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Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft.

Sweet Potato

The natural sweetener in your soft drink or chocolate bar could soon come from an unlikely source: potatoes. Researchers at the University of Picardie Jules Verne in Amiens, France, have genetically modified potatoes to multiply their fructose production about 40 times. The team inserted three bacterial genes into the potato’s DNA, each gene coding for a different enzyme involved in converting starch to fructose.

Most fructose is made today by adding vast quantities of enzymes to large chemical tanks of corn. But the genetically modified potatoes turn starch into fructose inside the vegetable. This makes for a much more efficient and economical process, says Rajbir Sangwan, the plant scientist who led the project. A number of food-processing companies in Europe have expressed interest in using the French technology. But Sangwan says it could be another three to five years before the potatoes are ready for the food industry.

Group Touch

Discussions around a conference table can get clumsy if participants have trouble interacting collectively with electronically displayed information. A multi-user touch screen developed at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, MA, may be the solution. The centerpiece is a tabletop embedded with tiny transmitting antennas. Surrounding chairs are fitted with receivers, each of which is hooked up to a central computer. An overhead projector connected to the same computer displays information across the tabletop. When a participant touches a part of the display-say, to select a button-antennas at that location send a tiny electrical signal through the person’s body to his or her chair. The receiver in the chair relays the signal to the computer, triggering whatever action the participant intended. This way, the touch screen permits multiple simultaneous interactions, creating a communal electronic workspace. Mitsubishi engineer Paul Dietz expects a system on the market within two years.

Writable Web

For all its power, the Web is still a one-to-many medium, with authors controlling all text that appears on their sites. But now there’s a system aimed at allowing members of Web-based communities to publish information on each others’ pages-making the Web as easy to write as it is to read.

Researchers led by principal scientist Eric Bier at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center are testing Sparrow Web, a program that improves on standard Web servers by making each item on a page editable. The software provides forms where users can enter data and see it appear on the same page. PARC researchers have been using Sparrow Web for several years to manage projects, schedule events and the like. PARC is releasing an evaluation version of Sparrow Web for beta-testers and has trials under way at several technology companies and educational establishments.

Fuel Cell Safety

Fuel cells could provide clean power for everything from cell phones to cars. But the hydrogen that fuel cells convert into electricity is explosive. One way to improve safety: faster hydrogen sensors, which detect leaks in less than a second. A new nanoscale device created by chemists at the University of Montpellier in France and the University of California, Irvine, could fit the bill.

Like existing detectors, the nanoscale sensor uses palladium, a metal to which hydrogen molecules stick. But its tiny wires (photo) react thousands of times faster to the presence of hydrogen than standard detectors, says Irvine chemist Reginald Penner. The sensors also consume thousands of times less power than today’s hydrogen detectors. Several companies have expressed interest in licensing the technology.

Fit to Print

Fingerprints make terrific forensic tools or biometric identifiers-as long as they’re clear. Bad prints, whether smudged by ink or by scanner, mean bad data. A team at NTT Telecommunications Energy Laboratories in Kanagawa, Japan, says it has developed a sensor that can better capture the likeness of a human fingerprint through tactile means, even if the finger is sweaty or the sensing equipment wet.

The sensor is composed of an array of circuits on a touch pad overlaid with 60,000 microscopic protrusions (photo). When a finger presses the sensor, its individual ridges push down on a corresponding set of protrusions, each of which then triggers a current in an attendant electrode. Each activated circuit is translated into a pixel in a digital image of the fingertip. NTT researcher Norio Sato says that the device will enable outdoor applications such as car locks, which have been stymied by the smudge factor. The sensor is several years from availability.

Virtual Checkup

Patients who need routine monitoring may be able to avoid visits to the doctor, thanks to a system developed at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England. The system transmits data from any piece of medical equipment that generates an electronic signal to doctors who may be across town or across the country. Signals from electrodes on a patient’s chest, for example, can be digitized, encrypted, and sent via infrared link to a cell phone for transmission through the network. Any signal can be digitized, including patient temperature or blood oxygen levels, says Loughborough electrical engineering professor Bryan Woodward. Loughborough is negotiating with various companies to miniaturize and market the monitoring system.

Cold Flame

The final step in recovering from a biowarfare attack would be a cleanup of contaminated areas, but liquid cleansing agents could ruin valuable equipment, and chlorine dioxide gas can be corrosive. Now a team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has designed an alternative dry-decontamination device. In the device, a current between two electrodes ionizes a mixture of helium and oxygen, which spews out in a cloud of charged particles-a plasma that looks like fire but that is only about 70 C (cooler than a hair dryer’s exhaust). The plasma contains a highly reactive form of oxygen that neutralizes pathogens, such as an anthrax surrogate tested by the group. “Cleaning things up without destroying them is our goal,” says physicist Hans Herrmann, leader of the Los Alamos group. His group has successfully tested a two-liter decontamination chamber and is working on a chamber large enough to hold computer equipment. Herrmann has an even bigger vision: a chamber roomy enough to clean up an entire airplane.

High Beaming

In certain driving situations, high beams can improve visibility enormously. But many drivers don’t bother to use them, in part because they must frequently turn them on and off. Gentex, a Zeeland, MI-based supplier of glare-reducing rear view mirrors, is trying to right this wrong. The company has begun integrating into its mirrors a pea-sized camera-on-a-chip that automates the task of turning high beams on and off. The smart camera, mounted on the windshield side of the rear view mirror, monitors and analyzes the lighting conditions on the road ahead. High beams are switched on by default, but turned off when the camera sees oncoming headlights or the taillights of a car being closely followed. Ford Motor’s Lincoln division has ordered the mirrors for installation in its 2004 model cars.

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