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The Sciences: Will Grants Fill The Gaps?


Developments to Watch

THE SCIENCES: WILL GRANTS FILL THE GAPS?

MORE AND MORE OF SCIENCE'S most potent advances are popping up between the cracks of academic disciplines such as physics and biology. Yet the rugged individualism of such disciplines is proving to be solidly entrenched. To pull down academia's barriers, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in Durham, N.C., established a long-term initiative in 1995 and invited research organizations to compete for five-year grants by developing programs to foster collaboration at the interfaces between the hard and soft sciences.

Last November, BWF awarded its first grants under the program. It split $10 million among two universities and two academic consortiums: California Institute of Technology; Rockefeller University; LaJolla Interdisciplinary Training Program, a four-member group based at the University of California-San Diego; and Program in Mathematics & Molecular Biology, a consortium of 12 institutions based at Florida State University.

The next competition will begin this September.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

THE GIFT OF SILICON SIGHT

TO THE BLIND, RESTORING even a modicum of sight would be a miraculous gift. Efforts to do that date back to the mid-1970s, when William H. Dobelle, head of the Dobelle Institute at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, implanted a vision "plate" in the brains of seven volunteers. This 2-inch-square plastic plate held an 8-by-8 grid of electrodes, each of which stimulated different cells in the brain's optical region when triggered by computer signals. It was crude, but it enabled the patients to "see" letters of the alphabet in their heads.

Electronics has come a long way. Now, scientists in North Carolina are working on a tiny chip to be implanted in the eye, not the brain. Their chip is just 2 millimeters square--yet will eventually have a 250-by-250 grid of electrodes. That should provide enough detail to read a newspaper, says Wentai Liu, an electrical engineering professor at North Carolina State University. And the electrodes--"phototransistors" developed by graduate student Elliot McGucken at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--will be triggered by ordinary light coming through the eye's pupil, not computer signals. However, unlike a brain implant, eye implants would require healthy optic nerves.

Liu's team expects to have prototype chips with a 25-by-25 grid ready by spring. They'll be tested for biocompatibility at Johns Hopkins University by Doctors Mark Humayun and Eugene De Juan.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

THEY MIGHT JUST PAVE THE STREETS WITH GOLD

MUNICIPALITIES HAVE SPENT fortunes to beautify parks and roadsides. But when it comes to the roads themselves, asphalt prevails.

Integrated Paving Concepts Inc. of Victoria, B.C., wants to correct this lapse in imagination with a patented process called StreetPrint. After the asphalt has had the usual roller-smoothing, StreetPrint roughens it up again. By stamping patterns into the hot asphalt, then applying a polymeric cement to harden and color the surface, the company can turn asphalt into a fair semblance of brick or cobblestone, for instance. "If you can draw it, we can build it," says President John C. Simmons.

Nobody has yet tested the wallpaper pavement for long-term durability. But Simmons predicts his yellow brick roads will last about eight years. An endorsement came last year from the city of Sao Paulo, which chose StreetPrint to mark bus routes. In the U.S., some traffic engineers think embossed pavements could function as a gentle alternative to speed bumps. And more exotic applications are in the pipeline. On its home grounds, Integrated Paving has pressed optical fibers into decorative bricks--an idea that could one day light up whole stretches of driveways or roads.By Neil Gross EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


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