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New Knocks Against Ethanol

While promoters of ethanol sometimes plug the fuel as a panacea for climate woes and America's dependence on foreign oil, a study from Stanford University suggests ozone produced by ethanol-fueled vehicles might end up killing more people than emissions from gas vehicles. Ozone is a component of smog that's produced in a chemical reaction involving hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide in the presence of sunlight. The gas is known to inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma, and weaken the immune system.

Led by Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson, the new study used a computer simulation to compare air quality in the U.S.—and specifically, in Los Angeles—in the year 2020 under two different scenarios. In one, the vehicle fleet is fueled by traditional gasoline; in the other, it runs on 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, a blend known as E85. According to Jacobson, this is the first such study to account for population distribution and the complex interaction of environmental factors like sunlight, clouds, and wind. Based on the simulation, he concludes that the switch to an ethanol fleet could result in a 4% increase in U.S. deaths overall, and a 9% increase in L.A.

Defenders of ethanol are quick to point out potential flaws in Jacobson's assumptions. And some environmentalists argue that ethanol, while not perfect, has an important role to play in America's green-fuel future. Jacobson favors electric vehicles recharged using wind, solar, or hydro power.

The brains of Alzheimer's patients may malfunction because they are starved of energy. A healthy brain feeds on ample amounts of glucose. With Alzheimer's, however, glucose absorption declines. Brain cells then turn to alternatives—chemicals called ketone bodies—but the body can't make enough to keep the mind working long-term. Broomfield (Colo.) biotech Accera has a drug, Ketasyn, designed to boost production, helping patients preserve their faculties. In a three-month clinical trial of 152 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's, Ketasyn significantly improved cognition compared with a placebo, says Accera. The results will be presented at the May meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. Catherine Arnst

Robots are getting more adept at procedures that can tax accomplished surgeons. The latest example is Heart-Lander, a tiny, 10mm-long robot that crawls like an inchworm across the heart.

Developed by Cameron Riviere and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and Johns Hopkins University, the bot is connected by a tether to a joystick operated by a human surgeon. It's inserted through an entry point below the patient's rib cage, a minimally invasive procedure that doesn't require cracking open the chest. The bot then crawls to the desired location on the heart, unperturbed by the organ's rhythmic beating. Once in position, it can burn away diseased tissue, help place a needle to inject drugs, or attach electrodes used to stimulate heart muscle—all the while relaying visual and other sensory data back to the medical team.

The device has already been tested in open-heart surgery on pigs. The researchers have formed a company, HeartLander Surgical, to commercialize the breakthrough.

— Industrial diamonds are tough enough to drill through stone and slice through steel, but they're not ideally suited to the latter task. Carbon in the diamond reacts with the iron in steel to form chemical by-products that dull the blade.Substitutes exist, but must be produced under the same high-pressure conditions as diamonds and cost just as much to make. Scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles have designed an alternative that can be made at ambient pressure. It's a mixture of boron and rhenium, a metal, and it's hard enough to scratch the surface of a diamond, says UCLA chemist Richard B. Kaner.

— The evidence is in: Wealth is a poor indicator of intelligence. Researchers at Ohio State University analyzed data on 7,403 Americans who took part in a Bureau of Labor Statistics study begun in 1979. Participants completed general aptitude tests and provided details on their income, net wealth, and financial difficulties. While those with the highest IQ scores tended to earn more than others, they seemed just as likely to wind up in dire financial straits and no more likely to acquire great wealth.

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