[From CASE Reports, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1998]

IN BRIEF: Science and Technology Notes from Around Connecticut

TOWN NEWS. Thanks to a joint effort of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) and the state Department of Information Technology, over 100 of Connecticut's 169 towns now have their own web sites. The sites, which are run with technology supplied by the state, provide information about municipal services, parks and recreation schedules, information from the schools, permit and licensing details, and voting information; one of the most popular areas are the parks and recreation listings. The sites' chief function is to provide residents with a 24-hour town hall, according to Catheryn Ehrhardt, training manager at CCM.

FASTER MODEM. A new cable modem system with speeds as much as 100 times faster than traditional telephone modems is expected to be available to 200,000 cable subscribers in New Haven and Fairfield counties by the end of 1998. The system, offered by Cablevision of Connecticut, is already available in the town of Westport. One of several services the company plans to add as part of a $243 million telecommunications system upgrade, the new system will cost between $19.95 and $34.95 a month, plus a $10/month modem rental fee.

VISION AID. Offering talking watches, salt shakers that dispense specified amounts with each shake, and computers that read out loud, Cheshire's Vision Dynamics, which opened last fall, is the only store in the state that specializes in providing technologies to aid the visually impaired. Run by a man who is himself legally blind, the store also plans to offer support and awareness groups. According to Cheryl-Ann Tubby, program director at the the Middletown-based Prevent Blindness, Connecticut, severe vision impairment is most prevalent among the elderly, and as the state's elderly population grows, so will the number of people with vision problems.

MICROWAVE CONNECTION. Since 1954, Cheshire-based Microtech has produced "wave guides," flexible black tubing which carries microwave energy from antennas to radio receivers and from transmitters back to antennas. Now, the wave guide, which provides a transmission line for telephone and satellite communications, can be found in fighter planes, shipboard phalanx weapons systems, submarines, air traffic control radar, and the Mir space station. The company also makes precision microwave components for radar and communications applications, including couplers that sample microwave power levels, and microwave "windows" which allow energy to pass through transmission lines while blocking moisture and dust from entering. Forty percent of Microtech's business is with the military.

HEARING AID. Using a test developed within the past decade, Connecticut hospitals will soon be required to screen all newborns for hearing problems. The test, which will be mandatory by 1999, transmits ticking noises through headphones fitted onto the infants' ears. Electrodes then record the baby's brainwave response, projecting the results onto a computer screen. If the brain response does not fall within a normal range, the child is tested further. According to Antoinetta Capriglione, chief of pediatrics at New Britain General Hospital, which already screens all newborns, infant hearing tests are particularly useful because babies as young as six months can be fitted with hearing aids, giving them 12 to 18 months of sound of which they might otherwise be deprived. Hearing problems, which are found in no more than 6 of 1,000 newborns, usually occur in the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that changes sound waves into the electrical energy that the brain can understand.

MONUMENTAL PROBLEM. Led by University of Connecticut professor Lanbo Liu, environmental geophysics students are using radar to analyze the support structure of the 151-year-old Nathan Hale Monument in Coventry. The data they collect will help state officials decide whether the granite structure needs the complete $300,000 overhaul recommended by a Stratford company in 1988. The students hope to determine whether the center of the monument contains a steel bar.

COMPUTER QUIZ. Students at Northeast School in Vernon have begun to participate in a computer-based program designed to encourage independent reading. With "Accelerated Reader," a computer quizzes the youngsters on books they have read; the students accumulate points with each passing grade. School principal Edward Litke hopes that the novelty of using the computer, plus the chance of winning a prize for obtaining the most points, will encourage the children to read.

TECHNOLOGY FOR GIRLS. In an attempt to interest more teenage girls in technology courses, Manchester High School has instituted classes for girls only. World of Technology 2 was begun after school staff realized that only 8% of the students in technology classes were female. Research showed that this resulted in part because girls were uncomfortable in situations in which they comprised a minority. The new program, which teaches girls about computers, transportation, and communications, seems to be succeeding, with the students showing increased interest in technology.

DNA RESEARCH. Equipment donated by the Perkin-Elmer and Bristol-Myers Squibb companies has enabled students at Middlesex Community-Technical College to conduct DNA analysis for biotechnology research projects. Under the direction of biology professor Jonathan Morris, the students will analyze the interrelationship of Connecticut frog populations for a new amphibian tracking project. The students will use a thermocycler to produce copies of DNA samples; after cutting the copies into pieces with enzymes, they will use electrical currents to sort the fragments into patterns that can be matched to show the genetic relationships. In another project, the students will try to identify the origin of ancient human bone fragments.

BRAIN MAPPING. By analyzing close to 2,500 brain cells, scientists at the Yale School of Medicine have confirmed that the prefrontal cortex, which is considered the most advanced part of the human brain, works in a modular fashion, just like the rest of the organ. In an effort to better understand how the prefrontal cortex processes information, the researchers, led by neuroscience professor Patricia Goldman-Rakic, mapped the neurons of primates as they were shown pictures of faces and objects. They found that the ability to recognize faces is located in a single section of the prefrontal cortex. In addition, "each neuron has a dedicated function, since individual neurons code individual items of information, for example, different faces," said Professor Goldman-Rakic. The prefrontal cortex handles memory, reasoning, mental computation, and language.

TURBINE POWER. General Electric Co. (GE), of Fairfield, will supply two steam-turbine generators for a 1320-megawatt expansion of the Dezhou power plant in China's Shandong Province. GE will work with Foster Wheeler Corp., of New Jersey, to fill the $160 million contract, which includes other equipment and services. Overall cost of the project is estimated at $177 million.

PROSPECTIVE ENERGY. Norwalk-based Bolt Technology, which designs and manufactures geophysical equipment used in prospecting for oil and gas, has acquired Custom Products Corp. of North Haven, which makes miniature mechanical and pneumatic clutches used in natural gas transmission meters. Bolt Technology will pay $6 million for the company, plus additional payments based on its future performance. Bolt Technology produces marine air guns, which are used in geophysical seismic surveys.

AHOY THERE. Energy Research Corp. of Danbury has won a $270,644 contract to design a fuel cell that will power a US Coast Guard cutter. According to the company, naval and commercial ships could provide a potentially large market for fuel cells, which generate electricity through a chemical reaction that combines hydrogen with oxygen. Energy Research Corp. will design the cell for John J. McMullen Associates, a naval architectural firm.

TROUT NURSERY. In an experimental program, 500 rainbow trout are being raised in a sewage treatment plant in Winsted. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has placed the 6-month old, 4-5 inch long fish in currently idle aeration tanks at the Winsted/Winchester Wastewater Treatment Facility. The fish, which are being held in a 12x4x6 foot netted cage within a 500,000 gallon concrete tank, should grow up to 12 inches by spring, when they will be released into a local public water supply chosen by the DEP and the town. This is the first sewage plant that the DEP has stocked with fish; officials hope that 75-90% of the trout survive.

LOWER LEAD. As part of a federal program to decrease lead poisoning, Manchester has received a $2 million grant that will provide money for training and education, lead clean-up projects in low-income housing areas, and efforts to preserve historical homes. One of 25 communities nationwide to receive the grant, the city was chosen in part because of its high concentration of older wooden homes. A similar 1995 grant funded lead abatement work for about 120 housing units. The current grant will focus primarily on preserving historical buildings; it will also use more house-specific plans for lead cleaning, allowing the work to be done more economically.

CHICKADEE DECLINE. A 39-year study of black-capped chickadees near Litchfield shows that the bird population has been decreasing as a rate of about 1% a year. Gordon Loery, a consultant to the White Memorial Foundation who conducted the study, attributes the birds' decline to the gradual maturing of the forest from softwood trees like birch, poplar and cherry, to hardwood trees like maples, ash, and oak. Chickadees have trouble making nest holes in hardwood trees. The study is one of only a half-dozen long-term studies of bird populations ever conducted, according to one ornithology professor. While Dr. Loery's research is confined to the Litchfield area, it suggests that as forests throughout Connecticut mature, chickadee populations will continue to decline.

RUSSIAN ERUPTIONS. Scientists from Yale hope to learn how to predict the timing and severity of volcanic eruptions by mapping the interaction of the Earth's crust and mantle beneath the highly volcanic Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia. Kamchatka, which has 29 active volcanoes, is part of the Pacific Rim, where one section of the earth's crust is sinking beneath another. Yale geology and geophysics professor Jonathan M. Lees, who is heading the Kamchatka expedition, theorizes that the descending crust is pushing aside the Earth's mantle, in the same way that mud flows if pressed by the back of a shovel. His team will try to track the mantle's movement 200 miles beneath the Earth's surface by using the seismic waves produced by earthquakes and volcanoes to find the orientation of olivine crystals in the mantle itself. The grain pattern of the crystals can reveal the direction in which they are being pushed.

TRANSGENIC FUNGUS. With the help of a transgenic fungus, mycologist Sandra L. Anagnostakis of The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station believes she can restore the American chestnuts, which were wiped out by chestnut blight fifty years ago. Dr. Anagnostakis has isolated a virus that weakens the blight fungus, making it nonlethal to chestnuts. She and colleagues have transposed genes from the virus into the fungus, creating a new transgenic fungus that no longer kills trees. Dr. Anagnostakis hopes that the new strain, which can survive in the wild, will replace the killer version, allowing restoration of the American chestnut.

CIGARS BOOST TOBACCO INDUSTRY. The new popularity of cigars has improved the outlook for Connecticut's trademark shade tents and tobacco barns. Recently, the acreage of shade-grown and broadleaf tobacco for cigar wrappers increased substantially. Unfortunately, blue-mold, a disease that spots the precious leaves, re-emerged last summer and caused serious loss. The fungus that causes the disease mutated to a form resistant to the systemic fungicide ridomil that had held it in check. James LaMondia of The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station Valley Laboratory in Windsor is testing alternative fungicides and also imparting blue mold resistance to tobacco with protein from other microbes.

OYSTER INCREASE. A multimillion-dollar state program to increase production of Connecticut oysters by reinvigorating state-owned seed beds appears headed for success. State officials reported last fall that thousands of baby oysters have attached themselves amid the 146,000 bushels of oyster shell (cultch) spread last July over seed beds off Bridgeport and Stratford. In order to grow, free-floating oyster larvae must fasten themselves to a smooth, clean surface, such as old oyster shells. Next year, the young oysters will be transferred to growing beds; when they are ready for harvest, they could add $29 million to a state industry currently worth $50 million.

FISHY BUSINESS. Businessman H. Douglas Berardo hopes to build an indoor, self-contained fish farm on a 2.5 acre site in Bozrah. The proposed 300,000-foot, $30 million facility, which could employ 130 people, would be capable of producing 5.5 million pounds of fish a year, including various salt and fresh water species like sturgeon and a hybrid striped bass.

MOTHERS' MILK. Responding to the increasing desire of working mothers to breastfeed their infants, several Connecticut corporations including Aetna, CIGNA, Travelers, and The Hartford have set up lactation centers at many of their worksites. At Aetna, which also offers breastfeeding classes, the lactation center has private cubicles and electric breast pumps; pumps can be checked out by women who need to travel on the job. With breastfeeding shown to lessen diarrhea, ear infections, and bacterial meningitis in infants, as well as decreasing the risk of cancer in women, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that women breastfeed their children for at least the first year.

BIPOLAR RESEARCH. Using single photon emission computer tomography (SPECT), an x-ray technique for studying a single layer of the brain, Yale researchers are studying the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in bipolar disease, a condition that affects five million Americans, causing wild mood swings from elation to depression. With a SPECT scan, researchers can pinpoint the location of dopamine-like chemicals, and can also determine the location of dopamine receptors, to which the neurotransmitter can attach. Using three different dopamine-like chemicals, which are marked by radioactive isotopes, researchers are studying whether bipolar patients produce normal amounts of dopamine, the sensitivity of dopamine receptors, and the amount of dopamine that travels to the temporal (side) lobes of the cerebellum, which are believed to be involved in emotions. Dopamine plays an important role in attaining pleasurable feelings; both cocaine and amphetamines increase the levels of dopamine in the brain.

NEW HIV CENTER. With a $10.8 million federal grant, Yale University will open a new Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS (CIRA), which will conduct studies aimed at preventing the spread of the disease. Focusing initially on demographic groups in which the incidence of HIV is still increasing, the Center will focus on the social and behavioral aspects of prevention. It will attempt to design effective HIV prevention messages for low-income women; determine HIV risk factors for teenage girls; examine the anthropology of injection drug users; and track what actually happens to the needles distributed by needle exchange programs. CIRA hopes to extend its research to children and other vulnerable populations.

HELPFUL SALMONELLA. Yale researchers have found a way to suppress the growth of cancer tumors in mice, using a strain of the salmonella bacterium that has been genetically modified to make it harmless to humans. The bacterium, which is nutritionally deficient, multiplies preferentially in tumors, possibly because the latter are a rich source of nutrients. The invasion of the tumors by the bacteria suppresses tumor growth. The new technique has been licensed to Vion Pharmaceuticals of New Haven, which is developing ways of inserting tumor-killing genes into the bacteria. Early studies show that the salmonella could be useful in treating lung, skin, breast, colorectal, renal and liver cancers.

TRACING TREATMENTS. Through the US Department of Commerce's Advanced Technology Program, Connecticut Health Information Management and Exchange, Inc. (CHIME) has received a grant to develop a computer system that can track the long-term effects of prescription drugs. CHIME, a for-profit arm of the nonprofit Connecticut Hospital Association, will work with the Yale's medical school and computer science department to develop the technology, which will also be capable of investigating how drugs are prescribed. The project, which is expected to cost about $3 million, is intended to promote better drug usage and reduce health care costs.

CUSTOMIZED DRUGS. With $2.5 million in federal grants, New Haven biotechnology company Gennaisance hopes to develop drug treatments that can be customized to the genetic makeup of each patient. "Pharmaceutically targeting variation in human genes will allow us to create drug treatments with greater precision and less side effects than existing treatments," said Gualberto Ruano, chief executive officer of Gennaissance. The company already offers several services designed to identify genetic variations within patient populations that can reduce drug effectiveness.

HELP FOR ALZHEIMER'S. Bayer Corp. is seeking regulatory approval to begin selling a drug that can treat mild to moderate dementia cased by Alzheimer's disease. Metrifonate, which has been in clinical development since 1991, tries to slow the disintegration caused by the disease by blocking the enzyme that destroys the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Alzheimer's has been linked to a depletion of acetylcholine, which allows to brain to transmit signals between neurons. Alzheimer's affects an estimated four million Americans; over half of those over 85 are victims of the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

TELESCOPE UPGRADE. Yale University, Ohio State University, the University of Lisbon and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories have formed a consortium to provide upgrades and operating expenses for Yale's telescope in the Andes Mountains in Chile. The improvements will include a new detector system that allows the telescope to observe both optical light and infrared radiation, a new computer control system, and new focus mechanisms. The telescope will be used to study the outbursts of radiation caused when clumps of matter fall into a black hole, supernova outbursts in distant galaxies, and the evolution of young stars.

SONAR ROBOTS. Using sonar techniques that imitate those of bats and dolphins, Yale researcher and electrical engineering professor Roman Kuc has developed a robot that uses sound rather than sight to identify objects. Professor Kuc's robot, which is sensitive enough to distinguish heads from tails on a flipped coin, emits "clicks" of sound about 1/20,000 of a second long, detecting the echoes with two rotating "ears" (receivers). Like a bat, the robot can swivel its ears to gain more information in extra frequencies, and, like a dolphin, it can position itself at a preferred distance from an object, gaining a kind of reference point from which to analyze echoes. Sonar detection could prove easier and less costly than visual methods for such tasks as identifying customers or finding production flaws on an assembly line. Professor Kuc also hopes to build dolphin-like underwater vehicles that could locate shipwrecks and pinpoint mines.

HOT STUFF. A heat sensing device developed by Oxford-based SunnyCor protects firefighters by warning them when they are exposed to temperatures high enough to cause injuries. According to SunnyCor president John Cole, firemen are often so well insulated by their gear that injuries sets in before they realize that the environment is too hot for their bodies. SunnyCor's SmartCoat, which consists of six silicon protected heat sensors integrated into a cloth vest, is worn underneath the outer layer of firecoat. It emits an alarm when the inside of the firecoat reaches 150°f. Firefighters exposed to 160° for one minute will suffer second degree burns.

ORGANIC COMPUTER. Yale researchers have taken the first step toward a self-assembling organic computer that reasons like a human. The scientists, led by electrical engineering chairman and CASE member Mark Reed, were able to send an electrical current through a slightly altered benzene molecule that had latched itself onto two gold connectors each one atom wide. Professor Reed hopes to use this technique to design computer chips whose wires consist of self-assembling strings of organic molecules. Molecules could then be assembled into a transistor switch that could be turned on and off by electricity. Molecule-sized organic computer chips, which could hold 10,000 times more components than today's silicon chips, could possibly be linked together to behave like neurons, simulating a brain.

SMALL DETECTOR. The world's smallest fingerprint verification system is being created by Oxford Micro Devices of Shelton. While current portable verification systems require expensive, bulky equipment, the Oxford device, which uses a thermal imaging system invented by the company's French partner, is smaller than a credit card-sized calculator, and doesn't require a computer connection. Capable of verifying and encrypting fingerprints, the FingerChip will be sold to banking, Internet commerce, computer, and personal and automobile security markets.

BETTER PROTECTION. The University of Connecticut (UConn) has been awarded a $3.5 million grant by the Office of Naval Research to develop nanostructure ceramic coatings to protect shipboard pumps, shafts, valves, and engines from wear, erosion and heat exposure. Nanostructure materials, which have grains 100 to 1,000 times smaller than conventional materials, provide improved hardness and toughness. UConn metallurgy professor Maurice Gell, the project's program manager, points out that this extra protection is needed because, as the US maintenance budget for ships and aircraft has dropped, ships must stay at sea for greater intervals, requiring components that last longer. The new coatings, which like conventional coatings can be applied with thermal spray guns, could also be used on automobiles, turbines, and other machines with moving parts.

LESS FRAUD. Connecticut banks are experimenting with biometric technologies-measuring body parts-as a way to prevent fraud at automatic teller machines (ATMs). Going beyond digital fingerprint scanners, First Union, one of Connecticut's largest banks, is experimenting with ATM cameras that check facial dimensions, such as the distance between a person's eyes or from the nose to the brow, while Citibank, with branches in Fairfield County, has put $3 million into research on eye scans. Biometric techniques ensure that unauthorized people cannot withdraw money from an account, even if they know their victim's PIN number.

DIGITAL X-RAYS. A digital x-ray system developed by a unit of Fairfield-based General Electric Co. could replace conventional film x-rays with computer images that are faster, more cost-effective, and easily sent anywhere in the world. The system projects x-rays onto a silicone-coated glass panel in a process similar to liquid crystal imaging. The system cuts down on the amount of time patients spend under the x-ray beam: conventional mammography techniques, for example, might require several screenings, while the digital x-ray can collect the information in a single one. The new system can also produce images within seconds, a critical benefit for accident victims. GE Medical, which expects that digital x-ray products will eventually account for 15-20% of its annual sales, hopes to have the device ready for market in about a year.

MORE DISC CAPACITY. Researchers from Xerox Corp., of Stamford, have developed a blue diode laser that could dramatically boost capacity for optical disc storage, and lead to printers with two to four times the resolution of today's 600 dpi (dots-per-inch) machines. Optical storage devices work by reflecting beams of light off minutely-pitted disks, with each beam carrying a 'bit' of information. By using blue light, which has a shorter wavelength than the infrared or red light now in use, each bit can be stored in a smaller space. This could increase disk storage capacity by four to five times. While the new technique will probably be used primarily for optical storage and printing, it could also have applications that range from medical diagnostic equipment to industrial sensors.

FASTEST SPECTROMETER. Analytica of Branford, Inc. has won a grant that will fund its development of an advanced data system for high-speed mass spectrometers. With a $750,000 award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Maryland, Analytica hopes to produce the fastest biological mass spectrometer in the world. Mass spectrometry is used by the pharmaceutical industry to screen drug candidates and to conduct drug metabolism studies.

SURGICAL STAPLER. A surgical stapler developed by United States Surgical Corp. will make it easier for surgeons to repair torn knee cartilage. Recently approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the S-D-sorb Meniscal Stapler is less invasive than hand suturing, reducing post operative pain and scarring, according to the company.

BLACK HAWKS ORDERED. Three Black Hawk helicopters will be purchased for the Columbian National Police by the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Made by Stratford's Sikorsky Aircraft, the helicopters will be used for drug law enforcement; 60% of the heroin recently seized on American streets originated in Columbia, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Black Hawks are particularly valuable to the Columbian police because they can fly at high altitudes and they maneuver well in mountainous terrain.

ALTERNATIVE FUEL CARS. In an advisory report, the City Plan Commission of New Haven recommended that the city explore efforts to power at least some of its vehicles with compressed natural gas; this would allow the city to comply with a federal mandate ordering that a certain percentage of local government fleets use alternative fuels. Under a grant agreement, the Greater Hartford Ride Sharing Corp. may reimburse the program participants for the costs of converting to natural gas.

NEW PROPELLERS. With a $44.5 million contract to replace propellers on two types of Navy planes, Hamilton Standard, based in Windsor Locks, has been re-established as a supplier of large military propellers. The propellers, which will be used for the E-2C Hawkeye, a radar plane, and the C-2A Greyhound, a cargo plane that travels to and from aircraft carriers, are a new variation made with composite materials and having eight blades instead of four. According to the company, they will increase the plane's efficiency while reducing the down time caused by propeller problems.

UNDERGROUND SHUTTLE. Farmington-based Otis Elevator Co. will provide a shuttle transportation system for Zurich Airport in Switzerland. The $25 million underground, air-cushioned suspension system will be installed by the company's Otis Switzerland subsidiary, and SIG, a Swiss company, as part of an expansion of the Zurich Airport.

NEW CHOPPER. A demonstration version of Sikorsky Aircraft's newest helicopter successfully completed its first flight last fall. The CH-60, which combines features of the Army Black Hawk line and the Navy Sea Hawk line, is intended to be the fleet's most versatile helicopter. Meant to fill several functions for the Navy, such as replenishing ships at sea, combat search and rescue, and special warfare missions, the chopper will use the Sea Hawk's automatic rotor blade folding system and folding tail pylon, which makes storing the aircraft aboard ships easier.

- Compiled and edited by Karen Miller

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