Technology Bulletin

Prototype brings UNIX to blind users

For blind or visually impaired computer users, the buttons and icons of a graphical user interface can make a software program impossible to use. A new auditory interface system developed by engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA, and Sun Microsystems solves that problem for the most widely used UNIX graphical interface, X-Windows. The Mercator prototype substitutes sounds for the visual cues that help sighted users to navigate a program. The system will allow sighted and blind computer users to work side-by-side on UNIX workstations, using the same applications software. For details, fax the Georgia Institute at (404) 894-6983.


OEM partnership to develop low-cost sensors

An OEM partnership called the Uncooled Low-cost Technology Reinvestment Alliance (ULTRA) will develop and manufacture advanced industrial and military infrared heat-detecting sensors and components. Conventional thermography systems use mechanical scanners and detectors that must be cooled to cryogenic temperatures. In contrast, ULTRA sensors will use silicon microbolometer uncooled focal plant array detectors made using standard silicon semiconductor processes, and will operate at room temperature. The ULTRA effort will reduce the costs of infrared radiometric and imaging sensors by a factor of eight, predict engineers. Partners include Inframetrics, Rockwell International, and Honeywell. For more information, fax Inframetrics at (508) 667-2702.


Time to enter R&D 100 awards

R&D MAGAZINE is accepting entries for the annual R&D 100 awards. The award is an international competition that recognizes innovators and organizations for outstanding applied sciences developments and technological advancement. The winning products will be honored in a four-week exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago from September 15 through October 14. Past winners include the electronic video recorder (1969), the automatic teller (1973), the fax machine (1975), and the digital compact cassette (1993). For an application, fax "R&D 100 Entry Forms" at (708) 390-2618.


System brings automated refueling down to earth

Engineers at Robosoft S.A. in France have developed OSCAR, a 24-hour robotic refueling system specifically designed for fleets of vehicles. Among OSCAR's features is a robotic sensing device that locates the vehicle's fuel-tank filler cap, unscrews it, and replaces it when the tank is full. An electronic on-board label system captures data such as vehicle ID, date, and location of the tank filler. Engineers have tested prototypes for three years, and the company plans to commercialize the technology in France this year.


NASA and Ford to transfer technology

NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA, and Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, MI, have agreed to a two-year cooperative agreement that will allow Ford engineers to use NASA-developed technology to improve the design and engineering of new vehicles. NASA and Ford designated eight technology areas after assessing more than 60 Langley technologies. Among them: computational fluid dynamics, flow measurement techniques, antenna measurements, and advanced materials to improve manufacturing processes. The agreement marks the first broad technology transfer between NASA and any automaker. For details, fax NASA at (202) 358-2983.


Million-mile, ten-year auto radiators?

New technologies such as no-flux brazing and inno-vative tube and fin designs may yield copper and brass automotive radiators that offer one million miles of service and a ten-year life. So say engineers at the Copper Development Association (CDA) and the International Copper Association. The new radiators, which may be ready for manufacture as early as this year, will be 30% to 40% lighter than their modern counterparts, claim developers. Other technologies under test include anneal-resistant fin and tube alloys, laser-welded tubes, and electrophoretic coatings. For information, fax the CDA in New York at (212) 251-7234.


Micromirrors may make optical coupling easier and cheaper

Using surface micromachining techniques, engineers at University of California, Berkeley, have miniaturized optical systems that use movable beam-steering mirrors. Their microscopic version, designed for fiber-optic systems, uses a micromotor not much larger than the cross-section of a human hair to make mirror adjustments. The entire movable micromirror fits within an area four-hundredths of an inch square. The gold-plated micromirror reflects laser beams into optic fibers for communication systems, environmental sensing, or for optical scanners where the mirrors are continuously vibrated. The micromirrors will be especially useful in systems that require precise alignment, say researchers. They claim that due to their very small mass, the micromirrors can survive a six-foot fall without going out of alignment. For details, fax the Berkley Sensor and Actuator Center at (510) 643-6637.


Rotary engine passes beta tests

A prototype rotary engine developed by Canadian-based firm Reg Technologies, Inc., recently passed test-firing with continuous combustion on both sides of the rotor. The test verified successful combustion, the sealing design, and the ignition system, say Reg engineers. The Rand Cam engine uses only seven moving parts. It offers a power-to-weight ratio of less than one pound of engine weight per horsepower-compared to a six-to-one ratio for piston engines, say Reg engineers. The engine is being modified in Detroit for use as a compressor for auto air-conditioning units. Look for a diesel version from Hercules Aerospace and West Virginia University within a year. For more information, fax John Robertson in Vancouver at (604) 241-4232.


Composite structures to bridge the future?

Innovative polymer matrix composite materials may go a long way towards repairing deteriorated bridges in the U.S. and reducing the cost of offshore oil rigs. With help from a three-year, $2,000,000 award from the government Advanced Technology Program, engineers at Morrison Molded Fiber Glass Co., Bristol, VA, plan to design new composite structural members using glass and carbon fibers in a resin matrix. Morrison will work with engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, to optimize composite shapes and testing. The firm plans to develop the process capabilities and build the necessary pultrusion equipment in-house. For details, fax Morrison at (703) 645-8132.


Performance fluids replace CFCs

3M Engineering Fluids and Systems, St. Paul, MN, has announced replacements that may help electronics, computer, and medical-device manufacturers meet phase-out requirements for CFCs and ozone-depleting compounds (ODCs). Existing perfluorocarbon products, known as 3M Performance Fluids, address applications defined by the EPA's Significant New Alternatives Policy. 3M is also developing new hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) products with short atmospheric lifetimes that include: highly inert liquids for applications where containment and recycling are difficult, high-solvent-power liquids formulated as "drop- in' replacements for CFC-113 in applications such as vapor degreasing, and fluorinated gases for heat-transfer and refrigeration uses. The new products are expected to be available later this year. For details, call 3M at (800) 621-6413.


'Space age' microprocessor withstands radiation

Hitachi Ltd. and the National Space Development Agency (NASDA) of Japan have jointly designed a 32-bit RISC microprocessor that they claim can withstand hard-radiation environments such as outer space. The processor is insulated with a 1,200-nanometer layer of silicon nitride film on top and a 550-nanometer silicon dioxide film below. Tests confirm that the microprocessor withstands radiation equal to that encountered by a satellite operating in geostationary orbit for 10 years, Hitachi reports. NASDA plans to conduct a series of tests in low-Earth orbit using satellites during the next few years. For details, fax Hitachi in Japan at +81 3 3258 2375.


New composite may aid thermal management

Electronic systems engineers are faced with the challenge of designing high-performance thermal management systems that are both lightweight and economical. A new composite developed by DuPont and Lanxide Electronics Composites may offer one solution. Lanxide's process combines silicon carbide and aluminum to produce composites that exhibit low thermal coefficients of expansion and high thermal conductivity. The composite-silicon-carbide-reinforced aluminum-has a thermal conductivity comparable to that of aluminum alloys. Another benefit: Its thermal coefficient of expansion closely matches those of commonly used ceramic materials and semiconductors. For more information, fax Lanxide in the U.K. at +44 929 550357.


Optical wheel-rotation sensor to boost brakes

Engineers at NTN Bearing Corp., Mt. Prospect, IL, and Los Alamos National Laboratory are developing an optical wheel-rotation sensor for future automatic braking systems (ABS). They predict that future cars will use fiber-optic communications systems that offer several advantages over conventional wiring: They aren't damaged by salt or water, and they don't oxidize. Another advantage to the optic sensor is that it suffers no signal loss when the vehicle slows down. Since the sensor works down to zero speed, the same sensor can be used with the speedometer. For details, fax NTN Bearing at (708) 297-2552.

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