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Tweety's Real Problem


With many states clamoring for more green energy, windmills are among the most cost-effective options. Yet worries that their giant blades may mince birds in flight have delayed or even stopped some projects. But many threats take a far bigger toll, including cuddly house cats. A National Academy of Sciences study estimates the toll of bird deaths from U.S. wind farms is in the tens of thousands per year, a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of birds killed by house cats and man-made menaces such as pesticides, cars, and power lines. The Audubon Society now says ordinary power plants pose a bigger threat to bird life than do windmills.

Candy bars, as everyone knows, are bad for teeth. But chocolate may actually help fight cavities. A doctoral candidate in bioinformatics at Tulane University has found that a white crystalline extract of cocoa works even better than fluoride in protecting teeth.

The powder, chemically similar to caffeine, hardened the enamel of extracted human molars while reducing harmful bacterial growth. The researcher, Arman Sadeghpour, who collaborated with other scientists in Louisiana, is now testing the compound on human gum-tissue. There is other evidence that Sadeghpour may be onto something. Researchers at Osaka University in Japan have confirmed independently that husks of cocoa beans stymie tooth-decaying bacteria. Sadeghpour has come up with a prototype toothpaste—in peppermint, not chocolate flavor—but says any product is at least two years from hitting the market, to give time for clinical trials required by the American Dental Assn. Hershey has invited Sadeghpour to share his lab results with its researchers.

While plastics have many traits that give them great utility, they have a big drawback: Without flame retardants, they burn as easily as the fossil fuels from which they're derived. Chemists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have created a plastic that appears to be almost fireproof.

Though it's also a derivative of crude oil, the new material comes from a hydrocarbon molecule that had never been tested before, says lead scientist Todd Emrick. It retains the moldability and lightweight strength of PET, an everyday plastic used in beverage containers. When exposed to even high heat, it chars but doesn't combust, making it a good substitute material for consumer electronics, aircraft interiors, and furniture cushions.

— In a process akin to kidney dialysis, researchers at the University of Maryland have invented a gel that could filter out viruses from infected blood. The gel can be stamped with tiny holes shaped exactly like a target to be trapped, such as an influenza virus. The bugs then become lodged as they pass through the gel. Researchers so far have carried out in vitro tests on plant viruses and on a virus that causes a harmless rash in children.

— To cut down on air and noise pollution, airlines have been testing tugs that tow planes to and from airport gates so their jet engines can be shut off. An Ashburn (Va.) startup is working on an alternative: Aircraft that can be driven like a great big car. Delos Aerospace has patented electric-powered wheels that could be switched on when the aircraft is not on an active runway. Another first: Even without a tug, the plane would be able to go in reverse.

— Diabetes patients may be able to regulate their insulin internally, reducing the need for injections. An undergraduate team at Johns Hopkins University, working with the school's Institute for Cell Engineering, has created a nylon-mesh sac that could fit into a vein feeding into the liver. The tiny pouch would shelter microcapsules of living pancreatic cells that, in turn, would pump insulin into the bloodstream. Animal tests are planned for this summer.


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