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Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft

Greasy-Spoon Cleaner

The frenzied cooking and cleaning in a typical restaurant generates large volumes of water permeated with oil and grease. While big restaurants can afford their own wastewater treatment facilities, smaller establishments usually discharge wastewater straight into the closest sewer systems. Chemical engineers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have developed a compact and inexpensive technology for cleaning restaurant wastewater.

The device consists of a set of catalysts and aluminum electrodes fitted inside a small tank. When the electrodes are powered up, the fine oil droplets in the wastewater fed to the tank shed their negative charges and begin to clump together. One electrode generates tiny hydrogen bubbles that carry the coagulated grime to the surface, where it can be skimmed off. Water purified by the process can be used for cleaning and other non-drinking purposes, according to project leader P. L. Yue. A Hong Kong-based company collaborating with Yue’s group expects to bring the technology to market in about two years.

Destroying Diabetes?

Diabetics could one day live lives free of needles and implants thanks to a new treatment that can prompt the body to generate new insulin-producing cells. Researchers Aaron Vinik of Eastern Virginia Medical School and Lawrence Rosenberg of McGill University discovered that a fragment of a protein known as INGAP stimulates cells in the pancreas of adult animals to develop into “islet” cells that make insulin in response to blood sugar. In animal experiments, a few weeks of daily injections of the protein segment yielded normal blood sugar and insulin levels. GMP of Fort Lauderdale, FL, which licensed the technology, has started human trials in patients with both Type 1 (juvenile) and Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes. The treatment could become available in about five years. One question that remains is whether Type 1 diabetics, whose bodies have destroyed their own islet cells, would be able to sustain the new cells without immune suppression.

Mega Memory

Computer hard drives store massive amounts of information, but they write and retrieve it slowly. University of Houston physicist Alex Ignatiev has developed a new memory chip that could perform such tasks in an instant. In the short term, the chips might replace the slow and expensive flash memory cards used in digital cameras and deliver “nonvolatile” random access memory that will retain data even if a PC crashes.

To store data, the chip changes the electrical resistance of a thin film of metal oxide by sending a small electric current through it. Besides being faster, Ignatiev says, the new memory should be cheaper and more energy efficient than flash memory and various other stable-memory technologies under development. Electronics maker Sharp has exclusively licensed the technology and expects to begin marketing the chips in three to five years.

Drive the Wave

Turbochargers give hot rods screeching-fast acceleration, using the force of exhaust gases to spin a turbine and compress air flowing into combustion chambers. But there’s a slight lag after you hit the gas, and it gets worse as the engine gets smaller, making the technology impractical for economy cars. Work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zrich has yielded a turbocharger variant without this problem. The “pressure wave supercharger” eliminates mechanical steps; the exhaust directly compresses clean intake air in rotating chambers. Early versions proved difficult to control, with exhaust tending to mix with the intake air. To prevent this, mechanical engineer Lino Guzzella’s team uses sensors and actuators that continually alter rotation speed and adjust airflow. Guzzella says the device could enable a peppy car that gets 28 kilometers per liter in city driving, and could reach market within three years.

Power Boost

Americans are notorious electricity hogs, but a new power line design could help satisfy their appetite. Many power lines-usually steel-reinforced aluminum cable-are 30 to 70 years old and were never meant to handle the loads they’re carrying. Torrance, CA, engineering firm W. Brandt Goldsworthy has developed a stronger, lighter alternative that carries 40 to 200 percent more electricity-and can transmit high-speed digital data to boot. The new cable consists of a reinforced plastic core with a hollow space at the center for optical fiber; the core is wrapped with aluminum alloy wires. Unlike steel, the nonconducting plastic draws no electricity from the aluminum conductor; this prevents the novel cable from heating up and sagging and allows it to carry more juice. The optical fiber could help carriers bring broadband Internet connections into neighborhoods without digging up roads to lay new cables. The California Energy Commission will field test the cables this summer, most likely in Southern California Edison’s grid.

Cell Sensor

Most sensors used to measure pollutants in lakes and rivers fail to detect small concentrations that may still be harmful to humans. Researchers at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Industrial Science have designed an ultrasensitive device that uses human cells to detect these low but hazardous levels.

The sensor consists of a fine plastic tube containing lab-grown human cells. A sample of water is poured into the tube, along with a low-density lipoprotein (a compound made of fat and protein) tagged with a fluorescent dye. Toxic chemicals in the water slow down cells’ uptake of the lipoprotein, resulting in dimmer fluorescence. In preliminary tests, the disposable sensor detects the presence of small traces of such poisonous compounds as lead nitrate, acetaldehyde and sodium arsenite (all of which impede lipoprotein uptake) in two hours, versus the two days that conventional laboratory sensors would need to register them. Yasuyuki Sakai, one of the scientists who developed the device, says it could take up to five years to bring it to market.

Projection Perfection

A few digital projectors can make a big impression, beaming presentations or advertisements onto entire walls. But making their images seamless requires costly and time-consuming calibration of fixed projectors. Researchers at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, MA, have devised a way to do the same job in 10 seconds with software and a cheap camera-say, a Web camera-enabling portable, lower-cost systems. First, several projectors are placed in roughly the right places, each beaming a checkerboard pattern onto the wall. The camera registers the relative alignment of these displayed grids. Finally, software alters each projector’s image fragment-twisting, rotating or bending it as needed-so that the full image appears seamless. Such units could be used in stores, offices or even homes, where “any wall can become a projection TV,” says system designer Ramesh Raskar, a computer scientist at Mitsubishi, who adds that the system should reach market within two years.

Thumb Typing

As computers blend into our environment and even our clothing, entering data into them gets tricky. Carsten Mehring, a mechanical engineer at the University of California, Irvine, has come up with a device that turns your hands into a qwerty-style keyboard. Mehring’s device uses six conductive contacts on each thumb-three on the front and three on the back-to represent a keyboard’s three lettered rows. Contacts on the tips of the remaining eight fingers represent its columns. Touching the right index finger to the middle contact on the front of the right thumb, for instance, generates a j. The top contact on the thumb yields a u, while the middle contact on the back of the thumb would produce an h. Mehring says the similarity to typing makes his input device easier to master than others that require an entirely different set of motions. He has applied for a patent and hopes to market a product by year-end.

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