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Businessweek Archives

Cutting Auto Emissions In Those Key First Minutes

Developments to Watch

Cutting Auto Emissions in Those Key First Minutes

During most drives around town, cars typically emit the the most pollution in the first couple of minutes. That's because the gasoline isn't warm enough to vaporize properly. As a result, up to 80% of the fuel pumped into the engine is spit out as unburned hydrocarbon particles. But a miniature oil refinery under the hood could change that.

Developed by four engineers at Ford Motor Co., the University of Texas, and Southwest Research Institute, a new onboard distillation system "cracks" liquid gasoline to harvest the lighter molecules that vaporize easily, then salts them away in a separate minitank for use in starting the car. This dual-fuel approach could slash auto emissions by 50% or more, says team leader Ronald D. Matthews, a professor of mechanical engineering in Austin.

The next step: The mini-refinery system will be moved out of the university's lab and installed in a 2001 Lincoln Navigator sport-utility vehicle. Matthews expects it to take about 18 months to fine-tune the system for both performance and cost. The team hopes to trim the cost to $60 from roughly $400 now. If they pull it off, the patented technology will be offered to all carmakers.Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

A Space Race with $10 Million for the Winner

Aviation pioneers battled in the 1920s for the $25,000 Orteig Prize for making the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Charles Lindbergh won in 1927. Today, wanna-be astronauts are competing for the $10 million X Prize. It will go to the first privately funded craft to carry three people to suborbital space--100 kilometers up, or 62 miles--and then repeat the feat within two weeks to prove the craft's commercial viability for space tourism.

Twenty-one teams from Argentina to Russia, including 12 in the U.S., are working on rockets or spaceplanes. The newest competitor approved by the X Prize Foundation is Canadian Arrow, headed by industrial designer Geoffrey T. Sheerin in London, Ont. By adapting existing technology, including the engine in Nazi Germany's V2 rockets, Sheerin hopes to launch a test flight within three years for $5 million.

Canadian Arrow will need to move fast: Five teams are already conducting test flights. The Mojave (Calif.) group led by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan has reached the highest point so far: 19 kilometers. A winner might emerge as soon as next year, says Peter H. Diamandis, a St. Louis physician who founded the X Prize Foundation and collected the prize money. That would be fitting: 2002 is the 75th anniversary of Lindbergh's historic flight.By Petti Fong; Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

Second Thoughts on Man's African Origin

Where are humanity's roots? This is hotly debated. Most anthropologists support the "Out of Africa" model. It holds that our immediate ancestors began leaving Africa about 100,000 years ago and eventually displaced all other early human populations around the world. But some iconoclasts insist that modern man arose in several places. And two new studies, published in the January issues of Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bolster this dissident view.

In the first study, researchers from the universities of Michigan, Kansas, and Utah, led by Michigan anthropologist Milford H. Wolpoff, compared the skulls of three ancient humans with even older skulls from the same general regions. They didn't find clear signs pointing back to Africa. For example, a 14,000-year-old skull from Australia was more similar to archaic fossils from Java, not Africa.

In the second study, Aussie scientists extracted mitochondrial DNA from the remains of humans who lived in Australia between 8,000 and 60,000 years ago. If Africa was mankind's only nest, the DNA should follow a predictable pattern similar to modern humans. But it didn't. Indeed, the DNA indicates that native Australians evolved more than 200,000 years ago.

Mainstream anthropologists are intrigued, but say it will take much more compelling evidence to overturn Out of Africa. And so the debate rages on.By Ellen Licking; Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

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