[From CASE Reports, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1997]


IN BRIEF: Science and Technology Notes from Around Connecticut


ON-LINE BILLING. Although consumers have long been able to pay bills through the Internet, Northeast Utilities (NU) is one of the first companies in the nation to send bills electronically. With this innovation, NU customers can receive, pay, store, and retrieve electric bills through the Web. The company, which will not charge for the service, expects to save money by eliminating billing costs such as envelopes and paper. Those seeking to use the service must fill out an on-line form that will later be verified through regular mail.

MANY LANGUAGES. This fall, Hartford police dispatchers gained the ability to speak to callers in 140 languages. The Hartford police have joined police departments in Bridgeport, Danbury, and Fairfield in subscribing to the AT&T Language Line, which, within 45 seconds, provides interpreters for languages that range from Africaans to Laotian to Vietnamese. The service, which uses a 3-way conference call to link subscribers to interpreters, helps both callers and officers by enabling dispatchers to communicate accurately with non-English speaking callers.

MORE SATELLITES. With a satellite launched from Kazakhstan in early September, Greenwich-based PanAmSat Corp added to its fleet of 16 orbiting commercial communications satellites. The 13-year-old company provides television, video, and telecom services in Europe and the Americas. It also handles Internet traffic, using satellites to relay messages from providers in New Zealand, Indonesia, Peru, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Togo. The company's newest satellite, known as PAS-5, features ion propulsion for improved maneuvering, dual-junction gallium arsenide solar cells for greater power, and an enhanced thermal control guard system to prevent overheating.

CAR TALK. Using digital phones and specially fitted laptop computers, Cheshire police can now tap into state and national crime information systems while still in the field. The new technology allows police to bypass dispatchers, reducing the time needed to obtain information from minutes to seconds. The new system allows police to check a person's criminal record, search for outstanding warrants, and find how frequently officers have been called to a particular address. It also permits the use of global positioning satellites to determine the exact location of police cruisers.

FAST TRACK. Connecticut's DRUGFIRE program, operating in the state's forensics laboratories, will soon be linked through an FBI-run computer network to law enforcement agencies throughout New England. The DRUGFIRE database, which consists of thousands of images of spent bullet casings, allows police to track down suspects by matching casings left at unsolved crimes to casings fired from guns whose owners are known. Without the database, investigators must examine each bullet casing through a microscope, matching its image visually to photographs. Since 1995, the state system, with a library of 1,300 images, has found links in 48 cases.


HIGH SCHOOL RESEARCHERS. Through the Mentor Connection, a three-week summer program at the University of Connecticut (UConn), 70 high school students from Connecticut and other states are paired directly with professors to work on research projects ranging from genetics to physics to archaeology. Unlike most summer programs, the Mentor Connection allows students to perform state-of-the-art research, such as using a polymerase chain reaction to test the effect of vitamin A on genetic material from mice. "These are the kinds of experiences that only top-notch graduate students get," said UConn professor Joseph Renzulli, head of the Neag Center on Talent Development. Affiliated with the Neag Center, the program is based on Professor Renzulli's research on how gifted students learn.

SCIENTIFIC LITERACY IN NEW HAVEN. The Peabody Museum of Natural History will join with the New Haven public schools, L.E.A.P. (Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership), and the Eli Whitney Museum to increase scientific literacy in the city. The four-year effort will help kids learn about biological diversity and the natural world. The program will offer a mobile "action lab" with hands-on specimens, dissecting microscopes, and computers, which will visit city schools, and a summer fellowship program in which teachers develop a biological diversity curriculum. It will also provide after-school programs through the Internet. The program is being funded by a $350,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

INTERNET DEGREE. For the first time in Connecticut, a student can earn a college degree just by attending classes on-line. In a program recently approved by the state Board of Governors for Higher Education, the University of Bridgeport now offers a master's degree in human nutrition via the Internet. Already, 17 students from California to Italy participate in the program. The students, who take two classes a semester for five semesters, participate in on-line class discussion, and submit homework through email. Tests and quizzes are supervised by independent proctors, and no laboratory work is required. The approval is simply the latest way that technology is changing education, said CASE member Andrew De Rocco, state commissioner of higher education.

WILDLIFE INVENTORY. Students and teachers from RHAM High School, which serves Andover, Marlborough, and Hebron, will conduct an 18-month inventory of plants and wildlife in the Salmon River watershed. Financed by a federal grant and the Mohegan Land Trust, which will administer it, the study will survey four sites along four major streams in the watershed. The inventory should help determine what wildlife is endangered, so that threatened species can be protected.


NUCLEAR CARRIERS. Electric Boat of Groton hopes to design nuclear reactors for the Navy's next generation of aircraft carriers, and shipyard engineers have already begun working on several designs, according to company president John K. Welch. The new generation of carriers-expected to be smaller and more versatile than the current version-is not expected to be in the water until 2020. The Navy has budgeted $125.1 million to develop new technologies for the ships.

GAS CONVERSION. Northeast Utilities (NU) has converted two of the four electrical generators at its Middletown plant to run on natural gas. The move reduces the plant's dependence on oil, a move expected to save money and cut down on air pollution. The new fuel is also readily available in summer, when energy demand is high. Over the next year, NU expects to reduce its oil consumption by 112 million gallons.

FUEL CELL GENERATOR. New England's first methane-powered electricity generator uses a fuel cell built by the ONSI unit of East Hartford-based United Technologies to transform the waste produced by about 1.5 million people each day into enough energy to supply 150 homes. Through an electrochemical reaction, the fuel cell converts methane produced in the sewage plant's huge digester tanks into electricity, heat, carbon dioxide, and water, generating almost no pollution. The energy, which will be used to help power the plant, is expected to save the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority $1 million over the next ten years.

GAS TURBINE. To alleviate the potential power shortage caused by problems with Connecticut's nuclear power plants, United Illuminating (UI) has joined with two other companies to build a $260 million natural gas turbine generator. The facility will be located at UI's Bridgeport Harbor Station, where the company currently operates three coal- and oil-fired units that together generate about 650 megawatts; the proposed plant will produce 520 megawatts. Expected to be fully operational by early 1999, the new unit may be able to generate 340 megawatts as early as next June, while it is still under construction.


LESS MERCURY. Since the 1970s, the amount of mercury pollution entering Long Island Sound has decreased by about 40% due to environmental controls over air and water and an agricultural ban on mercury, according to studies released over the summer. The potentially toxic chemical, one of several that continue to seep into the Sound, can enter the water through industrial air pollution, sewage, and the sludge created by sewage treatment plants. However, state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) official Thomas Morrissey said that so far there are no signs of contamination in the Sound's larger fish. Over the past seven years, the DEP has spent over $4.5 million on research projects to determine the extent of pollution in the Sound; on-going programs continue to explore pollution-reduction guidelines.

FROG WATCH. In the wake of the September discovery of 35 deformed frogs at a pond in Sterling, nearly a dozen Connecticut scientists and conservationists are planning an amphibian monitoring project that will survey fifteen sites around the state. The frogs, which suffered from extra or missing limbs and eyes, were found by 11-year-old Joey Gerst, and mark the first discovery in the state of a large group of malformed frogs. While single instances of abnormal frogs are common, deformity clusters are of more concern. Amphibians, who absorb water easily through their skin and eggs, are sensitive to environmental changes and as such as considered a "sentinel" species-providing an early warning of major environmental problems.

OSPREYS RETURN. With 21 surviving osprey fledglings-over three times more than last year-the beleaguered nesting grounds at Great Island in Old Lyme appear to have reestablished themselves as a prime osprey nesting site. For the past four years, few chicks have survived at the 500-acre wildlife management area, largely because of hungry raccoons who climb up poles to the nesting platforms to steal eggs and baby birds. This year, conservationists blocked their forays by placing metal baffles around each pole. The state Department of Environmental Protection also closed Great Island to boaters during the nesting season to prevent visitors from disturbing the birds.

NITROGEN REDUCTION. With the dedication of an $8.2 million nitrogen reduction system at the East Shore waste treatment plant in New Haven last summer, the state has completed Phase II of a plan to reduce nitrogen levels by 40% in Long Island Sound. Excess nitrogen stimulates algae growth, which hurts plant and animal life by reducing the amount of oxygen in the water. The just-completed system was one of eleven installed in ten Connecticut municipalities at a cost of $20 million, and nitrogen reduction goals have already been exceeded, according to former Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Sidney Holbrook. In Phase III, the state hopes to reduce nitrogen levels by 58.5% over 15 years.

LAND RECYCLING. With a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, the Regional Growth Partnership (RGP), an economic development group, will conduct environmental studies of brownfields-potentially contaminated urban property-to determine which sites could be cleaned and reused. While such areas often provide excellent locations for industry, the possibility of environmental contamination, with its associated clean-up costs, has prevented many businesses from taking advantage of them. In a survey of 200 brownfield sites in 15 towns, the RGP said it found 110 with reuse potential. Last summer, the federal government budgeted $85 million to assess brownfields across the nation.


MAD COW MODEL. Using a technique known as "passaging" in which researchers "pass" disease agents across species in the laboratory, a research team led by Laura Manuelidis of Yale have caused one strain of an agent that causes the brain disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans to transform to a more virulent strain similar to mad cow disease. In their study, the Yale scientists injected material from the brain of a human Creutzfeldt-Jakob patient into the brains of hamsters, then injected diseased hamster brain tissue into rats, repeating this process several times in a technique known as passaging. This study offers the first model of the disease that lets researchers study the phenomenon in which a disease crosses species and becomes more dangerous. Researchers believe that mad cow disease, which causes sponge-like holes in the brain, started as scrapie, a disease in sheep, later spreading to cows, and then to humans.

SEED SAVER. Donating seeds to disaster-stricken areas around the world is "just a way we can help," said Pierre Bennerup, owner of Comstock, Ferre & Co, of Wethersfield. The seed company, believed to be the oldest in the nation, donates about $10,000 worth of its year-old seeds annually to a non-profit organization which sends them to Russia, North Korea, and, recently, the Northwest United States. Although garden seeds remain viable for 10-15 years when stored properly, federal regulations demand that commercial seed packages be tested after one year. This requires opening each package, testing the seeds, then repackaging them, a process so expensive that it makes selling the seeds impractical.

FISH FILLET. Fisherman Vincent Lago of Plymouth, CT, has invented an implement that allows users to fillet fish without cutting their hands. His device, the Touché Fillet, consists of a triangular piece of wood that anchors the fish in place and a sharp wire attached to a bow, like a wire cheese slicer, which cuts the fish. A former carpenter, Lago got the idea for the device when he cut his finger on a guitar string. He plans to market his invention to high-volume food handlers, such as cafeterias and culinary schools, as well as to home kitchens.

SAFE CIDER. To prevent a recurrence of last fall's outbreak of E. coli-tainted apple cider, Connecticut's cider mills have tightened apple processing techniques, said John Lyman III, owner of Lyman Orchards in Middlefield. The contaminated cider was believed to have resulted from apples contaminated by animal feces, but the 1996 outbreak was also linked to a new strain of E. coli that is immune to the acid in cider, which usually prevents the bacteria from growing. As a precaution, many harvesters are pasteurizing their cider this year. Other methods of ensuring consumer safety include washing the apples in bacteria-killing chemicals, using ultra-violet rays to kill the bacteria, and flash-pasteurizing, which involves processing the cider at lower temperatures than regular pasteurization, and then cooling it quickly to preserve its flavor.

SEED RESEARCH. Branford's CuraGen Corp. will collaborate with a major Midwestern seed company in a five-year project to find genes that improve crops. The effort will use GeneScapes, a Web-based system developed by CuraGen that enables gene discovery and database integration. Other CuraGen software allows researchers to find genes by comparing genetic profiles. Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which will invest $7.5 million in CuraGen, retains marketing and development rights to seed and agricultural products. CuraGen keeps rights to human and animal health applications. Related studies will investigate protein therapeutics, targets for drug discovery, and new genomic technologies.

SALMON RETURN. A change in focus appears to be finally bringing success to a 30-year-old effort to return salmon to the Connecticut River. Instead of trying to stock the river with smolt-adolescent salmon-imported from Iceland and Maine, biologists are raising fry-baby salmon-in hatcheries, allowing the fish to live in the Connecticut River for two years before they head to the sea to mature. While younger fish have a higher mortality rate, the scientists believe that after spending their youth in the river, the fish are more likely to return to Connecticut to spawn. This year, nearly 200 salmon returned to the river, a trend regarded as encouraging. It is the first year in which all the returning fish were stocked as fry.


REVERSING BACTERIAL RESISTANCE. Yale biologists, led by CASE member and Nobel laureate Sidney Altman, have reversed drug resistance in bacteria, a public health problem that has grown more threatening as pathogens continue to evolve immunity to antibiotics. Professor Altman and his team designed an artificial gene that produces an RNA string known as an external guide sequence (EGS). Once inserted into a bacterium, the EGS locks onto the bacterial gene responsible for drug resistance, causing an enzyme to destroy it. The team has been able to destroy the resistance of E. coli bacteria to the common antibiotics chloramphenicol and ampicillin.

TICK FREE. In a $2 million federal project, researchers led by Yale scientist Durland Fish will try to control Lyme disease by coating deer with tick-killing pesticides. They plan to install feeding stations at five test sites along the east coast; each station will include poison-coated rollers that rub against the animals as they eat. About two dozen of the stations will be set up at each test site. While no one has yet attempted to control Lyme disease in this way, a similar approach in Texas reduced tick populations by 90 to 95%.

FINE WINE. Alcohol's ability to dilate blood vessels may be the reason drinking helps prevent heart attacks, according to Steven S. Segal, a circulatory system researcher at the John B. Pierce Laboratory in New Haven. Blood vessels, encased by rings of muscle, expand and contract to control blood flow. Under stress, the body produces chemicals, such as adrenaline, that narrow blood vessels, forcing the blood to flow faster. Alcohol reverses this tendency, slowing the flow of blood by producing nitric oxide, which causes blood vessels to relax. Compounds in red grape skins, according to Dr. Segal, also dilate blood vessels, which may be why red grapes and alcohol together-red wine-produce a greater effect than either alone.

SCHIZOPHRENIA TREATMENT. By studying artificially induced schizophrenia-like symptoms in African green monkeys, Yale scientists were able to show that reduced levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, known to be involved in schizophrenia, are also associated with cognitive disorders like impaired decision-making. Researchers produced the symptoms by dosing the monkeys with PCP (phencyclidine). When they searched for chemical changes in the animals' brains, they found reduced dopamine levels in the parts of the brain responsible for working memory and behavioral inhibition. The scientists were able to mitigate the symptoms with clozapine, already used to treat schizophrenia. The results are exciting, said one researcher, because in addition to mimicking the cognitive deficits found in schizophrenia, they provide a reversible model of the disease.

PREDICTING DEATH ACCURATELY. A carbon dioxide sensor produced by Wallingford-based Novametrix Medical Systems can successfully predict whether a heart attack victim will survive, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In a study of 150 heart attack patients, researchers used the device to forecast all 115 deaths and 35 survivors. They determined that patients whose lungs contained below a certain level of carbon dioxide after 20 minutes of CPR would not live, even if the heart showed electrical activity.


MAGNETIC TREATMENT. Bursts of strong magnetic waves appear to relieve depression with little or no side effects, according to tests done by Robert M. Berman, director of the Yale Mood Disorders Research Program, and one of the first scientists in the country to conduct rigorous studies of this technique. In the treatment, electromagnetic power is concentrated until it is strong enough to move the patient's hand-a field of approximately 2 tesla generated over 100 microseconds. Then, 80% of that power is directed at the left side of the patient's forehead, and the patient receives 800 1-millisecond bursts of the field. While it is not clear how this promising treatment works, it has been known since the 1980s that magnetic pulses, which are sometimes used to trigger therapeutic seizures during neurosurgery, can alter brain function. Scientists speculate that the treatment may somehow reset neurons, possibly disrupting a deeply rooted, depression-causing brain pattern.

ELECTRIC MASSAGE. With the help of a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) unit, patients who are paralyzed can use a kind of shock treatment to avoid the fatal blood clots, skin ulcers, pain, and muscular atrophy that can result from their paralysis. Doctors use small electrodes attached to the patient's legs to stimulate a natural firing of muscle fibers. "This produces 60% of the muscle activation that a healthy person would normally receive from voluntary contractions of their muscles," said University of Connecticut professor Pouran Faghri, who is studying FES technology at the New Britain Hospital for Special Care.

NO SWEAT. A Stamford two-year-old born without sweat glands may be helped by a child-sized version of the NASA "cool-suit" worn by astronauts on the moon. The boy's condition, hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia (HED), makes him unable to tolerate heat, so that without the special refrigerated vest he must be confined in warm weather to an air-conditioned room. Provided by the HED Foundation, the cool-suit is lined with clear plastic pouches filled with a wax-like substance that remains cold for several hours after being refrigerated.

FLASHY DEVICE. Bridgewater-based ALXZKA Inc., has developed a way to foil paparazzi. The Eagle Eye device, about the size of a pager, is worn on a person's clothing, and when activated by a camera's flash or shutter, it emits a series of flashes that obliterate photographic images. According to a company spokesman, the device will eliminate the need for laws that protect citizens from the paparazzi.

DETECTIVES FROM OUTER SPACE. The head of Connecticut's state police crime laboratory, Henry Lee, will team with NASA to explore ways space technology can help solve crimes. Sensors like those used on the Mars Sojourner might be used to examine crime scenes without disturbing evidence, said Dr. Lee. NASA technology could also lead to more sophisticated robots for handling bombs. The three-year project, funded by NASA and the National Institute of Justice, will cost between $100,000 and $200,000 per year. The space agency hopes it will help demonstrate the practical value of space exploration.

BETTER LUBRICANT. University of Connecticut engineering professor Matthew Mashikian has developed a lubricant that remains fluid even after four or five years, when most commercial versions fail. Standard lubricants, said Professor Mashikian, consist of pure silicone oil mixed with a silicon powder to make the oil look like grease. However, over time the oil migrates away from the powder filler, leaving surfaces unprotected. To solve the problem, Professor Mashikian developed a series of lubricants with little or no silica. The result of research sponsored by the Empire State Electrical Energy Corporation, the new products will be used to lubricate the rubber accessories on high- voltage cables.


MORE BUCKS FOR BUSINESS. The state General Assembly approved a bonding package for 1997–99 last summer that includes $8 million for technology programs managed by Connecticut Innovations, Inc. (CII), which provides assistance to small Connecticut companies. The Yankee Ingenuity Initiative, which funds research conducted at state colleges and universities in conjunction with small businesses, will receive $1 million a year. Another $3 million a year will go to the University of Connecticut Critical Technologies Program, which also encourages collaboration with small businesses, and provides funds for technology development in photonics, biotechnology, marine sciences, advanced materials and environmental systems.

STEEL MAKING IT. The country's steel industry could be revived thanks to a process developed by the University of Connecticut's Environmental Research Institute (ERI) which turns recycled steel from tin cans into an abundant source of high quality raw material for steel mini-mills. Nearly 100 million tin cans, made of high-quality steel coated with tin, are discarded daily in the United States. Previous technologies were unable to separate the two metals in an effective and environmentally friendly way. The electrochemical process developed by ERI researchers treats tin cans as anodes, selectively removing tin without dissolving steel or generating waste streams. A venture capital fund created by Connecticut Innovations, Inc., has formed the Yukon ReSteel Corp., which plans to build and operate processing plants around the country that will use this de-tinning technology. The company will locate its first plant in Connecticut.

COMPANY RETURNS. After a four-year sojourn in Texas, start-up chemical company Halox Corp. has returned to Connecticut, lured in part by the expertise at the University of Connecticut's Environmental Research Institute (ERI). The company, to be based in Bridgeport, will have an experimental laboratory at ERI funded by a grant from the Critical Technologies Research Program. Halox, which was praised by ERI for its "green technology," uses electrolysis to make chemicals from salts.

COMPUTER USE LEAPS AGAIN. According to a survey released by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the number of small and midsize Connecticut businesses using the Internet to sell goods and services has tripled over the past year, from 6% to 18%. The number of firms with their own Web pages increased 73%, from 15% to 26%, while an additional 16% plan to start pages by next summer. Of the Connecticut companies surveyed, 63% upgraded their computer systems this year, while 66% plan to invest in new technology next year. However, only 33% of those surveyed believe that technology has improved the quality of their services and products, and only 38% believe it has helped them become more competitive.


PATHFINDER PARACHUTE. Designed by Pioneer Aerospace Corp., of South Windsor, the parachute that wafted Pathfinder to Mars was about 40 feet in diameter, formed of precut wedges of hand-sewn fabric, and coated with a chemical to make the material less porous, so that it could catch Mars's slightest breeze. Assembled in a specially created "clean room," the parachute was also baked in an oven to kill micro-organisms. After it was packed, nitrogen was pumped into the chute and then sucked out again, a process intended to remove air and save space. Fired out the back of the craft with a mortar round, the chute was deployed about 1 1/2 minutes after the probe entered the Mars atmosphere.

WHEELCHAIR ATHLETES. By applying bicycle technology to wheelchairs, Joseph Montgomery, president of Redding-based Cannondale Corp., plans to produce wheelchairs for road racing, basketball, tennis, and downhill racing. While most wheelchairs are manufactured from steel, steel alloys, or titanium and carbon fibers, Cannondale's chairs will be made of heat-treated aluminum, to make them light and strong. Montgomery plans to distribute the 3- and 4-wheel vehicles through bicycle shops.

ROCKETS SOLD. East Hartford-based Pratt and Whitney has sold over 100 of its new RD-180 rocket jets, made in partnership with NPO Energomash, a Russian company. The rockets will be used for Lockheed's new launch vehicle, which will serve a variety of commercial purposes. Pratt and Energomash hope to win a contract to supply their RD-180 engine, currently being tested in Russia, for a new generation of rockets used by the US government.

EXACT SPEED. Cheshire police tried to slow speeders last summer with a portable radar that showed drivers exactly how fast they were traveling. After measuring a car's speed, the unit displayed the results in large, flashing numbers. "It's really an attention getter," said Lt. Chris Louden, supervisor of the town police traffic division. "People tend to fall into a routine, where they drive the same road every day and they feel in control, so they're not even thinking about their speed. But when they see the numbers flashing at them, they realize what they're doing." Cheshire was one of several Connecticut towns to experiment with the radar display unit.

--Compiled and edited by Karen Miller


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