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Using the Web to Trap Car Thieves

Finally, a car alarm for the Internet Age. Japan's Omron Corp. and Tokio Marine & Fire Insurance Co. have teamed up to create a networked antitheft tool. It not only triggers a conventional alarm, but also sends a text message to the owner's mobile phone and tracks the car's location so police can recover the vehicle.

The system relies on up to 10 sensors in the car's battery, engine, ignition, doors, and trunk. These communicate with a computer server wirelessly over the Internet. The system avoids false alarms by analyzing the car's movement. If, for example, a bystander bumps into the car once, bells don't start a-ringing. The system runs on electricity from the car battery, and the owner is contacted when the voltage changes--something that might happen if a thief unhooks the wires.

Despite Japan's image as a safe country, car theft has risen 63% in the past three years. That makes this digital rent-a-cop a bargain at $335, plus $6.75 a month in phone and computer charges. Starting in September, manufacturer Omron will likely sell the system through car dealers, repair shops, and auto makers. Tokio Marine & Fire is considering giving policyholders a break on their insurance premiums if they install it. Next year, the system will go on sale in Europe and the U.S. Intel (INTC) co-founder Gordon Moore has always insisted that shrinking the size of transistors and circuit lines is only one aspect of Moore's Law--the edict that chip power doubles every 18 months. Just as important, he says, is "cleverness" in designing chip layouts and in engineering new materials. In that arena, IBM (IBM) gets the cleverness prize for innovations such as the switch from aluminum to copper microwires on chips.

Now, Big Blue has unveiled another breakthrough. It's called strained silicon--but don't be misled by the jargon. "Strain" isn't a negative. Instead, it means electrons can jump through transistors up to 70% faster. Combined with copper wires, which already allow electrons to flow more quickly, a chip's total speed gain should be around 35%--assuming the same-size circuitry, IBM predicts.

What gets strained is the structure of silicon's crystalline lattice in ordinary chips. Building on the technology it uses for high-speed telecom chips, IBM grows the silicon on top of germanium, which has slightly larger spaces between its atoms. The germanium atoms tug at their silicon companions, and the silicon atoms strain to line up. This opens up more space through which electrons can flow without bumping into an atom. "It gives you a fundamentally new plateau to start from," says Bijan Davari, vice-president of development at IBM Microelectronics. Look for the new technology to show up in workhorse computer chips by 2003. Got copper? The metal is an important nutrient, found in foods such as shellfish, beans, and chocolate. And it may be more important to the healthy development of unborn babies than scientists imagined.

In the June 5 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at University of Michigan Medical School describe the development of mouse embryos deprived of a protein that helps copper get into cells. All of the embryos in the study died 10 to 12 days after fertilization. They were also much smaller than normal and exhibited major cellular defects. Since the gene responsible for making the copper-transport protein is nearly identical in mice and humans, the researchers believe copper plays a similarly important role in human prenatal development. Scientists have long realized that copper helps the body metabolize other nutrients, such as iron. "We've known that copper deficiencies can cause diseases in humans," says Dennis J. Thiele, the University of Michigan biological chemistry professor who directed the study. "But now it looks like you literally can't be born without it." -- More and more of the everyday objects around us are made from plastics. So it's no surprise that these manmade materials are clogging landfills. But not all waste comes from discarded consumer products. Some of it is scrap from factories that make plastic parts. The plants don't recycle all their waste because the properties of many industrial polymers degrade each time they're heated and molded. Now, John P. Coulter, a mechanical engineer at Lehigh University, says that he has found a way to recycle lots of waste plastic. Even parts made with 50% scrap, he says, can turn out stronger than those molded from 100% new polymers. His secret? Using a jackhammer-like action to pump the last dregs of molten material into a mold. That causes the polymer molecules to line up in long strands--almost like fiber reinforcements.

-- Californians have been clobbered with rolling blackouts, and they're fretting about more to come. To help business and consumers anticipate electricity shortfalls, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has developed a Web site that shows, minute by minute, the state's total demand for electricity and its available supply. The Web site -- offers tricks consumers can use to trim their use of electricity by 20%, to qualify for rebates under the state's new stingy-energy program.

-- Picnickers may soon stand less chance of getting burned--by fire ants. Researchers at the University of Florida are releasing flies that attack the ants, whose burning bites have become all too familiar since they were accidentally imported 60 years ago from South America. There, the flies keep them in check.

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