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Businessweek Archives

The Tiger Moth's Lesson For The Pentagon

Developments to Watch


BATS ARE CRUISE MISSILES OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM. They locate a target with a sophisticated sonar system, then hit it going 75 mph. Most prey never have a prayer.

Yet a moth from the Tiger family (photo) regularly escapes--because bats often veer away just as they are about to snatch a Tiger moth. Scientists have known about the moth's dramatic escapes for two decades, but how the moth does it has remained a mystery.

Now, University of Toronto zoologist James H. Fullard thinks he has found the explanation: Tiger moths emit an ultrasonic clicking sound that closely resembles a bat's echo-location signal, or sonar. The clicks may jam the bat sonar in much the same way that military jamming techniques confound enemy radar. Or the signals could prompt the bat to abort its attack for other reasons, since Tiger moths appear to be unappetizing--bats rarely devour the ones they do catch.

To decide the issue, a controlled experiment with trained bats will be staged this fall. The outcome could point the way to efficient bat repellers. And it might also pay off for the Pentagon. If moths can jam a bat's sonar, which is more accurate than the best military systems, the Pentagon will surely want to try to tame this Tiger.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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IN A FEW YEARS, YOU MAY BE PUTTING A CORNCOB IN YOUR TANK--in liquid form. Stephen F. Paul, a Princeton University physicist, has developed a way to make gasoline substitutes from corn, paper, wood chips, and other biomass waste products--and slash noxious emissions to boot.

Some 70% of the fuels' liquid content comes from waste materials. The rest is typically ethanol. Paul told the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in Boston on Aug. 23 that his P-series fuels (named for Princeton) produce 40% to 50% fewer hydrocarbons--a key component of smog--20% less carbon monoxide, and 4% less carbon dioxide than gasoline. Yet they generate 92% of the power of gasoline.

These fuels won't be cheap, though. Paul figures they'll cost about $1.50 a gallon at the pump. Still, he thinks the technology could serve as a "high-volume insurance policy" in the event of another oil crisis.

The Energy Dept. believes they could displace a billion gallons of gasoline by 2005 and is considering adding P-series fuels to its list of approved alternative fuels. They can be burned by special "bi-fuel" vehicles already on the market, such as certain Ford Motor Co. Ranger pickups and Crown Victorias. Paul has licensed his recipe to New York's Pure Energy Corp.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


CREATING REALISTIC, THREE-DIMENSIONAL COMPUTER MODELS CAN BE A CHORE. A lifelike representation of anything that has a complex or highly textured surface--such as a person's face or an upholstered recliner--can take days to produce with today's computer-aided design (CAD) tools. But it's a breeze with software from Synthonics Technologies Inc., says F. Michael Budd, president of the Westlake Village (Calif.) startup: "In most cases, you eliminate 90% of CAD time and cost."

The software, dubbed Rapid Virtual Reality, automatically translates flat photos into 3-D replicas. It uses algorithms developed by Synthonics founder Charles S. Palm to construct a so-called wire-frame model from the photos, then wraps a photo around this skeleton.

Solid models will bring a new dimension to the Internet. Animations can be more entertaining, and erstwhile static photos can become interactive. Models will also enable new online shopping gimmicks, says Budd. Surfers can pick up and examine products almost as if they were in a real store. People in the market for furniture could send in photos of a room and get back a model, then pull furniture from a digital catalog and place it in the model room. And for the Smithsonian Institution, Synthonics is making a CD-ROM with thousands of 3-D models of items in its collection.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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