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The Birth of Rapid Video Retrieval

July 08, 1996|KATHLEEN WIEGNER

When it comes to nuclear weapons, Sandia National Laboratories has decided that nothing beats experience. That's why two years ago it started the Knowledge Preservation Project to capture the experience and ideas of retired or soon-to-be retired weapons engineers.

So far, about 50 weapons engineers have been interviewed, producing some 350 hours of videotape, and 150 more staff members or retirees have been identified for future interviews.

While recording thoughts about warfare, Sandia came up with a way to access video segments quickly and easily, which could have important uses in peacetime. To solve the problem of how to find a specific video segment, project team member James Bors came up with a software retrieval system called RePAV, for Relevant Point of Access Video.

The audio portion of any interview is transcribed and linked to a time code keyed to the video, which has been converted to digital form. When you type in a keyword, the software finds the word in the transcript, matches it with the time-coded information, and then accesses the video segment where the word is spoken.

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Pass the Mercury: As anyone who has broken a thermometer can tell you, mercury is hard to clean up. Although there have been no mercury-caused disasters to match the 1956 tragedy at Minamata Bay, Japan, which caused human hearing loss and brain damage, mercury pollution is still a problem.

Fungicides and pesticides used in citrus groves in Florida, for example, have contaminated agricultural land. Wood preservatives, disinfectants and waste products from pulp and paper mills are also sources of mercury contamination.

Enter the merA gene, which is common in the abundant soil-borne bacteria that thrive only in areas polluted by mercury and other heavy metals. In their natural state, bacteria containing merA detoxify mercury to a degree. Now researchers at the University of Georgia have inserted a slightly altered version of merA into arabidopsis, a tiny plant and radish relative. They have found that, at least in the laboratory, the genetically altered plant not only thrives on mercury but actually requires it to grow. Planted around polluted areas, the altered arabidopsis could stop contaminated runoff from entering the food chain.

It is not a perfect solution, however. The plant converts the mercury to a vapor, which is a much less toxic form of the metal. Some environmentalists, however, worry about a whole field of these plants releasing mercury vapor into the air. But if the effort is successful, it could provide a cheap alternative to burying or incinerating mercury contaminated soil.

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Recycle That Refrigerator: Americans love their household appliances--until it is time to buy new washers, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators and the like. Then its off to the dump with the old models. This is the fate of the 2.8 million tons of discarded appliances that end up in landfills at a cost of $10 to $40 a ton. Yet about 25% of this tonnage is nonmetallic waste, in particular high-quality plastics that have value as raw manufacturing materials.

A pilot plant that will attempt to recover recyclable scrap plastics from old appliances will go on line in August at Appliance Recycling Centers of America in Minneapolis.

Once the appliances are shredded, ARCA will test the recovered materials to see if they can be marketed as raw manufacturing feedstock.

Freelance writer Kathleen Wiegner can be reached via e-mail at kkwrite@aol.com

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