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City-wide laser show.

Mr. Thousand Points

Photo of Daryl TewksburyAUSTRALIA – Daryl Tewksbury, who heads New South Wales-based Laservision, says he’s “living proof” engineering can be fun. And it’s not hard to see why. He produces laser performances, including twice-nightly, 14-minute spectaculars above the Hong Kong skyline, pictured. These beams of light, darting from atop 44 buildings, have been dubbed the world’s largest light-and-sound show by the Guinness Book of World Records. At home, Tewksbury has ventured into traffic safety — with a splash of creativity. To halt motorists who ignore signals inside a Sydney harbor tunnel, his team devised a rear-projection laser that flashes a giant “Stop” sign. If a vehicle still won’t stop, it will hit an instantly activated, harmless wall of water. Says Tewksbury: “Lasers can do almost anything.” See more photos at – CHRIS PRITCHARD


City-wide laser show.

City-wide laser show.

City-wide laser show.

City-wide laser show.

City-wide laser show.

City-wide laser show.

City-wide laser show.

Not So Retiring

Photo of Steven B. SampleSteven B. Sample, the departing president of the University of Southern California, isn’t publicity shy. And after almost 20 years on the job, he has a lot to crow about. So he spent $200,000 on half-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal citing his accomplishments and announcing the national search for his successor, according to a profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education. When Sample – a professor of electrical engineering – took over in 1991, USC’s reputation wasn’t great: Wags said the acronym stood for University of Second Choice. Sample quintupled the school’s endowment, lowered its undergraduate acceptance rate, and greatly boosted minority enrollments. A canny marketer, Sample claims he took the school’s perceived weaknesses and turned them into strengths, the Chronicle reports. Transforming the image of a downtrodden campus that abuts tough working-class neighborhoods, Sample, 69, pitched USC as part of a hip, reviving urban area, luring greater numbers of students and faculty.

With its academic and research reputation now blossoming, USC aspires to become the Pacific Rim’s top university – a lofty goal, considering the competition. Moreover, it hasn’t withstood the damaging effects of the recession: The school has had to freeze hiring and faculty salaries, and its endowment, while still healthy, has dropped nearly 25 percent to $2.7 billion. USC will name Sample’s successor in August. Whoever gets the job will have not only big shoes to fill but tough problems to solve. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Image of prototype artificial foot

Less of a Strain

Individuals with lower-limb amputations often find it wearying to walk with a prosthetic device. That's because they require a lot of energy to use: A prosthetic foot requires 23 percent more energy than walking naturally. Art Kuo, a professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, likens it to carrying an extra 30 pounds. But he and his former grad student Steve Collins - now a researcher at the Netherlands' Delft University of Technology - have devised a prototype artificial foot that cuts that extra energy demand in half. When humans walk, energy is created - and wasted - each time a foot hits the ground. Kuo's foot captures that dissipated energy, and then a microcontroller alerts the mechanism to use it to help power the ankle's push off. There are other devices that bolster an ankle's push-off power, but they are motorized and need large batteries. Because Kuo's recycles energy, it requires less than a watt of electricity and a small, portable battery. Tests on the artificial foot are now underway at a veteran's medical center in Seattle. - TG

Information Technology
St@tus Symbol

The @ symbolIt’s official: The @ symbol – an integral part of email addresses everywhere – has achieved icon status. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently “acquired” the @ for its permanent collection. It was, of course, a virtual acquisition, since @ is in the public domain. But since MoMA’s move highlights the genius of electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson, why quibble? Back in 1971, Tomlinson came up with the notion of using the previously underused typewriter key to give E-mails “a strong locative sense,” notes Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior architecture and design curator. Tomlinson didn’t invent E-mail, but his use of @ enabled users on different hosts to send messages back and forth – a first and a breakthrough. In her blog, Antonelli sings the praises of @: “It has truly become a way of expressing society’s changing technological and social relationships, expressing new forms of behavior and interaction in a new world.” MoMA will make greater use of @ in its galleries, Antonelli promises, noting that she was amazed to learn that the now ubiquitous symbol was created back in the sixth or seventh century. In 1885, it was first included on the American Underwood typewriter’s QWERTY keyboard. And today, @ is where it’s @. – TG

Hispanics Lag

President Obama wants the United States to once again claim the largest cohort of adults with post-secondary degrees. But that goal won’t be easily achieved unless the nation’s colleges and universities do a better job of graduating Latinos, America’s largest and fastest-growing minority group. A recent study of 600 four-year schools by the American Enterprise Institute found that only 51 percent of Hispanics who enroll in college earn a degree within six years, compared with 59 percent of white students. At the nation’s most competitive schools, the rate is 83 percent versus 89 percent. And at the least competitive schools, it’s 33.5 percent versus 40.5 percent. The AEI study echoes a 2007 study by the Pew Hispanic Center that found that by age 29, only 16 percent of Hispanic high school graduates had earned a bachelor’s degree, the New York Times reports. Thirty-seven percent of white students and 21 percent of black students had gotten degrees, Pew found.

The AEI study says that Hispanic culture and language barriers were partly to blame. But Andrew P. Kelly, one of the authors, says the data clearly show that colleges are also culpable for the high failure rates. It found that the schools with the best Hispanic graduation records typically had higher completion rates across the board. – TG

Big green leaves of tobacco plants

Weed Redemption

Few plants have caused as much illness and misery as tobacco. But now researchers at St. George’s, University of London — a specialist medical college — have genetically engineered the evil weed to fight a serious health problem: the environmental pollutant microcystin-LR (MR-LR), informally known as toxic pond scum. MC-LR poses a major health hazard to humans and wildlife. But a team led by Pascal Drake, a plant biotechnologist at St. George’s, altered the genetic makeup of tobacco so that it produces an antibody that binds with MC-LR, rendering it harmless. It’s the first example ever of a transgenic plant capable of producing a protein that can remediate an environmental toxin. The discovery could prove a boon in the developing world, where toxic plant scum is a major health problem, particularly since it’s an inexpensive procedure. What a concept: tobacco saving, instead of taking, lives. – TG

“We're still chasing it around with Scott towels.”

— Robert G. Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California - Berkeley, commenting on the old technology still used to clean up after major oil spills.

Current Thinking

Graphic of thermopower wavesWave power captures the energy of the ocean’s waves. But now a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has discovered a new type of nanolevel wave power that could eventually result in very small yet powerful batteries. Associate Prof. of Chemical Engineering Michael Strano and his team took the microscopic wires known as carbon nanotubes and coated them with a reactive fuel. Ignited by a laser beam or high-voltage spark, the fuel decomposes and generates heat. And, as Strano discovered, the resulting “thermopower waves” – moving pulses of heat – are capable of carrying electrons along the tube and creating a substantial electrical current. The discovery, Strano says, “opens up a new area of energy research, which is rare.” One possibility is batteries one-tenth the size yet just as powerful as conventional ones. Thermopower batteries would be entirely organic, so they wouldn’t have the disposal problems associated with batteries that rely on lead, nickel, or cadmium. Also, conventional batteries leak power, even when they’re not being used. Thermopower batteries wouldn’t. Strano says other possible uses might include microscopic drug-delivery or environmental sensors. –TG

mass transit
Seoul Train

South Korea’s Online Electric Vehicle looks a bit like a kiddie ride, and its first public demonstration took place at an amusement park near the capital, Seoul. But don’t underestimate the OLEV: It’s powerful enough to tow three city buses. Moreover, according to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), it may revolutionize electric-vehicle transportation. Sucking power magnetically from grid-powered electric strips buried 12 inches below the roadbed, the train collects and distributes the power to either its motor or a battery. The system requires smaller batteries, recharges rapidly, and isn’t limited by distance. The University of California, Berkeley, first developed the technology in the 1990s but didn’t overcome such hurdles as shielding riders from electromagnetic radiation. KAIST claims to have resolved that and all other issues, and has filed 120 patents for the OLEV. While initially focusing on public-transport trains, the institute plans to extend use of the technology, aiming to power all the cars in South Korea with electricity drawn from two nuclear power plants or their equivalent. KAIST President Suh Nam-Pyo told reporters: “This is one of the most significant technical gains in the 21st century.” –TG

Power Generation
Nothing Wasted

The piezoelectrochemical effect – it’s a means of converting mechanical energy directly into chemical energy, invented by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Professor Huifang Xu, a geologist and crystal specialist and the principal investigator, says that the technology could one day be used to power small, electrical devices from myriad sources of “waste energy,” including stray vibrations or even noises. A cellphone could be powered by someone walking; a streetlight from breezes. Xu’s team created nanocrystals of two common crystals, zinc oxide and barium titanate, and then placed them in water. The pulses of ultrasonic vibrations caused the nanocrystals to flex and create an electrical charge, which was used to split the water molecules and produce oxygen and hydrogen. And hydrogen is, of course, an efficient – and clean – fuel source. Xu says: “If we can harvest that energy, it would be tremendous.” In other words, think small to think big. – TG

Fast-Track Antibodies

Image of eye dropper releasing liquid into test tubesAdimab, a New Hampshire-based biotech company started by Tillman U. Gerngross, professor of biochemical engineering at Dartmouth University, secured its future last fall with impressive investments from four major pharma-ceutical companies, including Merck and Pfizer. They’re backing Adimab because its yeast-based technology can more quickly identify candidate proteins that may be used as antibody drugs. Adimab’s process takes just eight weeks, compared with the six to 18 months it usually takes to discover candidates. Because antibody drugs attack only diseased cells and leave healthy ones alone, their development has become a hot area of research, with the market expanding to $25 billion over the past decade. Though Adimab’s technology speeds the selection, it still requires testing on humans or animals, which can take years and cost millions of dollars. So now, Adimab has teamed up with Google, according to the website Xconomy. It hopes to harness the Internet giant’s computing prowess to create 3-D models to quickly and precisely select the best antibody candidates, thus saving pharmaceutical companies considerable time and money. – TG

Solar Heat
Warmed-Up Chile

Chile has an abundance of poverty and paucity of fossil fuels – not a good mix. Most of the country’s energy comes from oil, gas, and coal, nearly all of it imported. As a result, many of Chile’s poor live in unheated homes with no hot water. Now, government officials hope that solar water heaters may help alleviate the problem. In a pilot project, 308 homes have been being fitted with sun-fueled water heaters. In Santiago, the capital, 125 new houses being built on the edge of the Vista Hermosa shantytown will include the $2,250 solar systems, reports. Each system includes a flat solar collector and a holding tank for the hot water. They’re also connected to an auxiliary, gas-fired heater that will keep the hot water running in winter months. Similar systems have proven popular in China, Israel, and Spain. Thirty-nine-year-old Jacquelin Marin and her husband and two children are set to move into one of the Vista Hermosa houses, which are scheduled to open this month. She’s excited by the prospect, she told GlobalPost: “I never had a water heater before.” –TG

Image of earth surrounded by space junk

Speeding Bullet

Space junk may sound worthless, but the ever growing collection of debris in Earth orbit threatens to cause billions of dollars of damage. Traveling at speeds of up to 9 miles a second, even a piece of debris a few centimeters in diameter could destroy a satellite. The best way to test materials that could withstand such collisions is to re-create similar conditions on Earth – by firing a bullet. But so far, the fastest speed produced by conventional guns is 4.3 miles per second. Enter Mechanical Engineering Prof. Andrew Higgins of Montreal’s McGill University. With funding from the Canadian Space Agency, Higgins and his team have developed a hypervelocity gun barrel surrounded with explosives that when detonated, will squeeze projecting gases to extremely high pressure along the entire length of the barrel as the bullet moves through it. So far, the device has matched the previous speed record, and Higgins hopes to double that result with tests starting this summer. – Pierre Home-Douglas



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