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Businessweek Archives

Reading What's Written On The Wind

Developments to Watch

Reading What's Written on the Wind

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison--a place better known for record snowfalls than tropical storms--have developed new satellite tools that are helping forecasters track hurricanes and monitor their intensity. The new technologies are based on a technique that merges the images taken by a string of satellites, each of which has its own view of earth, into a high-resolution composite graphic. Information, say temperature, can then be extracted from the montage and used in models. Meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center in Miami are currently using the innovative tools to improve their forecasts.

One of the many new tools available is a computer program that uses pattern-recognition software to measure hurricane intensity. This software scans satellite images and generates a number that quantifies the storm's strength. Previously, hurricane intensity was mostly subjective, based on the judgment of the forecaster on duty. "But this method takes the human guesswork out of the process," says Christopher S. Velden, one of the algorithm's designers. With hurricane season under way, that's something coastal residents from Texas to Virginia will be glad to hear.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

In Sheep's Clothing, a Balm for Lung Disease

University of Florida researchers are doing preliminary tests to see if a drug produced in the milk of genetically modified sheep can help people with chronic lung problems. The drug, a human protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT), is being used to treat six patients who suffer severe lung inflammation and emphysema because their bodies lack the means to produce the protein naturally. It was developed by PPL Therapeutics PLC of Edinburgh, Scotland, the creators of the cloned sheep Dolly.

Patients with AAT deficiency currently receive weekly injections of the drug that cost between $60,000 and $80,000 annually. Worse, because the drug is derived from human plasma, it's in short supply, leaving many of the 100,000 Americans with the disease clamoring for treatment. If PPL's recombinant version of AAT works, doctors could count on having an enormous drug supply at potentially cheaper prices. "It's just a matter of expanding the flock of transgenic sheep," says Dr. Mark L. Brantly, the project's lead researcher. Because PPL's drug is delivered as a mist that's inhaled just twice a day, patients could administer the drug themselves, avoiding the painful jabs of a needle and time-consuming visits to the clinic. "Quality of life will definitely improve," says Brantly.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

Bending Light with a New Breed of Fiber Optics

Optical fibers are often called light pipes. That name turns out to be much more accurate than previously imagined. Unlike ordinary optical fibers, which are solid glass, a new breed of hair-thin glass fibers has a hollow core for piping light.

Making these wispy glass straws is more complicated than "pulling" a solid fiber--a process that is similar to stretching a wad of taffy until it's a thread many yards long. So the hollow-core fibers produced by a team of British researchers at the University of Bath, described in the Sept. 3 issue of Science, may have only limited potential in telecommunications. However, what the new fibers promise to do over short hauls is astonishing.

For one thing, they can pipe light around 90-degree corners. That means optical chips suddenly become feasible. Today, optical chips are uneconomically large because solid fibers leak light at sharp corners, so optical circuits now have to turn gentle curves. The hollow-core variation avoids corner leaks with some optical trickery: patterns of holes in the glass too small for photons to squeeze through. Contrary to what you'd expect, adding holes transforms the glass into a light insulator.

Theoretically, tiny holes can also be used to create novel beams of interacting light, according to John B. Pendry, head of physics at London's Imperial College. Normally, light beams just pass right through each other. But interacting beams could perform switching, like transistors. Thus, all-optical chips and computers--operating at speeds way beyond current electronic models--may be on the horizon.By Otis Port; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

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