Science and Engineering: Innovation, Research, Education and Economics
August 23, 2006

Wind Power

Wind Power graph

Graph of wind power capacity in the USA from 1981 – 2005 (from 10 Megawatts to 9,149 megawatts).

From the American Wind Energy Association:

The only other countries around the world that have more wind power installed are Germany (19,140 MW as of the end of June), and Spain (10,728 MW).

AWEA expects the U.S. to pass the 15,000 MW mark by the end of 2007 and can have 25,000 MW installed by the end of 2010, with the proper policies in place. At this growth rate, the U.S. could have 100,000 MW installed by 2020, which would provide the nation with approximately 6% of its future power needs, about as much as hydropower provides today.

Related: Wind Power Technology BreakthroughGE’s Edison Desk BlogSolar Tower Power Generation


Nano Car image

‘Nanocar’ with buckyball wheels paves way for other molecular machines

“The synthesis and testing of nanocars and other molecular machines is providing critical insight in our investigations of bottom-up molecular manufacturing,” said one of the two lead researchers, James M. Tour, the Chao Professor of Chemistry, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and professor of computer science at Rice University. “We’d eventually like to move objects and do work in a controlled fashion on the molecular scale, and these vehicles are great test beds for that. They’re helping us learn the ground rules.”

The nanocar consists of a chassis and axles made of well-defined organic groups with pivoting suspension and freely rotating axles. The wheels are buckyballs, spheres of pure carbon containing 60 atoms apiece. The entire car measures just 3-4 nanometers across, making it slightly wider than a strand of DNA. A human hair, by comparison, is about 80,000 nanometers in diameter.

Automatic Cat Feeder

Automatic Cat Feeder

The Automatic Cat Feeder:

As I dug around this box, I found an old CD Rom drive and power supply. The thought struck me that I could use the ejecting tray of the CD Rom as a solenoid to push the trigger mechanism of some sort of physical contraption. But then I had a bootstrapping problem – what can I use to push the eject button of the CD Rom on schedule?

After some more thought, I realized that I could just use my spare (working) computer as the basis of the cat feeder. It’s also my home’s Subversion source control server – a rare mix of server workloads indeed! It has a CD Rom drive, so I could just use software to open and close it.

And water for the cat too:

Water flows out of the jug as long as the water level is below the hole at the bottom. When water flows out, the air pressure in jug decreases until it sucks in some air to equalize. When the water level covers the hole, though, the air pressure can no longer equalize, so the water flow stops.

When the cats drink the water level down a bit, the jug can once again equalize its air pressure, and lets more water out.

Don’t miss the video – Related: Engineering at Home

August 22, 2006

Electricity from Bacteria and Wastewater

Researchers harness the power of bacteria by Renee Meiller

In nature, says McMahon, photosynthetic bacteria effectively extract energy from their food — and microbial fuel cells capitalize on that efficiency. “By having the microbes strip the electrons out of the organic waste, and turning that into electricity, then we can make a process of conversion more efficient,” she says. “And they’re very good at doing that-much better than we are with our high-tech extraction methods.”

Through machinery such as plants, photosynthetic bacteria harvest solar energy. They also make products to power microbial fuel cells. “In many ways, this is the best of both worlds — generating electricity from a ‘free’ energy source like sunlight and removing wastes at the same time,” says Donohue. “The trick is to bring ideas from different disciplines to develop biorefineries and fuel cells that take advantage of the capabilities of photosynthetic bacteria.”

The benefit of using photosynthetic bacteria, he says, is that solar-powered microbial fuel cells can generate additional electricity when sunlight is available.

Giant Wasp Nests

Giant wasp nest

Giant nests perplex experts (site broke link so I removed it):

The largest nest Ray has inspected this year filled the interior of a weathered 1955 Chevrolet parked in a rural Elmore County barn. That nest was about the size of a tire in the rear floor seven weeks ago, but quickly spread to fill the entire vehicle, the property owner, Harry Coker, said. Four satellite nests around it have gotten into the eaves of the barn, about 300 yards from his home.

Super-size that nest!, July 21st:

The super-sized nests may contain as many as 100,000. One mammoth nest discovered in South Carolina contained roughly a quarter-million workers and as many as 100 queens.

Ray fears some of these nests may not even reach maximum size until late July or August.

One other finding has intrigued Ray and other researchers: the presence of satellite nests in close proximity to the large nest.

August 21, 2006

R&D Magazine’s 2006 Innovator of the Year

photo of Dean Kamen

R&D Magazine’s 2006 Innovator of the Year

Mega-inventor Dean Kamen has two simple goals: to improve children’s interest in science and technology, and to raise the standard of living for the world’s poor.

A self-taught physicist, with more than 150 patents, Kamen is obviously knowledgeable about what works in the world of science and technology.

Kamen’s latest endeavors involve bringing clean drinking water and cheap electricity to those who don’t have access to either. More than a billion people, or nearly 20% of the world’s population don’t have access to clean drinking water. And even more, 1.6 billion or about one out of every four people on this planet don’t have electricity. Continuing his emphasis on healthcare, Kamen points out that with clean water, you can eliminate more than 75% of those people’s health problems and diseases.

Prevoius post on Kamen’s work with electricity and drinking water for all. Kamen also founded FIRST (see previous post: 2006 FIRST Robotics Competition Regional Events).

$75.3 Million for 5 New Engineering Research Centers

Claire Gmachl

Photo: Claire Gmachl, associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, the MIRTHE center director.

NSF Awards $75.3 Million for Five New Engineering Research Centers including the Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE):

The goal of the research is to produce devices that are so low in cost and easy to use that they transform aspects of the way doctors care for patients, local agencies monitor air quality, governments guard against attack and scientists understand the evolution of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

will combine the work of about 40 faculty members, 30 graduate students and 30 undergraduates from the six universities. The center also is collaborating with dozens of industrial partners to turn the technology into commercial products, and is working with several educational outreach partners, which will use MIRTHE’s research as a vehicle for improving science and engineering education.

Diplomacy and Science Research

Today more and more locations are becoming viable for world class research and development. Today the following have significant ability: USA, Europe (many countries), Japan, Canada, China, Brazil, Singapore, Israel, India, Korea and Australia (I am sure I have missed some this is just what come to mind as I type this post) and many more are moving in that direction.

The continued increase of viable locations for significant amounts of cutting edge research and development has huge consequences, in many areas. If paths to research and development are blocked in one location (by law, regulation, choice, lack of capital, threat of significant damage to the career of those who would choose such a course…) other locations will step in. In some ways this will be good (see below for an explanation of why this might be so). Promising new ideas will not be stifled due to one roadblock.

But risks of problems will also increase. For example, there are plenty of reasons to want to go carefully in the way of genetically engineered crops. But those seeking a more conservative approach are going to be challenged: countries that are acting conservatively will see other countries jump in, I believe. And even if this didn’t happen significantly in the area of genetically engineered crops, I still believe it will create challenges. The ability to go elsewhere will make those seeking to put constraints in place in a more difficult position than 50 years ago when the options were much more limited (It might be possible to stop significant research just by getting a handful of countries to agree).

Debates of what restrictions to put on science and technology research and development will be a continuing and increasing area of conflict. And the solutions will not be easy. Hopefully we will develop a system of diplomacy that works, but that is much easier said than done. And the United States will have to learn they do not have the power to dictate terms to others. This won’t be an easy thing to accept for many in America. The USA will still have a great deal of influence, due mainly to economic power but that influence is only the ability to influence others and that ability will decline if diplomacy is not improved. Diplomacy may not seem to be a science and engineering area but it is going to be increasingly be a major factor in the progress of science and engineering. (more…)

Voyager 1: Now 100 Times Further Away than the Sun

Voyager 1 Sails Past 100 AU by A.J.S. Rayl:

Voyager 1 logs yet another milestone in space history August 17 when it crosses an invisible boundary that marks 100 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun — about 15 billion kilometers (9.3 billion miles) out there — farther away than any human-made object has ever gone in space. It’s headed now for interstellar space. Voyager 2, at 80 AU, is about six years behind.

Each Voyager carries it own kind of “postcards” in the form of a golden record that Sagan was instrumental in creating. The 12-inch, gold-plated copper discs carry spoken greetings in 55 languages from people all around Earth, along with 115 images and hundreds of sounds representing our home planet.

NASA’s Voyager site

Fun k-12 Science and Engineering Learning

photo of robots

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education (CIPCE):

For too long now the nation’s best research universities have often sat idle while our the problems of our system of public school education have reached crisis proportion. Rensselaer, through CIPCE, intends to take the lead in forging new relationships which will become models for others to follow.

A bold declaration and vision which, thankfully, they back up with action.

CIPCE works closely with Rensselaer’s Academy of Electronic Media to develop K-12 interactive multimedia materials and to educate teachers in their use. We are interested in studying how cutting edge educational technologies can affect teaching and learning in the classroom.

They offer several Interactive MultiMedia downloads form their site. We have added a directory of sites that offer k-12 resources (ciriculum, tools, etc. for teachers) and interesting online and offline resources for sudents: science education sites as part of our science links directory.
Robotics for k-12 see: (more…)

Robots Sharing Talents

photo of robots

Robot team-mates tap into each others’ talents by Tom Simonite

Teams of robots that can remotely tap into each other’s sensors and computers in order to perform tricky tasks have been developed by researchers in Sweden. The robots can, for example, negotiate their way past awkward obstacles by relaying different viewpoints to one another.

“Our system allows robots to start with a task, extract which capabilities are needed and find out where to access them,” Lundh explains. “If you don’t have the capabilities on your own you have to search for them.”

The number of cool research projects underway today is amazing.

Image: Tapping into another robot’s vision system could help a bot move a block around (from Robert Lundh)

August 20, 2006

What do Science and Engineering Graduates Do?

NSF surveyed Science and Engineering graduates and provide some not too surprising results in: What Do People Do After Earning an S&E.

Most graduates use the science and engineering knowledge (even if they went on to get unrelated post-graduate degrees in say business, law or no post graduate degree). It seems approximately 20% report having managerial positions currently (excepting recent graduates who are less likely to be managers).

About half never earned another degree after their S&E bachelor’s. Although less than a third of these S&E bachelor’s recipients worked in occupations formally defined as science and engineering, S&E knowledge remained important across a much wider set of occupations. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of S&E bachelor’s degree holders in non-S&E occupations reported that their field of degree was related to their job.

About half of S&E bachelor’s degree recipients go on to earn other degrees. However, fewer than one in five of all S&E bachelor’s recipients go on to earn advanced degrees in science and engineering.

Frankly I find this information less interesting than: the continuing high pay of engineering graduates and the fact that the top undergraduate degree for S&P 500 CEOs is Engineering. It would be interesting to see salary rates (with lifetime earnings), unemployment rates and career satisfaction by undergraduate degree (compared to other undergraduate degrees) throughout their careers (NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators – Workforce does include very interesting information along these lines).

Spider Thread

Spider hanging by its thread

Why a spider hanging from a thread does not rotate

The extraordinary properties of spider’s thread are like a blessing for researchers working on polymers. However, the amazing twisting properties it displays are still not very well understood. How can one explain the fact that a spider suspended by a thread remains completely motionless, instead of rotating like a climber does at the end of a rope?

Spider’s thread, on the other hand, is very efficient at absorbing oscillations, regardless of air resistance, and retains its twisting properties during the experiments. It also returns to its exact original shape. Certain alloys, such as Nitinol, possess similar properties but must be heated to 90° to return to their original shape.

The amazing properties of spider’s thread have been known for several years: its ductility, strength and hardness surpass those of the most complex synthetics fibers

See more blog posts on life science, biology, etc. and more posts of interest to students and everyone interesting in learning about science.

Problems in India’s Education System

India’s faltering education system by Kaushik Basu, Professor of economics, Cornell University

A recent evaluation of universities and research institutes all over the world, conducted by a Shanghai university, has not a single Indian university in the world’s top 300 – China has six.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, comes in somewhere in the top 400 and IIT, Kharagpur, makes an appearance after that.

Read more about the best universities in the world.

Outsourcing of Indian Education by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

India has become a net consumer of foreign education – spending to the tune of $3 billion a year to train students abroad.

On the one hand, successful globalization requires that the state invest heavily in increasing access to education. But in higher education, globalization also requires the state to respect the autonomy of institutions so that a diversity of experiments can find expression, so that institutions have the flexibility to do what it takes to retain talent in a globalized world and, above all, respond quickly to growing demand.

The Challenges for India’s Education System by Marie Lall

August 19, 2006

Altered Oceans: the Crisis at Sea

Extensive LA Times series on Altered Oceans: the Crisis at Sea by Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling. Excellent.

Part 1 (of 5): A Primeval Tide of Toxins “Runoff from modern life is feeding an explosion of primitive organisms. This ‘rise of slime,’ as one scientist calls it, is killing larger species and sickening people”

Part 4: Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas:

Their flight paths from Midway often take them over what is perhaps the world’s largest dump: a slowly rotating mass of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas.

This is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of a system of currents called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Located halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, the garbage patch is an area of slack winds and sluggish currents where flotsam collects from around the Pacific

Nearly 90% of floating marine litter is plastic — supple, durable materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene, Styrofoam, nylon and saran.

About four-fifths of marine trash comes from land, swept by wind or washed by rain off highways and city streets, down streams and rivers, and out to sea.

I have been unable to find a decent photo of this garbage patch – please post a comment if you know of one.

The World’s Best Research Universities

Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University produces a ranking of the top universities annually (since 2003). The methodology used focuses on research (publications) and faculty quality (Fields and Nobel awards and citations). While this seems a very simplistic ranking it still provides some interesting data: highlights from the 2006 rankings of Top 500 Universities worldwide include:

Country representation in the top schools:

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location Top 101 % of World
% of World GDP % of top 500
USA 54   4.6%   28.4%  33.4%
United Kingdom 10  0.9   5.1 8.6
Japan   6 2.0 11.2 6.4
Canada   4  0.5   2.4 8.0
The rest of Europe 18 4.4
Australia   2   0.3   1.5 3.2
Israel   1   0.1   0.3 1.4

Update: see our post on 2007 best research universities results

Top 10 schools:

  • Harvard University
  • Cambridge University
  • Stanford University
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT)
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Columbia University
  • Princeton University
  • University Chicago
  • Oxford University


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