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How To Spin Wood Out Of Straw

Developments to Watch

How to Spin Wood out of Straw

WILL LUMBER MILLS ONE DAY EXTRUDE TWO-BY-FOURS made from straw? Could be, says Wolfgang Glasser, a wood-science professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. He planned to present that possibility at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society on Mar. 24 in Anaheim, Calif.

Based on recent discoveries on how wood cells form, Virginia Tech researchers believe it may be feasible to bypass years of normal tree growth. Instead, just whip up a mix of lignin--the polymeric glue that holds wood together--along with the proper proportions of cellulose derivatives from almost any plant, and, given the right conditions, the molecules will automatically self-assemble into woodlike cells.

At this point, the research is still a laboratory curiosity. Nailing down all the variables needed for a commercial recipe that can turn straw into wood will take years of work, says Glasser.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

Inspected by Fruit Fly No. 135

HARNESSING BLOWFLIES, FRUIT FLIES, AND OTHER INSECTS to judge the freshness of foods may seem distasteful, but entomologists know that insect noses--er, antennae--are just about the keenest sniffers around. Blowflies, for example, go crazy over the smell of rotting meat, because that's where they lay their eggs. Days before human noses notice, they can detect the odor from just a few moldering cells.

So researchers at the Institute of Arable Crops Research in Harpenden, England, are wiring insects to serve as early-warning sensors. Wispy tungsten electrodes are being implanted in fruit-fly antennae to record the nerve signals that get activated by the slightest whiff of tomato rot.

Once the scientists have deciphered the fruit flies' olfactory codes, they can hook the electrode to a gadget that sends out signals when the insect senses something rotten. Food inspectors could then expose the flies to air samples from a warehouse or packing plant to determine if food products are on the verge of spoiling. If so, the product could be sold quickly--in the case of tomatoes, perhaps to a producer of juices--to avoid a total loss.

Entomologist Eleanor M. Pow intends to begin field tests in a couple of years. Longer term, Pow says, it might be possible to devise bioelectronic sensors using just the antenna proteins that react to specific smells.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

Desperately Seeking Faster Supercomputers

TO MARK ITS 100TH ANNIVERSARY, the American Physical Society staged a weeklong meeting in Atlanta. Among the 3,000 presentations, a recurrent theme was the pervasive need for faster number-crunching speeds for computers. To meet that need, at least over the long term, several scientists reported progress toward the fastest and smallest possible computer chips--based on "qubits," or quantum bits.

The quantum-physics chips won't need metal wires or transistors. Instead, data will be processed by manipulating the so-called spin of individual atoms, while single electrons, exploiting the esoteric nature of quantum physics, "tunnel" instantly from place to place. Two dozen teams reported their progress in this area, including scientists from IBM, MIT, NEC, Notre Dame, and Peking University.

Several researchers continue to be riveted by DNA computers. Using a cup of squishy DNA molecules to find solutions for problems much too big for any digital computer has a perverse attraction for some scientists.

The Energy Dept. can't wait for quantum computers. It will be taking on more speed demons over the next few years. These supercomputers will be so big and powerful that by 2010 scientists will be able to duplicate real-world physical processes with uncanny realism. Don't knock the simulations being done on today's supercomputers, though. For example, Edmund B. Webb III of Sandia National Laboratories reported how his modeling of the shape of lubricant molecules suggests ways to improve the efficiency of car engines and to reduce emissions. And Marvin L. Cohen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said that supercomputer modeling tools are now robust enough for atom-by-atom simulations that can predict the existence of new materials and their real-world properties.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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