Developments to Watch
YOU DESERVE A STARCH CONTAINER TODAY
SOON YOU MAY BE ABLE TO GET MORE STARCH FOR YOUR MONEY AT MCDONALD'S. Beginning next year, the fast-food chain hopes to start serving its Big Macs in containers made of two cheap, abundant resources: potato starch and limestone. The technique comes from E. Khashoggi Industries (EKI), a think tank in Santa Barbara, Calif. EKI has granted an exclusive manufacturing license to EarthShell Corp., also in Santa Barbara. Barring production glitches, EarthShell and its subcontractors hope to supply about 1.8 billion containers to McDonald's Corp. over a three-year period.
To make the containers, starch is boiled to a froth in water, mixed with some limestone and wood fiber, and then baked into disposable bowls, plates, or cups in special molds. The containers keep their integrity as long as they remain relatively dry--meaning a container's water content must not rise above 20%. That's no big problem for burgers and fries. And to handle beverages, EKI has developed additional biodegradable coatings that keep a cup water-resistant until it is crushed or broken.
Per Just Andersen, EKI's vice-president for product engineering, says the starch containers should cost no more to make than paperboard and polystyrene packages, and require much less energy to manufacture. But the biggest advantage is downstream: Exposed to water in a landfill, the starch breaks down and is gobbled by bacteria in far less time than it takes ordinary paper and plastic products to decompose.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
A CORK FOR LEAKY ELECTRONICS
THEY ARE CALLED VAMPIRES--ELECTRICAL APPLIANCES such as TVs, garage door openers, and battery rechargers that suck power even when not being used. The drain from such devices in U.S. homes alone adds up to 5 billion watts per year--roughly the output of five power plants, says energy leakage expert Alan K. Meier at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.
Chipmaker Power Integrations Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., has a new chip it says can cut up to 90% of the juice that flows into unused gear. The first target: AC adapters used to recharge cordless vacuums, cellular phones, and other appliances. Power Integration's TinySwitch senses when adapters are inactive and shuts them down. With five to 10 such devices in the average home, yearly savings in the U.S. could exceed $1 billion. Cell-phone giant Nokia Corp. plans to use the chips in future AC adapters for phones and other products.
The switch also could cut up to 30% of the juice guzzled by cable set-top boxes and some PCs when on standby. That could save $1.2 billion more in wasted energy--and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 million tons. With numbers like that, Power Integrations looks like a winner: Hambrecht & Quist analyst Gus P. Richard thinks the company's stock, now at 11, will nearly double over the next six months.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
GENE THERAPY: THE NEXT GENERATION?
DOCTORS HAVE DEVISED A VARIETY OF THERAPIES to correct genetic defects. So far, the effects have been confined to the cells of individual patients, never getting passed along to subsequent generations. But biologists are now studying the next step, called germ-line manipulation. Eventually, this would entail altering genes in sperm and egg cells so that the fixes are inherited by the patients' children.
The National Institutes of Health will soon test public tolerance for such technology. The NIH is reviewing a research proposal from gene therapy pioneer W. French Anderson at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles. His goal is to cure two diseases caused by genetic defects: a rare immune disorder and a type of anemia called alpha thalassemia. His team would begin by inserting new genes in fetuses of animals. Then it would consider applications to humans. Though Anderson wouldn't directly tamper with reproductive cells, some of the curative genes could pass into the germ line.
That disturbs people at the Council for Responsible Genetics, a watchdog group in Cambridge, Mass. On Sept. 18, CRG issued an "action alert" warning that the germ-line modifications implicit in Anderson's proposal could lead to manipulation of the human genome, raising the specter of eugenics. The NIH says it welcomes public debate and is holding hearings on the issue.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top