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THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : An Electric Solution to Hazardous Wastes

Although some 100 million tons of hazardous organic waste are burned annually in the United States, incinerating such wastes is becoming increasingly difficult in light of public complaints and a corresponding difficulty in obtaining permits. But technologies developed by the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and its Los Alamos National Laboratory may make it possible to use electricity to break hazardous compounds into safe and easily managed substances.

The Northwest Laboratory’s process, called CEO (Catalyzed Electrochemical Oxidation), generates chemical reactions similar to those in a car battery. The process occurs in a self-contained unit containing an electrolyte solution--nitric acid and dissolved cerium metal--that breaks down organic waste when an electric current is applied. The process, which has been licensed to EOSystems Inc. of San Jose, was developed about 20 years ago to treat radioactive waste from nuclear weapons manufacturing.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has licensed its cold plasma technology to High Mesa Technologies of Santa Fe, N.M., and ENV America in Irvine. The companies are testing the technology--which could be a commercially viable way to destroy volatile organic compounds from solvents, jet fuels, and paint thinners--at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento.

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Good Vibrations: Auto mechanics may grimace, but the car owner who pulls in complaining about that “funny sound” in the engine is a reliable judge of potential problems. The learning process common to humans and animals uses experience to determine the relative value of new information. Because you drive your car daily, you are acutely aware of when it doesn’t sound “normal.”

A researcher at the Newark, N.J., campus of Rutgers University has created a mechanical fault detection and classification system based on neural networks that uses this human learning pattern. But unlike the human mind, which can follow only four or five streams of information at a time when analyzing complex problems, the neural network can handle hundreds of streams.

In the case of a transmission gearbox, the system would “learn” the vibrational patterns of “good” gearboxes and be able to identify things that weren’t normal.

Development is taking place at the Naval Command, Control and Ocean Surveillance Center in San Diego. The Navy plans to install a test unit on a helicopter.

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Coal Remedy: Acid rain and health would seem to have little in common. But in the process of studying the molecular properties of Illinois coal, which has a high sulfur content and is more likely to contribute to acid rain, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discovered a component in coal that may have important medical applications. The component, an organic carbon sulfur compound known as fusinite, can be used to measure oxygen levels in vital organs and tissue.

Fusinite is nothing more than bits of burnt prehistoric trees that got mixed in with the organic material that became coal. But the University of Illinois researchers and colleagues at Dartmouth College are using fusinite and newly created substitutes to get an oxygen reading from human cells. Fusinite is placed in living cells either intravenously or with a fine needle. Using an imaging technology known as electron spin resonance, researchers can watch a virus as it alters oxygen and nitric oxide metabolism in a cell. Monitoring this process tells biologists and medical researchers about cellular biology and human disease.

Cardiologists are studying whether they can use the material to check for the effect of oxygen deprivation on the heart and surrounding areas, which could help them decide whether coronary bypass surgery would work.

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