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FIRST LOOK - Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Sky Tree

Earthquake Resistance
Height of Invention

Tokyo’s new 2,080-foot Sky Tree, the world’s tallest broadcast tower, is projected to draw 32 million visitors a year. But tourists won’t see one of its most striking features – a design intended to survive severe earthquakes and catastrophic winds. Engineers began by studying soil formation as deep as 1.8 miles and taking meteorological measurements using a radiosonde balloon. The structure itself has a tripod base anchored with rootlike walled spikes plunging 330 feet. Aboveground, designers drew inspiration from the central column in Japan’s earthquake-resistant five-story pagodas. Adapting it for the Sky Tree, they decoupled the core from the outer steel structure, with energy-absorbing oil dampers in between. The upper part of the column acts as a balancing weight against swaying. The end result, proclaims a paper by Thomas Bock of Munich Technical University, is “one of the safest buildings ever built.”

Photo: Kyodo/Newscom

Energy Storage

Energy Storage
Power Paint

Batteries typically come in three shapes: square, rectangular, or cylindrical. But researchers at Rice University have developed a spray-on battery that could be affixed to substrates of any shape and on any surface, including glass, steel, ceramics, and plastics. To make the battery, the researchers lay down five layers of “paint” using a spray gun, two current collectors, a cathode, an anode, and a polymer separator. In one experiment, they sprayed the layers atop two sets of nine bathroom tiles. One was charged with a solar cell, the other with house current. Each was able to power LED lights that spelled out “RICE” for six hours, and each provided a steady output of 2.4 volts. In other tests, the team successfully painted the battery on a variety of materials, including a ceramic beer mug. The process requires fabrication in dry, oxygen-free rooms, but the team believes it can develop an open-air construction method that would make the process more commercial. One possible application would be snap-together wall tiles coated with the battery and then covered with solar cells. A battery-powered mug that keeps beer consistently chilled seems like a winner, too. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Photos: iStock & Neelam Singh/Rice University

Chemical Engineering
Sticking It Out

Chewing gum is maddeningly difficult to clean from shoes, sidewalks, clothes, and carpeting. Revolymer, a young British company cofounded by Terence Cosgrove, a professor of chemistry at the University of Bristol, has a solution: a moisture-retaining polymer that makes removal a snap from any surface or material. The company has had to struggle since its 2005 launch. Last year, it had a pretax loss of around $6.1 million on sales of $232,500. Undaunted, Revolymer recently went public, listing on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market, an exchange of small-cap companies. Apparently investors think its technology is worth sticking with. It raised an impressive $82 million. Now the firm plans to launch its own brand of nonstick chewing gum, Rev7, and to make a greater push in licensing its technology to rival brands. – TG

Brain Injuries
Brain Injuries
Risky Practice

Earlier this year, groundbreaking Virginia Tech research about the potential for medical damage to very young football players from practice and game “hits” got a lot of media coverage. The study, led by by Stefan Duma, a biomedical engineer at Virginia Tech, placed sensors in the helmets of 6-to-8-year-old players during 10 practices and five games. While most hits were moderate – no more than what an aggressive pillow fight might inflict – 5 percent involved 50 to 100 g’s, as in gravitational forces. That’s car- accident-level battering, according to Duma, equal to big hits in college football. For older collegiate and professional players, hits of 100 g’s are not a great cause for concern. Youngsters, however, can suffer cumulative brain damage from “bellringers.” Pop Warner, the nonprofit youth football organization that runs leagues for 285,000 children ages 5 to 15, says it will greatly reduce the amount of full-speed contacts allowed in practices. The research also found that most heavy-duty hits occur in practices, not games. But Matt Grady, a pediatric sports medicine specialist, told the New York Times that the new rules weren’t tough enough, and all tackling should be eschewed at that age. He said catching, running, and throwing were the skills that potential pros needed to learn as kids, not tackling. “Players should develop these skills, and then we can add in the collisions later.” – TG


Breaking the Mold

Japanese carmaker Toyota and Ben Bowlby, a British racecar designer, have each come up with radical prototype vehicles that challenge current automaking concepts. Toyota’s Camatte is a small city car that can be quickly customized to change its style and color. Body panels are fastened to the frame with large, twistable knobs and can easily be removed and replaced if drivers want to change from, say, a mini sedan to a tiny SUV. Like the McLaren F1 sports car, it’s a three seater with the driver in the middle. But the seats and pedals can be adjusted so that a 4-foot-tall child could drive it on a go-cart track, albeit with an adult to help with steering and braking. Toyota says it has no plans so far to produce the car, but the idea behind it is to generate enthusiasm for driving among young Japanese, whose interest in car ownership has been plunging. Meanwhile, Bowlby’s dagger-shaped Nissan DeltaWing concept racecar managed to perform well in last June’s 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans — for six hours, at least. That’s when it was nudged by another car and forced into a wall. Before the crash, however, the car’s unique aerodynamic design — its front wheels are only 2 feet apart, its back wheels 51/2 feet — enabled it to sprint around the 8.5-mile track despite having half the horsepower of the other 55 cars. At half the weight, it was also much more fuel efficient than its rivals, so it required fewer pit stops. That’s a design advantage that might someday improve street cars, too. – TG

Photo: Toyota

Resource Management
Resource Management
Sophisticated Mayans

To astronomy, agriculture, mathematics, and timekeeping, add another complex field at which the ancient Mayans excelled: sustainable engineering. Excavating in northern Guatemala, a multiuniversity team led by the University of Cincinnati recently uncovered several new landscaping feats at the pre-Columbian city of Tikal, including a waste-not water collection system and the Mayans’ largest dam. Built of cut stone, rubble, and earth, the dam stretched for more than 260 feet, with 33-foot-high walls that held about 20 million gallons of water in a man-made reservoir. The findings, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shed new light on how Tikal’s 60,000-plus inhabitants endured periodic drought and other environmental challenges. Rain falling on plastered plazas or the cantered causeway that still leads into town, for instance, was sluiced into man-made reservoirs. Quartz sand filtration beds purified the water as it entered the city. Paleoethnobotanist David Lentz believes sophisticated irrigation systems sustained Tikal’s burgeoning population for centuries. Severe ninth-century droughts, he surmises, may have overwhelmed the engineered environment and contributed to the city’s abandonment – a valuable lesson in today’s parched times. – MARY LORD

Engineering Faculty

Engineering Faculty
Action Heroes

Engineering is usually the opposite of fantasy. But a little flight of fancy can help when trying to explain what engineers do in simple terms. In a new comic series produced by George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, faculty researchers take a star turn as caped crusaders. First up: Assistant Professor Pinhas Ben-Tzvi, aka RobotronMan, who dispatches a swarm of mini-robots to rescue survivors trapped in fallen rubble. Next, colleague Nan Zhang becomes the Aggregator, using high-powered data retrieval and analysis to track down the source of a salmonella outbreak. A creation of SEAS’s communications and design team, the “Superheroes” series spotlights faculty research but also serves to show K-12 students what engineers and computer scientists can achieve in the lab. “We decided to use a cartoon to try to rise above the clutter and cacophony of noise that exists on the Internet,” says Dean David Dolling. It seems to be working: After the first episode, visits to SEAS’s website doubled.

IMAGEs: The George Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science


Neighborhood Watch

Criminals tend to be creatures of habit. With that insight in mind, California start-up PredPol has developed predictive software that produces hot-spot maps of where crimes are likely to occur. Its algorithms crunch data from both crime reports and sociological studies on criminal behavior. A recent trial of the software in the Los Angeles crime-plagued Foothill precinct produced a 25 percent drop in burglaries. A yearlong trial in Santa Cruz saw break-ins fall by 19 percent. The company was spun out of a multidisciplinary research project involving computer scientists and anthropologists from Santa Clara University and the University of California, Los Angeles. The maps, handed out to patrol units and updated for each shift, feature red boxes that highlight areas as small as 500-by-500 feet where crimes are likely to occur. Patrol cars cruise those areas for up to 15 minutes every two hours, and the extra police presence makes the bad guys think twice. Tests found that the algorithm’s red boxes were twice as accurate in predicting crimes as human analysts. Six other L.A. precincts and several more California cities will begin using PredPol’s software soon. Score one for high-tech white hats. – TG

IMAGE: PredPol


Troubled Waters

Nearly a third of some 800 nanotechnology products now on the market contain silver nanoparticles. Research has established that when silver nanoparticles oxidize, they release silver ions that could, in sufficient quantities, interrupt the delicate mechanisms of fish gills, leading to potentially deadly levels of sodium and potassium in their blood. New research at the California NanoSystems Institute and the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that the crystal structure of silver nanoparticles could also determine their toxicity. Particles with structural defects can have a poisonous effect on fish cells and zebrafish embryos, even if silver ions aren’t released, because the deformed particles disrupt healthy biomolecules. Far from acquitting silver-ion release as a problem, the researchers say both processes most likely occur in tandem. They also found that pretreating silver nanoparticles with cysteine, an amino acid, rendered them much less harmful. The report suggests that new guidelines regulating the release of, and exposure to, silver nanoparticles should be developed based on its findings. – TG


Sustainable Design
20 BY 20

Reborn as a center of innovation, the Philadelphia Navy Yard boasts 120 firms, including the Tasty Baking Company and headquarters of hipster clothier Urban Outfitters. Employment will reach 10,000 once pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is fully moved in. Still, the nation’s first naval shipyard retains an off-beat charm: Its “grungy structures and mismatched architecture create an unconventional beauty,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s not only grungy but green. The yard is a test bed in an ambitious attempt to slash energy use in U.S. commercial buildings by 20 percent by 2020. The U.S. Department of Energy and local agencies have staked $125 million over five years in the effort, called the Hub for Energy Efficient Buildings. “To cut 20 quads is a huge challenge,” says Hank Foley, vice president for research at Pennsylvania State University and executive director of the Hub. To succeed, “we must optimally renovate buildings that already exist.” That requires both a multidisciplinary approach and “more process-engineering thinking in the building industry.” Starting with Building 661 at the yard, the Hub is pushing advanced retrofits of average-size commercial buildings. Foley hopes new collaborations will bring more ideas – nothing less than “a tsunami of creative engineering.”

IMAGEs: Kieran Timberlake

Electricity Generation

Electricity Generation
Going Viral

Gadgets that use piezoelectric materials like ceramics — which produce a small electric charge from mechanical energy — have grown commonplace. Lighters, gas-grill starters, and electric guitar pickups all use them. But ceramic manufacturing creates toxic wastes. Now comes a possibly cleaner alternative: viruses, the kind that are harmless to humans. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have figured out how to produce electricity from the M13 bacteriophage, which feeds on bacteria. M13 is coated with corkscrew-shaped proteins; researchers bioengineered it to have four negatively charged molecules at the tip of one of the proteins. That boost in the charge difference between the proteins’ negative and positive ends increased the virus’s voltage output. The viruses self-assemble in a film, and a 20-layer stack was sandwiched between two gold-plated electrodes to form a generator about the size of a postage stamp. When pressed, the generator produced about 25 percent of the voltage of a AAA battery, enough juice to flash a “1” on an LED screen. Seung-Wuk Lee, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, says he’s confident the amount of power the generator can produce eventually will ramp up greatly. Virus-powered generators could one day be used to harvest body-motion energy to run cellphones and tablets, or even biomedical devices like pacemakers. That’s nothing to sneeze at. – TG

Photo: Berkeley Labs


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