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Bacteria are emerging as the workhorses of the 21st century. Already they've been enlisted to help clean up oil and chemical spills. In several years, varieties could be living in colonies in your closet, chomping away at sweat, food stains, and other unwanted residues in garments and shoes. Further along, bioengineering may open the door to fabrics that constantly repel dirt while secreting the fragrances of your choice.
These and other applications are on the drawing board of Alex J. Fowler, a mechanical engineer at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Fowler and a team of researchers are genetically engineering harmless bacteria that can thrive in natural cloth fibers. They're also developing techniques for introducing bacterial colonies into hollow fibers that could be used in future apparel or home furnishings. Recently they created a bioreactor, or micro-greenhouse, containing a harmless strain of E. coli. Fowler then injected the bacteria into fiber made from milkweed and monitored their proliferation. In the future, he says, "you could create a bandage that secretes a growth factor" to help wounds heal.
High hurdles remain--including the engineering of bacteria that can survive in fabric that is repeatedly washed, rinsed, and dried. Even so, Fowler hopes to develop a commercially viable biofabric in about two years. It may look like a caterpillar. But by electric-car standards, the eight-wheeled KAZ--short for Keio Advanced Zero-emission--is a roadrunner. And true to its name, it's a clean machine. Developed by Hiroshi Shimizu, head of Keio University's Electric Vehicle Lab outside Tokyo, the KAZ runs entirely on powerful, lightweight lithium ion batteries. A one-hour charge provides enough juice to drive 190 miles at 60 mph. In a recent test, the prototype clocked a maximum speed of 193 mph, earning it the title of world's fastest EV limousine.
Shimizu placed all of the components, including the car's battery pack, under the floor of the vehicle. That opened up enough room to seat eight people comfortably. "One of the merits of the EV is that you can create more interior space than is possible with a gasoline-powered car," he says.
KAZ is the culmination of 20 years of EV research on Shimizu's part. In 1997, he unveiled the Luciole, a high-speed two-seater dubbed the "pocket rocket." This time he's looking for a manufacturer to build a commercial version of KAZ. Shimizu figures that with an annual output of 500 units, production costs would run only slightly more than that of a luxury Mercedes-Benz. A lot is riding on cutting-edge technology to thwart the counterfeiting of money, gift vouchers, passports, and other documents. But as quickly as scientists can develop special inks, labels, or holograms, crooks manage to up the ante. Now, Hitachi Ltd., a top Japanese chipmaker, says it has a minuscule integrated circuit that could really make things hard for counterfeiters.
Hitachi's so-called meu-chips measure just 0.4 millimeters on each side--small enough to be embedded in currency and most other cloth or paper documents. The chips' read-only memory can store 128 bits' worth of identifying code, which could be used for any kind of digital serial number or a user I.D. The chips also contain wireless communications circuitry that will let them talk to a reading device up to 12 in. away over a 2.45-gigahertz band. Hitachi plans to market the first batch of meu-chips next spring. -- Optical fiber might look delicate, and even beautiful when carrying different colors of light, but it makes a hefty pipeline: A single strand, about the diameter of a human hair, can transmit almost 2 terabits (2 trillion bits) of information per second. That's the equivalent--here's a frightening thought--of 400 million one-page e-mails. In experiments, researchers have pushed the rate to 10 terabits. Now, scientists at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs have calculated that, under the right conditions, one fiber using different colors of light can carry as much as 100 terabits of information--more than enough for video-on-demand--or roughly 20 billion e-mails. Imagine what that could do to your in-box.
-- Americans consuming fruits and vegetables from around the world may be getting a surprise dose of bacteria. One reason is that some microbes--in particular, a bacterium called shigella--appear to form a sticky "biofilm," like dental plaque, that is difficult to remove. Meredith E. Agle, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that washing shigella-contaminated parsley did not remove all of the bacteria. Shigella caused a nationwide epidemic of diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps in 1998. Agle and her colleagues are now investigating its ability to form biofilms.