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Seeing-Eye CD Players for the Blind

Those teensy silicon chips that help keep track of products in warehouses may one day open up new vistas for the blind. University of Rochester students under Jack G. Mottley, an associate professor of electrical engineering, have built a system that uses radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags and a portable CD player to deliver spoken navigation guides to designated places. For example, a CD guide to a college campus could respond to RFID tags mounted on doors and buildings by announcing "Professor Mottley's office" or "entrance to the physics building is five steps up."

The system, Navigational Assistance for the Visually Impaired (NAVI), uses tags as small as rice grains, that cost about 25 cents. Each emits a distinctive code when triggered by a radio signal from NAVI's antenna, which resembles a handheld microphone. The code tells the CD machine what segment to play. A polished version of the toaster-size prototype, predicts Mottley, could pack everything inside a portable CD player. With electric utilities consuming natural gas in record volumes, the price of this clean-burning fuel has soared. Environmentalists would like to boost supplies, which also would please irate homeowners stuck with rising heating bills. At Brookhaven National Laboratory, researchers led by chemist Mow Lin are working on one solution: "mining" methane from coal with bacteria. The main component of natural gas, methane, is also trapped inside coal, the world's most abundant fuel. But current methods of liberating it produce lots of polluted water.

To address that, Lin's crew is evolving new strains of bacteria that not only help catalyze the release of the methane but also transform the contamination into benign compounds. Lin collected the ancestors of his bugs from such places as hydrothermal vents on the ocean bed. There, they thrive in a toxic stew hotter than boiling water, so they have a natural aptitude for the job Lin hopes to give them. Last month, after a mock earthquake partly demolished the old town library in Lebanon, Ind., small robots crawled into the rubble, searching for the half-dozen mannequins that had been planted in the building before it collapsed.

It was just a practice session for a team from the University of South Florida's Center for Robot-Assisted Search & Rescue (CRASAR), but devices like these are already functional: After the September 11 terrorist attacks two years ago, CRASAR helped probe the rubble in New York with remote-control robots -- and found body parts.

Since then, CRASAR director Robin R. Murphy has been busy developing new sensors so bots can tell if a victim is still alive. That way, she explains, rescue workers won't waste precious hours digging out dead bodies while there's still hope of finding survivors. One sensor detects blood flowing in a victim's veins by touching exposed skin. If the robot can't get that close, another sensor can pick up exhaled carbon dioxide from a few feet away.

Next up, says Murphy, could be remote-controlled robots that can deploy and inflate air bags to prop up the rubble around a survivor. That tops the to-do list for the new industry-university center CRASAR is now setting up, aided by the National Science Foundation. -- For centuries, scholars have praised sage for more than just its pretty lavender-colored blossoms. "It also heals the memory," according to a 1652 textbook. And so it may -- for at least a couple of hours. Researchers at Britain's Medicinal Plant Research Center gave 44 volunteers either sage oil or placebo capsules and tested their ability to recall a list of words up to six hours later. Over the next three hours, those who got sage oil scored much higher. More trials are under way to see if sage oil also can mitigate the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

-- Heat from nuclear waste could be used to seal it safely away, deep within the earth's crust, according to a report in the August issue of Geology. British engineer Fergus G.F. Gibb proposes dumping radioactive waste into holes three miles deep. The "hot" waste would melt the solid granite rock, which would soon resolidify, forming a protective tomb that should last nearly 1 billion years -- far longer than the estimated 10,000-year life span of containers at the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.

-- Foodmakers may soon be able to cut salt and sugar in their snacks without sacrificing flavor. Researchers from Germany's University of M?nster, working with Nestl? scientists in Vevey, Switzerland, have identified a new flavor enhancer called alapyridaine that increases both saltiness and sweetness. The compound was discovered in beef stock and is itself tasteless. So far, alapyridaine shows no signs of triggering the headaches and other irritating side effects caused by MSG, the standard flavor enhancer.

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