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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Building the real Iron Man

While audiences flooded theaters to see the comic-book-inspired Iron Man, a real-life mad genius toils in a secret mountain lab to make the mechanical superhuman more than just a fantasy with the XOS Exoskeleton
Man Meets Machine: Exoskeleton test pilot Rex Jameson greets XOS maker Steve Jacobsen Photo by John B. Carnett

Afghanistan. A hidden bunker. Four men with rifles guard a thick, rusted steel door. Bam! A huge fist pounds against it—from inside. Bam! More blows dent the steel. The hinges strain. The guards cower, inching backward. Whatever's trying to break out is big. And angry.

The door flies open, and a metallic giant bursts through. It looks like a robot but, hidden inside, famed weapons designer Tony Stark maneuvers the mechanical beast. Bullets bounce off the suit, barely denting his armor. He levels the guards with one swat. Outside, he stares down the enemy camp around him, switches on the flamethrowers in his arms, and roasts the joint.

Utah. A secret mountain lab. Software engineer Rex Jameson backs into a headless metal suit that's hanging from a steel I-beam by a thick rubber cord. He clicks into the aluminum boots, tightens belts across his legs and waist, and slides his arms through backpack-like straps, gripping handles where hands would be. It looks as easy as slipping into an overcoat.

Then he moves, and the machine comes to life, shadowing his every motion. He raises his fists and starts firing sharp jabs while bouncing from one foot to the other. He's not quite Muhammad Ali, but he's wearing 150 pounds and he looks light.

He could easily knock a nearby coder to the floor, or fling one over a desk—but even more impressive, he could do it all day. To show off his superhuman endurance, he walks over to a weight rack and yanks down a bar loaded with 200 pounds. Then he does it again. And again. He stops somewhere around 50, but he's been known to rip through 500 reps in a row. Even then, he quits out of boredom, not fatigue.

It's fantasy versus reality, and the spread is shrinking. The latter, the XOS, is the latest and arguably most advanced exoskeleton in existence, developed by one-man idea factory Steve Jacobsen and the engineers at Sarcos, a robotics company he started in 1983 that was recently purchased by the defense giant Raytheon. The flame-throwing monster? That's the star of the superhero blockbuster Iron Man, due out May 2. The film follows a prolific inventor named Tony Stark who builds a robotic suit of armor that grants him fantastical abilities. Iron Man has been thriving in comics for more than four decades, but this is Hollywood's first go at the story. And the timing couldn't be better. Not only is Iron Man—a hero born of pure engineering—the perfect idol for our gadget-obsessed era, but for the first time since the character appeared, the suit is more than just an illustrated dream.

In the past seven years, a handful of engineers have taken the military's 40-year-old fantasy of mechanically enhanced soldiers that can carry heavy loads and begun to make it real. Funded with millions from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), Jacobsen and others have finally begun marrying artificial muscles and control systems into suits that could soon be available to soldiers, firemen and the wheelchair-bound. There are still serious challenges—powering these wearable robots, for one—but Sarcos's XOS, the most capable full-body suit, one that moves seamlessly with its wearer, has even the comic's creators feeling like the real world is catching up to their vision. After Adi Granov, one of the main illustrators of the comic and a consultant to the film, watched a clip of the suit in action, he was startled. "I knew that's where we were heading, but I didn't realize we were this close," Granov says. Aside from the lack of flight and weapons, he adds, "that's Iron Man."

Emirates airlines saves weight by banning paper

The Cranky Flier reports that Emirates Airlines, desperate to reduce the weight of its planes in order to save fuel, has made the painful decision to remove all paper (magazine, safety briefing card, SkyMall catalogs, etc.) from the seat back pockets of its forthcoming A380s. Passengers looking for information such as what to do when the cabin fills with smoke will be able to access it on their video monitor. The airline figures that each each pocket contains 4.4 pounds of reading material. With Emirates' 787s configured with 489 seats, that comes out to around 2,100 pounds saved per aircraft.

Sounds fairly reasonable. After all, lots of airlines are trying to lighten up.

But in a move that seems to run counter to the "less is more" craze sweeping the industry, Emirates is tricking out its 380's with showers in first class. Yes, showers. Because if you are paying thousands of dollars to fly between New York and Dubai, you should arrive fresh. These showers require Emirates to load up each flight with a ton of fresh water. One ton is equal to 2,000 pounds, which is the amount of weight saved by pulling seat back paper products. Get rid of the paper and the showers and you'd save 4,000 pounds per flight, and more fuel.

Maybe this isn't such a big deal. After all, an Emirates coach class ticket between New York and Dubai goes for $1,700, the same ticket in first class comes in at just over $14,000. You get what you pay for, right? But it's tough to feel good about something that so clearly illustrates the divide between the super rich, and the rest of us.

A concrete fix for global warming.

Carbon dioxide in concrete: This micrograph shows the crystal structure of concrete cured in the presence of carbon dioxide. A Canadian company says that its curing process can store 60 tons of carbon dioxide inside 1,000 tons of precast concrete products, such as concrete blocks, while saving energy.
Credit: Carbon Sense Solutions

A Canadian company says that it has developed a way for makers of precast concrete products to take all the carbon-dioxide emissions from their factories, as well as neighboring industrial facilities, and store them in the products that they produce by exposing those products to carbon-dioxide-rich flue gases during the curing process. Industry experts say that the technology is unproven but holds great potential if it works.

Concrete accounts for more than 5 percent of human-caused carbon-dioxide emissions annually, mostly because cement, the active ingredient in concrete, is made by baking limestone and clay powders under intense heat that is generally produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Making finished concrete products--by mixing cement with water, sand, and gravel--creates additional emissions because heat and steam are often used to accelerate the curing process.

But Robert Niven, founder of Halifax-based Carbon Sense Solutions, says that his company's process would actually allow precast concrete to store carbon dioxide. The company takes advantage of a natural process; carbon dioxide is already reabsorbed in concrete products over hundreds of years from natural chemical reactions. Freshly mixed concrete is exposed to a stream of carbon-dioxide-rich flue gas, rapidly speeding up the reactions between the gas and the calcium-containing minerals in cement (which represents about 10 to 15 percent of the concrete's volume). The technology also virtually eliminates the need for heat or steam, saving energy and emissions.

Work is expected to begin on a pilot plant in the province of Nova Scotia this summer, with preliminary results expected by the end of the year. If it works and is widely adopted, it has the potential to sequester or avoid 20 percent of all cement-industry carbon-dioxide emissions, says Niven. "If the technology is commercialized as planned, it will revolutionize concrete manufacturing and mitigate hundreds of megatons of carbon dioxide each year, while providing manufacturers with a cheaper, greener, and superior product." He adds that 60 tons of carbon dioxide could be stored as solid limestone--or calcium carbonate--within every 1,000 tons of concrete produced. Further, he claims that the end product is more durable, more resistant to shrinking and cracking, and less permeable to water.

"It almost sounds too good to be true," says civil engineer Rick Bohan, director of construction and manufacturing technologies at the Portland Cement Association, in Skokie, Illinois. He points out that the idea of concrete carbonation has been around for decades but has never been economical as a way to strengthen or improve the finished product. In the late 1990s, researchers showed how carbon dioxide could be turned into a supercritical fluid and injected into concrete to make it stronger, but the required high pressures made the process too energy intensive. Carbon Sense Solutions claims to achieve the same goal but under atmospheric pressure and without the need for special curing chambers. "I'd be really skeptical," adds Bohan. "But if someone has a revolutionary process, we'd love to see it."

More efficient OLED lighting

Beam me up: A new OLED design could help the devices emit far more light. Electron microscope images show the top of the OLED with organic and aluminum layers (top) and an organic grid before depositing the organic and aluminum layers (middle). The bottom image shows polymer micro lenses on the surface of the glass substrate.
Credit: University of Michigan/Nature Photonics

Energy efficiency and flexible lighting applications have long been the promise of organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). The technology hasn't lived up to its promise, however, because in typical OLEDs, only 20 percent of the light generated is released from the device. That means that most light is trapped inside the bulb, making it highly inefficient.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Princeton University believe that they're on to a way to break the OLED-efficiency logjam. The scientists have designed an OLED that boosts illumination by 60 percent using a combination of an organic grid working in tandem with small micro lenses that guide the trapped light out of the device.

Stephen Forrest, a professor of electrical engineering and physics at Michigan, and Yuri Sun, from Princeton University, described the work in the August issue of Nature Photonics.

In OLEDs, white light is generated by using electricity to send an electron into nanometer-thick layers of organic materials that behave like semiconductor materials. Typically, the light in the substrate is internally reflected and runs parallel and not perpendicular. That's the crux of the problem because the light can't escape in the vertical direction without some coaxing. In Forrest's devices, the grids refract the trapped light, sending it to the five micrometers dome-shaped micro lenses. The light is sent off in a vertical orientation that helps release the trapped rays.

Forrest and his coworkers report that the technology emits about 70 lumens from a watt of power. In comparison, incandescent lightbulbs emit 15 lumens per watt. Fluorescent lights put out roughly 90 lumens of light per watt but have liabilities: they produce harsh light, lack longevity, and use environment-damaging substances like mercury.

Forrest says that the next step in the research is to use OLEDs that are more efficient than those the team used in the current project. Looking beyond the research lab work on these OLEDs, he is cautiously optimistic that it should be possible to scale up the manufacturing of the devices, and that production costs for manufacturing the new OLEDs will be competitive.

Today, an estimated 22 percent of the electricity produced goes to lighting buildings. A highly efficient form of OLED lighting could significantly reduce the electricity demand and boost savings. Another factor influencing broad adoption of LEDs is the fact that they outlast incandescent bulbs. Over the next 20 years, the rapid adoption of LED lighting in the United States could reduce electricity demands by 62 percent and thus eliminate 258 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to the Department of Energy.

It will take several years to replace current lighting in office buildings and homes with OLEDs. But the continued progress in increasing the efficiencies of the devices is encouraging to researchers. "Luckily, OLEDs are the light that just keeps giving," says Forrest, who has spent much of his professional research career focused on OLEDs. "There is so much to be done and so much that's been done, but this is nonetheless a quite exciting advancement."

An eye test for Diabetes

Detecting diabetes: A new eye test picks up fluorescence given off by dying cells in the retina, shown here. Scientists say that the test can quickly and noninvasively detect diabetes and other eye diseases that affect the retina.
Credit: OcuSciences, Inc.

Diabetes messes with the body's metabolism, which can result in devastating complications like nerve damage, kidney disease, and vision loss.

By capturing a snapshot of the eye, scientists in Michigan say that they can pick up telltale signs of metabolic stress in the retina caused by diabetes. They say that the new imaging technology may offer a quick, noninvasive way of detecting the disease early and monitoring its progress.

"With just a minute in an optometrist's office, you might be able to detect metabolic stress in the eye, refer the patient to an endocrinologist, and get a diagnosis," says Howard Petty, a biophysicist and imaging expert at the University of Michigan's Kellogg Eye Center and one of the authors of a study that appears in the latest issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology.

The study focused on patients with diabetes, but Petty says that the screening technology should be able to identify people with prediabetes--a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal and that often progresses to full-blown diabetes. The researchers are beginning clinical trials this fall, using the system on diabetics and prediabetics.

"It's an intriguing idea that you could detect early diabetes by looking for the changes that result from blood sugar, in the eye," says John Buse, president of Medicine and Science at the American Diabetes Association, who was not involved in the work.

Petty, together with Victor Elner and other colleagues at the University of Michigan, used a sophisticated camera system coupled with customized imaging software to detect fluorescence given off by oxidized proteins in dying cells in the retina. The 21 diabetics in their study had elevated levels of autofluorescence from retinal flavoprotein, compared with healthy age-matched control subjects. Diabetics that had --damage to the retinal tissue that can causes blindness--had even higher levels of fluorescence than diabetics without the condition.

Petty and his colleagues have already used their imaging system to detect pseudotumor cerebri (PTC), a disorder that causes symptoms similar to those of a brain tumor. They also plan to test the system on patients with macular degeneration and glaucoma.

The correlation between elevated autofluorescence and diabetes is "an interesting observation," says Lois Jovanovic, CEO and chief scientific officer of Sansum Diabetes Research Institute, in Santa Barbara, CA. "But it raises more questions than it answers." Jovanovic wants more studies to be done, with more data on blood sugar levels in study subjects, to prove that high fluorescence measurements are really a result of metabolic stress and not of fluctuations in blood glucose. She also wants to see the results of eye tests in people with type 1 diabetes compared with the much more common type 2. Petty says that the effects on the eye would be the same.

When 5 is more than 7

Pardon our math, but 5 can represent a greater value than 7. Proof? Audi's upcoming Q5, when read as an algebraic expression or as a force on the car market, equals a higher value than the Q7. We worked it out during a day driving Audi's upcoming compact SUV, and the way we figured it, Q times 5 is so impressive a factor it could very well amount to the most successful Audi launch ever in the Americas.

In real estate, it's all a question of location, but the critical component of the car business is timing, and whereas the full-size Q7 reached market late in the boom-and-bust cycle of that segment, the Q5 will hit these shores next March, when more buyers than ever will be forsaking size for efficiency. And, because the competition for our ever more reticent spending will be so fierce, Value x Quality will become an even more critical factor in the equation for success. In short, the Q5 is good math at the right time.

The first North American Q5 comes powered by a 3.2L FSI V-6 with 270 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque, matched to a seven-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox and self-locking center differential that sends drive to all four wheels, normally in a 60 rear/40 front ratio. Should the need arise for more traction, the system automatically shifts power forward, to a maximum of 64 percent, or to the rear, to a maximum of 82 percent.

Pricing has yet to be determined, but Audi says the Q5 with be comparable with its chief rivals, the BMW X3 and new Mercedes-Benz GLK. Several levels of option packages and stand-alone extras and a sportier S-Line model will provide good excuses to spend lots more.

European Q5s (starting price is EUR 38,300) make their debut late this year with three different engines, all with direct injection and turbochargers; the 3.2 V-6 will join them early next year. First out of the gate are a brand-new gasoline 2.0L TFSI with 211 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed manual; and two diesels, a 2.0L TDI with 170 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, and a 3.0L V-6 TDI with 240 hp and an enormous 368 lb-ft of torque, both offered with Audi's new seven-speed twin-clutch S Tronic automatic transmission.

Yes, we're disappointed, too, that diesel won't come to our shores until 2010 (and it will not be the stupendous V-6), and we're disappointed we aren't getting the new seven-speed gearbox until, at the earliest, in the second model year. Audi reckons the speedier shifting seven-speed is not yet refined enough for American tastes and won't bring it here, at least in its SUVs, until it matches the quality of the new generation of Tiptronic. Refined for additional quickness, precision, and smoothness, Tiptronic compares well with the best of the auto-shifters, though we'll reserve final judgment on its interplay with the engine until we drive it up and down some mountains with a full load.

The new V-6 revs freely and delivers its power in a cushioned lump of torque thanks to reduced internal friction and Audi's innovative valve-lift technology, which enhances cylinder filling on the intake side and helps deliver a European-cycle average of 25 mpg and more than sufficient pulling power. The spec sheet says the Q5 will run from 0 to 62 mph in 6.8 sec; and it can pull a class-leading 2400 lb. Significantly aiding performance and consumption are a relatively modest 3836-lb curb weight and a class-leading 0.33 coefficient of drag.

Built on the new A4 platform but longer, wider, and, of course, taller than the sedan, the Q5's dimensions are at or near top of class in every dimension except height. Audi wanted excellent handling and so took special care to lower the car's stance for a more gravity-friendly experience in the twisties. Even if you're going small, though, size still matters. The Q5 sits on a best-in-segment 9.22-ft wheelbase, a major contributor to the Q5's luxurious ride. And, its 15-ft overall length contains a spacious five-passenger interior and minimum of 19 cu ft of cargo space with a load width of about 41 in. The rear seats are split in a 60/40 ratio, can be adjusted separately for rake and fore and aft (by almost 4 in.), and they also fold flat to provide 55 cu ft of cargo space and a load length of almost 67 in. (which can be made even longer by folding forward the front passenger seat).

In contrast to its big brother, the Q5 was built to battle the freeways and escape the confines of paved roads, even if it isn't fitted with the optional off-road package (wheel arch extensions, partially dark-tinted bumpers, front and rear stainless steel underbody guards, restyled tailpipes and door sill plates, 19-in. running gear). In addition to its standard Quattro all-wheel drive, the Q5's revised ESP stability system (with new a new type of valve for even quicker response, brake-fade compensation, wet-weather disc wipe, and towing stabilization) offers an off-road mode for even more emphasis on traction.

and adjusts the application of the brakes in such a way that small mounds of dirt, gravel, or snow build up in front of the tires for shorter stopping distances. For steep hills, hill-descent control maintains the speed at which it is activated -- between around 5 and 19 mph -- by using engine braking and, if necessary, applying the brakes.

Serious off-roaders will want to know the Q5 has a ground clearance of 7.87 in., a fording depth of 19.68 in., approach and departure angles of 25 degrees, an unloaded ramp breakover angle of 18 degrees, and axles that can articulate through a range of 6.3 in. Those with gravel driveways or occasional snow will need to know nothing more than how to turn on the vehicle and choose a gear.

Should there be an impediment to retrieving the mail at the end of the drive (such as a brick wall or ornamental shrub, perhaps), the Q5's stout structure and passive safety features are ready for action. The body is constructed mostly of high-strength steels, with 9.1 percent of the overall weight drawn from super-strength boron steel. Audi is the first carmaker to install the gear to produce this extremely strong steel, which involves heating the blanks to 1742 degrees and then quenching and cooling them in a cooled die. Moreover, specific areas of the body structure can be heat-treated differently to produce a range of strength zones. (Steel geeks, listen: These super-strength alloys have tensile strengths as high as 1600 megapascals!)

It would take some effort to stray from the road in the Q5, as its suspension, steering, and brakes are carlike, and the effort required to keep the un-carlike mass of the vehicle in total control is about the same as tooling around in the family sedan. A bit of understeer will creep into the picture if the driver gets too greedy in a corner, but the brains of the stability control help it avoid excessive plow. To induce oversteer in the Q5 is to admit to a short circuit between the ears. Electronically triggered adaptive shock absorbers keep the Q5's keel even through the bends and soak up bumps as though it were a luxury sedan and not an SUV under your butt.

Those who love to drive will want to order Audi Drive Select, which manages throttle position, steering ratio, and electronic shock control for comfort or performance, in any combination. It includes a new dynamic steering system that can vary its ratio by almost 100 percent, depending on road speed and the chosen mode in Drive Select. And, boy, does it work. In full comfort the steering is highly boosted for quick moves (two turns, lock to lock), while in the full sport mode it tightens up to deliver the feedback and precision usually found only in a high-performance sports car. This amazing system also can automatically provide a certain level of countersteer if the tail end starts to slide or if the nose begins to plow, when the ratio is made more indirect for a short time so that the driver is unlikely to turn the wheel beyond the limit of good grip.

Though all these systems sound intrusive, they aren't. We sampled all four engines on short hauls around the outskirts of Valencia, Spain, and all fared well in the matadorial dramas played out on Spanish streets. Power was always there when needed to squeeze in front of an aggressive SEAT, the brakes were easily modulated for blending into the scrum through a traffic circle, and the steering directed us away from taxi drivers practicing for their Formula 1 careers with unerring accuracy.

Standard features abound, a requirement for the Q5's feature-rich segment, and include LED taillamps; 18-in. running gear; an even better version of Audi's celebrated multimedia system, with 3D-enhanced navigation graphics, toggle-switch search functionality, and the capability to find the most fuel-efficient route; full leather seating; a 180-watt, 10-speaker sound system with iPod and Bluetooth synchronization; heated and ventilated front seats; a thermal heated/cooled cupholder; and a roof-rack sensor that signals the Q5 to adjust its suspension dynamics when the rack's crossmember is deployed. Maximum roof storage is 220 lb.

Notable options include bi-Xenon headlamps; a power tailgate; the largest sunroof in class; sideview assist; 19-in. wheels; Audi Drive Select; and a 505-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system with 14 speakers and digital radio reception. The S-Line will ride on 20-inchers, also available with a chrome finish.

Any way it's calculated, the Q5 should add lots of numbers to Audi's ever-growing bottom line. The company sold over a million cars worldwide for the first time in 2007, but that seven-figure sum should increase by a factor of Q5.