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Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology

Jiaozhou Bay Bridge

Too Far, Too Fast?

By measurements alone, the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is an epic engineering feat. This 26-mile, six-lane, $2.3 billion span — touted as the world’s longest sea bridge — required enough steel to erect 65 Eiffel Towers and sufficient concrete to fill 3,800 Olympic pools, London’s Daily Telegraph calculated. It’s designed to withstand the bay’s high salt content and winter ice, along with typhoons, a magnitude 8 earthquake, and getting rammed by an off-course 300,000-ton ship. But when the bridge opened on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th anniversary, press accounts drew attention to guardrails with loosely fastened nut caps and sections lacking lights and guardrails altogether. Glitches in this and other trophy projects — including power failures along a new Beijing-Shanghai link in the world’s longest high-speed rail network — raised questions about China’s rush to expand transportation. When two trains collided in Wenzhou on July 23, killing dozens, questions gave way to public anger.

Hospital Germ-killer

One of every 20 hospitalized patients will contract an infection during his or her stay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now a University of Georgia chemist has developed a solution that’s simple and cheap. Assistant Professor Jason Locklin’s antimicrobial treatment —which may either be added during the manufacturing process or sprayed on later — can render everything from linens and clothing to face masks and lab coats to gloves and gowns permanently germ free. The solution remains fully active even after multiple hot-water laundry cycles. Other antimicrobial treatments require repeat applications to remain effective. Locklin’s solution kills a range of bacteria, yeast, and molds that cause disease, stains, and odors, including pathogens common in healthcare facilities: staph, strep, E. coli, pseudomonas, and acetinobacter. It can even put the kibosh on smelly socks.

But hold on. Stinky footwear may actually have some public health advantage. Scientists in Tanzania are field-testing a bait-and-kill method of combating malaria-infected mosquitoes that uses smelly socks as bait. Lab studies found that bad-smelling socks were four times as likely to attract mosquitoes as were live humans. Their idea is to use the socks to lure the pests into traps laced with bug-killing chemicals. – THOMAS K. GROSE

QUOTED: “It doesn’t matter what we do with biomedicine if we don’t take care of sanitation.” - Michael Hoffmann, professor of environmental science at the California Institute of Technology.

K-12 Engineering
More Respect

In K-12 STEM education, the E (engineering) rarely shares equal billing with science, technology, and math. That soon may change if states embrace sweeping recommendations from the National Research Council. They put engineering on a par with physics and other disciplines as key to meeting humanity’s most pressing challenges while helping citizens make informed everyday decisions. The report will help guide efforts now underway at Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, to develop common state science standards, expected out by fall 2012.

“Currently, science education in the U.S. lacks a common vision of what students should know and be able to do by the end of high school,” said retired physicist and report panel chair Helen Quinn of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Stanford, Calif. The 282-page “conceptual framework” argues for replacing today’s milewide, content-driven curricula with an integrated approach that focuses on three major dimensions: scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and discipline-specific core ideas such as engineering design. One of the blueprint’s big goals is “to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science.”

The NRC, research arm of the National Academies, acknowledges the challenges in meeting this goal, including the limited amount of time most schools devote to learning and doing science. – MARY LORD

One World Trade Centerlandmarks
Ground Zero Beacon

Still shy of its planned 102 stories, One World Trade Center is nonetheless rising imposingly above lower Manhattan, where aircraft commandeered by al Qaeda terrorists destroyed the twin towers a decade ago. Due to reach a symbolic — and striking — 1,776 feet, with a 408-foot mast-antenna at the top, the new WTC stands adjacent to twin square memorials that fill out the towers’ original footprint. Innovations claimed by architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill include a unique surface of mullion-free insulated glass panels — each more than 13 feet high and 5 feet wide; substantial water savings — captured rainwater will irrigate the surrounding plaza; and an energy-skimping 1.2-megawatt fuel cell plant integrated into the structure’s electrical and mechanical systems.

Photo by Beyond_My_Ken via Wikimedia Commons

Calamitous Trend

The state of the world’s oceans? It’s worse than we thought. That’s the conclusion of leading marine scientists who attended an Oxford University workshop earlier this year to review more than 50 of the most recent research papers. Combined effects of pollution, acidification, ocean warming, over-fishing and de-oxygenation place the seven seas on a trajectory leading to a mass extinction “unprecedented in human history,” they say, comparable to the five great mass extinctions of millenia past that each wiped out nearly all life on the planet. One participant warns that at current warming rates, sea levels could rise by more than a meter by the end of this century. Yet as the oceans’ condition worsens, an important tool U.S. scientists use to measure their health — ocean color satellite sensors that monitor the state of phytoplankton, the base of the oceans’ food chain — will soon become too old to function, according to the National Research Council. A new sensor satellite is scheduled to launch this fall, but the study says its capabilities are too limited to handle the work of those now in orbit. The NRC says U.S. researchers will soon have to rely on data from multiple sources, mainly sensors operated by foreign space agencies. – TG


Floating Behemoth

Experts have long known that there are deep pockets of natural gas in many areas below the sea that were either too small or too far away to economically bring to shore by pipeline. But now there’s a solution that’s also an engineering marvel: an FLNG, or floating liquefied natural gas terminal. It’s a giant, seagoing gas liquefaction plant that also houses drilling rigs and storage tanks. The gas is pumped up, cooled to -259.6 degrees Fahrenheit to liquefy it, then loaded into tankers, which take it to market. The volume of natural gas shrinks some 600 times when it is liquefied, making it easier to ship. Shell is now building an FLNG that will be the world’s largest floating, um, contraption (Shell insists it’s not a ship). Once completed in 2017 at the Samsung Heavy Industries shipyard in South Korea, it will be six times as heavy as the largest aircraft carrier, tipping the scales fully laden at 600,000 tons. It will be 1,610 feet long and 244 feet wide. The British/Dutch company spent $500 million and 15 years developing the facility, but it’s estimated it will cost an additional $8 billion to $15 billion to build. Once completed, it will be towed to the Prelude natural gas field some 120 miles off the coast of Australia, where it will be anchored for 25 years. Prelude is estimated to hold 100,000 cubic feet of gas, or five times the annual U.S. consumption of natural gas. – TG

Book free in KoreaK-12 Education
Book free in Korea

Paper will soon be passé in South Korean classrooms. The country’s Education Ministry has announced plans to take all existing textbook content and make it available digitally via tablets, smartphones, computers, and smart televisions. While e-books are certainly catching on in many, if not most, U.S. school districts, the Korean effort is much more ambitious. Material for all elementary school subjects will be fully digitized by 2014, and all middle- and high-school subjects will go fully digital a year later. The “smart education” plan also envisions digitizing supplementary materials and holding all nationwide academic exams online. The government says it will spend $2.4 billion on digitizing the materials and buying hardware. Officials have yet to name the vendor they’ll use for tablets, but given that consumer electronics giant Samsung is considered a national champion, it seems doubtful that either Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iPad will end up in South Korean students’ backpacks. – TG


Creative Spark

Ok, you’re about to go into a brainstorming meeting. So you pop on a “thinking cap” that shoots a very low current of electricity into your brain to give you a temporary boost of creativity. That’s a product that Allan Snyder, director of the Center for the Mind at the University of Sydney, has in mind. In a recent study, Snyder tested the device on 60 volunteers who were then given a simple math test. Those who actually got the mild shock treatment were three times as likely to pass the test as those whose brains weren’t juiced up. Meanwhile, a recent DARPA-funded study at the University of New Mexico gave the scalps of subjects playing a military training game mild electric jolts of either two milliamps or one-tenth of a milliamp, and the former group performed twice as well as the latter. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has been around since the 19th century, and mostly it’s been researched as a therapy for depression, strokes, or addictions. But some researchers think it may also help improve learning and cognition in healthy brains, according to a recent Nature article. Of course, that raises potential ethical issues: For instance, is it cheating for students to use tDCS to improve exam scores? And there are worries, too, about people who have claimed via the Internet that they tried tDCS experiments at home. Bad idea, one shocked researcher told Nature: “Somebody could get hurt.” – TG

FACTOID: $2.7 trillion = The cumulative impact on U.S. gross domestic product by 2040 from deficiencies in America’s  roads, bridges, rail systems and other infrastructure. Source: Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in  Surface Transportation infrastructure, by the Economic Development Research Group

Goodbye Needles

A patch that contains arrays of hundreds of micron-scale needles that dissolve into the skin is more effective than subcutaneous or intramuscular injections in combating the lethal H1N1 influenza virus, researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University recently reported. Their study found that for up to six weeks, both the patch and traditional injections provided the mice with full protection against the virus. But six months later, the injected mice had a 60 percent decrease in antibody protection and had developed inflammation of the lungs. The mice inoculated with patches still had high levels of protection, and their lungs were clear. Previous research has shown that intramuscular injections are not an efficient means of vaccine delivery, because muscles contain few of the cells needed to activate immune responses, while skin tissue has high concentrations of them. The dual-university team, led by Mark Prausnitz, a chemical and biomolecular engineer at Georgia Tech, was last November awarded a five-year, $10 million National Institutes of Health grant to advance the technology of painless, self-administered microneedle patches for flu vaccines. –TG

Sweet Design

Researchers at Britain’s University of Exeter have developed a 3-D printer that Willy Wonka would die for. Instead of using metals or plastics as its “ink,” Exeter’s uses chocolate. Sometimes called additive manufacturing, 3-D printing technologies work off a three-dimensional CAD design of a product, then construct the item by laying down one very thin layer of material at a time. But this is the first time researchers have used chocolate as a medium. It’s not proved easy: Chocolate doesn’t flow properly unless it is heated and cooled to precise temperatures. The team, led by Liang Hao, a materials scientist in Exeter’s College of Engineering, developed new temperature and heating control systems to make the prototype printer work. Hao envisions the day when consumers can download CAD software, create a design (or modify an existing one), send it to a shop, and pick up their self-designed sweet treat 10 minutes later. And it could all be based on a social-network-style website. Not surprisingly, several chocolate retailers are already expressing interest in the invention. Although chocolate is hard to work with, it’s tastier than plastic. – TG

Many Clicks Make Fast Work

Crowdsourcing, using the power of the Internet to drum up good design ideas from the masses, has been successfully used for products ranging from T-shirts to furniture. Now Arizona’s Local Motors has enlisted the online world to design and build a hefty medevac vehicle for military use. Some 162 contestants sent in designs for a five-person XC2V, or Experimental Crowd-derived Combat Support Vehicle. The contest was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with the goal of speeding up the time it takes to develop military equipment. It worked. Local selected a design and built the XC2V in less than six months. The winning concept came from Victor Garcia, who graduated in 2005 from California’s Art Center College of Design with a B.S. in transportation design. He snagged a $7,500 award. The XC2V was on display in late June at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center when President Obama was there to launch a $500 million advanced manufacturing initiative. – TG



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