Features Story Archive

Health, Energy, Climate Sustainability Advance in 2009

Researchers achieved significant progress in 2009 on studies ranging from cancer detection wands to calculating cost effective ways to slow global warming.

National news stories documented many of these advances and a few are captured here.

Scientists shake out clues to earthquake damage
The Los Angeles Times, January 27
Richard Klingner and colleagues used four 30-second bursts of shaking to document how to prepare to withstand killer earthquakes. The researchers used a device to violently vibrate a one-story masonry veneer structure.  At 80% of the famed Northridge, Calif. earthquake intensity, about half the bricks on one outside wall fell. At 120% intensity, the other half fell. "I was not expecting to see this at this level," said Dr. Klingner, professor of civil engineering.

 

Machines that can see
The Economist, March 7
Advances in computer-vision software are begetting a host of new ways for machines to view the world. Jake Aggarwal, an expert in the security implications of traffic patterns, is analyzing footage of suspicious driving. Understanding vehicle movements, Mr Aggarwal says, is especially helpful to intelligence and security experts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Suspect vehicles include those that drive in circles and those that go to government buildings and military facilities, especially if they stop near them.

 

Innovations of the Future
BusinessWeek, May 7
Economic difficulty can inspire extraordinary innovation. BusinessWeek asked futurists what they'd like to see arise from these difficult times.  Among the 20 most important inventions of the next 10 years they identified was the miniaturization of medical equipment including a pen-size device being developed by James Tunnel, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, to detect skin cancer without the need for a biopsy.

 

Life After Silicon:  How Graphene Could Revolutionize Electronics
Discover, June 1
Graphene, the hottest new material in electronics, is remarkably simple:  a flat sheet of pure carbon rings—just one atom thick—that resembles chicken wire.  Rod Ruoff, mechanical engineering professor and cofounder of a spin-off company, Graphene Energy, says even the firm’s first experimental model rivaled the best available ultracapacitors in energy storage. Ruoff believes that graphene ultracapacitors could eventually have twice the storage of those available today.

 

Can Geoengineering Help Slow Global Warming?
Time, Aug. 18
A small but growing number of researchers are beginning to say if we geoengineered the earth into a mess with our uncontrolled appetite for fossil fuels, maybe we have to geoengineer our way out of it.  According to a paper co-authored by Eric Bickel, geoengineering might not only be a good way to bring rising temperatures under short-term control while we wait for the longer-term fix of cutting carbon emissions, it might be the only way.

 

Solar Cells to be Printed Like Newspaper, Painted on Rooftops
U.S. News and World Report, August 26
Solar cells could soon be produced more cheaply using nanoparticle “inks” that allow them to be printed like newspaper or painted onto the sides of buildings or rooftops to absorb electricity-producing sunlight. Brian Korgel, chemical engineering professor, is hoping to cut costs to one-tenth of their current price by replacing the standard manufacturing process for solar cells – gas-phase deposition in a vacuum chamber, which requires high temperatures and is relatively expensive.

 

Federal Carbon Storage Grants Awarded
New York Times Green, Inc., Aug. 24
The Department of Energy announced $27.6 million in research grants for projects intended to simulate the underground storage of carbon dioxide.  Carbon capture and storage technology is especially important for coal-fired power plants, which account for close to half of the country’s electricity use and a substantial portion of its carbon emissions. “Basically,” said Michael Webber, mechanical engineering professor and energy expert, “this deals with the elephant in the room.”

 

East Antarctica, Long Stable, Is Now Losing Ice
Time, Nov. 26
While the earth has been warming overall, the giant East Antarctic ice sheet has actually been growing in size--until recently. A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that this growth spurt may have come to an end. Starting in about 2006, says lead author Jianli Chen of the Center for Space Research, East Antarctica began declining. "The amount [of decline] right now isn't very big, but the trend is alarming."
 
Breakthrough of the Year
Science, Dec. 18
The editors and news staff of Science looked back at the big science stories of the past 12 months and dubbed one of them the Breakthrough of the Year.  The year's runners-up included insights into the properties of graphene and how to use it to make novel devices.  Graphene's conductive properties excite researchers in both physics and electronics.