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Technology Bulletin

Technology Bulletin

French fry oil may power your car

The vegetable oil that makes French fries irresistible and not all that good for you, may be surprisingly good for your car. Researchers Bob Fox and Dan Ginosar of the U.S. Department of Energy Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory use vegetable oil as the main ingredient for a fuel called biodiesel. The process of converting vegetable oils or animal fats to diesel fuel has been produced and tested for years as an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel, or petrodiesel. But the current method of producing biodiesel is costly and time consuming, requiring two to three days to complete. And, in the end, the process creates three gal of wastewater for every one gal of fuel. Fox and Ginosar developed a continuous process that produces a higher grade biodiesel with less waste at a lower cost. Their method uses a catalyst fixed in the solution. The solvent is constantly recycled, leaving it out of the finished product. The result: a better separation of biodiesel and glycerol, and a cleaner, higher grade of both substances. Current separation methods result in a low-grade glycerol, which is worthless. On the other hand, the high-quality glycerol produced by the new process places the high-grade glycerol at close to $10 per gal. Because it's base is vegetable oil, biodiesel smells like Kentucky Fried Chicken when burned, so much so that when the National Park Service considered using biodiesel fuel for tour buses in the parks, it worried that bears would chase the vehicles. The researchers secured a provisional patent for the technology, but lack funding to refine the process and complete the project. E-mail [email protected].

Software digitize living things for 'true-to-life' animation

Taking a complex model, especially an organic one, and transferring that information into the computer has never been easy. Reverse engineering, while certainly a growing trend, can be complicated and slow. A new company, Paraform Software Inc. (Palo Alto, CA), and its 3D digital modeling program hope to change that. Venkat Krishnamurthy developed a series of mathematical formulas while earning his doctorate in computer science at Stanford University. His software enables designers to scan 3D images of any object into a computer and then manipulate that image as if it were chiseled electronically. Rather than making an image out of a patchwork of triangles, as is the traditional meshing format, Krishnamurthy constructs the same image more simply with a smaller number of curved lines, known as nonuniform rational B-splines, or Nurbs. He then translates the curves into more easily processed mathematical formulas. The simpler technique offers major benefits: such as the ability to reconstruct the image with greater detail and to revise it quickly. Current software packages start with a point plot. A user generates curves and then wraps surfaces. Paraform works on the polygonal data directly. It draws on this data to shrink wrap the surfaces. This is an order of magnitude faster than the current approach, says Krishnamurthy. The entertainment industry is the first to realize the software's potential. Paraform and Film East, a film services company in Los Angeles, teamed to digitize people via one of the world's only full-body 3D laser scanners currently available for commercial use. "The ability to rapidly create an animation-ready digital human using a full-body laser scan of an actual person is no longer limited to the realm of science fiction," says Stephen Skinner, Paraform's director of business development. After it is scanned, the model can be directly exported to computer modeling and animation programs. "This makes it equally applicable for both visual effects and game development," says Skinner. Paraform plans to offer a program targeting other applications, such as conceptual design; rapid prototyping; manufacturing, inspection, and analysis; and medical by the end of the year. E-mail [email protected].

Reflected x-rays take fuse out of package bombs

A portable machine built at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM) uses reflected x-rays instead of traditional transmitted ones to build an image inside suspicious packages. Presently, police see inside packages with an image created by an x-ray beam on a piece of film placed behind the potential bomb. The new method evolved from Sandia's efforts to use reflected x-rays to detect plastic or metal landmines buried in the ground and eliminates the need for personal contact. Intense reflected x-rays form an image of the object, reflecting them through a special filament heated by wall-current electricity that releases electrons with energies in the x-ray range. A computer program developed at the University of Florida at Gainesville under contract with the US Army distinguishes between degrees of reflection or back-scatter caused by objects in the case. By stripping layer after layer in a series of x-rays, a technique similar to a CATscan, the changes in backscattered x-rays form a complete picture. "We can tell if it's explosives, bologna, or a can of shaving cream," says Steve Shope, Sandia project manager. The detector and video camera mount on a four-ft-high mobile robotic platform that rolls down hallways. Its operator observes the system's progress at a distance through real-time video images sent back by a trailing cable. Presently, the process takes about 40 minutes because the device must repeatedly scan an object to build up an image. A new method currently under development takes a snapshot instead. Although still in the laboratory stages, Sandia researchers hope to create a more powerful mobile device to locate metal reinforcements in the basement walls of old buildings, scan for weakened rebars before a bridge collapses, and find buried electrical lines. E-mail [email protected].

Virtual assembly processes come to the PC screen

Emphasis in the computer-aided design-tool market seems to be shifting from product management to process management and from individual components to assemblies. In an answer to this move, Adept Technology's Silma Div. (San Jose, CA) has developed a 3D CAD-based assembly process planning and design software suite. Production PILOT creates a single, scalable virtual factory for automated and manual assembly processes. Inside this factory, engineers and designers can analyze and verify assembly procedures, while simultaneously finding and correcting problems before investing in capital equipment or fabricating parts. Production PILOT consists of three integrated modules: PILOT Line for assembly-line design, PILOT Cell for detailed assembly workcell design, and PILOT Yield for designing products with high automated assembly yields. All three products have the same user interface. The software also offers a built-in financial module that provides a quick evaluation of each proposed assembly scenario in financial terms, such as cash flow, profit, return on investment, and simple payback. Adept expects to ship the product by the end of the year. For more information, visit their web site:, e-mail [email protected].

Look Mom! No programming!

SCOPELAND Software Inc., based in Berlin, Germany, now offers a software program that allows creation of applications without programming. The new technology, called Direct Data Processing (DiDP), allows the implementation and manipulation of individual database applications without any program code. The software, developed by SCOPELAND in cooperation with the Free University of Berlin, was first offered on the German market in early 1998. SCOPELAND recently opened its first U.S. office in San Francisco, hoping to address the American market with the cooperation of U.S. consultants and systems integrators. According to the company, the advantages of this product include flexibility because the database administrator and user no longer must use coded programming to manipulate and make real-time changes to database applications. The software, the company claims, offers a multi-user database that enables the user to create, change, and manipulate database applications 10 times faster than traditional tools. The software runs on Oracle, Informix, or MSSQL-Server relational databases. E-mail [email protected].

Math aids aerial photography to locate above-ground land mines

In light of the recently signed land-mine treaty, military personnel need to find safer and more effective ways to locate these deadly devices. Engineering researchers at The Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore) are addressing the problem through math. John Goutsias, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in John Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering, and doctoral students Ashish Banerji and Ulisses Braga-Neto, developed a series of complex mathematical steps that allow a computer to filter out unwanted material in surveillance images and locate the land mines with a high degree of accuracy. "This algorithm is simple, performs well, and requires only an approximate knowledge of the size of the mines," says Goutsias. Using an unmanned plane to photograph a potential mine field is one way to avoid risking a pilot's life, Goutsias explains, "but unless you can come in very close to the ground, it's difficult to see whether there are mines. First, the mines are relatively small. And second, they're usually in areas that have a lot of vegetation, where it's difficult to discriminate among shrubs, trees, and mines." The algorithm developed by Goutsias, Banerji, and Braga-Neto enables a computer to use size and shape restrictions to disregard trees and other large objects that are unlikely to be a mine. To eliminate rocks or shrubs that are roughly the size of a mine, the process compares six filtered images of the same scene. Rocks and vegetation reflect light differently than metal or plastic mines, and they show up less often in the images. "If an object of the proper size appears in at least three images, the system decides it is probably a mine," Goutsias says. Following the steps developed by the Hopkins researchers, a computer can find the above-ground mines in an aerial picture in less than a minute, Goutsias says. The process needs further refinement, but the Hopkins professor believes it will produce results superior to existing aerial mine detection systems. Goutsias' research has been funded by the Mathematical, Computer and Information Sciences Div. of the Office of Naval Research, in collaboration with the Coastal Systems Station, Naval Surface Warfare Center. FAX (410) 516-5251.

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