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Notes from the Lab


Global aging -- with its social, political and economic consequences -- is a growing concern for scientists and citizens alike. MIT's new AgeLab, a new initiative headed by Dr. Joseph Coughlin through the Center for Transportation Studies, is addressing the needs and preferences of older adults, their families and care providers.

Working with the business and medical community, the lab intends to help the over-60 segment live healthy, independent lives. For example, driving is a crucial part of independent living, but aging diminishes physical and mental capabilities needed for safe driving. The AgeLab aims to exploit new technologies for a next-generation transportation system for elders, including intelligent vehicle applications to compensate for diminished physical capabilities.

Dr. Coughlin also notes that seniors are more likely than younger people to die from falls at home. The AgeLab is examining new safety and health standards and information technology products for the home and establishing a model safe-home environment for demonstration purposes in homes and care facilities.

In addition to engineering, human-factors and marketing researchers, two medical doctors are affiliated with the lab. One is working on issues surrounding the vision of older adults; the other is a geriatrician concerned with overall health needs. The lab is funded primarily by industry -- including EDS and St. Jude Medical, Inc. -- as well as by the American Association of Retired Persons and private foundations. (Source: The MIT Report)


Apply an electrical voltage to certain materials and they will stretch, shrink or otherwise give a mechanical response. Known as piezoelectrics, such materials are currently used in a variety of devices such as autofocus cameras, high-precision positioners for atomic-force microscopes, and vibration dampeners in high-performance skis.

The piezoelectrics with the best properties, however, contain lead oxide. This compounds's toxicity has led to an increasing demand for alternative materials that are environmentally benign.

Now MIT researchers led by Professor Yet-Ming Chiang in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering have identified just such a family of materials. As they reported in a recent issue of Applied Physics Letters, the new lead-free piezoelectrics not only exhibit an exceptionally high piezoelectric response, but can also easily be grown as single crystals. (Piezoelectric materials made of single crystals offer better performance than those made of multiple crystals.)

The MIT work has also shown that continuous single-crystal piezoelectric fibers can be grown, paving the way for development of "active fiber composites" whose mechanical response is electronically controlled.

The work is supported by the ONR and the Army Research Office-Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative. (Source: MIT Materials Processing Center Industry Collegium Report)

This column features summaries of MIT research drawn from several sources. If you have an item to suggest, send it to Elizabeth Thomson, News Office assistant director for science and engineering news, Rm 5-111, or

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 24, 1999.

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