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A Green Scrub

Algae tumbling in plastic tubing on the roof of MIT’s cogeneration power plant are helping to make the Institute greener. Cambridge, MA-based GreenFuel Technologies is using the plant as a test bed for its smog-reducing system, which connects tubes filled with algae that eat nitrogen oxides—a major contributor to smog—and carbon dioxide to part of the plant’s emission stream. Each day, the feeding algae remove more than a third of the pollutants that pass through the tubing. A device that controls how quickly fluids move through the system manages the algae’s growth by tempering their exposure to light. Still, the algae grow quickly, so GreenFuel technicians remove some daily and replace them with salt water and nutrients, giving the remaining algae room to grow. The harvested algae can then be used to make fuels, plastics, or food products.

GreenFuel is enthusiastic about the system for several reasons. The process can be tailored to a specific plant through the selection of the algae species best suited for the type of gases emitted and the amount of natural light available. The system is also much cheaper than any available technology for nitrogen oxide emissions reduction and may be the only economically viable process available to cut carbon dioxide at the source.

MIT is delighted to be part of the project, says Peter Cooper ’70, MIT’s director of utilities. “We’re just pleased to help GreenFuel prove its technology and to bask in any reflected glory,” he says. If the test at MIT is successful, GreenFuel will bring its smog-reducing contraptions to the wider world.

Grappling in Athens

Last summer Nate Ackerman, a doctoral candidate in mathematics, fulfilled the dream of every topflight athlete: he participated in the Olympic Games. He didn’t finish in the top 10, as he had hoped, but he says the experience was definitely worth the years of rigorous training that got him there.

Ackerman’s road to Athens began in a high school in England where he competed as a freestyle wrestler. It kicked into high gear in 1998 while he was wrestling as an undergraduate at Harvard. His coach there, Granit Taropin, was a former Soviet national coach known for mentoring Olympic gold medalists and world champions. Ackerman started competing on the international circuit and worked out regularly in Cambridge. He also wrestled in Great Britain, where he holds dual citizenship, becoming national champion in 2002 and again in 2004.

To reach the games, Ackerman, who wrestled for Great Britain, earned one of six wild-card berths available to wrestlers who did not qualify through international meets. Once in Athens, Ackerman landed in an elimination pool with two other wrestlers—a three-time world champion and the eventual silver medalist. He had lost to both men before in international tournaments, so he knew his chances of advancing were slim. He lost both matches at the Olympics but remains philosophical. “That’s why I got to the Olympics,” he says. “I had such tough draws and went up against the best. I didn’t win, but I showed I could compete and score points on them.”

What’s in a Name?

That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. But that which we call a person, by any other name might look just a little bit better, according to Amy Perfors, a graduate student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Perfors recently discovered that the vowel sounds in people’s names can affect how attractive they appear to others. She posted pictures of people with names displayed on them on a website where users can rank pictures based on how attractive their subjects are. She found that certain names resulted in higher ratings, even when the pictures were identical. Her study showed, for example, that men with names like Steve or Bill—that is, names whose vowel sounds are produced with the tongue pushed forward—appear more attractive than they would if they had names with “back” vowel sounds like Paul or Luke. For women, the back vowel sounds in names like Laura or Julie make them appear more attractive than if they had front-vowel-sound names like Tina or Jill.

Perfors presented her findings this past summer and was met with a media flurry. Some reports stated that people with one kind of name are more attractive than people with another, but Perfors isn’t making such claims. She says that in this specific circumstance, the sound of a name has been shown to affect attractiveness.

Neighbornet

Does the Internet encourage personal contact or simply distance people from the outside world? One MIT professor believes the former and has built a website to prove it. Keith Hampton, assistant professor in the department of urban studies, created I-neighbors to serve as both a free Web service for local communities and a research tool for studying how communities use the Internet. The service, launched last August, allows users from anywhere in the United States or Canada to set up websites for their own small sections of their towns. Residents can use the sites and the accompanying e-mail lists to share restaurant reviews, find car pools, or discuss local politics.

The website grew from a project Hampton led three years ago that offered the services of I-neighbors to three neighborhoods in the Boston area. After two years, about half of the participants reported that the websites increased their sense of community and ability to react to local problems. Hampton also found that increased online contact led to increased face-to-face contact. In one neighborhood, the average user met nine new neighbors in person during the two-year project. In a similar community that was not offered the Web services, residents met on average less than one new neighbor.

The apparent benefits of the sites led Hampton to expand the project and make it public. Those interested can sign up and create or join a neighborhood site at www.i-neighbors.org.

Beam Home Faster

MIT Lincoln Laboratory has teamed up with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory to produce a laser that will transmit data from Mars to Earth at a rate about 10 times faster than that of current transmissions. The technology, which will be used on a 2009 mission, will reach rates as high as 30 megabits per second.

“This is the future,” says Bill Keicher, a researcher at Lincoln Lab. Radio frequency has been the traditional choice for data transmission across the millions of kilometers between Earth and Mars. However, a near-infrared laser, with its shorter wavelengths, can transfer more information per second and will open “communication capacities where radio frequency wasn’t practical,” says Keicher. In particular, he says, “video may be a possibility.” Lasers weren’t considered until now because they weren’t reliable or efficient enough, and because clouds could partially block laser signals. The researchers could avoid this problem by using multiple ground receivers in different locations.

Lincoln Lab will produce the onboard transmitter and a receiver station for the mission. Challenges to overcome before the 2009 test include building space-worthy equipment and determining how weather on Earth affects transmissions.

Trusty Buses

Anyone who’s ever commuted by bus is familiar with this annoying phenomenon: a bus is late getting to a particular stop, and by the time it finally arrives, the next scheduled bus is right behind it. Now, thanks to a new fleet of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) buses equipped with Global Positioning System devices, MIT civil and environmental engineers are studying why buses go off schedule.

Professor Nigel Wilson and his colleagues are analyzing data from the Silver Line, which runs between Downtown Crossing in Boston and Dudley Station in Roxbury, MA. They’ll be looking for causes ranging from operators’ driving speeds to increased traffic when schools let out. Once they know the most common causes for delays on a route, they will make specific recommendations to the MBTA, such as retraining slow drivers or adjusting schedules or routes. Wilson, who is doing a similar study on public buses in Chicago, hopes to have suggestions in to the MBTA within a year. Meanwhile, graduate student Mike Hanowsky has created a program that will use the data to create more-realistic schedules.

“If we can improve the reliability of bus service, a lot of people will think of using public transportation that haven’t used it in the past,” says Wilson.

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