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Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft
September 1, 2002

Blood Shot

Useful, but barbaric. That’s how San Leandro, CA-based EndoBionics’ CEO Lynn Barr describes balloon angioplasty-the use of a balloon-tipped catheter to open clogged arteries. The procedure itself causes artery-narrowing scarring in about 20 percent of the roughly 600,000 people in the U.S. who undergo it each year. To stop this scarring, mechanical engineer and EndoBionics founder Kirk Seward created a retractable polymer sheath for a steel needle one millimeter long and roughly the diameter of two hairs. After an angioplasty, a surgeon could guide the sheathed needle through an artery in the patient’s leg or neck to the coronary artery. Once the device was in place, a microscale hydraulic system would allow the surgeon to retract the sheath while simultaneously pushing the needle into the artery wall. This way, the device could inject a tiny amount of a blockage-preventing drug directly into the site where scarring and blockage could occur. The technique would deliver the drug much further into the artery walls than other methods being developed for this purpose, Barr says. EndoBionics plans to partner with a yet unnamed medical device company to bring the technology to market in late 2004. Eventually, Barr says, the microneedle could be used to deliver tumor-killing drugs or genes to the brain.

Body Power

Our bodies ooze energy in the form of heat. Infineon Technologies, a microelectronics company in Munich, Germany, has developed a dime-sized chip that converts this heat into enough electricity to power a small electronic gadget, which would otherwise rely on tiny and expensive batteries. One side of the “thermogenerator” faces the body, and the other faces the air; the temperature difference between the two sides produces a current. Unlike other heat-to-electricity devices, which are made out of expensive and toxic metals, Infineon’s chips are silicon-a cheaper and more benign material.

Given a typical temperature difference at the wrist of 5 C, prototype devices can generate enough power for a wristwatch-around one microwatt per square centimeter-says Werner Weber, head of Infineon’s Laboratory for Emerging Technologies. Infineon is working with a watchmaker to incorporate the thermogenerator into the firm’s products. The chips, says Weber, could find their way onto the market in two years in watches or wearable medical devices; a thermogenerator embedded in a jogging suit, for instance, could power a heart sensor.

Roto Rockette

The MIT Rocket Team is pioneering “the first new idea in a rocket engine that I’ve heard of in decades,” says Edward Crawley, head of the MIT Aerospace Department. Team leader Carl Dietrich has patented a device replacing the turbines that, in a conventional rocket, run the pump that pressurizes the fuel and liquid oxygen. Dietrich instead uses something akin to a lawn sprinkler with spinning jets. This modification could allow a rocket to operate efficiently even when scaled down to the size of a can of paint. Shrinking a conventional rocket engine to that scale results in excessive leakage around the turbine blades, spoiling performance. The team expects its test rocket to create 90 to 180 kilograms of thrust, enough to launch a small video observation system, at a cost of a few thousand dollars. If testing of the fourth prototype proves successful, the rocket could take its maiden voyage in about two years.

Little Screen, Big Picture

Cell phones and personal digital assistants get smaller each year, but greater portability comes at a price. The devices’ shrunken screens make information hard to read-and even harder to share with others. V. Michael Bove Jr. and Wilfrido Sierra at MIT’s Media Lab are developing a miniature laser projector to make handheld devices easier on the eyes. The projector consists of an array of semiconductor lasers spaced micrometers apart, approximately one laser per pixel. A tiny mirror mounted above the array rotates to sweep the beams up and down while their intensities are varied, reproducing text and simple images. With the touch of a button, a cell phone could project its postage-stamp-sized display as an image up to a meter diagonal on a conference room wall. The compact, low-power lasers won’t take up much room and won’t squander battery life. Bove expects the projectors to appear in phones in two to five years.

Good, Cheap Vibrations

Today’s small electric motors-common in electronics from toys to CD-ROM drives-are complex, noisy and inaccurate at slow speeds. Elliptec, a Dortmund, Germany, spinoff from Siemens, has developed a simple and inexpensive piezoelectric motor, which uses the electrically induced vibration of special ceramic materials to spin a wheel or move a rod. Earlier piezoelectric motors cost hundreds of dollars; Elliptec’s gadgets may reach market at $1 each, thanks to new materials and a simpler three-part design that makes them easy to manufacture. The penny-sized gadget is quiet, one-twelfth the weight of a traditional electromagnetic motor, needs no gearbox and can generate a wide range of exact speeds, according to Elliptec president Bjoern Magnussen. Its first application is likely to be in robotic dolls and toys that could use several such motors to produce realistic eye and mouth movements. Magnussen says the company began shipping prototypes to toymakers and other electronics companies earlier this year.

Island-Hopping Data

Telecommunications networks are like the highway system-an amalgam of six-lane freeways and winding country roads. Most networks try to send data over the freeways, but that can lead to massive congestion. Software developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne looks at traffic across the entire network, calculating more efficient routes in real time. Lab simulations suggest that the software, which would run at a central switching facility, could increase a network’s capacity by as much as 40 percent.

The software divides a network into “islands,” each separated from its neighbors by particularly sluggish data connections-that is, potential bottlenecks. The islands are subdivided into smaller islands, separated by slightly faster connections, and so on. As traffic along a given route increases, the available bandwidth decreases, so the islands are continually grouped and regrouped; but the software always plots the route with the highest bandwidth. “The search turns out to be quite efficient,” says lead developer Boi Faltings. He is looking for industry partners to test the software.

CD Copy Stopper

Software pirates beware: CD-ROMs might soon be armed with invisible security systems that keep their contents-games and business applications-under lock and key. The OpSecure CD was developed by Rosh-Ha-ayin, Israel-based Doc-Witness. A “smart card” embedded in the CD unlocks the disc’s encrypted content. You can copy the CD, but without the card the software won’t run. Try to install the software on more computers than the publisher allows and the smart card will shut you down. The technology works by turning an ordinary CD drive into a smart-card reader. A photodetector at the edge of the CD turns the drive’s laser light into electrical pulses, which travel to the embedded smart card and request the key. If the card deems the request legitimate, it returns the key as an electronic signal that an onboard light-emitting diode converts into light and beams back to the drive. Doc-Witness is negotiating with several business software publishers and aims to begin manufacturing the secure CDs in January 2003. The company is also working on a similar security system for DVDs.

Radio Relief?

For webcasters, making sure that musicians receive royalties when their songs are played over the Internet is a tedious, paperwork-intensive business. Now Websound of Brattleboro, VT, is touting software that automatically sifts through Web server logs to distinguish songs from graphics and other files transmitted to Web surfers. The software matches the file names with song-specific information-artist, recording label and so forth-from Internet music databases and submits a weekly report on behalf of the webcaster.

The technology, called Radlog, comes just in time to help webcasters comply with tightened U.S. Copyright Office rules governing how musicians are paid for Internet broadcasts. Websound says it plans to license Radlog for as little as $100 per month starting this fall. Many webcasters had said that the reporting required by the new rules would be “expensive, indeed impossible,” says Jeff Daniel, Websound’s CEO. “Well, we’ve figured out a way.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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