Technical sleuthing tells all
The "wars" against terrorism and illegal drug use are sparking development of a new generation of devices able to sniff out contraband.
Advances in data acquisition, signal processing, miniaturization, and materials deposition have helped engineers create instruments sensitive enough to detect substances measured in parts per trillion.
And, as in previous wars, such research has spurred new product development in other fields, and allowed technology to be adapted for other uses.
Checking it once. Instruments able to detect plastic explosives have been around for decades. However, conventional port-able vapor detectors require a sizable amount of the explosive be present, or that samples be prepared in solution prior to analysis. More sensitive instruments employing gas chromatography (GC) and GC mass spectrometry can cost upwards of $100,000 and require highly trained operators.
The U.S. Customs Service wants units that can be operated by relatively unskilled people in dynamic situations, such as crowded airports, border crossings, and public events. To this end, the agency provided funding to Ion Track Instruments Inc., Wilmington, MA, a company specializing in security technologies. Ion Track's scientists developed and patented the principle of ion trap mobility spectrometry (ITMS).
The resulting product is the Itemizer, a device that ionizes dry samples with beta radiation produced by nickel-63. Those ions are then measured by a collector electrode. The Itemizer works quickly, and can be tuned to sniff for narcotics or explosives with the flick of a switch. The entire unit weighs under 50 lbs.
Unlike security devices designed to register the presence of objects by bulk or magnetic qualities, the Itemizer's vapor and particle detector raises an alarm when something that has had the barest brush with contraband comes into range. According to Paul Eisenbraun, Ion Track's vice president of sales & marketing, this could be the zipper of a bag, a glove, or even a doorknob.
Thus, it is possible to use the Itemizer to scan the aftermath of bomb blasts. "One of our early units was employed by Argentine investigators to analyze wreckage left over from a car bomb in Buenos Aires in 1994," Eisenbraun says.
Itemizer operators collect samples on clean paper traps either by air-sampling with a hand-held vacuum or by wiping the trap on a suspected area. The trap is loaded into a heated de-sorber unit that frees sample particles from the paper. Samples are filtered and pumped into the ITMS detector, which is lined with 63-Ni foil and equipped with a collector electrode. The latter registers the impact of the ionized particles it at-tracts. The Itemizer compensates for any stray organic particles that penetrate the filter membrane with the introduction of a trace dopant into the gas stream that steals all charge from unwanted ions.
A modified version of the TD-4X2 Double Diaphragm Air/Gas Pump from Brailsford & Company Inc., Rye, NY, draws the sample through a membrane that filters out dust and other errant matter but lets the target particles through. Eisenbraun says engineers selected that pump because the materials it is built from do not corrupt samples or interfere with the analysis. The diaphragm and elastomeric elements are neoprene, Viton, and Teflon; and the pump body components are Delrin and glass-reinforced polypropolynes and polyethylenes. The pump is driven by a proprietary Brailsford brushless dc motor rated for over 10,000 hours continuous duty.
The Itemizer identifies samples by the speed with which the ionized particles traverse the ITMS detector chamber relative to their size. Collector data is amplified and fed into a 486-based Databrick embedded computer from Datalux, Winchester, VA. The 2- × 5- × 10-inch Databrick runs Ion Track's digital signal processing software. Datalux also supplied the Itemizer's operator touch-screen. A Pentium version of the Databrick is now available.
"Traditional sniffers can detect vapors of common explosives, such as dynamite, TNT, and EGDN," Eisenbraun says. "But the vapor pressure of plastic explosives, such as Semtex, RDX, PETN, and HMX are too low for reliable detection by such systems. The Itemizer can detect trace quantities of all explosives as small as one nanogram."
The FAA has purchased six Itemizers for lab and field testing and plans to acquire 479 additional units in 1997. The agency has provided Ion Track with grants to develop a new version of the unit that will automatically screen people and luggage in a "pass-by" environment. ITMS technology could also be applied to detecting pollutants; versions for industrial use in monitoring product quality are also being considered.
Turning to nature. Another, more radical technology fuses engineering and biotechnology.
Diametrix Detectors Inc., San Diego, CA, uses company president Richard Luckens' airborne immunoassay sensor technology, also developed with the help of a Customs Service grant. Diametrix's postage-stamp-sized device detects parts-per-trillion levels of target substances in true vapor phase.
The business side of the immunoassay sensor--a specially mirrored glass substrate on which a sputter-pattern of indium islands has been placed by chemical vapor deposition--is coated with antibody proteins produced from living hybridoma cells cultivated to respond to a particular substance. This substance, in effect, plays the role of an antigen. When antibodies come into contact with the antigen, the two bind together. This binding alters the substrate's optical properties-- detectable by measuring white light shined through it--betraying the presence of a particular substance. Sensors capable of detecting multiple substances can be created by placing multiple types of antibodies on the substrate.
According to Nick Virca, Luckens' partner and vice president of Diametrix, the company has produced sensors for all commonly smuggled narcotics and 13 types of explosives. These sensors currently are being tested in a prototype instrument package. A production version should be ready this year. Virca says the immunoassay sensor is the first technology sensitive enough to replace another biological instrument, the drug- and bomb-sniffing dog.
The ability to detect minute quantities of a specific vapor enables the immunoassay sensor to detect same in a person's breath. The Department of Defense is interested in this technology as a means of drug testing. Virca says the same capability shows promise in the field of medical diagnostics as a simple test for glucose levels in diabetics and for cholesterol levels in people who otherwise might not be tested.
In addition, the U.S. Army is developing a missile that will deploy an immunoassay sensor-equipped device to detect the presence of biological warfare agents.
The battles against drugs and terrorism, whatever a government's specific policies, require weapons to fight them. Engineers are joining the fight by refining existing technologies and developing radical new ones. dn
--Michael Puttré, Associate Editor
Only on the Web! Addition information on this technology
Another walk-through system that screens passengers for traces of explosives, called SecurScan™, has been tested by the designing firms, Design Continuum and Thermedics Detecting Inc. A prototype was field tested by the FAA at Boston's Logan Airport. The system is based on the same trace-detection system technology used in the EGIS portable explosives-detection system.
SecurScan consists of an analytical unit attached to a portal equipped with sampling wands. During the field test, passengers were asked to volunteer to walk through the SecurScan system. As the passengers walked through the portals, the wands gently brush up against their clothing, drawing in an air sample, which is then automatically transferred to the analytical unit. Six seconds later the analysis is complete and determines if and what kind of explosives were present.
The process is computerized and requires no operator interpretation. Operators see either a green "clear" light or a red "alarm" after each analysis is finished.
For more information, contact Ed Milano, Design Continuum, 617-929-9501.
Corvette engineers design the best Vette yet
Bowling Green, KY--The cat is out of the bag! Corvette officials finally release the design details for their C5 fifth-generation Vette. One look, and there is no confusion: The C5 is all Vette. Its underbody structure, more than four times stiffer than the C4, improves ride, handling, and the overall quality of this high-performance icon.
In contrast to the C4's bone-rattling ride from Nashville to Bowling Green, the C5 rivals the comfort of a touring car. A 150-mile trek through Kentucky's back roads proved that performance didn't have to be traded for comfort. The key, according to James Lloyd, chassis program manager, is ideal suspension geometry that decouples ride from handling. The independent SLA suspension is stiff laterally for high-performance handling, and soft vertically for a comfortable ride.
Measuring more than six feet, the first thing I noticed as I slipped into the soft leather seats (Leer Corp., Southfield, MI), was the additional head and leg room. Next, I noticed the analog gages and familiar warm glow of "black" lighting found in cars of the '60s. The soft-touch controls and improved view of the road made me feel like the captain of my own star car--a star car with the coefficient of drag a low 0.29, and armed with a 252W Bose music system.
The redesigned 5.7-l LS1 V-8 maintains the simplicity and compactness of the pushrod layout. Its efficient porting and stiff, light valve train make it breathe like an overhead cam design. It delivers 345 hp at 5,600 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. The extended torque band gives rocket-launch acceleration, and really lets you play out into the high rpm torque range.
The C5 has 34 percent fewer parts, and is about 100-lbs lighter than its predecessor. A four-component perimeter frame incorporates the industry's largest hydroformed parts, the frame rails. Two frame rails replace 14 parts from the previous design.
Other structural and material innovations include a closed-section backbone surrounding the drivetrain, composite floor boards that sandwich balsa wood between two layers of fiberglass, a magnesium steering-column bracket, and a metal-matrix composite prop shaft.
The rear-mounted transmission adds passenger space and evens out mass distribution. The C5's traction control made cake of high-speed maneuvers at the Road Atlanta track in Gainesville, GA. It turns in faster, and is quicker to get under control. Although the throttle pedal felt bottomless at 140 mph, I backed off for fear of spinning out into the red Georgia clay.
Rear-mounted transaxel options in-clude a GM (4L60-E) four-speed automatic, or a Borg Warner (T56) six-speed manual. While two-thirds of the C4s sold were automatic, the six-speed's ability to bring the car to life may change that trend. Cone synchronizers give easy shiftability, and make the car a quick learn.
Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) integrates throttle, cruise, and traction control through a single controller. There is no mechanical connection between the throttle pedal and engine. The new Vette extends the driver's skills effortlessly, so even drivers without special skills or intense concentration can take command of the road.
--John Lewis, Northeast Technical Editor
Automotive electronics take center stage
Dearborn, MI--Automotive engineers need to integrate electronic and mechanical technologies more closely when designing future vehicles. This was the theme of the recent automotive electronics trade show Convergence 96: "Breaking Paradigms: The Seamless Electro-Mechanical Vehicle".
"When you do the mechanicals first, and then the electricals, you add boxes, and the cost adds in a linear fashion," notes Robert Schumacher, director of Delco Electronics' Advanced Technology Center. Studies show companies can save a surprising amount of money by designing the electronics first, he says. This tack also lets designers integrate and optimize their systems.
More than 4,000 automotive and electronics engineers, scientists, and managers discussed how to apply electronics to build more efficient vehicles--rather than adding on dozens of electronic modules. Several speakers pointed to nature as a model for such designs.
"The ultimate example is biological systems, such as the human body, which combines many functions seamlessly and efficiently," said Francois J. Castaing, general chair of the show and Chrysler's executive vice president of vehicle engineering and general manager of power-train operations.
Three ways vehicles can copy nature, says Chris Borroni-Bird, an advanced technologies specialist at Chrysler, are: exploiting software to add functions, adding intelligence to individual components, and making the component material itself intelligent.
One example of an efficient, integrated biological system is an insect's antenna. Unlike car antennas, which only bring in radio signals, insect antennas sense temperature, humidity, and air speed. A natural example of an intelligent material is the way dolphins modify the drag of their skin by changing the shape of every small area of the skin.
Convergence has been held every two years since 1974. It is organized by the Convergence Transpor-tation Electronics Association with sponsorship from the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
64-bit OS powers new workstations
Campbell, CA--HAL Computer Systems has unveiled its latest SPARC workstations: the HALstation 375 and 385, featuring a 64-bit Solaris-compatible operating system. That operating system, SPARC64/OS, allows software programs to address files as large as18 Gbytes, the company notes, insteadof the 2-Gbyte limit of 32-bit operat-ing systems.
The new workstations are built around SPARC64-II processors, and are rated up to 13.6 SPECfp95 and 8.40 SPECint95 (measures of floating-point and integer performance, respectively). Floating-point operations are especially important in compute-intensive tasks such as engineering analysis. "The large and fast memory capability makes it possible for our users to run very large nonlinear simulations extremely fast," according to Louis Crain, president and CEO of MARC Analysis Research Corp. Workstation prices range from $15,995 to $19,995 including 64M RAM, 2G hard drive, Fujitsu AG-10E graphics, and 20-inch color monitor.
HAL, a Fujitsu company, claims its latest HALstations are the industry's fastest single-processor SPARC workstations, although an independent analyst notes that Digital's Alpha and Hewlett-Packard's PA/RISC benchmark numbers are higher. HAL officials say they achieved a 5 percent performance in-crease using improved Fujitsu compilers, and additional speed by boosting CPU clock rates.
The HAL systems might appeal to high-end technical users who already have Sun or Sun-compatible systems and are looking for so-called "superworkstation-class" performance at an attractive price, according to Peter ffoulkes, director of the advanced systems program at Dataquest. "There's a definite niche for it," he says. And, for those seeking true 64-bit systems, along with SGI and Digital machines, HAL offers "quite an interesting and attractive product."
Cool solution for aching heads, muscles
Sanford, MI--The next time you suffer from a headache, sore muscles, or aching joints, you can try slipping on some pain-relieving packaging. Unlike conventional ice- or gel-cooled packs, the KoolBand personal cooling product, made by MicroClimate Systems, relies on a "revolutionary" phase-change material (PCMTM) technology incorporated into KoolPack® bladders inside the pack.
The bladders chill at either 65 or 85F, then change phase from a solid to a liquid as they absorb heat from the body. Because of PCM's constant temperature behavior, the KoolPacks maintain a comfortable 65 or 85F during this transition, according to MicroClimate System's Bob Gonnelli. A Velcro® strap enables the pack to fit all body sizes.
In addition, the pack has a durable, washable, non-shrink white or blue outer shell and weighs only five ounces. The pack provides cooling relief for about an hour. The bladder recharges in ice water in about 20 minutes.
Wanted: Reader participation in auto reviews
Newton, MA--Does safety sell cars? Design News would like to know.
Just how important is safety when it comes to buying a new vehicle? Is it at the top of your priority list when buying a new vehicle? Or is it just one of many factors, such as price, design, make, manufacturer, dealer satisfaction, etc., that will make you seal the deal on your next car purchase?
If you are in the market for a 1997 model vehicle, no matter what the style or make, then you are a potential candidate as a "test driver" for the 1997 Design News annual automotive issue. We would like to know what safety features you looked for, and when those features came into play in making that final buying decision.
Here's how to get your name on the list of possible reviewers. First, you must take ownership of a 1997 vehicle within the next four to five months. Next, you must drop a line telling us about the make and model vehicle you have either purchased or have on order.
If you are selected as one of the reviewers, you will be asked to perform two easy tasks: maintain a 100-day diary starting on the day you take delivery of your vehicle; then, based on this diary, describe those safety features you selected and how important they are to you. You will also be asked to tell us how the vehicle performed during the 100-day period, particularly from the standpoint of the safety features.
Our selection of a "test driver" will be on a "first-come-first-served" basis, so contact us as soon as you anticipate closing your deal. You will receive a monetary award for your efforts if you are selected. Address your request to Reader Reviews, Design News, 275 Washington Street, Newton, MA 02158. Or e-mail Gary Chamberlain at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be certain to include a phone number where you can be reached at home or at work.
New supercomputer cracks 'teraflops' barrier
Eagan, MN--Imagine punching 1+1+1+1+1...on your hand calculator at a rate of one time per second. Without time off for naps or meals, how long would it take to reach 1.8 trillion calculations?
The answer--about 57,000 years--is considerably longer than it would take the new CRAY T3E-900 supercomputer. That's because the T3E-900 can do the same calculation in precisely one second.
Introduced by Cray Research Inc. in November, the CRAY T3E-900 is the first commercially available ma-chine to crack the teraflops (trillion floating-point operations per second) barrier--the industry's holy grail for the 1990s. It incorporates up to 2,048 processors, each operating at 450 MHz, and employs a hardware configuration known as "shared distributed memory," which speeds inter-memory communication by a factor of 10 to 100 times over competing massively parallel machines.
"What makes the CRAY T3E-900 system unique is its massive bandwidth, raw pro-cessor power, and extreme scalability in every direction," notes Robert H. Ewald, president of Cray Research.
In engineering, the new machine is expected to serve high-end computing applications, particularly in the automotive and aircraft industries. Those applications include computational fluid dynamics as well as structural and acoustical analyses. Automotive engineers have used the machine's predecessor, the CRAY T3D, for crash tests, engine design, structural analysis, climate control, and noise reduction. Similarly, aircraft manufacturers have employed it for such tasks as wing and fuselage design. "There's a growing body of software for machines such as the T3D and T3E," says Horst Simon, director of the National En-ergy Research Scientific Computing (NERSC) center, Berkeley, CA. "So there is ample opportunity to use this machine in high-end engineering analysis."
Experts say, however, that the expected trickle-down of massive parallelism hasn't occurred yet. As a result, machines such as the T3E-900 are expected to be confined to extreme high-end problems for now.
Prices for the T3E-900 start at $500,000 for a six-processor, air-cooled machine and can go up to more than $90 million for a 2,048-processor, liquid-cooled machine operating at 1.8 teraflops. dn
--Charles J. Murray, Senior Regional Editor
'Shell game' enhances Mercedes engine
Leverkusen, Germany--Adding more class to the Mercedes-Benz E-class, 4-cylinder, 2- and 2.3-l engines can prove a tough assignment. However, the German automaker did just that by marrying a nylon resin and a vibration-welded multishell technology. The result: a substantial reduction in weight and production costs for the engine's air-intake manifold.
The project marked what is said to be the first commercial nylon 6 multishell, vibration-welded manifold to hit the market. Multishell technology involves injection molding polyamide 6 resin into multiple components--the mother part and close-out pieces--which form the manifold. The pieces are then vibration-welded at a frequency of 120 to 240 Hz to form the complete manifold.
In contrast to lost-core processes normally used in manifold production, multishell technology can offer up to an estimated 30% reduction in costs. This results from faster processing using less complex machinery. The combination permits fewer production steps and shorter cycle times. The Mercedes-Benz process utilizes Durethan® BKV 30H, a 30% glass-filled polyamide 6 resin from Bayer Corp.
Additional benefits of multishell include: an excellent manufacturing window for welding with polyamide 6 resin; excellent burst strength; high parts integration potential; and joining options that embrace vibration welding, hot-plate welding, and overmolding.
The strength and reliability of the manifold application is due not only to the joint strength of the vibration-welded parts, but to the glass reinforcement of the polyamide 6 resin. In the laboratory, optimally designed "Y" pipes are burst-tested using various nylons. Burst-strength levels achieved by 30% glass-filled nylon have safely surpassed typical manifold requirements.
"Multishell technology for manifolds in 4-cylinder engines will peak over the next two years, replacing the expensive, time-consuming lost-core process in many applications," predicts Mark Matsco, manager, Innovative Technologies Group, Bayer Polymers Div., Pittsburgh.
The process also has some environmental benefits. For instance, multishell molded polyamide manifolds help improve fuel economy by offering as much as a 70% material weight reduction over metal casting. The intake air flow performance of the vehicle also is improved due to the smooth internal manifold surface created, which reduces turbulence and allows for excellent air flow.
Design News editor authors book about Seymour Cray
Park Ridge, IL--Long before Dilbert struggled with the foibles of everyday corporate life, supercomputer engineers battled management in an effort to produce some of the most revolutionary machines of the 20th century. Those engineers are now the focus of a new book, The Supermen--the story of Seymour Cray and the technical wizards behind the supercomputer, written by Design News Senior Editor Charles J. Murray.
The book, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, traces the development of scientific computing from World War II until the death of Cray in October, 1996. It examines the industry's unusual corporate culture, which enabled hardware engineers to determine the technical direction of their products into the late 1980s. "The engineers in the supercomputer industry had tremendous creative freedom for several decades," Murray explains. "But they earned it for themselves by standing up to management."
Much of the book highlights the efforts of legendary computer engineer Seymour Cray. In 1954, Cray built the world's first transistorized computer. He also designed the world's fastest computers in 1959, 1963, 1968, and 1975.
"Cray was a self-described rebel," Murray says. "While management focused on new features for existing technology, Cray kept pushing the technical state of the art."
During the 1980s, when many companies began to stress teamwork among engineering, manufacturing, marketing, and finance departments, Cray continued to develop products his own way. He worked alone much of the time in a lakeside cottage equipped with a Data General minicomputer. There, he designed the CRAY-2. "His ideas probably wouldn't be popular in this era of concurrent engineering," Murray says. "He didn't believe that a committee could create revolutionary technology. And he stuck to his beliefs throughout his career."
The Supermen focuses on the work of Cray, as well as engineers at six scientific computing companies: Engineering Research Associates; the Univac Division of Sperry-Rand; Control Data; Cray Research; Supercomputer Systems; and Cray Computer Corporation. "The machines we have on our desktops today are a direct result of the technology developed at those companies," Murray says.
Murray joined Design News in 1987 as Midwest editor. The Supermen, to be released on February 1, is his first book.