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July 26, 2017

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Technology Review
December 22, 2010

A Way to Make the Smart Grid Smarter

New solid-state power-management devices will charge cars fast and make the power grid more flexible and efficient.
New semiconductor-based devices for managing power on the grid could make the "smart grid" even smarter. They would allow electric vehicles to be charged fast and let utilities incorporate large amounts of solar and wind power without blackouts or power surges. These devices are being developed by a number of groups, including those that recently received funding from the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) and the National Science Foundation. As utilities start to roll out the smart grid, they are focused on gathering information, such as up-to-the-minute measurements of electricity use from smart meters installed at homes and businesses. But as the smart grid progresses, they'll be adding devices, such as smart solid-state transformers, that will strengthen their control over how power flows through their lines, says Alex Huang, director of a National Research Foundation research center that's developing such devices. "If smart meters are the brains of the smart grid," he says, "devices such as solid-state transformers are the muscle." These devices could help change the grid from a system in which power flows just one way—from the power station to consumers—to one in which homeowners and businesses commonly produce power as well.
Technology Review
December 22, 2010

Can Software that Predicts Performance Help Kids Learn?

In acquiring a maker of wireless education technology, News Corp. may help validate the market for assessment tools.
In the 1990s, two professors at the University of Oregon developed a series of one-minute tests for elementary readers called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS. The professors claimed that their tests and software could predict whether a child was on track to master reading at grade level by year's end or was likely to fall behind. Many reading instructors objected that the tests seemed to have little to do with reading comprehension. Instead, they measured skills such as rapid reading and pronouncing nonsense syllables. But the creators cited research demonstrating a strong correlation between performance on those tests and on longer, standardized exams.
MIT Research News
December 22, 2010

Frost-Free Planes: Back to the Drawing Board

Research from MIT and GE demonstrates that a proposed passive solution for preventing ice on wings won’t work — but suggests an alternative.
The buildup of ice on surfaces can cause problems in many situations: On airplane wings or on their engine turbine blades, ice can both add weight and interfere with a wing’s lift, which can make it impossible to take off; on high-voltage electrical lines, the weight of ice can cause lines to snap, causing blackouts and endangering people nearby; and on structures such as oil-drilling rigs, it can make even basic operations treacherous for people trying to work on slippery surfaces. Preventing these icy buildups usually means using deicing materials (salt or glycol), sprinkled or sprayed on a surface, or activating heating coils embedded in the surface material.

Deicing chemicals can be toxic, and require constant application, and heating coils waste energy, so researchers have been looking for better ways of handling the problem, ideally through a passive method — one based on chemical or physical properties of the surface, and requiring no ongoing input of energy or work. But one such proposed solution — the use of a super-hydrophobic (water-repellent) coating — has been shown by new research from MIT and a team at General Electric to have serious problems.
Read Full Article at MIT News Office
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Sequencing a Single Chromosome

A new approach to reading DNA could aid genetic diagnosis and the study of human evolution.
In the last three years, the number of human genomes that have been sequenced (their DNA read letter by letter) has jumped from a handful to hundreds, with thousands more in progress. But all of those genome readings lack some crucial information. A person inherits two copies of each chromosome, one maternally and one paternally. Existing sequencing methods do not indicate whether genetic variations that lie close to each other on the genomic map were inherited from the same parent, and therefore come from the same chromosome, or if some lie on the maternal chromosome and some on the paternal one. Knowing this has a variety of uses, from sequencing fetal DNA to more easily detecting the genes responsible for different diseases to better tracking human evolution. Now two teams have devised ways to determine these groupings—known as the haplotype—in an individual. Stephen Quake and collaborators at Stanford University developed a way to physically separate the chromosome pairs and sequence each strand of DNA individually. Jay Shendure and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle sequenced DNA from single chromosomes in specially selected pools and used this information to piece together the genome. Both projects were published this week in Nature Biotechnology.
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Breakthrough in TB Diagnostics

A rapid genetic test for tuberculosis could have a huge impact on global health.
A rapid DNA-based diagnostic test for tuberculosis could help health workers in poor countries detect drug-resistant forms of the infection much earlier, making it easier to treat. The World Health Organization, the U.S. government, and donor groups such as the Gates Foundation are now helping these countries acquire the technology, which was developed by a team of academic, industry, and nonprofit researchers. "It's completely changing the way people think about how to diagnose TB," says Madhukar Pai a tuberculosis researcher at McGill University in Montreal. TB remains a major global health problem, killing nearly 2 million people each year, according to the WHO. While the disease is typically treatable with antibiotics, drug- resistant forms, which are much more difficult to cure, are increasingly common. Last spring, the WHO reported 440,000 cases of drug-resistant TB—the highest number yet recorded.
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Power Control

Smart grids use communication technologies (red lines) to tie together the transmission network (blue lines), power sources, and control systems. This reduces the need for additional power plants, allows renewable energy to replace fossil-fuel power plants, and makes the grid more resistant to blackouts and brownouts. New substations that will react to commands or problems within a fraction of a second will make it possible to change from a traditional system, where electricity flows in one direction only, to one in which electricity can flow in multiple directions. Through smart meters in homes and businesses (one is shown here connected wirelessly to a substation), utilities will be able to alert customers when the spot price of electricity rises because of peaking demand. That will give them an incentive to reduce their electricity use, thereby lessening the load on the grid. Smart appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators will be able to take these prices into account, shifting into low-power modes as needed.
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Letters and Comments

Don't Disregard Nuclear That nuclear power is at least somewhat more expensive than fossil fuels was never in question ("Giant Holes in the Ground," November/December 2010). The question is whether we are going to do anything to move away from fossil fuels, and how nuclear power compares economically with other non-emitting options. Nuclear is stalling because current policies give it no significant advantage over fossil fuels, while renewables are being built by government mandate, essentially regardless of cost. I disagree with Matthew Wald's characterization of nuclear's loan guarantees as a significant subsidy. This support is tiny compared with the massive subsidies given to renewables. For a fraction of what the government has spent supporting renewables in just the last few years, it could provide loan guarantees for all reactors built from this day forward. In any fair competition among non-emitting sources, nuclear would do very well. Fortunately, there is a movement afoot to pass a Clean Energy Standard that includes both nuclear and renewables. Such a policy would solve all the "problems" nuclear is having right now. James Hopf San Jose, California
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Paul Sagan

The CEO of a company that plays a crucial role in delivering Web traffic tells us not to worry about the Internet's capacity.
You could be excused for doubting that the Internet can keep up with the rapidly increasing demands on it. In addition to all the e-mails, songs, Skype calls, and Web pages flitting about, the amount of video online is mushrooming. By 2014, video will account for roughly half of consumer Internet traffic, up from just 12 percent in 2006, according to Cisco Systems. If the Internet's ability to handle all that traffic can't keep scaling, the resulting congestion will slow all kinds of applications for everyone. But Paul Sagan, CEO of Akamai Technologies, says that people underestimate how much capacity there is. He's in a position to know, because Akamai ushers along 15 to 30 percent of Web traffic. The company, which was founded by an MIT mathematician and graduate students in 1998, has ingenious methods for speeding the delivery of Web content. One such trick is to make sure popular pieces of content don't get trapped in bottlenecks; Akamai's technology makes highly sought files available from 75,000 servers it has stashed inside the networks of Internet service providers. From there, the files have an easier time going the "last mile" to end users. Sagan described his view of the Internet's future to Technology Review's deputy editor, Brian Bergstein.
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Electric Dreams

Success for vehicles with a plug, not a gas cap, rests on more than technology.
The history of alternative transportation fuels is a history of failure. It is a story of one fuel du jour after another—a frustrating cycle of media and political hype followed by disillusionment and abandonment. The cycle is all too familiar, from synfuels in the late 1970s to methanol in the '80s, and then electric vehicles, hydrogen, and ethanol. Only corn ethanol has survived in the United States, but it would be a stretch to call it a success, given its big carbon footprint and relatively high cost (subsidized at about $6 billion per year in the United States today). A new wave of electric vehicles are now at risk of entering the cycle again.
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Watching Viewers

Making television smarter requires understanding why it is our favorite gadget.
Do you want a Web browser on your TV? If history is any indication, your answer is probably a resounding no. We don't blame you. In the past few decades, the technology industry has labored under the delusion that consumers would love their TV sets to behave like computers. Many tombstones now stand in place of devices built by very smart people, with incredibly smart technology inside, that made no impact. Our own company, Intel, had multiple failed attempts.
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

Disease Decoded

Sequencing the human genome has profoundly changed our understanding of biology and disease.
When I was in school at MIT and Harvard in the 1980s and 1990s, I was taught that there were 100,000 or so human genes, every one encoding a protein. The properties of those genes were unknown. Today, I teach that our genome contains only 21,000 protein-coding genes. To our surprise, there are thousands of additional genes that don't encode proteins. All of these genes have been described in great detail. I was taught that the parts of the genome not encoding proteins were "junk." Today, we know that this junk makes up three-quarters of our functional DNA. Parts of it help exquisitely control where and when genes are active in the body.
Technology Review
December 21, 2010

The Genome's Dark Matter

Evidence is growing that your DNA sequence does not determine your entire genetic fate. Joseph Nadeau is trying to find out what accounts for the rest.
What we know about the fundamental laws of inheritance began to take shape in a monastery garden in Moravia in the middle of the 19th century, when Gregor Mendel patiently cross-bred pea plants over the course of several years, separated the progeny according to their distinct traits, and figured out the mathematical foundations of modern genetics. Since the rediscovery of Mendel's work a century ago, the vocabulary of Mendelian inheritance—dominant genes, recessive genes, and ultimately our own era's notion of disease genes—has colored every biological conversation about genetics. The message boils down to a single premise: your unique mix of physiological traits and disease risks (collectively known as your phenotype) can be read in the precise sequence of chemical bases, or letters, in your DNA (your genotype). But what if—except in the cases of some rare single-gene disorders like Tay-Sachs disease—the premise ignores a significant portion of inheritance? What if the DNA sequence of an individual explains only part of the story of his or her inherited diseases and traits, and we need to know the DNA sequences of parents and perhaps even grandparents to understand what is truly going on? Before the Human Genome Project and the era of widespread DNA sequencing, those questions would have seemed ridiculous to researchers convinced they knew better. But modern genomics has run into a Mendelian wall.