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Technology bulletin

Technology bulletin

A low-cost tool for heart surgery

The high cost of heart surgery using balloon catheters has led researchers at the Charles Nicolle Hospital in Rouen to develop a technique which uses a miniature pair of expanding metal jaws instead. Whereas a balloon catheter cannot be sterilized and should therefore only be used once, the metal jaws have been designed so that they can be sterilized and re-used. Tests carried out so far in Rouen and Hyderabad, India, suggest that one set of jaws can be used on at least 25 patients. Dr. Alain Cribier, head of the Rouen team of researchers, says that the new device will bring particular benefits to developing countries where balloon catheters are frequently re-used many times, despite the risk of infection. The new device is to be made by French company Medicorp in Nancy. It will be available by the end of the year at a price of around $9,000 which is slightly more expensive than a balloon catheter. For more information, phone Dr. Alain Cribier at the Charles Nicolle Hospital at the University of Rouen, +(33) 2-32-88-82-32.

European powder metal: shipments flat; parts more sophisticated

Following two years of double-digit growth, shipments of European powder metals (PM) were flat in 1996. So reports the European Powder Metallurgy Association (EPMA), Bellstone, UK. The iron and steel powder sector experienced negligible growth, while the copper and copper-based powder sector grew by a modest 3%. Powder shipments for the first quarter of 1997 show a continuation of this trend. According to EPMA Executive Director Bernard Williams, a general decrease in the size of PM parts, particularly those used in the automotive industry, is partly responsible for the slowdown in tonnages. However, Williams also points out that sales by value of PM components are increasing more significantly. "Redesigns of PM parts are shedding weight, which results in reduced requirements for powders," Williams says. These more sophisticated parts are finding wider usage, a trend that may soon double the current average of 6 kg of PM parts per European car. The automotive industry accounts for about 80% of the market for PM parts in Europe. For more information, phone the EPMA, +44(0)1743-248899.

Ultrasound helps test touchy systems

Non-destructive testing assumes a higher profile where safety concerns are of paramount importance. In France, the nuclear industry, which has rigorous inspection requirements, is a national priority. As a result, French research labs have made developing methods of non-destructive testing a priority. In particular, technologies involving ultrasound are showing promise in testing metal parts for defects. For instance, the French Atomic Energy Commissariat has developed the FAUST system, a French acronym standing for Adaptive Tomographic Ultrasound Focusing. FAUST enables inspectors to test parts of varying shapes and sizes. A multi-component transducer adjusts its depth of field and signal amplitude, comparing them to a theoretical model, to home in on defects in the mid-definition range. This method of auto-focusing is able to detect flaws that otherwise might be missed, such as cracks under an irregular coating or misaligned welds.

Chinese and American firms partnering for EV production

GPE Industries Ltd., Hong Kong, China, will manufacture electric vehicle (EV) components for Solectria Corporation, Wilmington, MA, USA, a builder of production battery-powered cars. GPE will produce motor controllers and gearboxes to Solectria's specifications at its ISO 9002-accredited manufacturing facilities in China. "This initial endeavor can be viewed as a cornerstone for further joint activities related to the EV components business," says James Worden, CEO of Solectria. "Our customers win three key benefits from this new relationship: First and foremost is GPE's reputation for world class quality manufacturing; second is Solectria's enhanced capability to quickly ramp up production of a wide range of components; and third, very competitive costs are realized through GPE's high volume purchasing power." Solectria electric drive systems and components have been developed for use in electric sedans, trucks, delivery vans, and transit buses. More than 1,000 electric vehicles around the world now employ Solectria components. GPE is a major supplier to the automotive industry in China and Japan. An affiliated company, GP Batteries, is presently researching and developing nickel metal hydride batteries for EVs. For more information, phone Karl Thidemann, Solectria, at +(508) 658-2231.

Engineering tools for the Big Screen

LightWork Design supplies rendering engines that are incorporated into 3-D design engineering software packages. Now, the company is applying this technology to the world of high-end animations. According to Ken Royall, director of business development, the same technologies that enable engineer's to produce photorealistic renderings of their designs can be applied to the entertainment industry to produce even more lifelike computer-generated imagery (CGI). "Look at an advanced engineering model created in a 3-D CAD package that has been rendered using LightWorks and it is almost indistinguishable from a photograph of the real thing," Royall says. The most sophisticated product in LightWork lineup is LightWorks Pro, which provides feature-following anti-aliasing that identifies and removes "artifact" pixels from an image. The software also permits animators to simulate "real-camera" photographic effects, such as lens flares, depth of field distortions, motion blur, and fog effects. LightWorks is available for all major development platforms, including Unix, Windows, and Macintosh. Phone LightWork sales at (+44) 114 266 8404.

Paper barrier keeps lid on pollution

An effective package keeps its contents safe until a consumer comes along to open it. A convenient package is most likely one that can be discarded easily once its contents have been consumed. Designing effective and convenient packages that are also environmentally friendly is a major engineering challenge: characteristics of the former two traits tend to conspire to defeat the latter. However, researchers at Finnish Enso Paperboards, Karhula, Finland, have developed a new paper-based lidding material called, Ensolid, which has good material properties for packaging applications and is readily biodegradable as well. Ensolid is created from the company's Lumiflex-paper with a multi-layer polymer coating. The material provides an effective oxygen, water vapor, and aroma barrier, making it suitable for packing ice cream, juice, soft cheese, and other dairy products. Endolid lids peal well without ripping, hold print, and provide good resistance against bursting. Component materials can be recycled and are also safe to burn. For more information, phone Yrjo Aho, sales manager, at +358 2046 22153.

Jason and the Argonauts

Robert Ballard, director of the Institute for Exploration, Mystic, CT, USA, gives a large measure of credit to mechanical engineers for his recent discovery of ancient Roman trading ships on the floor of the Mediterranean. Ballard, known for his discoveries of the last resting places of Titanic, her sister ship, Britannic, and the battleship, Bismarck, employed a Volkswagen-sized robotic submersible called, Jason, to survey the Roman wrecks and recover artifacts more than 2,000 years old. The 2,200-lb robot, developed and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA, enables researches to explore inaccessible or hazardous underwater sites without risking human lives. Louis Whitcomb, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA, designed Jason's navigation and control system. Whitcomb, who accompanied the Ballard expedition to the Mediterranean, said the new sonar-based navigation and control system helped the team position Jason precisely for the sonar and photographic surveys. "Our system uses doppler sonar to measure and control Jason's position and velocity," Witcomb says. "Jason can hover centimeters above delicate sea-floor sites and reach down with its robotic arm to recover artifacts and samples without disturbing the surrounding environment." Ballard's expeditions strive to leave sites as found. With further development, Whitcomb hopes to imbue robots with dexterity and sensory capabilities exceeding those of humans, enabling them to excel in inhuman environments. For more information on robotics research at Johns Hopkins phone the Office of News and Information at (410) 516-7160.

Linear accelerator leads to high-power insulator

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, Livermore, CA, USA, and the Allied Signal Federal Manufacturing and Technologies lab, Kansas City, MO, USA, both Department of Energy facilities, have developed a new insulator that will sustain four times the electrical voltage of conventional insulators. Dubbed the ultra high gradient insulator (UHGI), the new device uses extremely thin layers of conducting material between alternating layers of insulating material. While this approach is not new, Steve Sampayan, an electrical engineer at Lawrence Livermore, said the layers of previous designs were thicker and did not achieve the same results. Using polycarbonate as an insulating material, the UHGI will support 200,000 volts of electricity for each centimeter of material. Fused-silica or glass insulators will sustain 175,000 volts per centimeter. Alumina insulators will support 125,000 volts per centimeter. Alternately, UHGI-based insulators could be make one-fourth the size of conventional insulators, enabling smaller and lower-cost equipment. Sampayan said the breakthrough occurred while his colleagues were working on a concept for a new linear accelerator that demanded better insulators.For more information, phone Stephen Wampler, Lawrence Livermore Public Affairs, at (510) 423-3107.

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