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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : A New Lab for Virtual Crash Tests

February 21, 1996|KATHLEEN WIEGNER

Those hapless, human-like, electronically wired dummies that auto makers use to test the safety of their cars may go the way of the running board and fins. Crash testing is going virtual, thanks to a software-driven virtual-safety laboratory being developed by Los Alamos National Scientific Laboratory in conjunction with General Motors Corp.

American auto makers spend a considerable amount of money testing the models they bring out every year. The cost of a crash test averages about $750,000. Because different accident scenarios may affect different parts of both occupants and vehicles, auto makers perform many different tests--a costly process.

The goal of the virtual-safety lab is to develop an advanced computer-modeling system that integrates mechanical responses with human-occupant responses to assess the potential for injury. If these two capabilities can be combined, an auto designer could sit down at his or her computer and determine whether redesigning an armrest would have any bearing on the safety of a 6-foot, 200-pound man in a collision.

Initially, the program will run on a Cray supercomputer at Los Alamos that is capable of 1 billion calculations per second. Software in a desktop computer will track information on a system that contains the baseline human body model and, ultimately, detailed models for the cranium, face, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, shoulders, arms and legs. The engineer will be able to select individual body shapes and vehicle types for various crash simulations. GM is funding the four-year project.

Cyber Research: There's more to interactivity on the World Wide Web than playing computer games or chatting with strangers. Scientists anywhere now can use their computer browser software to conduct interactive, real-time magnetic resonance imaging on the Web. All they have to do is connect to NmrScope, a server developed at the University of Illinois.

By collaborating with a center that has the proper equipment, a researcher can carry out certain types of MRI projects--usually involving material analysis rather than medical applications--without having to invest in the latest hardware or travel to a distant site. This will permit smaller companies and academic labs to take advantage of the technology.

NmrScope provides simple on-screen instructions that allow remote users to review and modify experimental conditions for observations of objects in an MRI system. The resulting images from objects they have submitted to the site are displayed as soon as they are produced and can be downloaded for later analysis.

NmrScope could lead to the creation of similar interactive networks at other institutions, extending the technology to link-ups with microscopes, telescopes and other analytical instruments. Other applications could exist for observations in space, under the sea and in other distant or dangerous environments. For more information, check http://bmrl.med.uiuc.edu:8080 on the Web.

The Ultimate Ruler: Inner space may have replaced outer space as the final frontier, particularly in the microelectronics industry, where manufacturers are printing ever smaller circuit patterns onto silicon wafers. After almost 10 years, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has come up with what may be the ultimate ruler: the Molecular Measuring Machine, or M3, with a range 250,000 times greater than that of the scanning tunneling microscopes now used for precise measurement.

Currently in the early stages of performance testing, M3 is expected to measure to within 1 nanometer (a billionth of a meter) distances up to 50 millimeters. Its capabilities would be akin to being able to locate two widely separated grains of sand in a 960-square-mile patch of desert and then measure the distance between them to within a millimeter.

Glass Housing: In the Nuclear Age, there's more to peace than turning swords into plowshares. What do you do with the more than 100 tons of plutonium left from nuclear weapons dismantled under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union? One option being studied is to immobilize the plutonium in a solid waste form, such as glass, and place it deep underground.

The trick is to develop a form that doesn't break down under the influence of the radioactive material. At the same time, the form must keep the plutonium from accidentally creating a nuclear chain reaction and from mixing with any ground water that might invade the repository.

A new form of glass that could provide this safe, long-term storage has been developed by scientists at the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory. It is made of tin, zirconium, silicon and alkali elements such as sodium. Special neutron absorbers prevent the plutonium from undergoing a nuclear reaction. The alkali elements help dissolve the plutonium while the tin, zirconium and silicon stabilize the structure of the glass.

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