Friday, April 15, 2011

Reverse Engineering the Brain – from the Inside

Reverse engineering the brain, one of the 10 Grand Challenges posed by the National Academy of Engineering, and understanding the trillion interconnections of its circuitry won’t be easy, but there are some pretty interesting plans in the works, including a couple that, on the surface, sound very far-fetched.

To understand where today’s engineers stand, imagine engineers from the Middle Ages trying to unravel the mysteries of a twenty-first century computer. Like today’s engineers hoping to understand the human brain, they didn’t have the tools.

Technologies such as CT, MRI, fMRI, MEG and PET provide valuable data, but it’s the kind of information that only suggests what’s really going on in the brain’s circuitry. What engineers need is a tool that can examine the brain at a cellular level, without destroying it. One of the potential approaches that’s attracting attention is the use of nanobots -- billions of them -- that would travel in the blood stream throughout the body to the brain, where they would scan its structure and examine its circuitry as no current technology could. The bots, smaller than bloodcells, would transmit their data wirelessly to researchers for analysis and interpretation.

One challenge in this scenario is the blood-brain interface, a barrier that protects the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood – bacteria, hormones and other toxins. Only oxygen and glucose can get though the barrier without causing damage. But there are some workarounds in discussion. One calls for nanobots to “reach across” the barrier with a robotic arm. In another scenario, nanobots break through the barrier, collect data, then return to the blood stream and repair the barrier as they exit.

The technology, as far-fetched as it seems, isn’t that far away. This means that in the not too distant future engineers will be analyzing the algorithms that transform tissue and mindless circuitry into human intelligence. That information, in turn, will accelerate the development of machine intelligence, leading to yet greater discoveries and a vast expansion of the human knowledge base. This process is already well underway -- computers are performing hundreds of tasks that used to be the sole province of human intelligence. 


As the National Academy of Engineering has said, the secrets about how living brains work "may be the best guide to engineering the artificial variety. Discovering those secrets by reverse-engineering the brain promises far more than building smarter computers. Advances gained from studying the brain may pay dividends for the brain itself. Understanding its methods will enable engineers to simulate its activities, leading to deeper insights about how and why the brain works and fails. Such simulations will offer more precise methods for testing potential biotechnology solutions to brain disorders, such as drugs or neural implants. Neurological disorders may someday be circumvented by technological innovations that allow wiring of new materials into our bodies to do the jobs of lost or damaged nerve cells. Implanted electronic devices could help victims of dementia to remember, blind people to see and crippled people to walk."


What do you think? Is it possible to reverse engineer the brain from the inside? And is it worth the effort? Tell us what you think.










Reverse Engineering the Brain – from the Inside

Reverse engineering the brain, one of the 10 Grand Challenges posed by the National Academy of Engineering, and understanding the trillion interconnections of its circuitry won’t be easy, but there are some pretty interesting plans in the works, including a couple that, on the surface, sound very far-fetched.

To understand where today’s engineers stand, imagine engineers from the Middle Ages trying to unravel the mysteries of a twenty-first century computer. Like today’s engineers hoping to understand the human brain, they didn’t have the tools.

Technologies such as CT, MRI, fMRI, MEG and PET provide valuable data, but it’s the kind of information that only suggests what’s really going on in the brain’s circuitry. What engineers need is a tool that can examine the brain at a cellular level, without destroying it. One of the potential approaches that’s attracting attention is the use of nanobots -- billions of them -- that would travel in the blood stream throughout the body to the brain, where they would scan its structure and examine its circuitry as no current technology could. The bots, smaller than bloodcells, would transmit their data wirelessly to researchers for analysis and interpretation.

One challenge in this scenario is the blood-brain interface, a barrier that protects the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood – bacteria, hormones and other toxins. Only oxygen and glucose can get though the barrier without causing damage. But there are some workarounds in discussion. One calls for nanobots to “reach across” the barrier with a robotic arm. In another scenario, nanobots break through the barrier, collect data, then return to the blood stream and repair the barrier as they exit.

The technology, as far-fetched as it seems, isn’t that far away. This means that in the not too distant future engineers will be analyzing the algorithms that transform tissue and mindless circuitry into human intelligence. That information, in turn, will accelerate the development of machine intelligence, leading to yet greater discoveries and a vast expansion of the human knowledge base. This process is already well underway -- computers are performing hundreds of tasks that used to be the sole province of human intelligence. 


As the National Academy of Engineering has said, the secrets about how living brains work "may be the best guide to engineering the artificial variety. Discovering those secrets by reverse-engineering the brain promises far more than building smarter computers. Advances gained from studying the brain may pay dividends for the brain itself. Understanding its methods will enable engineers to simulate its activities, leading to deeper insights about how and why the brain works and fails. Such simulations will offer more precise methods for testing potential biotechnology solutions to brain disorders, such as drugs or neural implants. Neurological disorders may someday be circumvented by technological innovations that allow wiring of new materials into our bodies to do the jobs of lost or damaged nerve cells. Implanted electronic devices could help victims of dementia to remember, blind people to see and crippled people to walk."


What do you think? Is it possible to reverse engineer the brain from the inside? And is it worth the effort? Tell us what you think.










Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Solar Updraft Towers -- Powerful, Green, Promising

The principle of the solar updraft tower is as simple as the fact that heat rises.  Even the basic configuration of a solar updraft "chimney" is simple.

The tower stands at the center of huge plastic sheet that's supported
several feet off the ground on posts. As the sun shines down on the plastic -- the "greenhouse" -- the air beneath it heats up rapidly and looks for a place to escape. The only outlet is through the narrow tower in the center. The air rises into turbines that drive generators, producing electricity but no greenhouse gases. 

One particular charm of the updraft tower is that it even works at night, as well as on cloudy days and periods of rain, making it the most efficient of available wind-power sources. This efficiency depends on the difference between the temperature under the material and the temperature at the top of the tower – the greater the differential, the faster the air will rise. During the day, the heat beneath the material reaches about 50 degrees C, warming the ground as well as the air. At night, the air is cooler at the top of the tower than it was during the day, but the ground, still radiating stored heat, keeps the air warm enough to create a temperature differential that's more than sufficient to send warm air upward and drive the turbines. The amount of energy that the tower produces -- day or night -- is proportional to the area of material and the height of the tower – the larger the greenhouse and the taller the tower, the greater the energy will be.

Currently, no solar updraft towers are in use commercially.  But in 1982, engineers in Manzanares, Spain, built a 650-foot prototype tower with a surrounding greenhouse that covered nearly 11 acres. The facility generated an average of 50 MW and ran for approximately 15,000 hours until it collapsed 1989 -- structural integrity is the Achilles heel of these towers. They must withstand winds that are significantly higher at the top  than they are at the bottom, causing stress differentials that warp and weaken the structure.  Despite its unfortunate end, the tower had a successful run that caught power companies' attention. 
 
The greenhouse of the Australian solar tower
will have a diameter of 3.5 miles
About that time, oil prices began to drop, and people’s enthusiasm for solar updraft technology waned. But things have changed -- today's rising oil prices have rekindled interest.

The Australian government has designed its own tower and will soon begin construction of version 400 feet in diameter and 3,000 feet high, which would make it the tallest man-made structure in the world -- more than twice the height of Malaysia's Petronas Towers, or the Canadian National tower in Toronto.  The greenhouse will cover a circle with a diameter of 11 square miles. The engineers plan to use reinforced high-tensile concrete to construct the tower -- only time will tell if they've found a solution to the stresses it will have to endure. Transparent plastic with heat-enhancing properties will
keep the temperature of the air beneath the greenhouse between 35 degrees C at the perimeter to about 70 degrees C in the middle; these temperatures will amplify the differential between ground level and the chimney top. The air, once it enters the tower, will climb at about 35 mph, losing about 1 degree C for every 300 feet it travels -- a ratio that engineers consider ideal to reach peak wattage.

If the tower works as engineers hope, it will generate about 200 MW – enough to power about 200,000 Australian homes, or around 47,000 U.S. homes. Generating that much energy with fossil fuels would produce about 830,000 tons of CO2 per year. So the solar updraft tower, which emits no greenhouse gases, will be a popular option for advocates of green technology. 

The interiors of updraft towers, as well as the space beneath the greenhouse, will be hospitable enough to allow maintenance crews to work while the facility is operating -- a completely different maintenance model for power plants that must either cut back on their power production or, in the case of nuclear facilities, shut down entirely for servicing.

Solar updraft towers appear to be one of the better ways to tap the inexhaustible energy of the sun. The technology to build them is available. All that's needed is the political will and the money to build them -- these towers are expensive, but analysts say that investors would recoup their investments in two to three years.

Would you want a wind farm in your town?

Solar Updraft Towers -- Powerful, Green, Promising

The principle of the solar updraft tower is as simple as the fact that heat rises.  Even the basic configuration of a solar updraft "chimney" is simple.

The tower stands at the center of huge plastic sheet that's supported
several feet off the ground on posts. As the sun shines down on the plastic -- the "greenhouse" -- the air beneath it heats up rapidly and looks for a place to escape. The only outlet is through the narrow tower in the center. The air rises into turbines that drive generators, producing electricity but no greenhouse gases. 

One particular charm of the updraft tower is that it even works at night, as well as on cloudy days and periods of rain, making it the most efficient of available wind-power sources. This efficiency depends on the difference between the temperature under the material and the temperature at the top of the tower – the greater the differential, the faster the air will rise. During the day, the heat beneath the material reaches about 50 degrees C, warming the ground as well as the air. At night, the air is cooler at the top of the tower than it was during the day, but the ground, still radiating stored heat, keeps the air warm enough to create a temperature differential that's more than sufficient to send warm air upward and drive the turbines. The amount of energy that the tower produces -- day or night -- is proportional to the area of material and the height of the tower – the larger the greenhouse and the taller the tower, the greater the energy will be.

Currently, no solar updraft towers are in use commercially.  But in 1982, engineers in Manzanares, Spain, built a 650-foot prototype tower with a surrounding greenhouse that covered nearly 11 acres. The facility generated an average of 50 MW and ran for approximately 15,000 hours until it collapsed 1989 -- structural integrity is the Achilles heel of these towers. They must withstand winds that are significantly higher at the top  than they are at the bottom, causing stress differentials that warp and weaken the structure.  Despite its unfortunate end, the tower had a successful run that caught power companies' attention. 
 
The greenhouse of the Australian solar tower
will have a diameter of 3.5 miles
About that time, oil prices began to drop, and people’s enthusiasm for solar updraft technology waned. But things have changed -- today's rising oil prices have rekindled interest.

The Australian government has designed its own tower and will soon begin construction of version 400 feet in diameter and 3,000 feet high, which would make it the tallest man-made structure in the world -- more than twice the height of Malaysia's Petronas Towers, or the Canadian National tower in Toronto.  The greenhouse will cover a circle with a diameter of 11 square miles. The engineers plan to use reinforced high-tensile concrete to construct the tower -- only time will tell if they've found a solution to the stresses it will have to endure. Transparent plastic with heat-enhancing properties will
keep the temperature of the air beneath the greenhouse between 35 degrees C at the perimeter to about 70 degrees C in the middle; these temperatures will amplify the differential between ground level and the chimney top. The air, once it enters the tower, will climb at about 35 mph, losing about 1 degree C for every 300 feet it travels -- a ratio that engineers consider ideal to reach peak wattage.

If the tower works as engineers hope, it will generate about 200 MW – enough to power about 200,000 Australian homes, or around 47,000 U.S. homes. Generating that much energy with fossil fuels would produce about 830,000 tons of CO2 per year. So the solar updraft tower, which emits no greenhouse gases, will be a popular option for advocates of green technology. 

The interiors of updraft towers, as well as the space beneath the greenhouse, will be hospitable enough to allow maintenance crews to work while the facility is operating -- a completely different maintenance model for power plants that must either cut back on their power production or, in the case of nuclear facilities, shut down entirely for servicing.

Solar updraft towers appear to be one of the better ways to tap the inexhaustible energy of the sun. The technology to build them is available. All that's needed is the political will and the money to build them -- these towers are expensive, but analysts say that investors would recoup their investments in two to three years.

Would you want a wind farm in your town?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Small Wind Turbines for Developing Countries

Two things stand out in the town of Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, Guatemala: electric power is scarce and women are expert weavers. A Michigan Engineering student team used those two facts as a basis for a project in which they designed a wind turbine with blades that are covered with woven material and powerful enough to drive a small electric generator to produce clean, emissions-free power – green energy is popular even in rural Guatemala. 

The students initiated the project with the hopes that their device would provide power to the region and stimulate business for the weaving cooperatives. During spring break, 2011, the team traveled to Guatemala to build the frames of the blades from local materials and then cover them with cloth woven nearby.

In the United States, small wind turbines made of traditional materials are becoming an increasingly popular way to generate power for individual homes, farms and small businesses. The devices are proving to be an effective way to help protect the environment and cut energy bills – in some areas of the country, a small wind turbine can lower home utility bills by 50-90 percent. The U.S. leads the world in the production of small wind turbines, which are defined as having rated capacities of 100 kilowatts and less. The growth of the market for these small units is expected to increase significantly through the next decade.

Small Wind Turbines for Developing Countries

Two things stand out in the town of Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, Guatemala: electric power is scarce and women are expert weavers. A Michigan Engineering student team used those two facts as a basis for a project in which they designed a wind turbine with blades that are covered with woven material and powerful enough to drive a small electric generator to produce clean, emissions-free power – green energy is popular even in rural Guatemala. 

The students initiated the project with the hopes that their device would provide power to the region and stimulate business for the weaving cooperatives. During spring break, 2011, the team traveled to Guatemala to build the frames of the blades from local materials and then cover them with cloth woven nearby.

In the United States, small wind turbines made of traditional materials are becoming an increasingly popular way to generate power for individual homes, farms and small businesses. The devices are proving to be an effective way to help protect the environment and cut energy bills – in some areas of the country, a small wind turbine can lower home utility bills by 50-90 percent. The U.S. leads the world in the production of small wind turbines, which are defined as having rated capacities of 100 kilowatts and less. The growth of the market for these small units is expected to increase significantly through the next decade.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Alzheimer's Research Tool -- a Moth's Antenna?


The male silk moth has a clever way to find the female of its species. What the male moth doesn't know is that its method of locating the ladies might also be a key in the effort to understand neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. 

According to a team led by Michigan Engineering researchers, female pheromone molecules in the air will stick to the coating on the male moth's antennae. Nanotunnels in the male's exoskeleton then guide the pheromones to nerve cells that, in turn, carry the message to the male's brain, letting him know that there's a female in the area. Using this system as a model for a similar system in a silicon chip, researchers can get a better understanding of biomolecules -- their size, charge, shape, concentration and the speed at which they assemble.

Bio-inspired synthetic nanopores with bilayer-coated fluid walls