[From CASE Reports, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1997]


THE FUTURE IS NOW FOR STATE'S HIGH-TECH BUSINESSES

Connecticut Companies Prepare for 21st Century with Innovative Research and Bold New Products

With a new millenium almost upon them, Connecticut businesses are increasingly conscious of-and responsive to-both the potential and the challenges of new technologies. Following is a sampling of scientific and technological highlights of 1996, compiled from reports provided by some of the state's leading high-technology companies.

Gerber Introduces Predator

Commercial printing is one of the world's largest industries, and Gerber Systems Corporation, a subsidiary of Gerber Scientific Inc., of South Windsor, currently leads the market in the highly-specialized area of computer-to-plate (CTP) printing systems. CTP systems allow printers of books, magazines, advertising and other print media to create master printing plates from desktop publishing programs, thereby eliminating the expense of prepress operations while significantly improving print resolution and press output. To date, all platesetters on the market have targeted the mid-to-large size commercial printer.

Gerber's PREDATOR PlateSetter, a multi-resolution laser imager introduced in 1996, is the first CTP system to respond to the digital printing needs of small-format (12"x18" to 30"x30") printers. As such, it is the only platesetter on the market priced under $100,000. Gerber engineers accomplished this by replacing the conventional laser light source incorporated into the company's existing platesetters with a red laser diode configuration that delivers the same print quality-but places images onto a new kind of medium: red-sensitive plates. In order to develop the plates required for this new imaging system, Gerber formed partnerships with three different media vendors worldwide.

In addition to its unique lighting source, the PREDATOR features a revolutionary high-precision cartridge which literally floats on air while moving the light beam within the imaging area. This eliminates the problem of objectionable patterning in the finished image, commonly referred to as "banding," which results from inaccuracies or inconsistencies in a machine's motion system.

"Because it is the industry's first low-cost, high-volume platesetter, demand for the PREDATOR is already exceeding supply," stated Brian Eastman, president and chief executive officer, Gerber Systems Corporation. "We have so many orders on the books, we can't fill them fast enough."

From Aircraft to Air Conditioners, UTRC Engineers Seek Solutions

Scientists at East Hartford's United Technologies Research Center are working to develop efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sensitive solutions to technological issues posed by advances in fields such as aeropropulsion and refrigeration systems.

In the aeropropulsion industry, increasing demands on engine power, fuel economy, and pollutant-emissions control as well as increasing aircraft speed and engine thrust-to-weight ratio have resulted in large, simultaneous increases in heat loads and temperature of air available for cooling. As a result, the burden for engine and vehicle cooling has shifted from the air to the fuel.

In an innovative approach to cooling these advanced engines, UTRC engineers are applying high temperature fuel cooling technology. Total heat sink capacity comes from both the physical heating of the fuel and from a heat-absorbing (endothermic) chemical reaction. Endothermic reactions can be used to enhance gas turbine performance by enabling operation at higher compressor and turbine temperatures, increasing the thrust growth potential of military and commercial aircraft engines. To implement this technology, a portion of the fuel is heated above its critical temperature (~700°F) in the presence of a catalyst, which causes the fuel to reform (crack) into a mixture of lighter hydrocarbons and hydrogen, which is then burned in the engine. Because the cracked products are gases and have excellent combustion characteristics, they also can be used to reduce smoke and nitric oxides emissions by eliminating droplet burning, enhancing the mixing of fuel and air, and extending the flammability limits.

Pioneering research conducted at UTRC has demonstrated the endothermic potential of liquid hydrocarbon fuels using inexpensive catalysts. Thin, durable, catalytically active coatings have been applied, using a proprietary Pratt & Whitney process, to a flight-type reactor and tested for extended time at simulated flight conditions without performance degradation. Innovative concepts for integration of the propulsion and thermal management systems have been identified by Pratt & Whitney; a first demonstration of an integrated thermal management/combustion system in an aircraft engine is planned for 1999. Other applications of this technology include ground-based power generation to permit dry (i.e., without expensive water/steam injection) low-NOx operation when using liquid fuel.

Also at UTRC, engineers have partnered with colleagues at the company's Carrier division to develop a high speed and extremely sensitive technique for locating leaks in brazed (soldered) coil joints of refrigeration systems. Carrier's goal -part of a program to eliminate warranty repair and site maintenance visits resulting from Freon leaks-is to detect leaks in those portions of refrigeration systems that contain Freon so that no unit will release more than 0.1 ounce of refrigerant per year into the atmosphere. A prototype of the system, which scans a freshly brazed coil in less than 15 seconds, is installed on the line of a coil shop in Tennessee.

In a new technique utilizing a photo acoustic process, infrared light is used in resonance with a tracer gas to produce acoustic signals at the site of a gas leak. When the laser light is tuned to a wavelength which is absorbed strongly by the gas of interest, absorbed laser energy heats the gas. As the heated gas expands, it produces pressure waves, i.e., sound, which propagates from the point of heating. A microphone set up to interrogate only the volume being heated by the laser radiation detects the sound waves and converts the energy to electronic signals. Signal processing electronics determine the time window within which the microphone signal is expected and discriminates against non-correlated background noise. Signal amplitude is proportional to laser energy, tracer gas concentration, tracer gas absorption intensity, and interrogation volume. Sensi-tivity to calibrated leaks smaller than 0.05 ounces per year are easily demonstrated in the laboratory.

PCI's Microlith Benefits Celestial, Earthly Travel

A small, lightweight catalytic converter being developed under a federal NASA SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) contract to keep the air clean in the US space station also has more down-to-earth applications. New federal regulations mandate a substantial reduction in car and truck emissions, which are still the primary source of air pollution in the United States. New Haven's Precision Combustion, Inc. (PCI) has been developing its Microlith fast lightoff catalytic converter for cleaning automotive exhaust as well as spacecraft cabin air.

The Microlith converter uses a series of short channel length, low mass metal substrates with high cell density, resulting in greater mass transfer and higher geometric surface area than conventional substrates. The PCI converter can achieve equivalent conversion efficiency after lightoff (the point at which half or more of the hydrocarbon emissions are cleansed) with up to a 20-fold reduction in volume and weight as well as a reduction in precious metal requirements when compared to a conventional geometry monolith catalyst. The resulting low thermal mass is especially important for quick catalyst lightoff (see figure below) in order to deal with automobile cold start emissions. These emissions during the first few minutes of driving account for almost 80% of the total emissions from gasoline-fueled vehicles. The reduced size and weight of PCI's Monolith also provide packaging and materials savings, keeping costs down.

1996 Federal Test Procedure testing at a major automotive manufacturer using a Microlith lightoff converter in conjunction with a stock catalytic converter achieved results significantly better than the EPA's Ultra Low Emission Vehicle standards. This represents an 85% reduction in automobile hydrocarbon emissions, and is expected to significantly improve air quality. Although the automotive converter is still in the advanced prototype phase, PCI is exploring strategic alliances while scaling up samples production and developing a pilot manufacturing plant.

On a more ethereal plane, NASA is interested in the converter for its cabin air pur-ification system. Recent test data show that because of the converter's reduced weight, it will save the space station approximately 240 pounds a year in terms of increased payload capability or reduced launch costs.

In a separate development, PCI demonstrated its Advanced Technology Catalytic Combustor for ground power generation gas turbines in a Department of Energy SBIR Phase I project.The research, which showed sustained combustor operation at air inlet temperatures less than 400°C with NOx emission below 3ppm at over 2800°F burner outlet temperatures, won the company a Phase II SBIR contract as well as a long- term agreement with Westinghouse Corporation.

Patent Awards Highlight 1996 for DEKALB Genetics

At DEKALB Genetics Corporation's Mystic research facility, 1996 was marked by the successful culmination of several important research initiatives involving transgenic corn hybrids-projects that resulted in a number of ground-breaking patents. The company, with headquarters in DeKalb, IL, was granted nine patents during the course of the year, most of them related to products with herbicide or insect resistance or to the actual transformation methods used to develop those hybrids.

Beginning in January of 1996, the company reported several significant patent awards, including the first product patent covering insect-resistant corn plants. That patent, covering fertile, transgenic corn plants expressing genes encoding Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticidal proteins, will allow DEKALB to offer a corn hybrid that provides resistance to the European corn borer, the crop's most damaging pest. Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium used to control insect pests. The company expects to bring its corn-borer resistant products to market in 1997.

DEKALB was also awarded a product patent covering transgenic corn plants containing a bar or pat gene. When this gene is present, it provides resistance to the herbicide glufosinate, a broad-spectrum, environmentally friendly herbicide that can be applied following emergence of the corn crop. The bar or pat genes are also extensively used in corn transformation as selectable markers.

Last fall, the company received a patent for fertile, transgenic corn that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®. The company expects to introduce the glyphosate-resistant corn hybrids in the spring of 1998, making DEKALB the first in the industry to offer this product.

The company also received patents covering methods of producing either herbicide-resistant or insect-resistant transgenic corn, generally by means of the bombardment process in which a "gene gun" is used to insert desired genetic material, a process developed by DEKALB researchers. Another patent covers prediction of yield in corn using inherited genetic markers, which will allow breeders to create a molecular map, or "fingerprint" of a corn plant, correlate the marker information with yields, then predict the yield of progeny plants that have inherited these markers. The patent covers the use of any marker, including RFLPs (Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism), RAPDs (Rapid Amplified Polymorphic DNA), microsatellites and other polymerase chain reaction-based markers.

CuraGen's QEASM Technology Aids Genomic Research

CuraGen Corporation of Branford has developed a new generation of genomic technologies and information systems to aid in the rapid discovery of genes and the quantitation of gene expression levels in a broad spectrum of biological samples. The derivatives of this genomic information include establishing the molecular basis for and progress of disease, identifying disease-related genes for the development of novel therapeutics, and the development of diagnostic products. Currently, depleted drug pipelines are driving pharmaceutical companies to discover new drugs through genomics. In this paradigm, genomics either produces drugs directly through protein-based drugs or gene therapy, or by identification of targets that can be selectively blocked by a drug to yield a desired therapeutic outcome.

CuraGen's principle technology for gene discovery and the rapid analysis of gene expression is Quantitative Expression Analysis, or QEASM. QEASM can be used to measure the relative expression levels of thousands of genes in parallel. Developed at CuraGen, the QEASM technology is based upon proprietary biochemical methods, proprietary DNA analysis devices, pattern recognition software, and bioinformatics.

The QEASM process begins with the extraction of mRNA (messenger RNA) from the sample of interest. Gene expression is directly related to the number of copies of specific mRNAs within a given cell, each mRNA corresponding to a different gene. The extracted mRNA is then converted into cDNA (complementary DNA). The sample goes through a series of fully automated biochemical processes, passing from one robot to the next. In one of the biochemical reactions, fluorescent tags are affixed to the cDNA. The QEASM sample processing culminates with detection of the fluorescently tagged cDNA by loading the processed sample onto CuraGen's custom DNA analysis devices. The output of the DNA analysis device is a complex pattern that represents the gene expression within the sample of interest. CuraGen's pattern recognition software translates these complex patterns to uniquely identify and quantitate the gene expression levels of known and unknown genes. This expression information is passed to CuraGen's bioinformatics group, which performs a detailed analysis of the genomic information by comparing the QEASM output to the relevant public databases as well as proprietary ones.

The output of the QEASM process is submitted to CuraGen's GeneScape relational database of genomic information. GeneScape, which runs on Netscape, is accessible by any desktop computer via an Internet connection. This allows clients at remote locations not only to view the results of the QEASM analysis, but also to remotely submit samples for analysis and monitor progress of the analysis.

The speed and efficiency of the QEASM process enable nearly complete characterization of a disease state in terms of gene expression, permitting a statistically significant correlation between disease progression and gene expression. This correlation can help to identify genes key to the genesis and progression of the disease. QEASM allows direct comparison of gene expression between different samples. For example, cDNAs obtained from normal and diseased tissue samples produce different QEASM patterns of gene expression. With this information, one can determine the aberrant genes responsible for the diseased state and use that information for diagnosis, therapy guidance, or as a starting point for therapeutic development.

QEASM overcomes the primary disadvantage of other common sampling approaches that are biased by the gene expression level of a given tissue and therefore tend to find only those genes that are expressed at the highest levels.

Newton-New Haven, UNH Join Forces for Study

The Newton-New Haven Company, working with the University of New Haven (UNH), which has funding from CII's Yankee Ingenuity Initiative, is beginning a research and development effort to study the erosion of die steel by molten aluminum in diecasting manufacturing operations.

The new Center for Thermofluid and Multiphase Phenomena in UNH's Department of Mechanical Engineering is investigating two-phase flow under very large temperature and pressure gradients, typical of those found in diecasting machines using aluminum alloys. Die design improvements are needed to reduce turbulence during filling, which creates porosity and a loss of tensile strength. Die design may also generate hot spots due to poor heat transfer, which can create shrinkage holes and internal stresses.

The UNH Center is also investigating die configurations which generate severe cavitation conditions capable of eroding die surfaces long before die life expectations are met. The project is in its initial stages, with experimentation expected early in 1997. The objective is to improve die life and performance, as well as product quality, in a typical diecasting manufacturing facility.--Compiled and edited by Managing Editor Martha Sherman


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