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MIT projects win Discover awards

"Smart gels" and a new technology for tracking aircraft have earned MIT researchers and colleagues two of the eight 1996 Discover Magazine Awards for Technological Innovation. Two other MIT technologies -- robotic ants and a hazardous-waste detector -- were finalists in the competition, which was capped by an awards ceremony June 1 at Walt Disney World.

The Discover Awards acknowledge "the creativity of the men, women, and corporations/institutions who have reached superior levels of ingenuity." Each of the winners and finalists will be featured in the July issue of Discover, the country's leading general-interest science magazine. They also received all-expenses-paid trips to Disney World for themselves and a guest.

Discover Awards are given in seven categories: automotive and transportation, aviation and aerospace, computer hardware and electronics, computer software, environment, sight, and sound. Five finalists are named per category; out of the five, one is chosen as overall winner for that category. An eighth category, "Editor's Choice," has only one finalist (and winner). This category is for "any new innovation or technology that, by virtue of its `newness,' does not fit into any of the other categories."

The winners and finalists from MIT were:


"Smart hydrogels" are a new class of materials that expand or contract when triggered by tiny changes in temperature, light, a solvent or other stimulus. The ability of the hydrogels to undergo huge but reversible changes in volume allows unique new systems to be made that can, for example, encapsulate and release materials. The hydrogels are now being engineered and commercialized in many products, including cosmetics that hold and then release key ingredients like fragrance in response to factors like skin pH. Other applications range from the cleanup of pollutants to the controlled release of pharmaceuticals.

Developed by Professor Toyoichi Tanaka of the Department of Physics and Gel Sciences, Inc., smart hydrogels won the "Editor's Choice" award and a $5,000 prize. (Professor Tanaka is chief science advisor to Gel Sciences.)

"This is a tremendous honor," Professor Tanaka said. He noted that it is especially important to him that "this technology was chosen not just by members of the scientific community, but also by members of the general public."

This was Professor Tanaka's first trip to Disney World. Once there, he had an unexpected surprise. "The logo for Epcot Center [where the ceremony was held] is a very big, round sphere with a triangle pattern on its surface," he said. "One of my gels develops exactly the same pattern on its surface when it expands." So Professor Tanaka demonstrated this for the audience at the awards ceremony. The resulting pattern was projected onto a screen for all to see. The only small downside? He missed part of the preceding dinner to prepare the gel. "The demonstration had to be well-timed," he explained.


GPS-Squitter, a relatively inexpensive technology that will allow better tracking of aircraft and move such surveillance into the satellite age, won first place in the aviation and aerospace category.

Paul R. Drouilhet, assistant director of MIT Lincoln Laboratory, accepted the award. Dr. Drouilhet is principal inventor of the new technology, but he stressed that "this was very much a team activity. A large set of people contributed to the success of this technology."

The technology takes advantage of the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of satellites that can accurately determine the position of a given object to within 10 meters. GPS-Squitter determines a plane's position via GPS then squitters, or broadcasts, that position -- plus the plane's identification -- to all listeners. Those listeners include not only air-traffic controllers, but other planes. As a result, it allows aircraft to see each other, a feat that is not practical for all aircraft today because the radar equipment to do so is very expensive. GPS-Squitter also received an R&D 100 Award in 1995.


A device that can detect hazardous metals in the emissions from incinerators, power plants and manufacturing plants was a finalist in the environment category.

Developed by researchers at the Plasma Fusion Center led by Paul P. Woskov, the device can monitor emissions continuously right in the smokestack. The researchers have shown that the device is able to detect the EPA's top 10 most hazardous metals in incinerator waste streams at a sensitivity of one part per billion or less (in a laboratory environment). The device can also detect all forms of plutonium.

Dr. Woskov is a principal research engineer at the PFC. The detector, officially known as the "microwave plasma continuous emissions monitor," also received an R&D 100 Award in 1995.


Robotic "ants" that can go around obstacles, look for food and even play tag were a finalist in the computer hardware category. The creation of James McLurkin, a research scientist at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the robots are programmed to behave like ants in a colony.

Cooperative robots could someday be used for tasks dangerous to humans but requiring the coordinated efforts of several workers. For example, power companies could use groups of disposable micro-robots to inspect pipes in nuclear power plants, saving the expense of shutting down the plant and safeguarding human inspectors. Groups of robots could also be used to find and pick up unexploded cluster bombs on battlefields.


Another MIT technology was also present at the Discover Awards, though not as a winner or finalist. The MIT micro-rover, a six-wheeled device designed for exploration of landing sites on Mars, played an important role in the awards ceremony. For one of the award categories, it delivered the envelope containing the name of the winner to the presenter.

The researchers who accompanied the rover to Disney World are Charles P. Tung, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and Sean P. Adam, who received the SB and MEng degrees from the department last week.

Discover Magazine learned about the hazardous-waste detector, GPS-Squitter, and the micro-rover through press releases on these projects prepared by the MIT News Office.

For more information on the 1996 Discover Awards go to: .

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 1996.

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