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Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Top 8 Clean Car Technologies Most Likely to Take Over for Gas

When the automobile was new in 1900, there was no clear consensus which technology would triumph. Would it be gasoline, steam or electricity? The smart money was on electricity, which shows that the smart money can be wrong.

We're in a similar period now, trying to find what comes after the straightforward, gas-burning internal-combustion engine. There's still a lot of fog, and it's unlikely to clear soon. But from where I sit today, here are eight leading technologies, listed in priority order from most-likely to could-be-a-contender:

 saturn vue plug-in hybrid

1. Plug-In Hybrids. There's no question that plug-in hybrids, with 40-mile all-electric range and the ability to recharge from standard house current, will be on the market in the next two or three years. The leading (and only) mainstream players are General Motors (which plans on introducing a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid) and Toyota (with an adapted Prius). Ambitious startups (Fisker, BYD) are also planning to field plug-in hybrids. The big challenge for all of them is developing a lithium-ion battery pack that can stand up to repeated discharge and recharge cycles and still demonstrate the longevity that today's nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery packs have had. GM and Toyota talk about 2010 introductions, but battery development headaches could delay that.

 tesla roadster electric car

2. Battery Electrics. Again, it's all about the batteries. Lithium-ion is the current leader, but is it ready to carry four passengers in a fully featured, crashworthy sedan more than 200 miles? It's time to be cautiously optimistic. Nissan has plans to bring an electric car to the U.S. by 2010. Chrysler, which has been lagging in green technology, surprised the world by suddenly announcing a concept car known as the Dodge EV, a sports car with a lithium-ion battery pack. It claimed 150-mile range and blistering acceleration of zero to 60 in less than five seconds. Some Chrysler electric is to be on the market by 2010. The sports car was clearly aimed at the Tesla Roadster, a California-built $100,000 exotic which (like the Chrysler) sports a Lotus-designed body.

 chevy volt

3. Range Extenders. General Motors is making a big, bold step forward by building the Chevrolet Volt, with production slated for the end of 2010 (as a 2011 model). The Volt is something new: an electric car with a gas motor whose only function (it's not connected to the wheels) is to keep the electric motor spinning after the batteries are depleted. GM had this field (also known as "series hybrids") to itself, but Chrysler has jumped into the fray with range-extender versions of the Town and Country minivan and Jeep Wrangler. As with plug-in hybrids, 40 miles can be enjoyed in battery-only mode, but the gas engine extends that to 400 miles or more.

 toyota iq

4. Very Small Cars. It doesn't have to be a hybrid; in fact, some of our current hybrids, based on SUVs, are actually gas guzzlers. High fuel prices have created a strong American market for very small cars, and carmakers such as Ford have been emboldened to start selling in the U.S. tiny, fuel- and space-efficient cars once relegated only to Europe or Asia. Consider the Toyota iQ. The minuscule car is just 118 inches long, but can carry three adults (plus a child)! It reportedly achieves 60/51 mpg fuel economy. The Toyota of 10 years ago would never have contemplated selling iQs in the U.S., but now it is definitely being considered.

 honda fcx clarity fuel cell car

5. Fuel Cells. The joke is that the hydrogen revolution is always at least 10 years away. And, well, it's still at least that far in the future. But the possibilities are endless, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Big drawbacks now are the cost of the fuel and, of course, the cars themselves. Hand assembled by Ph.Ds, fuel-cell cars are way too expensive to be ready for showrooms before 2020. The leading players are General Motors (which has the cutting-edge Sequel and a fleet of Equinox SUVs under test) and Honda (the ready-for-the-road FCX Clarity).

 olive oil

6. Salad Oil. Americans love the idea of running their cars on used fryer drippings. And the technology totally works. Companies such as Massachusetts-based Greasecar have found a niche converting diesels to run on 100 percent biofuel. The problem is standardizing and ramping up the technology so we could seriously make a dent in gasoline power. We simply don't have enough available farmland to run our transportation fleet on soybean-derived oil, and there aren't enough fryers to greatly expand what is now a small cottage industry.

 bmw hydrogen 7 car

7. Liquid Hydrogen. BMW's Hydrogen 7 is a very impressive car, quiet and powerful. Its 12-cylinder engine will burn gasoline all day, but push a button and it switches without a hitch to a tankful of energy-dense liquid hydrogen. You can drive it anywhere. But things get complicated after that. Hydrogen is expensive to begin with, and it liquefies at -423 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning a super-cooled cryogenic tank is obligatory. Leave the car alone for too long (parked for a week at an airport, say) and much of the hydrogen will return to a gaseous state and vent out. The big challenges: affordable hydrogen production and liquification; easy refueling; and answering safety questions.

 ethanol billboard

8. Ethanol. GM and Ford are world leaders in producing "flex-fuel" vehicles that can run on ethanol or gasoline. Millions have been produced, but most run on gasoline most of the time because of a still-embryonic ethanol station network. Cornell professor David Pimentel claims that ethanol has a net negative energy balance, which the industry heatedly denies. And there's the ramp-up question, too. According to Pimentel, if we converted 100 percent of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol, it would only replace six percent of current fossil fuel use. Because corn is in high demand, prices for it are escalating, creating a "food vs. fuel" controversy. Cellulosic ethanol, produced from plant fiber, has a much higher energy potential, but research is still embryonic.

German Supertuner RUF Building an Electric Porsche


The speedmeisters at German tuning haus RUF are hard at work developing an electric version of the Porsche Cayman that could go head-to-head with the Tesla Roadster, and we could see it as early as next month.

The car will feature a 150-kilowatt motor (about 201 horsepower) producing 479 ft-pounds of torque, and its lithium-ion battery will have a range of 155 to 186 miles, according to Auto Motor und Sport magazine. RUF claims the car will have a top speed of 125 mph. Although the RUF EV would offer less 48 fewer ponies than the Tesla, it would have significantly more torque.

No word on what the electric Cayman will look like, but it's a safe bet RUF will base it on the 3400 K (pictured). That super-Cayman produces 400 horsepower and 324 ft-pounds of torque and does 0 to 62 mph in 4.4 seconds. With more torque on tap, the electric version might shave a few ticks off that time and could even beat the Tesla's 0-to-60 sprint of 4.0 seconds.

Study Suggests It Rained on Ancient Mars

Scientists studying the Martian landscape said yes, a river ran through it — and not just one. The ancient red planet also seems to have experienced rain, they say.

The rivers may have cut the deep valleys in the Martian highlands near the equator, and also left calling cards elsewhere. Three Mars spacecraft spotted signs of fan-shaped river deltas inside ancient craters which some valleys clearly flow into.

"We can see layered sediments where these valleys open into impact craters," said Ernst Hauber, a geologist at the DLR (German space agency) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof. "The shape of certain sediments is typical for deltas formed in standing water."

Rivers carry sediment downstream until the currents become too weak and let the material fall to the river bottom. The flow almost drops to zero at places where rivers empty into a larger body of water, such as a lake-filled crater.

Hauber and other researchers focused on possible ancient river valleys crisscrossing the Xanthe Terra highland region. They examined crater images taken by the European Mars Express, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

One small 3-mile (5-km) crater contains possible proof in the form of a fan-shaped delta, where the Nanedi river flows into the crater from the south. Sediment has almost completely filled the crater up to 164 feet (50 meters) deep in an area covering slightly less than 9 square miles (23 sq km).

Researchers also counted the number of craters to roughly determine the age of the planetary surface in the area. Their crater count revealed that water flowed through the valleys sometime between 3.8 and 4 billion years ago. Additional work by Maarten Kleinhans, a geologist at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, showed that the crater sediment deposits formed in no less than a few hundred thousand years.

The valleys flowing into and out of the craters allow researchers to be "fairly certain that there were lakes on Mars," Hauber noted.

An ongoing debate is whether rain and snowmelt or groundwater may have played a bigger role in creating the valleys. The most recent findings presented at the European Planetary Science Congress in Muenster, Germany provide more evidence for the former.

"Our findings also point in this direction and we are convinced that both processes have played an important role in Xanthe Terra," Hauber said.

Other research has suggested that water flowed in the plains around the Valles Marineris region until even more recently, around 3.7 billion to 3 billion years ago. But no evidence so far has shown flowing surface water still exists on Mars.

Self-healing paint helps drivers out of a scrape

THE dread that grips every car owner when they pull into a parking space that is slightly too small could soon be prevented by an invention from Japan — a transparent vehicle body paint that repairs scratches on its own.

The encounter with a thorny rose bush, the swipe from a fingernail and even the ravages of an automatic carwash brush will no longer hold any fear for drivers. Within a few hours of the damage occurring, the paint will start to re-form itself over the scratch, and by morning the mark should have disappeared.

The Scratch Guard Coat comes courtesy of the car group Nissan, and will soon be making its debut on the notoriously narrow and scratch-prone roads of Japan. The Japanese company will be offering the special paint as an option on its X-Trail SUV before deciding whether to use the product on its range of cars.

The paint will be offered to customers prepared to pay an extra 52,500 yen (£251) on top of the standard price of the X-Trail, and its makers claim that it will continue to work for about three years. Because of Nissan’s corporate partnership with Renault of France, the product’s success in Japan could mean that the paint soon starts appearing on cars in Europe.

Even if the car is attacked with a Y10 coin — the Japanese vandal’s weapon of choice — the paint should be able to cope with the damage. Within about a week, a Nissan spokesman said, the paint will repair the scratch. “Of course, you could speed the whole process up by pouring some warm water over the affected area — that would probably repair it in a matter of minutes,” he added.

Carmakers have been trying for years to offer their customers some sort of reliable scratch-proofing: successes have been few and far between, and the conventional wisdom has been to develop harder grades of paint to give the surface a basic resistance. The Nissan approach, which it has undertaken with Nippon Paint, its supplier, will push research in the opposite direction.

The result is a transparent, synthetic resin, the high density of which means that it slowly flows back to fill any cut in its surface. The proposed thickness of the coating is about the same as a normal coat of paint, which means that it will repair scratches made to that depth. The paint has been designed to coat dark cars, but Nissan said that there was no reason why the technology could not be used on lighter hues.

Japan’s obsession with cleanliness has sent other corporations in a similar direction. Asahi Glass has produced a self-cleaning window, and Panasonic has produced an air-conditioner in which a miniature robot patrols, collecting dust.

Stem Cells without Side Effects

Last year, researchers announced one of the most promising methods yet for creating ethically neutral stem cells: reprogramming adult human cells to act like embryonic stem cells. This involved using four transcription factor proteins to turn specific genes on and off. But the resulting cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells for their ability to develop into just about any tissue, have one huge flaw. They're made with a virus that embeds itself into the cells' DNA and, over time, can induce cancer. Now, scientists at Harvard University have found a way to effect the same reprogramming without using a harmful virus--a method that paves the way for tissue transplants made from a patient's own cells.

The first generation of iPS cells was created using a retrovirus to insert the four transcription factors into skin cells. Because a retrovirus, by definition, inserts itself permanently into its host's DNA, this ensured that the transcription factors were transferred,, but it also led to the propagation of the virus itself. Furthermore, since the virus confers self-renewal capabilities to its new host cell, many believed that the retrovirus might be required for iPS cells to reproduce.

New research by Konrad Hochedlinger and his colleagues at Harvard University, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the MGH Center for Regenerative Medicine shows that a different type of virus--an adenovirus--can make the transfer in mouse cells without permanently integrating itself. The resulting iPS cells can divide indefinitely but show no trace of the virus--just a temporary infection that disappears within a short time. "That means that the four transcription factors themselves are sufficient to induce pluripotency in adult cells," Hochedlinger says.

Many view the creation of genetically unmodified iPS cells as regenerative medicine's magic bullet. The cells are not derived from embryos, so researchers can circumnavigate the ethical gray areas. And if these cells turn out to be as potent as embryonic stem cells, they could be used to help regrow tissues damaged in conditions ranging from paralysis to Parkinson's disease to diabetes. If they can be grown from a patient's own cells, they could furthermore be transplanted without triggering immune rejection.

Until now, however, creating iPS cells without integrated viruses had been a major hurdle for stem-cell researchers. Although Hochedlinger has overcome that hurdle, he says there is still some distance to travel. While retroviral techniques allow scientists to turn about one in every 1,000 skin cells into an iPS cell, the adenovirus is far less efficient: only one in every 10,000 to 100,000 fetal liver cells can be converted. "It may be that people have tried adenoviruses before but missed the iPS cells because the efficiency is so low," Hochedlinger says. "We ourselves tried to use adenoviruses a year ago, and it didn't work."

The team's first attempt had been with skin cells. Upon hearing that liver cells required less viral integration for effective reprogramming, however, they changed their approach.

The efficiency, as described in latest edition of the journal Science, is still incredibly low. Out of 1 million adenovirus-infected cells, the researchers ultimately produced just one stable line of stem cells. But the line was genetically unaltered, and when the cells were implanted in mice, they formed a cluster of cells that had differentiated into multiple tissue types (a standard test for pluripotency). When the researchers injected the cells into mouse embryos, the resulting mice had integrated the stem cells into a number of different types of tissue, including tissue in the brain, lungs, and heart. And mice as old as 13 weeks remained tumor-free.

Until now, iPS cells couldn't be compared to embryonic stem cells, since the effects of the integrated virus were unknown. "It was like comparing apples and oranges," Hochedlinger says. Now, however, the potency of the two cell types can be evaluated head to head. "You can really think about doing this in a human setting now, and about making genetically unmodified human cells for modeling or even for therapy."

The finding already has other stem-cell experts thinking about the possibilities. "The paper represents a major breakthrough in reprogramming research and proves to the field that we can reprogram cells directly without viral contamination," says George Daley, a Harvard biologist and stem-cell researcher who was not involved with the research. "It is a major step towards making clinical transplantation of patient-specific cells feasible."

Hochedlinger and his colleagues are now working to increase the efficiency of their adenovirus technique and to repeat their methods to create human iPS cells. "Once we do that," Hochedlinger says, "we can figure out whether [embryonic stem] cells and unmodified iPS cells are really identical to each other or not. I don't know the answer yet."

Handshake key to landing a job, scientists claim

Research by the University of Iowa found applicants - especially women - with a firm handshake are far more likely to get the job than candidates with a limp grip.

A solid handshake was found to be more important than dress or physical appearance as it set off the interviewer's impression of that person.

"We found that the first impression begins with a handshake that sets the tone for the rest of the interview," said researcher George Stewart, associate professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business, in a statement.

Mr Stewart said this was the first study to quantify the importance of a good handshake in a job interview.

The study, to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, was conducted with 98 students at a business school participating in mock job interviews with local business representatives.

The interviewers graded each student's overall performance and employability while five trained handshake experts also scored students on their handshake. The scores were then compared.

Mr Stewart said the researchers found that those students who scored high with the handshake experts were also considered to be the most employable by the interviewers and seen as having more extroverted personalities and greater social skills.

The students with limp handshakes were judged to have less gregarious personalities and were less impressive.

We probably don't consciously remember a person's handshake or whether it was good or bad," Stewart said. "But the handshake is one of the first nonverbal clues we get about the person's overall personality, and that impression is what we remember."

The key to a good handshake? A complete, firm grip, eye contact and a vigorous up-and-down movement, said Stewart.

It is women who may benefit more than men if they present a "strong and complete grip when they shake hands".

The report built on previous research by the University of Alabama that showed that women who were more liberal, intellectual and open to new experiences were found to have the a firmer handshake.