned that metal nanoparticles used in commercial sunscreens can wind up in human organs, including the liver and brain, he was alarmed - and intrigued. As it happened, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, researcher had recently become transfixed by the tenacious quality of ivy. Suspecting that a yellow-colored secretion had something to do with it, he dabbed some on a silicon wafer and examined it under an atomic force microscope. He found nanoparticles 1,000 times thinner than a human hair that are highly effective at soaking up and dispersing light, a property that's key to good sunscreens. His research team determined that the ivy particles were at least four times better at dispersing ultraviolet rays than were metal-based ones, less toxic to mammalian cells, not easily absorbed by human skin, and highly biodegradable. Another selling point: Sunscreens made from ivy nanoparticles are also sticky, so they won't wash off as easily as traditional creams. -TG

Oh, Those Wild Quants

Image of a Wall Street Stock Ticker Television ScreenYou might think Wall Street's hyper-smart financial engineers - dubbed quants - would lie low these days. After all, investors' overreliance on the quants' math-based investment models contributed to the recent Great Recession. But according to the Wall Street Journal, a small but growing number of firms are now using artificial intelligence (AI) to determine which stocks to buy and sell. These new programs rely not only on crunching vast reams of data but also on machines' learning from mistakes and adjusting on the fly. This should be an improvement over previous models, which made decisions based only on inputs. The Journal article focuses on Rebellion Research, a $7 million hedge fund launched in 2007 by Columbia University engineering grad Spencer Greenberg and a few of his math and computer friends. The fund is based on Greenberg's AI model, which he's dubbed "Star." So far it has set an impressive track record, outperforming the S&P 500 by an average of 10 percent each year. Last year, it amassed gains of 41 percent, more than double the Dow's 19 percent surge. Impressive, yes. But keep in mind the caution of Benoit Mandelbrot, the Yale mathematician who developed chaos theory: Financial markets are inherently unpredictable. -TG

Image of Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center

What Lovely Skin

Winter temperatures in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, are fiercely frigid, averaging around minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit. But in summer, the mercury regularly soars to a sizzling 95 degrees. So when British architect Norman Foster designed Astana's newly opened Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, he opted for a unique energy-efficient material that would accommodate both seasonal extremes. The sculpted, teepee-shaped building features a "skin" composed of three layers of the transparent polymer ethylene tetrafluoroethylene. ETFE is a "miracle" material because it is clear, so it can replace glass or plastic, but also stretchable. Moreover, it's light, just a fraction of the weight of glass, but strong enough to support 400 times its weight. It also lets in more light than glass or plastic and makes an excellent insulation material. As Khan Shatyr demonstrates, the effect can be stunning: The building rises 495 feet into the sky, with tripod columns and a network of cables supporting the ETFE skin. Inside, 660,000 square feet of space is packed with shops, restaurants, movie theaters, and a water park. The outsize tent will surely become a favorite for locals, no matter the weather outside. -TG

Shining Example

Image of a Nuru LightEngineers continue to seek solutions for the 4 billion people who have only sporadic access to electricity and 1.8 billion who have none whatsoever. For nighttime lighting, too many people rely on non-electric options, like kerosene lamps, which are dangerous, unhealthy, and expensive. Rural families in poor countries can spent $8 to $12 a month on lighting, or 10 to 40 percent of their income. Sameer Hajee felt there had to be a better way, so he founded the London start-up Nuru Lights with $200,000 in seed money from the World Bank. The company sells portable, modular LED lamps that are typically charged using a bikelike pedal generator. Twenty minutes of charging can keep the devices lit for one to two weeks. Nuru selects entrepreneurs from disadvantaged areas and provides them micro-loans to buy the lights and charger. The lamps retail for around $6.50, and the entrepreneurs charge clients a small fee to recharge them. -TG

Laser Measurement
A City Revealed

Graphic of digital terrainFor 25 years, archaeologists Arlen and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida have been hacking through dense tropical forest in Belize in Central America, to map out the ancient city of Caracol, which reached its heyday between A.D. 550 and 900 when it was home to some 115,000 Maya. But in 2009, NASA made their work both easier and more accurate, through the use of lidar, an airborne, laser-based remote sensing technology. Developed in the 1970s to map the Earth's atmosphere, tree canopy, and ice fields, lidar (light detecting and ranging) sends out pulses of laser light, which, once they hit their targets or the ground, reflect back to measuring instruments. The technology took off in the past two decades as GPS became available, along with stronger, faster computers needed to crunch the data and spit out 3-D maps. In just four days in spring 2009, a small, lidar-equipped airplane flying a half mile over the thick Belize forest did more mapping of Caracol than the Chases had achieved over the previous quarter century. The 3-D images it produced of the once-sprawling city over an 80-square-mile area included palaces, small homes, boulevards, industrial areas, slums, and suburban mansions. "We were blown away," Diane Chase told the New York Times. Lidar is helping other researchers cut through thick jungle vegetation in areas ranging from Mexico to North Africa to Cambodia's Angkor Wat region. This is one space-age technology that archaeologists can really dig. -TG

Water Purification
We'll Drink to That

Girl drinking water during sunsetOne of the pressing needs in a disaster area is potable water, which is often in short supply. Many natural disasters occur in areas where there is plenty of seawater, but current desalination technologies require vast amounts of dependable electricity - also typically lacking in a disaster. Now, MIT researchers, working with colleagues in South Korea, are developing a mini-desalination system that would use only as much power as a conventional light bulb. The system separates out salt - and some dangerous microbes, including viruses and bacteria - by electrostatically repelling them from an ion-sensitive membrane. It's a microscopic technique, with each device producing only very small quantities of sweet water. But a 1,600-unit array atop an 8-inch wafer could produce 15 liters of water an hour. Jongyoon Han, an electrical engineering associate professor, and his post-doc, Sung Jae Kim, tested with excellent results a basic unit with seawater that was deliberately polluted with small plastic particles, proteins, and human blood. Ninety-nine percent of the salt and contaminates were removed. They expect it will take two more years before the device can be commercialized.

Meanwhile, the Dutch start-up Voltea has developed another ion-based desalination system on an industrial level. Dissolved salt divides into positive and negative ions, and Voltea's desalination cell draws them out using electrodes. The company claims its system uses half the power needed by other desalination technologies, and only 5 percent of the water it processes is lost. Sweet stuff. –TG

Imaging Technology
Biopsy in 3-D

Researchers at Yale University's School of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a new 3-D imaging technique that could greatly improve the imaging of biopsy samples. Called multi-photon microscopy, it uses an optical clearing solution that renders tissue transparent to optical light. Yale's team was able to scan mouse organs, including the brain, kidney, and testicles, and create 3-D models of them. They use photons to naturally excite the fluorescent cells within tissues, and the fluorescence displays itself in different colors. For example, lung collagen shows up as green, elastin as red. Traditional microscopy techniques require cutting tissue into thin slices, staining them with dyes, and then rebuilding them to make 3-D models. But that the process destroys the tissue, and no more additional information can be extracted from the sample. Says Michael Levene, associate professor and team leader of the new technology: "It's like creating a virtual 3-D biopsy that can be manipulated at will. And you have the added benefit that the tissue remains intact, even after it's been imaged." -TG



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