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A 100 Year Old Idea Gets Into Gear


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A 100-YEAR-OLD IDEA GETS INTO GEAR

A CONCEPT FOR AUTO transmissions that dates back to 1899 looks as if it will finally reach widespread use. London-based British Technology Group is licensing Torotrak, a so-called infinitely variable transmission, to a growing number of carmakers, including Ford and Toyota.

Torotrak is a step beyond "continuously variable transmissions," such as those from Honda Motor and Van Doorne's Transmissie of the Netherlands. The Van Doorne version is used by Ford, Fiat, Rover, and Nissan. Continuously variable transmissions use adjustable pulleys to alter the ratio between the turning of the engine shaft and the turning of the car wheels.

In contrast, Torotrak uses pairs of disks with curved tracks, one connected to the engine and one to the drive axle. The disks are separated by three rollers. The rollers tilt between disks to change gears. Torotrak has fewer parts than a continuously variable transmission and doesn't require a clutch. It uses 15% less fuel than a manual gearbox.

Ford could be the first auto manufacturer to use the Torotrak transmission. It is considering putting it in its midsize Mondeo world car by the turn of the century.EDITED BY PETER COY By Julie FlynnReturn to top

SPONGES THAT SOAK UP ELECTRICITY

IMAGINE A SUBSTANCE SO porous that a piece the size of a grape has more surface area than two basketball courts. That's carbon aerogel--a feathery-light substance resembling a black sponge made of pure carbon. It's not just a laboratory curiosity. Two companies hope to harness carbon aerogel research by the Energy Dept.'s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to make charge-storing devices called aerocapacitors that could be used in things ranging from cellular phones to electrical utility grids.

Capacitors store electricity by holding positive charges on one surface and negative charges on another surface that is close to it but not touching. With their vast surface area, capacitors made from aerogels have lots more surface to store charge on. Aerocapacitors contain less than a fifth of the energy of an equal-sized battery, but they can discharge the energy they do have extremely rapidly. That means capacitors could fill the peak power requirements of, say, a cellular phone, leaving a battery to handle the base load.

A three-year-old Livermore spinoff, PolyStor Corp. of Dublin, Calif., plans to begin sample shipments of AA-sized aerocapacitors by the end of the year. GenCorp Inc.'s Aerojet unit in Sacramento, which has a license from Livermore for higher-voltage gear, is toying with the idea of using aerocapacitors to soak up braking energy from trains. The aerocapacitors could then discharge the energy to help the trains reaccelerate.EDITED BY PETER COYReturn to top

HEADSETS TO HUSH THE HOSPITAL NOISE

PREEMIES WEARING HEADPHONES? IT COULD HAPPEN. Doctors are researching whether noise-canceling headsets that quiet engine roar on airplanes might help knock out background noise in hospital wards, including neonatal units. Noise from ventilators, fans, air conditioners, and other machinery in hospitals can set patients on edge--and might even damage their hearing. Certain drugs, including some treatments for cancer and high blood pressure, lower the threshold of sound that causes hearing loss.

Dr. Richard J. Berens, a pediatric anesthesiologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, tested noise-canceling earphones supplied by Milwaukee-based Koss Corp. on 80 nurses and other staff members in adult and pediatric intensive care units. Some of the volunteers received earphones that worked, and some got intentionally disabled sets. Berens says the ones with working sets reported significantly less noise. The next step is to try the sets on patients.EDITED BY PETER COYReturn to top


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