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Texas Innovator Summer 2009 - Web Exclusive

Texas Innovator CONSTRUCTION

Bridging the tests of time

The enemies of steel bridges traditionally have been salt, traffic and time. Texas has more than 50,000 bridges standing in diverse conditions – from the coast to the High Plains and Piney Woods.

Historically, bridge inspection has been a qualitative practice. Regulations require that bridges be inspected once every two years, but the practice is typically limited to a visual examination.

But engineers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering propose what may become a more thorough, high-tech solution. The research team includes faculty in structural, mechanical and electrical engineering.

Researchers at UT are collaborating with National Instruments and Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, an Illinois-based engineering firm, to develop a state-of-the-art system that monitors cracks and stresses in steel bridges and wirelessly communicates that data to inspectors and engineers.

Once developed, low-power, wireless sensors driven by alternative energy sources could continuously monitor and collect data about the bridge’s structural integrity.

The challenge is to develop a system that requires little energy consumption, but can power a relatively high-powered hardware and software unit that captures engineering data that it can easily phone home, says Sharon Wood, the project’s principal investigator and the chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at UT-Austin.

Powering the system will likely require an equally innovative solution. A combination of solar or wind energy or capturing kinetic energy generated by the bridge’s movement as traffic passes are among the possibilities.

“We want to provide comprehensive quantitative information without the huge costs,” she says. “With increasing traffic and truck loads, the need for more advanced monitoring has increased, especially for bridges designed in the 1950s and earlier.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently awarded the group $3.4 million to develop the system. The team also matched the grant, which provides a total budget of just under $7 million for development and testing, an aggressive process expected to take about five years.

More than 10 percent of the nation’s 600,000 bridges were rated as structurally deficient in 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Visit the Cockrell School of Engineering for more information on its research on monitoring structural integrity. Also, check out the Ferguson Structural Engineering Laboratory’s Web site.

NANOTECHNOLOGY

Magnetic cancer detection

Researchers at Stanford University hope to give doctors a powerful – and magnetic – new tool in the fight against cancer. Dr. Shan Wang’s team has developed a prototype capable of identifying cancer-associated proteins in blood earlier and more accurately than current techniques.

The device finds cancer-associated proteins, or biomarkers, which cancer cells release into the blood. It finds them faster, and gives a clearer reading than current methods, and finds proteins even when there are relatively few in the bloodstream. The early detection can give doctors a jump on diagnosis and treatment.

Magnetic nanotecholgy could help doctors quickly identify
cancer-associated proteins. Photo courtesy of Wang Group

Wang’s method employs magnetic nanotechnology, the same technology used in computer hard drives to read and write data. At the heart of his device is a silicon chip with 64 sensors coated with different kinds of antibodies primed to attach themselves to a particular cancer protein. When the chip is exposed to blood serum, the proteins stick to the antibodies on the sensors. Then, magnetic nanoparticles are added. They also attach to antibodies that stick to the captured proteins. The magnetic field is changed during this phase, allowing the team to gauge the concentration of cancer proteins.

Because it is based on technology used in consumer electronics, Wang’s approach may eventually prove to be easier to mass-produce than existing, but less accurate, devices in the medical marketplace.

California-based MagArray will commercialize the technology, which could be only two years away from FDA approval.

“Biomarker identification is one of the most active areas of cancer research today,” says Robert White, MagArray’s president. “We’re working with leading research facilities such as Houston’s M.D. Anderson Center to develop the panels.”

In addition to cancer detection, the device may also first be used for cardiac evaluation, which could prove invaluable to emergency room doctors who must make fast and accurate determinations of the cause of a patient’s chest pain.

For more information, contact Shan Wang or visit the Wang Group.

ENERGY/UTILITIES

Using sunlight to make liquid fuel

Artificial photosynthisis could yield liquid fuels.
Photo courtesy of Heinz Frei

Plants convert sunlight into energy through a chemical process – why not us?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is working to do just that, by creating liquid fuels from carbon dioxide and water through an artificial version of photosynthesis. Recently, the Berkeley National team announced a breakthrough toward this goal: the use of nano-sized crystals of cobalt oxide to split water molecules, a basic reaction involved in photosynthesis.

The project’s ultimate goal is to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels such as methanol.

For more information, contact Heinz Frei, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Texas Innovator AEROSPACE

Washing away “space junk,” sort of

In February, U.S. and Russian satellites met in a spectacular collision that sprayed hundreds of fragments across the space lanes. In March, the crew of the International Space Station was forced to take shelter in their return space capsule due to the threat of collision with a piece of rocket motor about a third of an inch long.

Experts agree that this cosmic junk should be cleaned up; the question is how to do it effectively and (in space launch terms, anyway) economically. Jim Hollopeter, director of Technology Development at Austin’s GIT Satellite Communications, proposes a novel solution: rockets filled with water. Each rocket would release its payload in a spray across orbiting “space junk,” pushing it toward the atmosphere where it would burn up (as would the water rocket itself).

Space junk – an orbiting cloud of spent rocket boosters, defunct satellites and stray nuts and bolts – is a growing problem that poses an increasing risk to space vehicles. The Air Force’s Space Command currently tracks about 18,000 such objects, but many smaller ones pose significant threats as well. At 10,000 mph orbital velocities, even a pea-sized fragment could destroy a billion-dollar satellite – or a manned spacecraft.

For more information, contact Jim Hollopeter.

COMMUNICATIONS

Preventing cell phone-distracted drivers

New technology produced by Aegis Mobility could go a long way in preventing drivers from being distracted by incoming cell phone calls and text messages.

DriveAssist software, installed on a cell phone, automatically detects when a driver is in motion, captures inbound calls and all text messages and delays them until the car is no longer in motion. Callers receive a message that the person they’re calling is on the road and unable to accept their call. Users can still make outgoing 911 calls.

The use of cell phones while driving has caught the attention of lawmakers and concerned citizens in recent years. The New England Journal of Medicine estimates that the risk of an accident is four times higher for motorists who use cell phones while driving. Similarly, cell phones are responsible for about 6 percent of all U.S. car accidents each year, resulting in 2,600 deaths and more than 300,000 injuries, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

“Today, drivers have only two options: Turn their phone off, which no one remembers to do, or ignore a ringing phone, which is incredibly difficult,” says John Geyer, founder and vice president of business development for Aegis Mobility. “We offer drivers a third choice – a personal assistant that informs callers that they are driving and manages their calls, text and data so that they can stay in touch responsibly while keeping their attention on the road.”

The software currently operates on Windows Mobile and Symbian-based cell phones.

For more information on DriveAssist, visit Aegis Mobility.


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