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Hard at Work

Efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions and energy costs are giving rise to . . . poo power! In the United States, a large California dairy runs two of its 18-wheelers on biomethane produced from its four-legged employees. Its 10,000 cows produce the methane equivalent of 650 gallons of diesel a day. From Vermont to Minnesota, several utility companies also use cow manure to generate electricity. Then there’s chicken poop: Ohio’s Buckeye Power expects to put the fowl stuff to good use by August. Unlike wind or sun, these droppings provide “green” fuel that’s not intermittent — so long as those birds get fed.

In Oslo, a pilot program is set to begin in September, powering 80 city buses with biomethane produced by the waste collected from two sewage treatment plants. A microbial process naturally breaks down solid waste and releases methane, which, once purified of CO2, burns cleanly. City officials estimate that carbon emissions will be cut by 44 tons per bus each year. Should project poo prove successful, all 400 city buses will be converted from diesel to biomethane. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Inside Skinny

Add another print medium to publications threatened by Internet competition: college guide books., a free, ad-supported startup created by 26-year-old Jordan Goodman, uses students’ and alumni reviews, photos, and videos — all edited by 19 paid staffers — to help high schoolers gain an insiders’ view of their prospective colleges. It’s also a social-networking site: Users can chat and exchange information with other kids interested in the same schools. So far, Unigo features 250 colleges and, it claims, input from 15,000 students. The site aims for a balance of positive and negative reviews, though it bans nudity and personal attacks.

For now, it’s also clearly a work in progress, offering a wealth of information about some schools but very little for others. When we checked, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had 59 reviews, 14 photos, and 17 videos posted, but the California Institute of Technology had a mere seven reviews, one picture, and no videos. Still, for those seeking the lowdown, Unigo may be the place to go. One reviewer opined that the stereotype of MIT students being “scary smart but complete geeks” was false — mostly. And a CalTech alumnus characterized the students at his alma mater as typical high-school outcasts: nerds, hippies, the antisocial, and the quiet — and that, he said, is a good thing. – TG

Arizona State University’s Flexible Display CenterTOUCH-SCREEN TECHNOLOGY
Roll It Out

Imagine a flexible, touch-sensitive computer screen, one that would let you jump to another part of an electronic newspaper simply by touching an on-screen item, and that could roll up or fold like a piece of paper. Now stay tuned, as researchers transform fantasy into reality. Current touch-screen displays made of glass are neither flexible nor robust. But engineers at Arizona State University’s Flexible Display Center — with generous funding from industry and the U.S. Army — have invented a rollable screen that incorporates inductive touch-screen technology, requiring an electromagnetic field to work. The backplane is a thin-film plastic that doesn’t disrupt the field when it’s flexed. The Army, which earlier this year renewed its $50 million, five-year contract with the FDC, is keen to have touch-screen computers sturdy and flexible enough for battlefield use. A prototype should be ready for military field testing within three years. If all goes well, a product rollout could be expected thereafter. – TG

St. Anthony Falls Bridge
Extra Sensory

On Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge, which spanned the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Amazingly, a mere 13 months later, the replacement St. Anthony Falls Bridge opened to traffic three months early, thanks to savvy use of technology in planning — with the help of a laser scanner — paperless design, and construction. But that was just the beginning. Embedded with 323 sensors that monitor it for corrosion and structural weaknesses, the bridge is considered among the “smartest” structures in the country. Sensors also keep watch on the surface temperature and activate a de-icing system before ice can form. And if an accident causes a snarl, approaching drivers can be alerted or detoured. Although the bridge cost $234 million, the state spent only around $1 million on the high-tech sensors and used proven, off-the-shelf technologies. “We don’t want to experiment,” Jon Chiglo, the engineer who managed the project, told BusinessWeek magazine. The payoff for smart construction can be considerable. Weather-monitoring systems may cut snow and ice removal costs by 10 to 50 percent. When bridges go wireless, even more sensors will be used. And the millions of nano-sized paint-on sensors of future bridges may be powered by the rumblings of traffic. Good vibrations, indeed. – TG

Spammed? Sue Them

ISRAEL – Around the world, authorities are cracking down on unwanted spam E-mail. Now Israel is letting weary victims themselves take action: Recipients may sue spammers and collect $250 for each piece of mail sent. “It is a very effective provision,” says Omer Tene, an associate law professor at Israel’s College of Management. “People did not usually sue in such cases, because it was difficult to prove any damage. Now, no such proof is needed.” he said. The law explicitly states that the court “shall not consider the damage caused to the recipient.”

As in other countries, spammers face criminal penalties under Israel’s new law. Offending companies may be fined $50,000; directors and marketing managers, $17,000 each. E-mail senders get one chance to approach potential recipients but can’t send future E-mails without explicit consent. Since the law went into effect, the volume of spammed messages originating in Israel has dropped to “almost zero,” says Israel Internet Society Vice President Doron Shikmoni. But spammers have found a loophole: overseas servers. – Joshua Brilliant

Lockheed Martin’s rendering of its high altitude airship blimp

Good Year for Blimps

The 1937 Hindenburg disaster put the kibosh on commercial passenger travel aboard airships, and blimps and airships were used only sparingly during WWII. Now a combination of new technologies and high fuel costs is making them attractive again, particularly to the military. In March, the Pentagon announced plans to spend $400 million developing a mega-sized, high-altitude airship (HAA) for surveillance purposes. The Missile Defense Agency is funding Lockheed Martin’s development of a solar-powered, helium-filled HAA that might start test flights later this year. HAAs — which fly in the near-wind-free atmosphere above the jet stream — could also be used for weather observation and as mobile telecommunications platforms.

Aeros Aeronautical Systems also recently received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build a prototype of its ballast-free airship, which would fly at an altitude of up to 10,000 feet and carry personnel and equipment into war zones. Techsphere Systems International’s SA-60 is a low-altitude, orb-shaped airship also designed for surveillance operations. And Britain’s SkyCat-20, which can take off and land vertically, on either land or water, is expected to go into production this year. World SkyCat is touting the airship for a variety of possible uses, from border patrols to luxury tourism to emergency relief. Given the newfound interest in all things dirigible, might Led Zeppelin stage a comeback? – TG


What’s Hot in Paris

Geothermal power is nothing new for Paris. A mile below the French capital rests a water reservoir with a natural temperature of 135 degrees — not quite boiling but pretty darn hot. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the city sank three dozen wells to tap that source, and some 170,000 Parisian buildings now use it for heat and hot water. But today, Paris is getting more aggressive about its clean energy supply, with plans to heat six times as many buildings geothermally by 2020. In the first major project, currently underway in the city’s northern 19th arrondissement, geothermal energy will provide heat and eau chaude to 12,000 apartments and other buildings now under construction. The cost will be around $40 million, but the city says the project will prevent 14,000 tons of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. – TG

Topping the Boss

Some well-paid university presidents came under fire last November when the Chronicle of Higher Education published a survey of their compensation packages. The highest earner was E. Gordon Gee of Vanderbilt University, who in 2006-7 made $2.1 million — though he forfeited half his pay when he left for Ohio State University. But a new Chronicle private school survey shows that when it comes to earning big bucks, specialist employees leave presidents in the dust. Of the 293 folks who took home $500,000 or more, only 90 were presidents. University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll was the top earner, with a paycheck totaling $4.4 million — four times that of USC President Steven B. Sample. In second place: David N. Silvers, head of a dermatology clinic at Columbia University, at $4.3 million. Two Vanderbilt University medical school administrators even managed to out-earn Gee: Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for health affairs ($2.56 million), and Norman B. Urmy, executive vice president for clinical affairs ($2.4 million). – TG

Dean’s List

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources recently surveyed 1,329 public and private institutions, and found that median base salaries for senior-level administrators jumped 4 percent in the 2008-09 fiscal year, slightly more than the rate of inflation. These salary increases were set well before the nation’s economy went into freefall, and next year’s increases will very likely be much smaller. The median salary for presidents of institutions with a single doctorate program was $380,293. For engineering deans at those institutions, it was $228,859, more than what most other deans earned. That said, on average, deans of medical, law, dentistry, public health, and veterinary schools were better paid. The lowest paid deans were those who oversee honors programs: $128,566. – TG

“I specifically want to see more folks in engineering.”

—President Obama, in an interview, discussing the skills students need to compete in a modern technological economy, and calling for more math and science graduates.

SOURCE: New York Times Magazine, May 3, 2009

Carry-on Diversion

Bored with the limited movie selection on most airlines? Not to worry. At least two carriers are introducing technology developed by Panasonic Avionics that allows passengers to access their private cache of iPod or iPhone music or videos via the plane’s headsets and screens. Singapore Airlines began its first-class and business section iPod service on some long-haul flights last year. In March, all passengers gained access on several flights between Singapore and Australia. United Airlines also introduced the service last year on its Washington, D.C. – Zurich route. Within the next two years, UA plans to unveil it on all wide-bodied carriers’ first- and business-class sections.

Once you reach your destination, you can use that iPhone to help burn off calories consumed en route, through some clever third-party health and fitness applications. SMHeart Link, a $155 module developed by iTMP Technology, monitors your heart rate and can track and store your workout stats, or send them to a medical-assessment website. If you walk, run, or cycle, Tailguru measures your distance, pace, and elapsed time. And PumpOne uses audio and video messages to keep you motivated. Healthy travel just got easier. – TG

Some Get Lucky

President Obama caught grief in March when he criticized earmarks then signed a $410 billion omnibus spending bill to fund federal agencies for the second half of fiscal year 2009 containing nearly 9,000 of them, totaling $7.7 billion. Often with earmarks, senior lawmakers insert project money into a bill with little or no oversight. Because of the opaque wording of many spending bills, it’s not always clear who the recipients are. But a number of universities and colleges will receive hundreds of millions of the 2009 dollars, for everything from research projects to new buildings. The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies portion of the bill includes at least $179 million in higher-ed earmarks, including a whopping $30 million for an “interdisciplinary science and engineering teaching and research corridor” at the University of Alabama. The section for Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services includes academic earmarks of more than $100 million, including $714,000 for biotech equipment at Maryland’s Montgomery College. Other recipients: The University of Georgia receives a total of $9 million, including $1.2 million for research into plant-based fuels. Northwestern University gets a cool mil’ for Great Lakes research. And the University of Delaware’s satellite station will receive $750,000. Few university presidents want to see Congress go on a pork-free diet any time soon. –TG

Infinite Improvisation

Top instrumentalists often own a collection of guitars, in part because no two sound exactly alike. As the grain of every piece of wood is unique, so, too, are the acoustics of each instrument. Now Massachusetts Institute of Technology master’s student Amit Zoran has created the Chameleon Guitar. Its wooden midsection — the soundboard — is removable, so that soundboards made from different woods or materials can be inserted. The result is a single guitar that can produce an infinite variety of sounds. One of Zoran’s soundboards was fashioned from the plank of a 150-year-old bridge; another, made from plastic, can be filled with different liquids. The Chameleon Guitar also has an inboard computer. It takes the sound from the pickups and sends it to a resonating chamber that it can virtually manipulate — artificially modifying its size and shape — which further reworks the guitar’s sound. After getting his master’s, Zoran expects to continue refining his instrument for his Ph.D. thesis and ultimately, to commercialize it. Odds are, he’s not singing the blues. – TG

Bit of a Stretch

Alaska almost had its bridge to nowhere. But is Italy planning to build a bridge too far? The center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has resurrected plans for the world’s longest bridge, a two-mile span that would link Italy’s mainland with Sicily to the south. Berlusconi was voted back into power last year, after voters ousted him in 2006. During his hiatus, a center-left government killed the project. Critics say the bridge is too risky. It will cross the Strait of Messina, a waterway that’s not only a busy shipping lane, but one prone to extreme winds, earthquakes, and tidal waves. More recently, geologist Fabrizio Antonioli warned that the bridge would be a catastrophe because the two land masses are rising at very different rates and not moving in the same direction. Beyond those natural challenges, the previous government also feared that the project — which is expected to cost around $5 billion — would be a financial gift to subcontractors run by the Sicilian Mafia, making this the Godfather of all engineering projects.

Signs of Age

Engineers and art researchers in Britain have teamed to develop a new technology that can predict when future damage to Old Masters’ canvases will occur. That’ll enable conservators to take corrective action well in advance of any problems. It uses a package of advanced computer modeling that can predict how temperature and humidity will affect important canvases. The technology is an offshoot of research by Wanda Lewis, a structural engineer at the University of Warwick. She typically models the stresses and strains on tensioned-fabric enclosures, like London’s Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena). “I realized that we can apply the same modeling principals to predict the behavior of artists’ canvas,” Lewis says. She’s working in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art. The modeling can also help conservators improve their methods of “tensioning” a canvas so that the stress is more evenly distributed. The technology should help ensure that the works of masters ranging from DaVinici and Rembrandt to Matisse and Picasso will be preserved for generations to come.


Every year nearly 2 million European Union (EU) residents die of cardiovascular disease while another 1.2 million succumb to cancer. To help cut those numbers, the EU has funded a $20.5 million project to develop an image-guided drug delivery system that combines two burgeoning technologies: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nanotechnology. The SonoDrugs project aims to develop nano-sized capsules capable of navigating their way through the smallest capillaries. Once they arrive at the site of an infection or disease, ultrasound would be used to release the drugs they carry — the ultrasound either causes the capsules to melt or rupture, depending on the type used. MRI scans would allow physicians to know when to activate the drugs. Image-guided drug delivery promises to be more effective than “whole body” dosing and with far fewer side effects. The project involves a number of universities from around the EU and several companies, including Dutch electronics firm Philips.

Swift Sails

Andrew H.P. Swift, a professor of civil engineering who heads the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University, has a unique way of helping students learn the properties of wind science out of class: he takes them land sailing. Land sailers are 400-pound, three-wheeled craft that also hoist a 6-1/2-square yard sail attached to a 15-foot fiberglass mast. Given the design of the sails and the laws of physics, the land sailers can cruise along at speeds two or three times windspeed. Swift says at a minimum they require winds of 10 m.p.h. and shouldn’t be used when the winds blow at more than 35 m.p.h. Swift takes his students land sailing several times a year at defunct Reese Air Force Base outside Lubbock, where they use the runways. Although he’s installed a brake on the front wheel of the sailers, he says it’s nothing more than a parking brake. To properly stop the craft, the pilot needs to turn the front of the sail directly into the wind. Good thing they come with wind socks, too.

Time Out

Women researchers sometimes avoid certain grants because they fear that, should they need time off to have a child, they might not fulfill the grant’s requirements. That could change if legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Tex., is approved by Congress. Johnson, a senior member of the House Science Committee, wants major federal funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, to borrow the “stopping the clock” system used by schools to give tenure-track academics a break to care for newborns and still have time to establish a research record. Johnson’s bill would require agencies to automatically extend grant support in those circumstances, and to also give recipients funds to hire support staff to keep their labs research-ready while they’re on leave.



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