[From CASE Reports, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1998]


IN BRIEF: Science and Technology Notes from Around Connecticut


LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. With a proposed GIS (geographical information system), West Haven city officials could more efficiently plan development projects, define property lines, track water and underground electrical lines, and maintain statistical information, according to Douglas M. Cutler, executive assistant to the mayor. A GIS, which files information according to location, allows city planners to instantly gain access to geographic and economic information about different areas. Shelton and Groton have already installed GIS, and Milford and Hartford are in the process of setting up systems.

ANATOMICALLY CORRECT. Yale University’s study of human anatomy in collaboration with the National Library of Medicine has been selected as one of the showcase applications of the Internet2 project, an attempt to create a computer network that is faster and less congested than today’s Internet. Viewing the multi-media anatomical images used by the Yale project for physician training and research requires the transfer of hundred of megabytes of data during each working session, which is not possible on today’s Internet. But Internet2 uses the very High Performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS) which operates at 622 megabits per second—between 3 and 13 times faster than current commercial Internet services. Eventually, vBNS is expected to operate at 2.4 billion bits per second.

WIRELESS DATA. Over the past year, Shelton-based People’s Choice TV Corp. has entered the wireless data transmission industry, launching a high-speed data transmission service in Detroit and Phoenix. The service sends data at a rate comparable to cable modems, which can be as much as 50 times faster than a 28.8 dial-up modem. Wireless data transmission is a field still in its infancy, according to one analyst, with data currently accounting for only about 2% of the traffic on the wireless network, compared to about 50% on the wired network. The sector, however, is expected to continue to grow.


VIRTUAL SPACESHIP. As part of NASA’s first Cyber Space Day interactive webcast, 75 fifth-graders from Guilford’s Baldwin Middle School got a chance to put their names on a CD that will be sent to Mars, throw virtual rocks into space, and determine what they would weigh on other planets. The children could also talk live with astronauts. “It’s cool, talking to all those space guys,” said 11-year-old Mike Melillo, who listened to Neil Armstrong. Cyber Space Day, at www.spaceday.com, is an annual, nationwide event intended to stimulate interest in science, mathematics, and technology education.

FISHY ATTRACTION. A partially completed $52 million renovation of the Mystic Aquarium offers an expanded exhibit gallery with as many as 6,000 marine creatures in 24 new displays; a new coral reef area, housed in a 30,000-gallon enclosure, can hold 600 fish of 50 different species. Other exhibits will focus on coastal waters, fisheries conservation, and the role of deep sea nutrients in feeding life at the ocean surface. Scheduled to open next spring is an Alaskan coast exhibit with Beluga whales, and the Institute for Exploration building, which will showcase the expeditions of deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard. The expansion is expected to boost aquarium attendance from the current 750,000 a year to 1 million annually by next year, raising state tax revenues from $3.2 million to $6.5 million.

DEAD RIGHT. With the help of x-rays, bone densitometers, and endoscopes, students and professors at Quinnipiac College in Hamden believe they have deciphered the secrets of a 1,000-year old Peruvian mummy. By examining the pattern of the mummy’s bone fractures, researchers have determined that she probably died by falling off a ledge; a broken tooth fragment was found lodged in her lung. The mummy is on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

NEWS ON IQs. The recent discovery of an intelligence gene is a small step, but could be of “enormous significance” if it leads to the detection of other genes that influence intelligence, said Nathan Brody, a psychologist at Wesleyan University. The gene, a variation of the obscure but extremely powerful I.G.F2 receptor located on the long arm of chromosome 6, was found by comparing the DNA of children of average intelligence with those possessing genius-level IQs. The alteration probably accounts for only about 2% of the IQ variance, or about four IQ points, and it was found in only about half the high IQ children, indicating that intelligence is influenced by many genes, perhaps as many as 50.

WEATHER OR NOT. A $13,000 grant from the Goddard Institute on Climate and Planets enabled six high school students from New Haven’s Career Magnet School to spend part of the summer performing meteorological research at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). The students used sophisticated computer programs to study the thick, high altitude clouds that bring hurricanes and other storms, converting data into digitized animations. The program, an attempt to promote science and engineering among minority high school students, offered the students exposure to real world problems, said John DaPonte, chairman of SCSU’s computer science department, who served as the students’ mentor.


VIRTUAL MARKETING. In an effort to promote gas-burning cooling systems, Yankee Energy System Inc. has created the first virtual reality marketing tool in the natural gas industry, according to John Ferrantino, of Yankee’s gas services subsidiary. The software, which was developed with Farmington-based Argus VR International, walks customers through various gas cooling processes, such as the absorption process, which cools buildings by circulating chilled water. Gas-burning cooling equipment, although expensive to install, can save money for many businesses, according to Yankee. Some businesses also choose the systems for environmental reasons, since typically they rely on water rather the environmentally hazardous chemical refrigerants used in electric air conditioners.

WALL OF STEEL. A perforated steel wall is the key to a passive solar air-heating system installed in the South Windsor headquarters of Steeltech Building Products, which also distributes the technology. The Solarwall™ design, considered a breakthrough in solar technology, relies on a metal sheet covered with holes about 1/16 of an inch in diameter to heat air, which is then drawn into the building with a fan and distributed through a duct system. When the fan is switched off, the solar wall acts as a heat shield, venting heated air to the outside and keeping the building cooler. The system, which works on cloudy days and at night, also ensures a steady flow of fresh air, which is critical in energy-efficient buildings and factories where stale air and indoor pollutants can be trapped.

GAS-FIRED POWER PLANTS. Bridgeport Energy LLC’s natural gas-fired power plant, which began operation this summer in Bridgeport, may illustrate “the main technology we see in the future,” according to Dennis Hrabchak, one of the plant’s managers. Expected to ease the state’s shortage of energy generating capacity, the plant is capable of producing 520 megawatts, enough to power the equivalent of 300,000 homes. There are 18 gas-fired power plants in New England, with plans for another 55.

CLEANER CARS. With a multi-million dollar investment from its parent company United Technologies, International Fuel Cells (IFC) of South Windsor is accelerating its development of small, light fuel cells capable of powering cars. Fuel cells, which generate electricity through a chemical reaction, are far cleaner than internal combustion engines because they produce only heat and water as byproducts. Most major car companies have said they plan to introduce cell-powered vehicles by the year 2005. IFC, which provided the fuel cells that powered NASA’s space vehicles and pioneered the use of fuel cells for low-emission power plants, delivered its first car engine to Ford last spring.

SCRUB-A DUB-DUB. A four-step acid bath process used to strip away the radioactive contamination inside plant piping at the retired Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant in Haddam should protect workers by reducing by half the total projected radiation dose from the decommissioning work. The patented process, developed by a division of the Siemens Power Corp., uses acids to strip away radioactive deposits. These are filtered out of the acid bath through a series of resin beds, which are packed into sealed casks for burial in out-of-state low-level waste facilities. The acid bath procedure, which has been used to decontaminate nuclear reactors in Europe, requires 24 to 36 hours to complete an entire cycle, and must be repeated three or four times.

ENERGY AUCTION. A sophisticated database of customer information uses the world wide web to match energy buyers with energy sellers. The World Wide Retail Energy Exchange, developed by John Gaus of Meriden, sets up a detailed dataset for each customer company, including a profile of its energy use, how much energy it intends to buy, and other terms and conditions. Once that information is posted, energy suppliers submit bids. The best bid is selected, and the sale is concluded. This method, says Gaus, appeals to both consumers and suppliers: The buyers are assured of easily finding the best energy price, while suppliers, who can submit as many bids as they like for free, can save on sales and marketing.


MOSQUITOES AND ENCEPHALITIS. In September and October 1998, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station isolated the eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus from three species of human-biting mosquitoes at Barn Island in Stonington and Cockaponset State Park in Chester. Governor John Rowland promptly ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to spray each of these locations from the ground with pesticides. The virus was also isolated from bird-biting mosquitoes in Newtown, Ridgefield and Voluntown, and the Station has confirmed the death of a donkey from EEE in Canterbury. The state's mosquito management program involves the departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health as well as the Station. Mosquitoes are trapped weekly June-October at 37 locations.

A GLASS OF THE BUBBLY. State-of-the-art dissolved air flotation technology will provide quality drinking water to the more than 500,000 customers of Bridgeport-based BHC Co., the largest investor-owned water utility in New England. Unlike standard water purification techniques, in which chemical coagulants are used to draw particles and organic debris, like decaying leaves, into sediments which then sink to the bottom, the air flotation technology uses tiny bubbles to float the debris to the surface, where it is skimmed away. The flotation method uses smaller amounts of chemicals, produces fewer solids for disposal, and offers increased protection from microscopic water-borne parasites such as cryptosporidium and giardia.

RADON MAP. A map that shows the areas in the state at risk for radon contamination has been developed by the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection. Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can taint air and water, is considered the second leading cause of lung cancer today, according to Frank Homiski, the health department’s radon program supervisor. The map was constructed by examining geological and geophysical factors to pinpoint the areas with the potential for elevated radon levels.

LOTS OF SPOTS. The year 2000 will be a big year for sunspots, according to Sabatino Sofia, associate director of the Center for Solar and Space Research at Yale University. While sunspots wax and wane in 11-year cycles, Sofia expects the peak due next year to be the most intense since 1989, which was the third highest on record; the highest recorded maximum occurred in 1868. Predictions are based on factors that include the level of the solar wind, the number of coronal holes at the end of the previous cycle, and the strength of the solar magnetic field. During the sun’s active period, its emissions of extreme ultraviolet radiation rises 100%, or more, Sofia says.

NATURAL LOVE. Humans are programmed by evolution to appreciate nature, says Yale professor Stephen R. Kellert. In his book, Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development, Kellert explores this biologically-based affinity, which, he feels, can make sense out of many mysterious behaviors. “It all comes down to one word: survival,” he says. For example, humans may consider waterfalls beautiful because running water is less prone to pathogens than stagnant water. Humans who drank from waterfalls might live to produce more offspring, causing appreciation of scenic views to be inherited.


CONTENTED COWS. A state-of-the-art $1.2 million milking complex has helped Franklin farmer Nate Cushman more than double the milk given by his 720 Holsteins. His cows average 80 pounds of milk a day, compared with 30 in his father’s time. While two nutritionists help Cushman determine the proper mix of protein and minerals in the cows’ feed, much of the technology in the barn is devoted to making the cows feel comfortable. Each stall is cushioned with a fabric mat sprinkled with sawdust. Every 45 minutes, an automatic scraping system clears manure from the concrete floor (methane from manure drives a generator to help power the farm). Fans run continuously; overheated cows lose their appetite, which causes their milk production to drop. The high-tech complex can even signal each cow when its turn on the milking machine is done, directing it to back out of its stall. The number of Connecticut dairy farms has dropped from 550 to about 230 since the mid-80s. But because of productivity gains, they still bring about $80 million worth of milk to the wholesale market each year, according to Mark Ruwet, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau.

OYSTER SALVATION. A strain of disease-resistant oysters under development by state researchers could be the best hope of protecting Connecticut’s oyster farms from the ravages of two single-celled parasites that have already damaged 80-95% of much of the oyster crop in Clinton, Guilford, Madison, Branford and Norwalk. Scientists are breeding oysters that have survived the infestation in hopes that their spawn, which will be replanted into the oyster beds, will inherit the parents’ resistance. If the project works, Connecticut will be among the first to develop oysters with resistance to the two parasites, known as MSX (multinucleated sphere X), and Dermo. The state’s oyster farms, which produced 130,000 bushels in 1982, have steadily grown into a $60 million industry; last year, they produced 750,000 bushels.

PROMISINGLY PERCHED. Despite an increase in predator fish, Connecticut white perch seem to be thriving, according to the preliminary results of a two-year study being conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). By examining fish caught in trap nets at Old Saybrook, Lyme, and Wethersfield Cove, researchers can determine the sizes and age distributions of white perch. They hope to measure fishing mortality and natural mortality for the perch population.


HEART PATCH. Hartford Hospital is one of the first medical centers in the country testing a new, minimally invasive technique for repairing the aorta, an artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. With a stent graft, a patch for the aorta, packaged in a tiny plastic tube, is inserted into the patient’s groin and guided by doctors to the diseased section of the blood vessel. The patch is then released and fastened to the inside wall of the artery by self-expanding spring action. The treatment, which avoids the need for a large incision, typically reduces the patient’s hospital stay from ten days to three or four. If the tests work as expected, stent grafts could be approved for wider use by the federal Food and Drug Administration as early as next year.

BRAIN CANCER TREATMENT. Glioma, a type of brain cancer that kills over half its victims within 18 months, could be controlled by disabling the protein that helps it spread. Susan Hockfield, professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, has found that unless the protein BEHAB (brain-enriched hyaluronan binding protein) is secreted by the tumor and cut in half, the cancer cannot invade healthy tissue. Hockfield’s research was performed on rodent brain tumor models and rodent brain tumor cell lines.

STRESSFUL STUDY. A Yale University study has found a possible genetic basis for stress-based weight gain. By putting 60 healthy women under artificially stressful conditions, testing levels of the hormone cortisol in their saliva, and allowing the women unlimited access to high-fat and low-fat snack foods, the researchers were able to show that the women who had secreted the most cortisol ate the most high-fat food, while the women who didn’t eat any high-fat items had secreted the least amount of cortisol. “Cortisol is linked both to emotions and eating,” said researcher Elissa Epel.

A BIT RATTLED. With a drug that lowers brain levels of the chemical glutamate, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine were able to ease symptoms of induced schizophrenia in rats. The new compound, which works by stimulating a group of glutamate receptors, appears particularly promising because it does not cause the debilitating side effects of current antipsychotic medications, such as uncontrollable tremors. Abnormalities in glutamate, one of the neurotransmitters responsible for relaying messages between neurons, may be associated with other psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and addiction.

CHASING THE FLUS AWAY. A cure for the flu may result from the research of Yale professor and CASE member Sidney Altman, who has produced synthetic genes that prevent the spread of the virus in mouse cells in tissue cultures. Once it gains entry into the virus, each gene generates a string of RNA called an external guide sequence (EGS). The EGS latches onto the genetic material of the virus, directing an enzyme to destroy it. This method, which is based on Altman’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery that RNA could act as an enzyme as well as a carrier of genetic material, could be used to treat many viral diseases.

DEATHLESS NEURONS. Without the enzyme Caspase-9, brain cells don’t die, according to research performed at the Yale School of Medicine and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Genetically programmed cell death—apoptosis—is essential for many biological processes, such as the neural development of embryos. However, abnormal cell death is implicated in many diseases, and the researchers suggest that blocking the action of Caspase-9 could be a way to treat Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, and other age-related neurological conditions. Caspase-9 is one of a family of enzymes that are thought to play a role in many diseases.

SIGHT SAVER. An experimental treatment for one form of macular degeneration promises an effective way to destroy the abnormal blood vessels that can warp the retina and other parts of the eyes. “Wet” macular degeneration, which causes sudden and significant vision loss, accounts for about 10% of macular degeneration cases. It occurs when blood vessels start to bulge under the macula, a portion of the retina responsible for color and detailed vision. The treatment being studied by New Haven ophthalmologist Peter E. Ligget involves injecting the patient with a compound that can absorb the energy from an infrared laser directed at the retina. The compound is able to use the energy to attack the blood vessels while leaving other portions of the retina untouched.


GUN SAFETY. Oxford Micro Devices, of Shelton, is developing a way to equip guns with a computerized fingerprint verification system that would prevent unauthorized people from pulling the trigger. The system, which fits into the handle of a gun, includes a tiny fingerprint sensor that captures the images of a fingerprint and a processor chip that compares those images with those of legitimate users.

FLASHPOINT. A laser flashlight that produces a disorienting, random strobe-like pattern of green light can serve as non-lethal gun alternative for law enforcement officers. According to its developers, L.E. Systems of Glastonbury, the Laser Dazzler does not harm the eyes, and works at nighttime as well as during the day. It also reflects well, which can help police spot fugitives by the glow of their eyes. The federal government has provided an $800,000 grant to fund research on the Dazzler; the company hopes to make the device more practical by reducing its cost from several thousand dollars per unit to $600 or less.

MAGNETIC VISION. With a 10,000 pound magnet capable of creating a magnetic field 300,000 times stronger than that of the Earth, scientists can “see” the structure of submicroscopic particles. The magnet, which floats on air-cushioned legs, is part of Yale’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer, which will be used to analyze the structure of enzymes and proteins. The spectrometer works by causing the nuclei inside atoms to emit electrical signals of different frequencies, which can reveal the composition and structure of the molecules. Researchers will use this information to develop more effective drugs. The device will also be able to analyze materials of interest to chemists, physicists, and biologists.

ONE AT A TIME. Scientists at Yale have developed a type of electrometer—a device that counts individual atoms—so sensitive it can detect charges as small as 15-millionths of an electron. The device, which can be switched on by a single electron, gives scientists the ability to track individual particles. “We believe the performance of this device can approach the quantum limit for these kinds of electrical measurements,” said Yale applied physicist Robert L. Schoelkopf. About 1 million times faster than the typical single electron transistor, the device could be used in developing highly miniaturized computer circuits as well as in improved light sensors for more telescopes and microscopes.

ALARMING DEVELOPMENT. The Spiropass, a wearable motion detector developed by Branford-based Interspiro, should help save the lives of firefighters because it hooks onto the firefighter’s airpack and activates automatically whenever the airpack is turned on. “In the excitement of fighting the fire, [the firemen] tend to forget to turn them on,” said Branford Fire Chief Wayne E. Sandford, whose department recently bought 30 of the devices. Spiropass, which costs about $300 for each unit, compared to $125 for each manual system, makes a loud piercing noise whenever its wearer does not move for 30 seconds; this warns other firefighters that one of their colleagues may need help.


GENES ON A CHIP. A biological microchip under development by Meriden-based Packard Instruments Co. could help decipher the human genome, allow diseases to be diagnosed more quickly, and provide customized treatments based on an individual’s genetic makeup. The biochip, a piece of glass the size of a microscope slide that contains up to 10,000 fragments of DNA, can rapidly perform thousands of biological reactions in the same way that computer chips can calculate millions of mathematical operations. The biochip can locate within seconds a single genetic variation within the 3 billion biochemical building blocks of DNA, and, unlike existing DNA analysis equipment, it can also test for gene expression and protein function.

GARBAGE DISPOSAL. With an electrically charged gas known as plasma, Wilton inventor Joseph F. Longo believes he can destroy chemical weapons, help clean up landfills, and encapsulate low-level nuclear waste. While many are skeptical of his claims, his company, Startech, was recently asked by the US Army to participate in a demonstration that could prove whether his ideas work. Longo’s plasma waste converter operates by using the gas, which can reach temperatures of 36,000° to reduce waste to its component atoms. This reduces it in volume and renders it harmless. Longo claims that, as a byproduct, the device produces enough energy to run itself. While plasma technology has never been utilized in a commercially viable waste disposal device, it has been successfully employed in the smelting industry, and NASA has used it to test spacecraft materials.

QUICK DESIGN. With a new laser technology known as stereolithography, engineers at Hamilton Standard can quickly produce epoxy resin prototypes, saving weeks of time and thousands of dollars, according to engineers. The process, which builds the parts one layer at a time, uses computer drawing as a guide. Stereolithography can also be used to turn out non-working show-and-tell models, punches from which metal parts can be manufactured or molded, and precision parts that are only needed in small quantities. Components made with the technique will be included in the International Space Station, the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey aircraft, and a new spacesuit.

NEW MONEY. SS&C Technologies Inc., based in Bloomfield, is among the few US companies developing software that will help money managers when eleven separate European currencies are replaced by the continent-spanning euro. The conversion, scheduled to begin next year, will require a recoding of computer information systems similar in scale to that required by the year 2000 problem. Money managers in fluctuating markets need instantaneous access to a wide variety of financial information, and those with euro-compliant systems will have a significant advantage, said Bill Stone, SS&C chief executive officer.

LIGHT INFORMATION. Uniquely shaped microlasers that combine chaos theory with semiconductor laser technology could help scientists develop computers that calculate information using light instead of electrons. The new design, which offers 1,000 times more power than conventional microlasers, was first proposed by Yale physicist A. Douglas Stone; it was developed by a team that included Yale physicist E.E. Narimanov and former Stone graduate student Jens U. Nockel. By using a resonator that allows light pulses to bounce at slightly varying angles in a chaotic path, the microlaser, which is about the width of a human hair, can emit light in four narrow, controllable beams. The device could be used to increase the speed of voice, video, and Internet data transmission.


SHEAR PROTECTION. A laser-based system being developed by Flight Safety Technologies of New London could help protect planes from wind shear and other forms of turbulence. Unlike the radar systems traditionally used to direct aircraft, which can only track solid objects, the new, far more precise Socrates system can perceive the movement of empty air. Based upon a formerly secret Navy method of listening underwater for ships and submarines, it takes advantage of the fact that light travels more slowly in air that is denser. For example, when a sound wave crosses the path of a laser beam, the compressed air at the beginning of the wave slows the beam. The new system can perceive these minute changes in the speed, in essence "seeing" sound. Initially, the technique will be used on the ground to detect the wake behind large jets; eventually it could be installed directly on individual aircraft.

HAPPY LANDINGS. Helicopters will be able to land safely anywhere—even on the pitching decks of ships or offshore oil platforms—with the Light Harpoon System being marketed and produced by Wethersfield’s Kell-Strom Tool Co. in conjunction with other companies. A modification of a device designed for military helicopters, the system consists of a harpoon-like probe that is lowered from the helicopter onto a grid mounted on the landing platform. Unlike systems currently in use, Kell-Strom’s method does not require the assistance of someone on the ground.

ENGINE POWER. Pratt and Whitney’s newest Boeing 777 engine, said by the company to be the world’s most powerful commercial aircraft engine, was recently certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and is scheduled to enter service at the end of the year. The engine, developed from the less powerful PW4084, generates 98,000 pounds of thrust, which is enough to lift two Boeing 737s. It is the world’s most powerful commercial aircraft engine, according to the company, which expects to boost the engine power even further, to 102,0000 pounds of thrust.

— Compiled and edited by Karen Miller


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