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Businessweek Archives

For Utilities, A Lightbulb Goes On

Developments to Watch

For Utilities, a Lightbulb Goes On

The blackouts that plagued Chicago and other cities this summer could soon be a thing of the past. An engineering consortium led by Purdue University professor Lefteri H. Tsoukalas is developing a computerized system that imbues the power grid with intelligence. The system accounts for environmental conditions and predicts the power needs of its customers based on their usage history. It automatically meets those demands by managing the distribution of electricity in the energy grid. If demand outweighs supply, say on a hot summer day, the system knows to supplement the grid with power from small backup generators.

The smart system, dubbed Telos, uses "neuro-fuzzy" technology, which combines neural networks and fuzzy-set logic to make its predictions. Neural networks mimic the human brain's ability to spot emerging trends based on past experience, while fuzzy logic emulates the human tendency to think in general terms, not precise mathematical formulas. This enables Telos to make quick decisions without solving equations that specify local conditions in minute detail.

Today, utility company workers have used temperature readings and weather forecasts to estimate

customer' energy demands. That can be dangerous: Distant parts of the same service area can experience distinctly different weather conditions.

Commonwealth Edison Co. and the Tennessee Valley Authority, both consortium members, are planning to test Telos by 2001. If it works, the consortium will make the technology available to utilities nationwide.By Otis Port; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

DNA Chips Really Do Compute

A test tube of DNA molecules contains more potential computing power than all the world's supercomputers put together. By using the various segments of DNA as data bits, trillions of molecular chains can be chemically combined, quickly producing all possible answers to a problem that would keep a supercomputer crunching away for centuries. However, it's such a pain to find the one correct solution floating somewhere in the test tube that DNA computing has so far been used only to solve trivial problems.

Duke University researchers figure they now have the ticket to unleashing that awesome computing potential: DNA chips. A team led by chemistry professor Michael C. Pirrung has devised techniques to "print" DNA on glass chips. Because the DNA molecules are attached to the glass and not swimming free in solution, finding the answer is a lot easier. In fact, Pirrung believes DNA chips could be used to build DNA computers that automatically spot answers.

The DNA chipmaking technique was developed for applications in genetic engineering. Pirrung's team tailored that process for computer applications. By Otis Port; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Bird-Size Plane

Flocks of bird-like spy planes just six inches long could be the next big thing in military reconnaissance. Such tiny planes are usually expensive to build. And they're easily buffeted by gusts of wind, making them difficult to control.

Inspired by the latest airfoil technology used in wind-surfing gear, two University of Florida aerospace engineering professors and their graduate students have replaced conventional rigid wings with flexible latex airfoils, which bear an eerie resemblance to a cloth sail or the stretchy membranes of a bat's wing. "If there's a gust when you're windsurfing, the sail twists, so you get near-constant lift over a wide wind range," says assistant professor Peter Ifju. In the same way, with tiny rubber-winged planes, "the skin flutters like crazy, and the flutter may actually help to stabilize the plane," he says.

Assembled from about $250 worth of off-the-shelf motors, propellers, batteries, and radio devices--plus carbon fiber and latex--these planes are much less costly than other rigid-wing models under development at major, government funded laboratories. What's more, they're very durable. The plane that's pictured here has flown 50 flights. That means 50 crash landings, because the craft is not equipped with landing gear. "We haven't busted up a single plane in the last three months," says Ifju. The university is seeking funds for further development and testing.By Neil Gross; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

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