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Plastic X-Plane

Back in 2006, Spectrum predicted a win for the advanced carbon composite wing on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Lockheed Martin is going further: A program at Lockheedâ''s Skunk Works aims to replace the mid/aft fuselage and tail assembly of a Dornier 328J aircraft with advanced composites.

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Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs

The Lockheed team at Palmdale, CA, were given the green light yesterday by the Air Force Research Laboratory to start putting together the new X-Plane, called the Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA) Flight Demonstration.

Advanced composites are plastic-like materials that usually mix resins with high-strength fibers of carbon, boron, graphite, or glass. They tend to be stronger, lighter, and more resistant to fatigue and corrosion than the aluminum alloys widely used in planes today.

According to the Lockheed press release, the plastic X-Planeâ''s advanced composites â''will enable a reduction of 80-90 percent in parts count and a dramatic reduction in corrosion and fatigue issues compared to conventional aircraft manufacturing approaches.â''

The press release also mentions applications for long range strike, unmanned systems and future air mobility transports.

And in fact, Danger Room reports that the Air Force is hoping to use the research to build â''a new class of short-takeoff-and-landing transports circa 2020 that is significantly lighter and costs much less to produce than current air mobility platforms of the same size.â''

Solar Car Race Gets In Gear

Greetings from Darwin, Australia! Weâ''ll be providing ongoing coverage of the World Solar Challenge, a biennial solar car race that showcases some of the best automotive engineering from universities around the world, using truly top-notch components and design. The race begins on the northern coast of Australia and ends 3000 kilometers away in Adelaide, on the southern coast.

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A mere two days of last-minute tinkering remain before the race begins on Oct. 21. Thereâ''s a great deal of strategy involved in every aspect of preparation, from initially crafting the vehicleâ''s design to calculating the carâ''s optimal speed on a second-by-second basis during the race. The teams that have now congregated in Darwin are not guaranteed a spot in the race: first they must pass a qualifying test on Saturday morning. So the decisions they make in these last few moments are crucial.

In 2005, Nuon, a Dutch team from the University of Delft, won the race while averaging a speed just a hair away from the legal limit. During that same race, MITâ''s solar vehicle flipped over, causing a great deal of damage to the panels on its top. To bring down the speeds of the vehicles for safety reasons as well as to add a new engineering challenge, the raceâ''s organizers changed a few key requirements this year: instead of the previous 8 square meters allowed for solar panels on the car, now the teams can use only 6 square meters. The cars must now use steering wheels (Nuonâ''s car, Nuna, used joysticks last time) and have upright seats, which makes the car less aerodynamic than previous models.

Hereâ''s a glimpse of Nuna 4, getting worked on at a gas station in the sleepy town of Humpty Doo, outside Darwin:

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The rivalry is heating up between Nuon and another top team, Continuum, from the University of Michigan. The Michigan team purportedly has some fancy new electronics under the lid, as well as a more intricately crafted solar-panel layout. But during the â''scrutineeringâ'' sessions on Thursday, where the cars and their drivers are thoroughly examined and measured, inspectors called into question the arrangement of Michiganâ''s shingled cells, which overlap just slightly, allowing more cells to be crammed into those critical 6 square meters. Does each inch of cell count, as the inspectors contend, or only the exposed portions, as the team argues? If each cell counts, then the team is well over the 6-square-meter limit. And then thereâ''s the solar concentrator system: a set of curved mirrors that rest on top of a part of the roof and collect sun to be absorbed by a set of panels held just above the mirrors. Perhaps the mirrors also ought to be included in that measurement. If it turns out Continuum is entirely in the clear, the Michigan team will have an enormous advantage in the amount of energy it can soak up from the sun. The other teams, Nuon in particular, are anxiously awaiting the outcome.

Nanotechnology and Food: Healthier and Tastier Food or a Health Risk?

The researchers at Wageningen University in Central Holland are absolutely committed to exploiting nanotechnology for food applications in order to make food healthier, tastier and safer.

But food is a tricky area. Itâ''s not like improved tennis racquets, with food we put it in our bodies and the quality of it determines our health. (For reference, check out the documentary â''Super Size Meâ'', which demonstrates the potential health risks of ingesting nothing but McDonaldâ''s food for 30 daysâ''by the way there is no known nanotechnology in a Big Mac).

This dichotomy between what researchers around the world are trying to accomplish by applying nanotechnology to food and the general sensitivity of doing anything with food chemistry has pushed the word â''nanotechnologyâ'' out of the lexicon of most of the worldâ''s leading food manufacturers, and led to articles like this one from the BBC.

A portion of the â''nanotechnologyâ'' that is used for the food industry today has nothing to do with ingredients of the food, but rather how it is processed. For instance, in separation technology for food processing. If you can make the tiny holes used for separating food into its component parts more precisely shaped and smaller, it makes for better food and better processes. Also, atomic force microscopes (AFM) allow us to look at the molecular structures of food more precisely.

Another area is the packaging. By putting nanoclays into polymers you can create better barrier protection for the beverages contained in plastic bottles or the food in plastic wrappings.

But the issue that has raised the alarm bells in the BBC article and elsewhere is the use of nanotechnology in the ingredients of foods. For instance, TiO2 and SiO2 nanoparticles have been researched with to alter food properties, as well as nanocapsules to encapsulate nutrients, flavors, aromas to increase bioavailability and provide better uptake into the body.

While carbon nanotubes have been looked at for encapsulating active compounds in drug delivery (without much success) I am not aware of any research with them that has been directed at using them for food nutrient encapsulation.

Nonetheless the BBC article raises the specter of nano-sized chunks of carbon penetrating the nucleus of a cell side-by-side with a graphic of a carbon nanotube. While Professor Mark Welland of Cambridge University, one of the most eminent nanotechnology researchers in the world, concedes that he is not sure what impact this carbon in the nucleus may have, the fear has been heightened sufficiently.

But the truth is that it is not known how nanocapsules will act in the human digestive system if ingested with food. In addition, ultrafine particles, let alone nanoparticles, have shown the ability to penetrate through the skin, or translocate from the respiratory system to other organs.

The toxicological issues of nanoparticles and nanostructures is a critical area of research, and every reasonable effort should be made to determine whether their use in food products presents any health risks.

But there are nanotechnologies being considered for food applications that are quite distinct from the world of food ingredients, such as nano-enabled pathogen detection in foods, that could save thousands of lives from food-borne pathogen illness. Shall we walk away from that potential while we work out the toxicological issues of nanoparticles in food ingredients?

Should China Become a Space Station Participant?

A representative of the Chinese government has expressed his country's desire to join the member nations participating in the development of the International Space Station (ISS). According to a report from the Associated Press, China sees its growing space program as a symbol of the scientific progress it has made in recent years and would like to extend its reach in space by peacefully cooperating with other countries on international efforts such as the ISS.

"We hope to take part in activities related to the International Space Station," Li Xueyong, a vice minister of science and technology said at a press conference in Beijing yesterday. "If I am not mistaken, this program has 16 countries currently involved, and we hope to be the 17th partner."

Li made his remarks on the ISS while speaking to the Chinese media about the upcoming launch of the nation's Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter, scheduled for lift-off in late October. A reporter had asked whether China in the future would be more likely to compete or cooperate with the United States in space, the AP reports. Li said China wanted to cooperate but gave no specifics.

A decision to enable China to participate in the ISS program would have to be made by the existing partners. The ISS is a joint project between the space agencies of the U.S. (NASA), Russia (RKA), Japan (JAXA), Canada (CSA), and a group of European nations (ESA), with countries such as Brazil (AEB), Italy (ISA), Malaysia (MNSA) cooperating in various contractual capacities [see last week's item "New Crew Arrives at Space Station (With Tourist)" for an example].

The AP report notes that approval from the U.S. would most likely be the major hurdle the preliminary Chinese proposal would have to clear for a deal to join the ISS partnership to be worked out. China's political status may cause the U.S. government some discomfort, but a larger irritant would be the Communist nation's recent anti-satellite missile tests, which blasted an obsolete orbiting satellite into debris back in January, a move harshly criticized by the international space community.

Li's press conference on Tuesday, timed to coincide with the opening of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, may signal a new tack in space policy by the world's largest nation.

"The Chinese government has always pursued a foreign policy of peace and consistently worked for the peaceful use of outer space," Li said at the briefing.

With the rapid progress the Chinese are making in space, it seems inevitable that they will apply to join the ISS program when conditions seem most favorable. For the U.S. and its global partners that will raise a question that may be more fraught with politics than science: Just how international is the International Space Station?

Women are hard to spot in Silicon Valley's executive ranks

While Silicon Valley is jumping again, with the doldrums that followed the dot-bomb already a distant memory, the boom has yet to have any impact on women in the tech industry. According to a study released today by the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Davis, women are making absolutely no progress up Silicon Valleyâ''s corporate ladder. And thereâ''s been no change in the three years since the first study.

The Davis researchers looked at how women executives fared at 400 of Californiaâ''s largest companies. Those based in Silicon Valley came in last in about all metrics. Only nine percent have even one woman in their executive ranks; only seven percent have even one woman on their corporate boards. Statewide, by industry category, the electronics industry ranked last with 2.9 percent of executives being women, the semiconductor industry was barely a step ahead with 5.3 percent women. One surprise to me, since Iâ''ve always thought the power industry as the most macho of the electrical engineering fields, energy and utilities ranked near the top, with 14.1 percent of executives women.

The corporate ladder isnâ''t unfriendly to women at all electronics companies. Twenty-five percent of Hewlett-Packard's executives and board members are women. Cisco and Palm didnâ''t rank too badly, with 17.4 and 16.7 percent respectively. But at some Silicon Valley companies, the UC researchers couldnâ''t identify one women in the executive or board member ranks. Not one. Apple, Applied Signal, Borland, Cadence, JDS Uniphase, LSI, National Semiconductor, Synaptics, and Zoran, are among the Silicon Valley companies who have turned their executive suites into exclusive menâ''s clubs. Chides the study authors, â''Californiaâ''s largest public companies are missing an opportunity to bring a great diversity of perspectives, experiences, and viewpoints into their boardrooms and executive suites.â'' Itâ''s 2007, guys (and I guess I do mean guys), come on, Silicon Valley can do a lot better.

Watch this space (if you're into electric cars)

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Thereâ''s not much but empty space at this former Chevy dealership on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, but keep an eye on this Stanford University-owned lot. When the much delayed Tesla Roadster finally rolls off of the assembly line, this is where youâ''ll see it parked.

This site, at 300 El Camino Real, will house one of the first Tesla dealerships in the country. Others will open in Southern California, Chicago, New York, and Florida.

Production, first targeted at fall 2007, then December 2007, is now slated to begin in 2008, with only 50 cars due to be produced in the first quarter and a target of 600 for the entire calendar year. The first model of the companyâ''s fully electric car costs $98,000; cheaper models are promised to follow, starting in 2010. Even without actual cars to deliver, the 2008 production is just about sold out. Soon, potential customers will be able to sign up for the 2009 waiting listâ''at a cost of $5000.

For a while, then, this lot wonâ''t be too crowded, but it will have models on display and early adopters coming in to pick up their cars or visit the service center. And it may become a popular hangout; test drives of the long-awaited vehicle are likely to be in high demand. Tesla couldnâ''t have picked a better spot to be noticed by potential customers, itâ''s next to the Stanford Park Hotel, a popular spot for Silicon Valley power breakfasts, and just off Sand Hill Road, the venture capital industryâ''s main street.

Menlo Park Mayor Kelly Fergusson sees the Tesla dealership as the beginning of what she hopes will be a â''green alleyâ'' of environmentally friendly businesses lining El Camino.

Weâ''ll be watching this space to see if she's right.

MIT Study Aims to Understand "Killer" Asteroids

We all know what a large asteroid could do to us on Earth. In order to gauge the magnitude of a possible threat from one of these killers, we need to know its physical properties. Short of sending a spacecraft to study the hazardous object, the best way to come to grips with it will be to analyze its spectral signature. That's the idea behind the recent work of a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Richard P. Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT, has been studying the composition of a large asteroid called Apophis that has been making some pretty close passes at our planet and could get even closer in the future. Using spectroscopic analysis, Binzel's team has been able to compare the wavelengths of light coming from Apophis to those of meteorites in the laboratory. His research leads him to believe he has found a match to the threatening asteroid's make up, according to the MIT News Office.

"Basic characterization is the first line of defense," Binzel told attendees at a meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society last week. "We've got to know the enemy."

On 13 April 2029, Apophis (about 270 meters in diameter) will come relatively close to Earth, missing us by about 22000 miles. But when it comes by again in 2036, there is a small possibility that it could be on a collision course, Binzel noted. So his team has been hard at work determining its composition as a test case to serve as a method for studying all future close-calling asteroids, because "you never know when the real one will come along," he said.

"We don't know when the real test will come, but we're ready," Binzel stated.

He could make such a claim because his work seems to have solved the riddle of Apophis. "The composition, I think, is really nailed," he said. Binzel's team found that Apophis is composed of a mineral called type LL chondrite, which is quite rare even among meteorites.

"The beauty of having found a meteorite match for Apophis is that, because we have laboratory measurements for the density and strength of these meteorites, we can infer many of the same properties for the asteroid Apophis itself," Binzel commented.

A catastrophic asteroid strike in the future may be the stuff of scary sci-fi movies, but we know that the threat is all too real. Now, we're developing the scientific tools to come to grips with how we should respond to such a worst-case scenario.

New Crew Arrives at Space Station (With Tourist)

The International Space Station is a crowded house again. Shortly before 11:00 AM EDT, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked at the space station carrying three passengers: one astronaut, one cosmonaut, and one honored guest. The trio joins the current crew of three onboard the ISS, swelling its occupancy over the next nine days. During that time, the overlapping crews will work on replenishing supplies aboard the orbiting science platform and transferring knowledge of the station's operations; and a privileged fellow traveler will get to have the experience of a lifetime.

The two new crew members, the 16th in their line, are Commander Peggy Whitson (NASA) and Flight Engineer Yuri Malenchenko (Roskosmos). The special guest is Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia. They join Expedition 15 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roskosmos) and Flight Engineers Oleg Kotov (Roskosmos) and Clay Anderson (NASA), according to a prepared statement from the U.S. space agency.

Shukor is designated officially as a "spaceflight participant" traveling "under contract" with the Russian space agency. An orthopedic surgeon by profession, he is a representative of the Malaysian National Space Agency and the first Malaysian to travel to outer space. While he has been assigned tasks to perform in research on space medicine during his nine-day visit, he will certainly have opportunities to enjoy perks afforded to those who have unofficially been dubbed space tourists.

Whitson and Malenchenko, both previous ISS veterans, will remain on the station for the next six months, accompanied by Anderson, who will remain onboard offering guidance to the new crew until he is replaced next month by a member of the next flight of the Discovery space shuttle.

With a complement of space travelers from around the world coming and going, the ISS is still living up to the word international in its name.

Forward Bias

October 12, 2007

This week's theme: Fantasy bleeds into reality

1. More than Meets the Eye: Some guys built a real Transformer out of a Citroen. Seriously. There's video.

2. Bond. James Bond. Well, Oddjob actually, but who would have thought he'd be hiding in an iPhone? Leave it to the folks at SemiSerious to figure that out.

3. I can't find my Second Life Passport! It's gotta be in my Second Life office. No wait, could it be in that Second Life cardboard box in my Second Life basement? I just hope I don't have to go to the Second Life Embassy and stand in Second Life line for two Second Life hours to get a new one.

4. The "fairly realistic" Flying car is back. Again.

(hat tip: Danger Room.)

Zero Email Friday is catching on

Today, one hundred and fifty engineers, part of an information technology development group at Intel, are, for the second Friday in a row, not emailing each other. They are picking up telephones, they are walking out of their cubicles and talking to colleagues face to face, but they are not emailing within the group. (Their management isnâ''t completely insane, group members are allowed to use email for external communications.)

Intel is not the first company to establish a no-email Friday. PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services in Alpharetta, Georgia, did it a year ago. The habit turned out to be hard to break; some employees had to put sticky notes on their computers to remind them not to dash out a quick email. But they did it, and soon you could hear chatter in the halls, just like in the pre-email days. Other companies on the no email bandwagon include Veritas Software in Mountain View, Calif. (now part of Symantec) and U.S. Cellular in Chicago.

Seems like small changes; a group here or there, just cutting out their emails to each other. But sometimes small changes lead to big things. After all, Casual Friday was just an experiment once, and now business casual is standard dress. In a world of Blackberries and iPhones, in which email never stops spinning, taking a break from the merry-go-round might be a great thing. Intelâ''s Nathan Zeides says heâ''ll let us know how Zero email Friday is going for him on his blog. Meanwhile, I need to process this morning's email.

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