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Businessweek Archives

Yale's Biggest Science Project

Developments to Watch

Yale's Biggest Science Project

Name the top science and engineering schools, and Yale University probably won't come until after a second breath, admits Yale President Richard C. Levin. That could soon change. Yale plans to spend $500 million on a sweeping expansion of its science and engineering facilities.

Yale's plan calls for five buildings to be constructed, enlarging the university's total "footprint" by about 25%, says Levin. "We haven't had an expansion anything like this since the 1960s." Three new buildings will be used for state-of-the-art research in chemistry, biology, and environmental science. The fourth will be devoted to engineering, and No. 5 will house classrooms for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Triggering this flurry of construction was a $24 million gift from John C. Malone, chairman of Liberty Media Corp., who earned a 1963 engineering degree from Yale. While Malone's donation is earmarked for the engineering school, Yale decided it needed to upgrade other departments as well. "The sciences are so interconnected today that it's hard to think about one department without considering the others," Levin explains. Malone's gift is just a downpayment. A fund-raising campaign will be launched to come up with the rest. Its success will determine how quickly Yale can make good on its plans.By Otis Port; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

But Will They Bring a Little Keg of Brandy?

Rescuers searching for an avalanche victim have just hours to find the person before hypothermia, or even death, occurs. But help--initially in the form of swarming mini-robots--is on the way. Rush D. Robinett and his colleagues at the Energy Dept.'s Sandia National Laboratories have developed software that enables cockroach-size robots--with less than a quarter of the computing power of a desktop PC--to pinpoint a source of interest, say the location of a land mine or a lost skier.

Controlled by Robinett's search program, the tiny robots constantly measure the strength of the signal emanating from the sought-after source, such as a skier's radio beacon. The robots, built with wheels or legs, constantly communicate this information, plus their position, to the other robots in the swarm. With each new bit of information, the individuals in the group refine the direction of their search.

Simulations suggest that searchers using this "swarm" of 10 to 20 robots can locate avalanche victims at least four times as fast as conventional search methods. Robinett envisions a day when rescue workers will carry not only global positioning systems and radio equipment, but also handheld computers running his program.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

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A Flat TV with No Fat Price Tag

Engineers have tested countless techniques for flattening bulky picture tubes into sleek, wall-hanging televisions. But liquid crystals, light-emitting diodes, miniature vacuum tubes, and gaslike plasma have all proved costly--or impossible--to work with at sizes greater than a 20-inch diagonal. A 42-in. flat-plasma display from Fujitsu Ltd., for example, still costs more than $5,000.

But Westaim Advanced Display Technologies Inc. of Toronto says it will soon be demonstrating bright flat-panel TVs that will cost half as much as plasma TVs and be less vulnerable to damage from knocks and shakes during shipping or installation. In the lab, Westaim has produced 17-in. prototypes.

Westaim's approach is a variation on an old technology known as electroluminescence. To build the screens, engineers stack up layers of electrodes, insulators, colored phosphors, and filters on a sturdy ceramic substrate. The result is a solid-state panel with no moving parts or temperamental gases. "People have been skeptical, but it does have real potential," says display analyst David Mentley at Stanford Resources Inc.By Neil Gross; Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top

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