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News Tip


April 14, 2004

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, contact David Hart, (703) 292-7737,

Nano-Engineered Product Neutralizes Chemical Hazards

Researchers at NanoScale Materials, Inc., have developed scaled-up production processes for FAST-ACT (First Applied Sorbent Treatment Against Chemical Threats), an advanced nano-engineered family of products designed to provide first responders, hazmat teams and other emergency personnel with a single technology to counteract a variety of chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals.

Non-toxic, non-corrosive and non-flammable, FAST-ACT is particularly useful when response personnel are confronted with a chemical spill whose exact nature is unknown. While substances such as activated carbon only physically absorb toxic substances, FAST-ACT neutralizes, destroys and renders them harmless. Independent testing by chemical warfare experts showed that FAST-ACT removed more than 99 percent of such agents as VX, soman and mustard gas from surfaces in less than 90 seconds.

The initial research that led to FAST-ACT was conducted by the Kansas State University laboratory of Kenneth Klabunde. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program supported NanoScale’s research to make the production processes commercially viable. This scaling-up required dramatic process changes, development of quality control standards and testing to confirm the safety and efficacy of FAST-ACT. [Karen Holmes]

NSF Program Contact: Rosemarie Wesson, 703-292- 7070,
NanoScale Contact: David Jones, Director of Engineering Services, 785- 537.0179,

Scanning electron micrograph of NanoActive Magnesium Oxide Plus.
Scanning electron micrograph of NanoActive Magnesium Oxide Plus. The material's large surface area gives it the ability to capture and destroy toxic chemicals. Just 25 grams (a little less than an ounce) has the surface area of almost three NFL football fields.
Credit: NanoScale Materials, Inc.
NanoScale Materials, Inc. must be contacted for permission to use these images.

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Emergency response personnel from the Topeka, Kan., Fire Department
Emergency response personnel from the Topeka, Kan., Fire Department test FAST-ACT for its ability to suppress vapors from a leaking propane tank.
Credit: NanoScale Materials, Inc.
NanoScale Materials, Inc. must be contacted for permission to use these images.

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Data Mining Pinpoints Network Intrusions

Vipin Kumar and colleagues at the University of Minnesota are developing data-mining techniques to detect rare events, such as computer break-ins, that are difficult to catch with traditional methods that recognize attacks only through pre-defined patterns. The new techniques have been incorporated in the Minnesota Intrusion Detection System (MINDS), software that helps cybersecurity analysts detect computer break-ins and other undesirable activity in real-world networks, potentially while the attack is underway.

MINDS is currently being used to monitor over 40,000 computers at the University of Minnesota. In addition, it is an integral part of the Army's Interrogator architecture, which is used at the Army Research Laboratory's Center for Intrusion Monitoring and Protection to analyze network traffic from Defense Department sites around the country. MINDS routinely detects novel intrusions, policy violations and insider abuses that are missed by other widely used tools.

Detection of computer intrusions is only the first application for the Minnesota team's new data-mining methods. The underlying techniques could be applied to areas beyond cybersecurity, such as detection of financial or health-care fraud. The data-mining research is supported by a $300,000 award from NSF.

NSF Media Contact: David Hart, 703-292-7737,
NSF Program Contact: Maria Zemankova, 703-292-8918,
Principal Investigator: Vipin Kumar, 612-624 8023,

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Challenging Shrubland Fire Management

New research is challenging the assumptions for managing fire-prone regions: Natural fires, such as those found in southern California, appear to be driven more by weather conditions than by age-related traits of the region's plant life.

Examining the fire history of coastal and southern California shrublands, the research team discovered that the majority of shrubland burning risk was fairly steady, at about 2.7 percent each year. Of the 10 sites surveyed, only one showed a marked increase in fire hazard as the plants grew older; the aberration may be due to regional differences.

The research, funded by NSF, was conducted by Max Moritz at the University of California, Berkeley; Jon Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey and UCLA; Edward Johnson of the University of Calgary; and Andrew Schaffner of Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. The results of their study were published in the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

For more, see the full Ecological Society of America release.

NSF Media Contact: Cheryl Dybas, 703-292-7734,
NSF Program Contact: Mike Bowers,
ESA Media Contact: Nadine Lymn,

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A "Printer" for Low-Cost Eyeglass Lenses

MIT doctoral student Saul Griffith is an old-fashioned inventor with high-tech style. Griffith recently won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his inventions, including a "printer" for low-cost eyeglass lenses and electronic goggles to diagnose a person's prescription.

As a participant in MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), Griffith has access to all the tools a modern-day tinkerer could ask for. CBA, funded by a $13.75 million Information Technology Research award from NSF, is working to close the gap separating information technology from the rest of the physical world.

Griffith's desktop "printer" can produce almost any prescription eyeglass lens in less than 10 minutes using about 40 cents’ worth of materials. To determine a prescription, his electronic goggles monitor the lens in the patient's eye and adjust the goggles to cancel the refractive errors.

Griffith and Neil Houghton have founded Low Cost Eyeglasses to make the inventions widely available and reduce the cost of prescription eyewear in developing nations. Griffith also shares his inventing urge through "Howtoons," cartoons that teach science and engineering while they show children how to build toys, games and inventions out of household items.

NSF Media Contact: David Hart, 703-292-7737,

2004 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner Saul Griffith
2004 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner Saul Griffith and his eyeglass lens "printer."
Credit: Photograph by Mark Ostow
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Scientists Find "Tar Balls" in Air Pollution

An international team of scientists has discovered new carbon-bearing particles, which they call "tar balls," in air pollution over Hungary, the Indian Ocean, and southern Africa. Tar balls form in smoke from wood fires and agricultural and forest burning. Carbon-bearing particles like tar balls in the lower atmosphere may affect global climate change and air quality, researchers say.

The team, headed by scientist Mihaly Posfai of the University of Veszprem in Hungary, completed the first comprehensive study of tar balls and reported their findings in the March issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres, published by the American Geophysical Union.

At first glance, tar balls may look like soot, but when observed through an electron microscope, the differences become clear, say the researchers. Each soot sphere is made of graphite layers that are concentrically wrapped like the layers of an onion and, with other soot spheres, forms chains or grape-like clusters, Posfai says. Tar balls, on the other hand, are just individual spheres without any internal structure and do not form chains or clusters.

The research was supported by NASA, NSF and the Hungarian Science Foundation. For more, see the full American Geophysical Union release.

NSF media contact: Cheryl Dybas, 703-292-7734,
NSF program contact: Bruce Doddridge,
AGU media contact: Harvey Leifert,

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