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How to Fix Our Most Vexing Problems, From Mosquitoes to Potholes to Missing Corpses

No dice yet on getting a jetpack in every garage, but the near future will include some other nice improvements to our lives and communities.

By Jason Daley, Adam Piore, Preston Lerner, and Elizabeth Svoboda
Nov 14, 2011 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:30 AM


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Researchers have spent three decades trying to solve the riddle of HIV, an endeavor that infectious disease expert David Margolis calls “as difficult as inventing a warp drive to travel to other stars.” A total AIDS cure is still not quite here, but researchers are getting remarkably close—and the quest has upended our understanding of the immune system and laid the groundwork for solutions to hundreds of other diseases. This process repeats again and again: Cures rarely happen with a flash of brilliance and cries of eureka, but their methodical unfolding fuels the dreams and enterprise of science. In this way, the world’s endless supply of problems becomes a valuable resource.

The list of ailments ripe for better treatments stretches far beyond AIDS, even far beyond medicine: traffic jams, radioactive fallout, and unsolved murders, to name a few. We all have someone or something we would like to cure, and big universities aren’t the only ones leading the charge. These days a growing do-it-yourself movement seeks solutions in garages and community labs. The only thing really needed to solve problems is tenacity. “When a scientist gets an idea in his head, he won’t stop until it’s tested,” says Robert Sabin, one of the leading DIYers. “Scientists are possessed by their ideas.”

illustrations by Jonathon Rosen | NULL

Ailment: Mosquitoes

Cure: Chemical Invisibility Cloak

Since the 1940s the leading defense against mosquitoes has been the chemical repellent DEET, but unless you remember to spritz yourself with it every few hours, you will eventually get chomped. Entomologist Anandasankar Ray and colleagues at the University of California, Riverside, aim to do better with bug sprays intended for bugs, not people. They are developing a set of chemicals that disrupt the mosquito’s sense of smell, effectively blinding the insects to humans.

Ray started with 50 compounds thought to disrupt the ability of mosquito olfactory sensors to detect carbon dioxide, the telltale sign of a living, breathing blood meal. He then turned the tables and jabbed the mosquitoes, inserting tiny electrodes into their sensors. One chemical, 2-butanone, acted as a carbon dioxide imitator, which could be exploited to lure the bloodsuckers. Another, butanal, prevented the CO2 sensors from working, while 2,3-butanedione functioned as a blinder, flooding mosquitoes’ sensors with signals, thereby rendering them useless.

Ray has since teamed up with a group of investors to found OlFactor Labs, based in Southern California, to develop commercial mosquito deterrents. He envisions odor traps that could be set up around golf courses or hotels to mimic carbon dioxide and draw mosquitoes away from populated areas. He is also exploring the possibility of an area-masking agent. Instead of DEET sprayed on the skin, an odor cloud of the binding chemicals could keep mosquitoes at bay with an “invisibility cloak” that makes CO2 undetectable. Such cloaks could be especially valuable around homes in the world’s malaria zones. So when can we ditch the DEET? Ray says cloaking sprays and odor traps could be here in five years. —Jason Daley

Ailment: Radioactive Fallout

Cure: Blue Goop

Carting away large chunks of radioactive waste from a disaster area like Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is bad enough. But disposing of radioactive fallout that clings to walls, seeps into crevices, and coats rescue vehicles is an altogether more vexing problem.

You can wash off the contamination with soap and water—the traditional method—but that creates sizable reservoirs of radioactive runoff, which in turn has to be trapped, treated, and stored away for centuries.

CBI Polymers, a Hawaii-based manufacturer of decontamination products, has developed another option called DeconGel, which can be sprayed, troweled, or painted onto any surface. The blue liquid (which is 95 percent water and 5 percent proprietary chemicals) oozes into microscopic pores and bonds with loose material. When it hardens, it shrinks by about 20 percent, sucking up fine radioactive particles and encapsulating them in its folds.

“Our gel helps regain control of the radioactive material and produces 90 percent less waste than water,” claims Shaun McCabe, president of Asia-Pacific systems for CBI Polymers, which recently donated 100 five-gallon pails of its cleaner to the Fukushima cleanup effort and hopes to sell hundreds more there. “You can either compact that waste and dispose of it in a landfill, incinerate it and reduce its volume to ash residue, or dissolve the gel in water and then treat the water.”

Scientists working for CBI’s parent company, Skai Ventures, originally had their eye on an entirely different product when they discovered the sticky gel. While researching corneal implants, a careless lab tech accidentally dribbled an experimental compound on the floor. After it dried, workers peeled it off and discovered the floor was cleaner than they had ever seen it before. Amazed at the compound’s cleaning abilities, they pursued the science.

CBI has since enhanced the compound with chelants, additives that bind to lead dust, radioisotopes, and other hazardous materials. The company now markets the product for everything from crime-scene cleanup to decontamination of meth labs and Department of Defense sites.—Adam Piore

illustrations by Jonathon Rosen | NULL

Ailment: Traffic

Cure: Highway Caravans

Gridlock costs motorists in the country’s 439 largest cities $115 billion a year in extra fuel and wasted time, which translates to $808 per driver, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report.

Traffic is a universal source of exasperation, and the problem is getting worse. In 1982 urban motorists lost on average 14 hours a year to gridlock. By 2009 that number had jumped to 34 hours.

The best cure short of building more roadways and reducing the number of cars that drive on them, traffic experts say, is semiautonomous driving. Think of it as a sort of automotive conga line for public highways. In Sweden, Volvo is conducting road tests of one such “road train” concept, called Sartre, or Safe Road Trains for the Environment. The only human driver is the professional operating the first car. The lead vehicle wirelessly transmits data from its steering wheel, brake pedal, and throttle to the rest of the cars in the train, which rely on sensors (the same ones used in existing adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning systems) to ensure adequate separation between vehicles. Passengers, meanwhile, are free to surf the Web, eat breakfast, or sleep until the commuter line ends. So far, Volvo’s tests have been limited to three cars driving about 16 feet apart at 35 miles per hour, but five-car tests are scheduled for this fall.

In the United States, independent engineer Bruce McHenry is pushing a similar idea, only the vehicles would be physically linked like railroad cars. In his scheme, the lead car serves as the locomotive, doing most of the work so simple electric motors that deliver just enough power for tooling around town and driving to the commuter track can power the rest of the cars. In his scheme, the highways themselves would eventually be electrified, like model-car racetracks. To shuttle cars in and out of the road trains, McHenry proposes, drivers would communicate over shortwave frequencies, with cars queuing up according to size and destination and uncoupling at designated spots. McHenry estimates that road trains would more than triple highway traffic flow. And he says they would work better than conventional trains since they would not require new bridges, tunnels, and rails.

Sound enticing? The U.S. Department of Transportation is running test clinics for connected vehicles that would communicate wirelessly with each other and with traffic lights and construction zones. The DOT will decide in 2013 whether to mandate the technology in new vehicles.—Preston Lerner

Ailment: Rotting Gas Pipelines

Cure: Pigbots

More than half of all natural gas pipelines in the United States—amounting to more than 100,000 miles of pipe—are more than four decades old, and some are approaching the century mark. Corroded steel or cast-iron pipes are ticking time bombs, a fact that made national headlines last year when a pipeline in San Bruno, California, exploded, killing eight people and prompting Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to propose a law that would bolster pipeline oversight and raise fines for any safety violations. Pipeline leaks also release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

The most obvious solution is to replace the problem pipes with more durable plastic lines, but such an upgrade would cost hundreds of billions of dollars—not an option in this economy. The second most obvious solution is simply to repair the pipes, but that, too, presents challenges. The majority of gas lines are inaccessible to inspectors because the pipes are buried at least two to four feet underground.

That is why utility companies are increasingly turning to pigs, short for pipeline inspection gauges, robots that slither through pipes looking for corrosion, weak welds, cracks, and other signs of disrepair. Some of the earliest “smart” pigs, developed in the 1960s, pioneered the use of magnetic flux leakage technology to detect pipeline imperfections. Simply put, the robots use extremely strong magnets to magnetize surrounding pipe walls; wherever the robot encounters surface inconsistencies, the magnetic field warps slightly, and a detector measures the variation to estimate how much metal has eroded away.

Today pigs are more akin to subterranean Swiss Army Knives, employing a wide range of novel inspection technologies. Ultrasonic pigs measure how long it takes sound waves to bounce back from pipe walls in order to gauge the walls’ thickness. Backscatter X-ray pigs, which assemble images of the inside of a pipe based on reflected radiation, can detect tiny microcracks before they develop into bigger lesions. Other remote-controlled pigs can perform internal welding or apply protective epoxy to corroded spots. Roboticist Karl Edminster, whose company, Electromechanica, specializes in pig design, has created types that can navigate the toughest of pipes; those bent at 90 degrees, for instance, or buried beneath the frost line, where temperatures can plunge to –20 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the best in show may be the 66-pound Explorer-II, arguably the ultimate pipeline-vetting gadget. Developed by Carnegie Mellon roboticist Hagen Schempf, the Explorer-II features a remote-controlled fish-eye camera that allows above-ground operators to see what the machine does; drive-train motors that give operators unprecedented control over the pig’s direction (most pigs still move passively according to natural gas flow); and a lightweight electromagnetic coil that detects changes in magnetized pipe walls without weighing the robot down, enabling it to inspect about two miles of pipe a day.

The Explorer-II, which completed a successful 2009 trial in Pennsylvania, should allow more cost-effective pipeline maintenance. By giving utilities crucial information they need to select the most economical fixes, Schempf estimates that his system could reduce the cost of inspections by 25 to 50 percent, saving the gas industry tens of millions of dollars each year. “Should utility budgets stay the same, this will allow them to investigate more of their pipes,” Schempf says.

As the United States relies on natural gas for a growing portion of its energy mix, the newest fleet of smart inspection robots will need to be on the front lines.—Elizabeth Svoboda

Ailment: Murder

Cure: Corpse Detector

Searching for murder victims can be a long, arduous effort, often involving tons of manpower, cadaver-sniffing dogs, and ground-penetrating radar. When a potential grave site is found, searchers usually start digging. The process is never foolproof, however; bodies are routinely found buried in areas already scavenged by authorities.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in Boulder, Colorado, have created a better grave detector using something called PLOT, short for porous layer open tube. A motorized pipette sucks in chemical vapors above what may be a grave and channels them to a hair-thin probe coated with an oxide of aluminum. When the probe is heated, it releases the chemicals it has absorbed. If any of them react with a compound that detects decomposition, then bingo: Chances are, you have a body below. The technique allows investigators to rule out in minutes sites that would before have taken a lot of shoveling or a FedEx to the lab to confirm. Even better, the tiny probe can poke through holes in concrete or into crevices to detect bodies that may be more artfully concealed.

To test the technology, Tom Bruno at NIST created a rat graveyard in his lab, burying some of the little corpses in a few inches of soil and letting others rest in peace above-ground. The machine effectively detected ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen, one of the telling compounds of decomposition, in both sites as the animals disintegrated over the next 20 weeks.

Hidden bodies are not the only use for PLOT. It can also be adapted to detect explosives in cargo, flame accelerants used in arson, and even spoiled chicken (weirder things have happened on CSI). NIST scientists estimate that a mobile PLOT unit could make it into the field in about a year, though we hope they do a little more field-testing. Apparently the leap between finding dead rats and Mob snitches is bigger than you might think.—J. D.

Ailment: Too Much Information

Cure: Mind-Reading Machines

If you have ever felt overwhelmed by a multitude of choices—say, 10,000 items in an online catalog—this brain-boosting invention is for you. The Cortically Coupled Computer Vision (C3Vision) system, designed by engineers Paul Sajda and Shih-Fu Chang of Columbia University and Lucas Parra from the City College of New York, endows people with superhuman search powers, allowing them to find meaningful objects in mountains of images up to 10 times faster than they normally could.

The technology, part of an 18-month, $2.4 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) undertaking, relies on electroencephalography (EEG) to detect the cascade of neural firing patterns in your brain when you spot something novel or interesting, even if you’re unaware of it. Sajda offers the example of an intelligence analyst who must rapidly scan satellite photographs or drone footage for suspicious happenings. With C3Vision, he dons an EEG skullcap and starts searching. Whenever he sees something that stands out, his brain exhibits a distinct firing pattern associated with “aha” moments. C3Vision picks that up and applies it to pattern-recognition software, which in turn flips through thousands of other satellite images to cull suspect objects or movements on its own. “The system latches on to individual perceptions and trains the computer to know what the user means by interesting,” Sajda says. “The computer and the brain operate synergistically.”

The Army is interested in using such a mind-machine interface to help soldiers navigate dangerous terrain. A driver might see something peculiar on the roadside. Maybe it is an improvised explosive device. His C3Vision headgear would register the brain waves associated with the suspicious object and inject them into the vehicle’s driving system. When the system sees other things out there that look similar, it would automatically evade them. Likewise, security guards might use such gear to spot suspicious activity on surveillance video.

Sajda envisions the technology eventually improving civilian lives as well, starting with shopping. A miniaturized, wireless version of the device might be used to tag consumer items or even specialty shops that catch your fancy as you walk down a city street. Just a quick glance at a dress in a window, for instance, might elicit a neural firing pattern sufficient to register with the system. A program could then offer up nearby stores selling similar items or shops you might want to investigate. “There’s nothing out there that can really use your subjective preference as a signature to guide you,” Sajda says. “It’s the same type of problem in the analyst world. There’s so much information to explore and digest, how do you make it useful to a person at a given time? We can make it unobtrusive and tag things as you move through your environment.”—A. P.

Ailment: Sonic Booms

Cure: Extreme Makeover of the Airplane

Sonic booms are the thundering percussions one hears and feels on the ground when airplanes pass overhead faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1). The signature crack of a sonic boom can shake walls, rattle windows, and frazzle nerves. A six-month-long series of sonic-boom tests in Oklahoma City in 1964 prompted thousands of complaints and damage claims, a class-action lawsuit, and the beginning of the end for supersonic airliners. Ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration banned supersonic civilian flights over the continental United States, partly explaining why the Concorde went out of production and why airliners have been cruising at roughly the same speed for the past 50 years.

The problem begins when a plane knifes through the air faster than the speed of sound, about 750 miles per hour at sea level. As it picks up speed, the pressure waves in its wake become so compressed they ultimately release their energy in that bone-rattling boom. Researchers have long understood that sonic booms could be mitigated by massaging the shape of the shock waves, but only recently have advanced supercomputers allowed them to model airflow accurately enough to “fully tackle the problem,” says Chet Nelson, one of Boeing’s leading supersonics wizards. For testing purposes, Boeing has modeled a 100-passenger airliner capable of cruising at Mach 1.8. The virtual jet relies on several tricks to reshape the shock waves and reduce the intensity of the boom: a needle nose, narrow fuselage, swept-back wings, aerodynamic engine coverings placed above the wings to shield engine noise, and a widely spaced V-shaped tail. In computer simulations, the plane generated 80 PLdB (a measure of perceived sound intensity). By comparison, the Concorde produced 105 PLdB.

When can we hope to fly from New York to L.A. in three hours? That depends on when regulators can agree on noise standards. There are also economic and environmental issues, since flying faster burns more fuel. But if sonic booms can be reduced to 65 or 70 PLdB and companies like Boeing see a market for ultrafast flight, Peter Coen, project manager for NASA’s Fundamental Aeronautics Supersonic Project, expects to see supersonic business jets flying by 2020.—P. L.

Ailment: Potholes

Cure: Ray Guns for Roads

During the summer, road crews can permanently repair potholes with “hot mix,” an asphalt-based mixture that bonds well to the holes. But in the winter, when the ground turns cold and many hot-asphalt plants close, crews must resort to temporary “cold patches,” which are usually pulverized by spring, leaving roads pockmarked and dangerous. “It’s incredible how much damage a pothole can do to a car,” says Kirk Kjellberg, an equipment salesman with Microwave Utilities in Monticello, Minnesota.

The company’s wintertime solution is to thoroughly thaw a hole with a 100,000-watt industrial microwave unit, boil out any moisture, and add asphalt. Conventional asphalt works fine, but Kjellberg is working with the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth to make a microwave-specific mix from recycled shingles and taconite tailings, especially since improved oil-refining technology is reducing asphalt supplies. The next step is to nuke the pothole again, heating the mix to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit to vulcanize the asphalt and create a tight bond. In all, the process takes less than 10 minutes.

Successful field trials in Minnesota have proved the concept. Kjellberg is uncertain what the commercial version will be like, but he envisions an all-in-one vehicle that would deploy the microwave, squirt out asphalt, and roll it flat. By his estimates, it will be several years before the mix hits the road.—J. D.

Ailment: Unthinkable Stink

Cure: Copper

Most efforts to wipe out bad funks simply mask odors instead of eliminating the agents that cause them. Copper has long been known as a great odor neutralizer—certain species of the metal react with and break down many common smelly molecules. The problem has been finding the right delivery system. Scientists at the University of Florida Particle Engineering Research Center and personal products manufacturer Kimberly-
Clark recently found an answer by coating silica nanoparticles with copper ions, a potent odor-fighting combination that could be used in powders and spritzes, mixed with cat litter, or embedded in products like garbage bags.

Unlike activated carbon, which sequesters odor molecules by physically trapping them, the copper chemically reacts with the stench, breaking it down into its nonsmelly component parts. When researchers mixed copper nanoparticles with ethyl mercaptan, which gives natural gas its intense smell, the compound quickly broke down into less smelly disulfide, losing its odor in minutes flat. Nanoparticles with silver ions and other reactive metals could be effective in neutralizing other classes of odorants.

Kimberly-Clark is not keen to give away the secrets of a potentially billion-dollar product line, but a patent application published in 2009 shows that the company may be gearing up to put ion-clad nanoparticles in diapers, bandages, and drapes, as well as in packaging that can absorb the gases that cause fruit to ripen too fast.—J. D.

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