february 2010

Renovating American Infrastructure, Step 5: Sewage

Banishing energy-hogging treatment plants and rotting pipes

Every year, Americans produce 12 trillion gallons of wet sewage and burn 21 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to clean it to drinking-water standards. Why not put the smelly stuff to good use? Thanks to clever new technology, sewage will be reclaimed to provide power, produce fertilizer and, eventually, yield clean water. In other words, sooner than you think, you’ll be drinking your own urine.

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A Lot of Hot Air

The science behind the flying house in 'Up'

Pixar’s latest animated odyssey features a house being lifted into the air by a cluster of helium-filled balloons. While most adults would write off the idea as childish fantasy, director Pete Docter was on hand to explain the science behind it.

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Creating Mobile Apps With a Point and a Click

Creating mobile applications for Android and the iPhone isn’t just for code-writing geeks anymore

Even with the huge number of mobile apps already available, cellphone screens are always awaiting new ideas from innovative developers. If you have your own idea for the perfect app, whether for a wide audience or just your own use, you’re in luck—you no longer need to be a deft programmer to produce it. There are now a number of app-generating tools on the Web that will enable you to bring your concept to life by clicking instead of coding.

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February 2010 Issue: Rebuilding America's Infrastructure


Renovating America

How can we build better bridges, highways and water mains? With new tech, including superconducting power lines, no-dig water pipes, and self-healing pavement. By Adam M. Bright

Pixel Qi: The LCD Screen That Could Finally Kill Paper For Good

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A Cannon for Shooting Supplies into Space

John Hunter wants to shoot stuff into space with a 3,600-foot gun. And he’s dead serious—he’s done the math. Making deliveries to an orbital outpost on a rocket costs $5,000 per pound, but using a space gun would cost just $250 per pound.

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Taking the Guesswork out of Baseball Stats

A new camera system tracks fielders for definitive defensive analysis

This could be the year that baseball-stat freaks finally crack the “Derek Jeter enigma.” A panel of coaches has awarded the New York Yankees’ shortstop four of the past six Gold Glove awards for fielding excellence. That drives statisticians nuts, because nearly every statistical model ranks Jeter’s defense below average. But evaluating fielding is baseball’s hardest math. There are just too many unknowns in a play. How much ground did Jeter cover? How fast was the ball moving? In essence: How unlikely was it that he’d catch the ball?

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The Mind Readers

If a few very smart neuroscientists are right, with enough number crunching and a powerful brain scanner, science can pluck pictures—and maybe one day even thoughts— directly from your brain

It’s after dark on a warm Monday night in April, and I’m lying face-up in a 13-ton tube at the Henry H. Wheeler, Jr. Brain Imaging Center at the University of California at Berkeley. The room is dimly lit, and I am alone. A white plastic cage covers my face, and a blue computer screen shines brightly into my eyes. I’m here because a neuroscientist named Jack Gallant is about to read my mind. He has given me strict instructions not to move; even the slightest twitch could affect the accuracy of what he’s about to do. As I stare straight up, I notice an itch on my thigh.

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Green Dream: Swappable Switches

A wireless lighting system makes electrical switches portable

Most houses require hundreds of feet of electrical wire to connect light switches to a main power source, but not my eco-friendly dream home. I’ve installed a wireless lighting system called Verve that uses radio waves instead of copper wiring to command all the lights and outlets in my house. The system not only saves copper (imagine the savings in a skyscraper) but also lets me put switches wherever I want—beside the kids’ beds, in my pocket or even on the dash of my car—without the need to pull out wires or rip up walls.

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Gray Matter: Batteries Out of Thin Air

A little oxygen is all a zinc-air battery needs to become a powerhouse

A battery that runs on air? Why, that’s almost as good as a car that runs on water! Those cars are fantasy, but batteries that run on air are actually quite common, especially among older people. Tiny zinc-air batteries are widely used in hearing aids, where they have replaced toxic mercury-based batteries in providing a small but steady stream of power. They supply more energy for their size than any other battery, because they draw some of their power straight from the air.

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Theme Building: DIY Snow Vehicles Show Winter Who's Boss

Two mechanics on a remote outpost build a “snow chopper” out of salvaged parts

SIn the desolate environment of Antarctica, when mechanics Bob Sawicki and Toby Weisser weren’t at their jobs maintaining a fleet of snowmobiles at the U.S. logistics hub there, they passed the time by building a motorcycle-like snow vehicle out of junked parts and trash. As government employees, they were forbidden to use any new equipment on their side project. Instead, they got the engine and track from a totaled 1981 Ski-Doo Elan and, with the exception of nuts, bolts and fuel hoses, everything else from savvy dumpster diving.

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Five Reasons Henrietta Lacks is the Most Important Woman in Medical History

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor woman with a middle-school education, made one of the greatest medical contributions ever. Her cells, taken from a cervical-cancer biopsy, became the first immortal human cell line—the cells reproduce infinitely in a lab. Although other immortal lines have since been established, Lacks’s “HeLa” cells are the standard in labs around the world. Together they outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings and could circle the equator three times.

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Which Organs Can I Live Without, and How Much Cash Can I Get for Them?

First, a disclaimer: Selling your organs is illegal in the United States. It’s also very dangerous. Handing off an organ is risky enough when done in a top hospital, even more so if you’re doing it for cash in a back alley. No, really: Don’t do this. OK? OK.

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Airwaves Abandoned by TV Could Beam High-Speed Internet Everywhere

When TV went digital, Verizon, AT&T and other cellphone carriers shelled out a combined $19 billion for some of the freed-up airwaves, known as white spaces. Now wireless company Spectrum Bridge is using the parts that are still unclaimed to deliver high-speed Internet from its broadcast tower to your laptop computer.

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It's About Time: A Drill-Free Fix For Cavities

Bacteria love hanging out between your teeth—food gets caught there, and brushing can’t reach all the germs. If the bugs settle in and form a cavity, your dentist must drill through your tooth just to get at it. But now dentists can trade their drills for a simple treatment that stops early-stage cavities.

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Tech Trend: Power Nappers

Save energy with chips that know exactly how hard to work—and when to take a snooze

The Trend
Efficient new laptops can run multiple programs without sucking extra wattage. That’s because they pace themselves. Their processors can shut down partially when the screen is static or when running simple tasks, and ramp up to full steam when big programs call for it.

Why Now

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