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Flat Panels at a Flat Low Price

Flat-panel screens found their biggest niche in laptops, but now they're replacing desktop monitors and even television sets. Part of the reason for this surge: a 50% slide in the price of high-end liquid crystal displays (LCDs) over the past year.

That may be just the beginning. Researchers at Sarnoff Corp., Pennsylvania State University, and Kent State University say a new, jointly developed production process has the potential to slash the cost of video-grade LCDs by a further 90%. The process also promises to deliver screens that are lighter, more flexible, and more durable.

The Sarnoff-led team uses organic materials for the transistors that control the LCD picture, and it deposits them on plastic substrates instead of glass. These changes enabled the team to drop the process temperature from 480F to about 100F--and to eliminate the need for costly clean rooms. What's more, because the organics can be sprayed on the plastic, it should be possible to produce the LCDs on continuous roll-to-roll printing presses, similar to those used to print newspapers. Arthur H. Firester, executive director for display products at Sarnoff, figures this approach could yield LCDs for about 20 cents per square inch, around 10% of the current production cost of a typical laptop-size LCD.

In theory, the screens could be very big. Firester imagines someday covering an entire room in supercheap LCD wallpaper. Plus, flexible plastic LCDs bend where current glass-backed LCDs would break. And Sarnoff's plastic screens can be made at twice the pixel density of current laptop LCDs--yielding picture quality superior to that of high-definition TV.

It will be three or more years before the researchers commercialize the technology. Meanwhile, they are searching for a manufacturing partner with printing expertise to help get the presses rolling. Melanoma is the top cancer-related cause of death in Americans aged 25 to 30. Despite 20 years of research, physicians have yet to develop an effective treatment. But there's some encouraging news: In studies led by Dr. John M. Kirkwood, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's Melanoma Center, the drug interferon alpha-2b improves patients' survival chances. And it appears to work even better when combined with other therapies.

Interferon is a hormone that helps killer cells of the body's immune system communicate with one another. Although it was approved for melanoma in the U.S. back in 1995, doctors rarely used it because of inconclusive results and high costs. In May, however, Kirkwood's studies showed that patients who took interferon alpha-2b for one year after surgical removal of their main tumors reduced their risk of relapse and death from 50%-80% to 35%-55% over the next two years.

Kirkwood is now developing a one-month regimen for lower-risk patients that he hopes will eventually be as effective as the one-year protocol. With the cooperation of other cancer centers, he's testing interferon alpha-2b in combination with a similar hormone called interleukin-2 and with chemotherapy drugs. He's also working with protein fragments known as peptides that are associated with pigment-making cells, and which could act as vaccines, stimulating the immune system to mount a direct attack on the cancer cells. Coral reefs are among the world's most productive ecosystems. They offer shelter and food for myriad marine creatures, including many species that are commercially important. Alas, they're in serious trouble, threatened by everything from ship traffic to rising sea temperatures.

In the Caribbean, one of the biggest blows has been the decline of black, long-spined sea urchins, which were largely wiped out in a 1983 epidemic. The urchins graze on algae. Without them, the algae grow unchecked until the plants smother the reef's coral. "As you lose the coral, you also lose all the nooks and crannies--the reason fish hang out there," explains marine biologist Alina M. Szmant of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Now, scientists are trying to restore the reefs by bringing back the sea urchins. At the University of Miami, Tom Capo figured out how to rear thousands of the fragile urchins in the lab. On July 27, Szmant began releasing the creatures on reefs in the Florida Keys. If they survive, the urchins should begin to munch on the reefs' coating of algae. That should open up places for new coral larvae to attach, starting a chain of events that could eventually boost fisheries in the region. Collision-warning systems could soon be an affordable option on cars. MobilEye Vision Technologies Ltd. in Jerusalem has developed smart software that can measure changing distances using just one camera-on-a-chip. MobilEye founder Amnon Shashua, a computer-vision researcher at Hebrew University, says the package will sell for less than $100, so the price of a finished system in cars should be a fraction of the tab for rival equipment. He says individual auto makers will make decisions about length of warning time, the type of audio or visual alarm, and how to link the system with air-bag control.

Vision-based anticollision systems normally require two cameras because, like human eyes, they use stereoscopic triangulation to judge distance. Instead, MobilEye loads its chip with "signature" images of various vehicles. These enable the software to calculate proximity and rate of closure just from changes in an image's size. Motorola Inc., an investor in the startup, will produce the chips. Shashua expects to sign the first license with a carmaker in two months.

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