United effort could ease software training
What do Compaq Computer Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Boeing Co., Eastman Kodak, Fidelity Investments, and State Farm Insurance have in common? They are all part of a software project launched by the U.S. Department of Commerce that aims to improve the “usability” of business software. “The goal is to standardize how companies report their software testing and see how helpful the common format data is for potential purchasers. If successful, the standardization of user testing could save millions of dollars by reducing the lost productivity and huge training costs associated with buying new software. Call (301) 975-5661.
Photons secure data transmission
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory working with quantum physics theory believe they have secure means of transmitting data called quantum cryptography. The technology uses polarized photons, which are essentially units of light, in place of the ones and zeros of the binary number sequences that make up digital communications. A photon’s polarization is the direction of oscillation for the electromagnetic wave of a photon. Polarized photons create a random string of numbers known only to the sender and receiver. If photons are intercepted, the receiver is tipped off. For short distances approximately 30 miles or less, fiber optic cables carry the data transmissions. Researchers are now developing “free-space” quantum cryptography for global data transmissions through the air. The research is important for creating unbreakable codes for the data transmission. Call (505) 665-2085.
Military technology emerging in commercial markets
Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is military technology that sends radio waves toward a target. Returned radio signals help SAR operators generate images using algorithms. Such algorithms developed for wind speed and soil and water content of an area function day and night, with or without cloud cover. “SAR space missions have had sensor suites designed primarily for scientific purposes, while commercial sale of this data has been somewhat of an afterthought,” says Ron Stearns, a Frost and Sullivan analyst. As an active imaging system, SAR does not rely on reflectance from the earth, and in doing so it has the ability to “see” through clouds and in some cases vegetation. “There’s a lot of uncharted territory on the commercial side. However, commercialization is not going to be without controversy,” according to Stearns. Additional government applications, foreign and abroad, include border surveillance. Initial commercial application markets include telecommunications and forestry. Contact Stearns at (707) 781-0823.
Laser measures thickness
Measuring the thickness of paint on substrates is a tedious operation that needs improvement. In the auto industry, for example, only a fraction of painted car parts coming down the assembly line ever have the paint thickness checked and inspected. “By the time trouble with the paint is detected, hundreds of cars have been affected,” says Michael Baum of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). A new laser-based measurement technology from Autospect (Plymouth, MI) may change the way paint thickness on cars and other products is checked. The company developed a non-contact probe for measuring paint thickness at a rate of up to 100 measurements per second. It works by using laser electronics. Short, intense bursts of laser light heat a small area of paint, setting up an ultrasonic wave in the film that rings like a bell. The thicker the film, the lower the frequency. Autospect, a division of Perceptron Corp., co-funded the development. Call Tim Noppe at Autospect (734) 414 4703.
Free material testing software
OOF is a material testing software that uses mathematical models for predicting how materials respond to a variety of stresses and strains. OOF stands for Object-Oriented Finite element analysis. “For someone who wants to understand how microstructures affect performance, OOF is a good tool,” says Steve Langer, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and developer of the program. Using an image, the computational tool analyzes the behavior of solid materials with complex microstructures such as grains, cracks, and pores. Although the features are tiny, they affect material properties. The software helps predict material performance and how long the material survives under stress before it fails. The program works with many types of materials, including metals, ceramics, and polymers. It replaces weeks of laboratory experiments, according to Langer. “The program is designed to short cut the testing process by allowing a virtual test,” he says. An enhanced version of the software, which is not yet available, will allow thermal calculations and the inclusion of effects of electric and magnetic fields. OOF is written in C++ programming language and currently requires a UNIX operating system and Windows platform. Download OOF at www.ctcms.nist.gov/oof/ or contact Langer at (301) 975-5423.
In-situ fastener inspection
The Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) developed a fastener inspection system that uses an ultrasonic pulse-echo technique for detecting small cracks in fastener threads. The device is suitable for applications where removing the fastener for inspection is not practical. A small hand-held ultrasonic scanner is aligned with the ends of the bolts, screws, and other fasteners, then performs a pulse-echo scan of the part. A signal processor and transducer designed by PNNL reduce interfering noise. When combined with low-noise motors and custom ultrasonic electronics, the system detects small cracks near the thread roots and the onset of fastener degradation. “The previous technology was also ultrasonic, but not sensitive enough,” says Morris Good, a mechanical engineer and the primary researcher behind the fastener inspection device. “We are currently measuring thread-root to thread-root surfaces measuring less than an inch. There may need to be an intermediary step before we commercialize the device,” he says. PNNL invites business inquiries at (888) 375 PNNL or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volvo’s S80 luxury sedan has a special “base metal coating” on its radiator that converts ozone into oxygen. Ozone is the leading component of smog. Volvo is the first car manufacturer using the environmentally friendly coating called PremAir, developed by Englehard Corp. The coating is also the first way discovered to destroy ozone in the atmosphere, according to the company. Its tests indicate that up to 75 % of ozone passing through the radiator converts to oxygen. The hotter and more polluted the air is, the more efficient Premair becomes. Durability tests indicate the coating lasts at least 100,000 miles in automotive applications, Englehard says. Additional future applications include heating and air conditioning units up to 30 tons. Contact: Mark Dresner at mark.dresner@ engelhard.com or call (732) 205-6282.
Avalanche victims found with mini-robots
“Computationally, finding a snow-buried skier is remarkably similar to locating the point source of a chemical or biological attack,” says Sandia National Lab researcher Rush Robinett. He developed a computer program that provides group intelligence to a swarm of mini-robots. “We tried using a single smart computer, but maintaining it was a problem, so we tried a collection of many dumb robots. The reasoning here is that the total is equal to more than the sum of the parts,” says Robinett. He reports that in computer simulation, searchers using the distributed optimization algorithm found avalanche victims four times faster than simulations of other search schemes. It enables communication among bug-sized robots through transmitters that use RF for honing in on a target’s beacon faster than solitary searchers. The group technique called swarming relies on individual robots informing other robots of its position. The steady streams of information from multiple sources allow each member of the swarm to continually refine the direction of the search. Contact: Robinett at (505) 845-9015.
Hybrid vehicles gaining acceptance
Although 75% of new vehicle buyers polled by J. D. Power and Associates say they are not familiar with hybrid-electric vehicles that combine a combustion engine with an electric motor, 80% say these new vehicles would meet their driving needs more than traditional electric vehicles. Reduced air pollution and better driving range are among the top reasons cited among respondents who showed an interest in purchasing a hybrid car. “Hybrid-electric vehicles meet two important needs for mainstream automotive consumers that electric vehicles do not: long driving ranges and reasonable prices,” says Thad Malesh, director of the alternative system vehicle analysis at J. D. Power and Associates. “However, automotive manufacturers have a big job ahead of them in educating consumers,” he says. The report analyzes numerous issues that affect development of alternative vehicles. URL: www.jdpower.com. FAX: 818-889-3719.
New interconnection standard from IEEE
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) approved a new standard, 929-2000, which simplifies the interconnections between photovoltaic systems and electric utilities. IEEE’s Standards Coordinating Committee 21 sponsored the standard, which is the first of its kind and also allows interconnection with non-utility-owned distributed generation equipment. It removes the requirement for specialized hardware for specific jurisdictions and provides requirements for systems up to 10 kW, but it covers all system sizes. The photovoltaic inverters convert direct current to utility-compatible alternating current. Fuel cells and microturbines use similar inverters. E-mail John Stevens at email@example.com.