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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Cultivating Future Technologies

Not your average playground


Remember life before e-mail? Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are beginning to develop a new way for people to interact with one another that may sound as futuristic today as the concept of e-mail sounded 10 or 15 years ago.

The Virtual Playground is a computer world where people in different locations can work together in real time. In this dynamic collaborative environment, you could change and remove information and watch as others do the same. The Virtual Playground is "always on," which means that it's updated in real time and doesn't have to be rebooted or restarted for users to see added or changed information within it.

"The real benefit is that it allows you to work with dynamic objects," explains Scott Decker, a research scientist at Pacific Northwest, who works with information synthesis, analysis and visualization. Dynamic objects contain behaviors, interactions and data. For example, you and your colleagues in other locations could operate software applications within the virtual environment and work with data as it's produced.

According to Decker, you also could communicate in a way much like videoconferencing by manipulating a human-like image of yourself that resides in the virtual world. Instead of transmitting actual images, you would control this graphic representation called an avatar and interact with avatars representing others. "The more they're like real people, the more it will enhance trust and communication," he said.

While the avatars still need a lot of work, Decker and his colleagues developed prototypes with adjustable color and movable legs, arms and torsos that can be manipulated in real time by moving a computer mouse. This proof-of-concept work used games such as Charades to explore nonverbal communication and whether it could be re-created with avatars.

Using an environment like the Virtual Playground could significantly reduce the amount of data traveling in cyberspace. The majority of elements are downloaded onto individual client computers so only the changes, which are updated in real time, have to be transmitted. As a java-based client-server system, the Virtual Playground also eliminates communication barriers between people with different kinds of computer systems.

The Virtual Playground could be used in medicine, education and scientific collaboration. In Decker's sample scenario, it can aid troops on the battlefront who discover a new enemy tank that doesn't exist in the military software. "In the virtual environment, a model could be created on the fly and then used in future battle planning," he said.

The initial concept for the Virtual Playground was created by the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratories and is being developed further by Pacific Northwest.

Glass fibers shedding light on smuggling

Glass Fibers

The newest tool to detect the smuggling of nuclear materials may be roads paved with built-in radiation sensors.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers developed a revolutionary radiation monitoring system that uses lightweight, flexible glass fibers to detect the presence of radionuclides such as plutonium. Called PUMA for short, the Plutonium Monitoring Assembly offers portable, real-time measurements of neutrons and gamma rays.

Unlike conventional sensor systems that use rigid helium-filled tubes, the glass fibers are flexible and durable enough to be embedded in roads. They could be installed at international borders to detect the transportation of radioactive materials or wrapped around containers to determine the contents. The sensor also has potential applications in monitoring environmental restoration and cancer treatment.

PUMA's glass fibers are each small enough to pass through the eye of a needle. These tiny fibers contain atoms that react with radionuclides. As a result of this reaction, ions in the fibers emit light. If a radionuclide such as plutonium is present, the light is captured, maximized by a special coating on the fiber, and detected by photomultiplier tubes at the fibers' ends.

PUMA was recognized with an R&D 100 Award as one of the most significant technological advancements in 1999 and was cited by the Federal Laboratory Consortium for excellence in transferring technology to industry. PUMA has been licensed to Canberra Industries of Meriden, Conn.

A picture is worth a thousand words


Picture this—instead of spending hours searching through massive quantities of information to find what you need, you pinpoint what you're looking for in a matter of minutes by looking at your computer screen.

Knowing that the human mind can rapidly perceive visual information, experts at Pacific Northwest are working on tools that create visual representations of data. The tools could help anyone facing large quantities of data find what they're looking for quickly and easily—from doctors interested in the latest cancer treatments to business leaders examining technology trends.

"People using visual information analysis can sort through mounds of data to identify themes, trends and relationships," said Dennis McQuerry, a senior research scientist in information sciences and engineering. "Then, they can read only what they find most pertinent."

A set of documents such as the news stories from 1999 could be scanned and represented graphically within a matter of minutes with visualization tools. In the ThemeView™ visualization, major themes within the collection rise like mountains on a relief map. Each peak is automatically labeled. The highest peaks represent dominant themes, and peaks that appear closer together are more closely related.

Users can choose the peak that represents a topic of interest and then view only the documents containing that theme. Other tools can be used to examine relationships within data and how topics change over time.

Microcats under the hood: Gentlemen, start your fuel cells!


The Indy 500 may not start that way, but in the next 10 years, environmentally friendly fuel cells may begin replacing conventional combustion engines in consumer automobiles. As a pioneer in micro chemical and thermal systems (microcats), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is working on a key element—developing efficient fuel processing systems small enough to fit under the hood.

Electric cars with fuel cells won't need to be recharged like their battery-powered cousins. Fuel cells generate electricity continuously, using hydrogen as fuel. Until recently, however, the onboard chemical processing plant needed to convert gasoline into hydrogen was so large that the concept was impractical.

Pacific Northwest engineers have proven that the critical components of a fuel processing system can be made significantly smaller without sacrificing efficiency.

"This isn't the same as making miniatures like funny little toys, robots or tiny versions of existing things," said David Brenchley, who coordinates the effort of scientists and engineers developing microcats systems. "We're talking about more efficient heat transfer and chemical reactions."

In the early 1990s, Pacific Northwest engineers Kevin Drost and Bob Wegeng discovered that they could use engineered microstructures to exploit the principles that control chemical reactions and heat transfer. Their breakthrough led to the ability to make process components such as heat exchangers, reactors and chemical separators 10 to 100 times smaller without reducing effectiveness.

In Pacific Northwest's patented microchannel architecture, reactions are sped up and intensified in machined microchannels as narrow as a strand of hair.

Not only are microcats contributing to the goal of the U.S. Department of Energy to develop efficient, low- or zero-emission fuel cells for automobiles, they could dramatically improve heat pumps, fuel processors and other devices for industry, medicine, the military, consumer goods and even space travel.

"Just as advancements in microelectronics have revolutionized computers and communication systems, micro chemical and thermal systems will change the way we do a lot of things," Brenchley said. In the future, clothing could contain built-in heating and cooling systems and homes could have tiny heat pumps in each room to efficiently heat and cool only occupied areas.

Pacific Northwest developments in this area received two R&D 100 awards in 1999—an honor bestowed upon the year's most significant technology advancements. One winner was the MicroHeater, a palm-sized combustion unit for portable personal heating and cooling devices; the second was a Compact Microchannel Fuel Vaporizer the size of a soda pop can. The fuel vaporizer is one of four fuel processing components needed for fuel cell-powered automobiles.

Building a library of bacteria fingerprints


One day a simple saliva test may be all your doctor needs to test for several illnesses at once.

Because saliva can contain many telltale bacteria that would aid doctors in diagnosing or ruling out certain illnesses, applying an existing research method in a new way could play an important role in future medicine.

Mass spectrometers, which separate ions based on size and charge, have been used for years to identify chemicals in samples. With their innovative way to prepare samples and development of statistics-based software, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have begun using mass spectrometry to identify biological molecules and build a library of bacteria "fingerprints."

Biological molecules are big and fragile, which has historically caused problems in sample preparation. Pacific Northwest's Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization, or MALDI, avoids the loss of important information that commonly occurred when samples were transferred into ions for analysis.

MALDI bombards a sample with laser light, gently converting it into ions. These ions of bacterial components such as proteins are then sent into the mass spectrometer to be sorted and identified, creating a unique bacteria "fingerprint."

The research at Pacific Northwest complements the efforts of others at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Johns Hopkins University, who have designed a portable, rapid characterization tool to analyze and confirm the identity of bacteria in a matter of minutes.

The library of bacteria fingerprints and the software that helps automate identification allows samples taken in the field to be quickly compared to known bacteria in the library. The method makes it possible to classify bacteria even when the spectrum of that specific bacterium is not in the reference library.

While your doctor won't be using MALDI Mass Spectrometry at your next visit, the technique has a more immediate application in national defense. It could be used to compare samples taken in the field with spectral fingerprints in the library to detect the use of chemical or biological weapons. Researchers also are considering it as a possible tool to monitor the blood supply for the presence of bacteria that could make patients ill.

"The research has so much promise that it far outstrips the funding we have in hand," said Barbara Seiders who leads Pacific Northwest's efforts in chemical and biological defense. "We're moving from the lab—where one person does the analysis with a large piece of equipment—to having the methodology, capability and knowledge to work in the field—and in the future, MALDI Mass Spectrometry may be used on a routine basis for public good."

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