Cleaner-Burning Fuel? Just Add Water

For years, energy-company researchers have been trying to mix oil and water. The goal was to create a cleaner-burning fuel that could help meet tougher air-pollution standards. Now, Lubrizol Corp. may have the formula: a cocktail containing conventional diesel fuel, 10% to 20% purified water, and an emulsifier that keeps the liquids blended, like bottled salad dressing, for months. Although not typically found in fuel, water alters the combustion process, resulting in a cleaner burn.

Lubrizol recently finished field-testing its new fuel, called PuriNOx, in a fleet of mass-transit buses operating outside Cleveland. By switching to the new fuel, Lubrizol found it could cut emissions of soot by up to 55% and those of smog-forming nitrogen oxide by up to 32%. Because PuriNOx is so much cleaner, the California Air Resources Board will subsidize its use to meet stricter 2005 ozone standards. Why the extra funding? While the blend costs no more than regular fuel, it cuts mileage by about 10%. Lubrizol is now rolling out PuriNOx in California, Great Britain, and Italy. Tree breeders often wait decades to see results. But researchers at Purdue University's Hardwood Tree Improvement & Regeneration Center in West Lafayette, Ind., aim to speed things up. "We are developing genetic technologies that will let us identify superior trees at the seedling state rather than waiting for the tree to mature," says Charles Michler, the Center's director.

Valuable hardwoods such as oak and walnut grow best in a mixed forest environment, where they are surrounded by a variety of plant species. Loggers can only harvest trees as they mature, so they take just a few at a time. But because it can take a century to grow a top-grade oak, demand has outpaced the replacement rate. Scientists suspect that the trees left behind may not be of the same quality.

Michler's team--with help from landowners, the U.S. Forest Service, and Indiana's Natural Resources Dept.--takes bud cuttings from the best trees and grows them in a greenhouse. Genetic material is extracted to create a "leaf fingerprint." Cuttings harboring genetic markers for desired traits--tasty nuts or rapid growth, for instance--are transferred to seed orchards, where they become parent trees for future hardwood generations. Statistics show that blacks are twice as likely as whites to suffer from heart failure and are much less responsive to the current arsenal of heart drugs, called ACE inhibitors. Until recently, doctors assumed that poverty and differences in medical care accounted for these disparities. Now, a growing number of studies indicate that there may be a physiological explanation for black patients not responding well to today's hypertension drugs. Compared with whites, many African Americans produce lower levels of nitric oxide, a naturally occurring chemical that stabilizes blood pressure and dilates blood vessels.

NitroMed, a small, privately held biotech in Bedford, Mass., is developing a drug that could help. Its molecule, called BiDil, boosts the levels of nitric oxide circulating in the bloodstream. If approved by the Food & Drug Administration, BiDil would be the first drug aimed specifically at black patients suffering from heart failure.

Results from early-stage clinical trials are encouraging. In one, BiDil reduced the mortality of African Americans by 66% but had little effect in white patients. To confirm these findings, NitroMed is conducting a larger, year-long study whose subjects are exclusively black men and women with heart failure. A U.S. pilot asked to list aviation hazards might be forgiven for failing to mention ash clouds emitted by erupting volcanoes. An Australian pilot would never make that mistake. Fliers who regularly skirt the many active volcanoes along the Pacific rim are quite vigilant about avoiding these harmless-looking swirls.

While ash clouds look just like normal weather clouds, they are laced with fine silicate particles that can sandblast windows, obscure vision, and even cause engine failure. Virtually undetectable by radar, ash clouds can remain intact after drifting thousands of miles from an erupting volcano.

To combat this high-altitude danger, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has developed the first onboard system for detecting ash clouds in aircraft flight paths. Their patented system samples a cloud's naturally occurring infrared light rays to determine if it's an ash cloud. A prototype of this system detects such phenomena about 5 to 10 minutes ahead in the flight path, leaving plenty of time to avoid them. The system may also be able to warn of clear-air turbulence and low-level wind shear. CSIRO is collaborating with Integrated Avionic Systems, an Aussie company based in Victoria, to commercialize the technology.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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