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Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft

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Japan-based NGK Insulators has transformed an experimental battery-which Ford Motor pursued for use in electric cars for more than 30 years-into a technology that could help manage the production of electric power. Each cell in the sodium and sulfur battery produces two volts when positively charged sodium ions pass through a ceramic tube and combine with negatively charged sulfur. Earlier versions of the technology could provide about 50 kilowatts, enough to supplement an office building’s power supply during peak hours. By improving the ceramic’s purity, NGK was able to reduce its thickness by 25 percent, to 1.3 millimeters. That in turn lowered its electrical resistance. The reduced resistance, combined with an altered design, allows the new battery to switch on in less than a millisecond and deliver 250 kilowatts, enough to supply backup juice during temporary power failures. This summer, NGK brought one of the new batteries on line for U.S. utility provider American Electric Power at one of its plants in Ohio.

Holographic Discs

One of the chief obstacles to the commercial development of holographic data storage, with its potentially vast capacity, may be starting to crumble. Holographic storage requires a photosensitive material in which specially modulated light beams can etch the data-bearing patterns that form when they intersect. Researchers at Aprilis, a Polaroid spinoff in Maynard, MA, think they’ve found just the thing: a silicone-based polymer that holds three to four times more data than competing holographic materials and that shrinks very little when struck by a data-writing laser. In other systems, shrinkage is a problem that introduces errors into recorded data.

“For holographic data storage to be successful, we needed to develop an entirely new material,” says Aprilis cofounder Parag Mehta. Prototype devices using Aprilis’s material store close to 200 gigabytes on a CD-sized disc-about 300 times as much as a conventional CD-ROM holds. Aprilis plans to supply commercial partners with its photopolymer and expects to see devices incorporating the material on the market in the next year or two.

OLEDs on the Move

Automobile and airplane display panels could soon get a face-lift from a new breed of organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs. Existing versions of the organic diodes are used in some cell phones but tend to burn out at high temperatures. By combining different materials, researchers at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga, Ontario, have developed an organic diode that can survive at up to 80 C for 10,000 hours, says Xerox researcher Tony Paine. That’s a tenfold improvement that could open the door to wider use of the technology. Unlike today’s ubiquitous liquid crystal displays, organic light-emitting diodes can be viewed from any angle; they also use less power, generate brighter, sharper images and “switch” images faster for smoother video. In the next year or two, Xerox researchers aim to incorporate their technology into displays.

Super Supercapacitor

Supercapacitors store and disgorge electricity faster than batteries, and they are finding their way into everything from cars to cell phones. Now researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute, a government lab in Villigen, Switzerland, have developed a version that delivers 15 kilowatts per kilogram in just 10 milliseconds. That’s “triple what other supercapacitors can do,” says Martin Carlen, head of applied physics at ABB Corporate Research in Baden-Daettwil, Switzerland, which cosponsored the research.

A supercapacitor stores energy as concentrations of electrons at the surfaces of electrodes bathed in an electrolyte solution. The Swiss device gains its advantage from the structure of its electrodes: they have pores that are the optimal size for storing electrons and are made entirely of a material called glassy carbon. Other supercapacitors’ electrodes contain layers of different materials. Elimination of these layers lowers the supercapacitor’s electrical resistance and boosts its efficiency. ABB is seeking to license the invention to help preserve battery life in devices such as cell phones where space is at a premium.

Broadband Auto

At a Kokomo, IN, test track that is run by automotive supplier Delphi, drivers can listen to FM, AM or Internet radio, while their back seat passengers watch digital videos. MeshNetworks in Maitland, FL, is developing one of the first wireless networks capable of transmitting broadband data to vehicles traveling at highway speeds. In conventional cellular-data networks, a radio must communicate directly with an Internet gateway, limiting how far a user can travel before the connection breaks. But in a so-called mesh network, gateways and routers-and even the radios in different cars-recognize and talk to each other automatically, passing data along to their final destination. This increases the distance data can travel. Delphi also envisions using the system to transmit engine data to mechanics or to help drivers navigate without global positioning system software. MeshNetworks expects to begin building the wireless networks over the next year, and Delphi says the technology might appear in 2006 car models.


Proteins such as erythropoietin and interferon are great at fighting disease, but it’s difficult to deliver them with conventional needles or implanted pumps. Medgenics, in Misgav, Israel, has come up with an alternative: a “biopump,” made from a patient’s own skin, that can painlessly produce and deliver just the right amount of a protein drug. Medgenics takes a matchstick-sized strip of the patient’s skin and cuts it into pieces called micro-organs, about 400 micrometers across. It then genetically engineers the micro-organs to produce the protein and monitors its daily production. After a week, the company implants just enough of the micro-organs in the patient to deliver the right dose. The biopump produces proteins at the measured rate for several months but can be removed at any point. Medgenics says it has proven the technology’s feasibility through animal testing and has scheduled human trials for mid-2003. The company is also working on an automated device that will enable doctors to create patients’ biopumps themselves. Medgenics plans to market the device within five years.

Dairy Mouthwash

Soon a spoonful of yogurt will be able to protect your teeth against decay. Biologists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, have engineered Lactobacillus zeae-a bacterium commonly found in dairy products-to produce antibodies against Streptococcus mutans, the mouth bacterium that causes most cavities. When the researchers gave the modified Lactobacillus to rats, the antibodies on its surface bound to the Streptococcus on the rats’ teeth, forming microscopic clumps that slid down the animals’ throats. Immunologist Lennart Hammarstrm  hopes to test the treatment next year in people with underactive salivary glands, such as patients undergoing radiation treatment for head and neck cancer, who have a greater risk of developing cavities. The Swedish team is also engineering Lactobacillus to produce antibodies against Rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea in children, and Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes ulcers and stomach cancer. Patients will take pills or eat yogurt containing modified Lactobacillus, which would colonize their stomachs. The treatment could prove cheaper and more effective than antibiotics, says Hammarstrm.


Thanks to new improvements in joint design, snakelike robots might more easily slither their way into collapsed buildings or toxic waste sites. Mechanical engineer Howie Choset of Carnegie Mellon University uses beveled gears to connect the joint around its circumference rather than at its center; the device’s improved efficiency allows for the use of smaller motors. The result is a robot just five centimeters in diameter that is just as strong as and more maneuverable than today’s best snakebots, which are 15 centimeters wide. Choset recently received $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a 10-joint, 1.2-meter-long snake robot. He expects to complete the first prototype this fall. If all goes well, Choset says, within two years his sensor-laden snakebot could be sensing radiation levels at toxic sites or beaming images from within rubble piles.

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