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PERVASIVE INNOVATION TO IMPROVE ENVIRONMENT IN 21ST CENTURY.

Innovative technologies emerging over the next decade promise to affect virtually all aspects of everyday society, from transportation to health care, communication to recreation.

Engineers and scientists envision super-efficient cars, "smart" offices equipped with myriad wireless sensors, a new class of miniature devices that dramatically speed up medical and biological testing, and electronic gear that runs for days on a single charge. Agricultural researchers hope to spawn a novel industry using sugars from paper and other wastes to make a variety of products.

More compact and versatile robots will enter the work force. And artificial intelligence may help to improve the commercial power grid, reducing the frequency of brownouts. While it's impossible to predict exactly what will happen, some future trends are obvious, said Warren Stevenson, associate dean of engineering at Purdue University. "Certainly, automobiles are going to be different," he said.

Fuel-stingy cars will likely get about 80 miles to the gallon and use a "hybrid" drive system: an electric motor powered by batteries or fuel cells, supplemented with a gasoline or diesel engine only when needed for acceleration and high performance.

However, the success of hybrids will depend largely on the perfection of a control system that switches automatically from one drive to the other. "If you have two propulsive sources, you need to optimize when to use each one and to make it all happen smoothly," Stevenson said. The automotive leap also will depend on the refinement of fuel cells, which generate electricity through electrochemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen.

Developed for use in spacecraft, fuel cells emit only water vapor and would ideally use pure hydrogen as a fuel. Because of technological challenges and potential hazards posed by pure hydrogen, early fuel-cell cars probably will draw their hydrogen from gasoline or some other hydrocarbon fuel. An on-board chemical plant will break down the fuel into its fundamental components, which include hydrogen.

In coming decades, fuel cells will likely evolve. Some visionaries predict that, before the middle of the next century, automobile fuel cells will generate enough electricity to run a house. Another near-term innovation will be the proliferation of tiny, wireless electronic sensors the size of computer chips that will improve safety and make life easier in the workplace and home.

"I think, in general, everything that surrounds us will be 'smart,'" said Kent Fuchs (pronounced "fox"), head of the Purdue School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Some sensors will monitor the air for carbon monoxide and smoke. Others, linked via radio signals instead of wires, will automatically adjust the lighting and temperature. Employees may wear electronic cards or badges that specify their whereabouts. "Basically, there will be no privacy in the future, that's for sure," Fuchs joked.

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Publication:Industrial Environment
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:458
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