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October / November 2001

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UMaine Today Magazine


Racing with the sun

Electric Car
The Phantom Sol was equipped with a sophisticated braking system that recovers energy normally lost during deceleration, allowing the vehicle to travel further on a single charge of its batteries.

Photo by Paul Van Steenberghe

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Two student-designed vehicles powered by alternatives to fossil fuels gained attention at the annual Tour de Sol: The Great American Green Transportation competition that ended May 26 in Boston.

The University of Maine Solar Black Bear pickup truck took first in the solar commuter class, while a second UMaine entry, the Phantom Sol, a sleek electric-powered car, did not place but completed the race after the crew replaced a faulty component in the motor.

The nine-day event began in Waterbury, Conn., and covered a 324-mile route through New York and southern New England. The Tour de Sol is organized by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NSEA), which promotes electric-drive vehicles and other transportation solutions that are fueled by cleaner, healthier, renewably produced electricity and fuels. The event includes entries from car manufacturers, as well as experimental vehicles from businesses and universities. In addition to solar power and electricity, sources of power include biodiesel fuel, liquified natural gas and ethanol.

Both UMaine entries boasted distinctive features. The Solar Black Bear pickup truck was equipped with a large solar panel that could be folded for storage. When fully open, the panel covers 164 square feet and provides enough energy to power a home.

The electric Phantom Sol was equipped with a sophisticated braking system that recovers energy normally lost during deceleration. The car also has a sleek new lightweight body made of Styrofoam covered with fiberglass.

UMaine's team of students raised about $20,000 from businesses, the Maine Department of Transportation and UMaine's College of Engineering to cover the cost of materials.

Team advisors Paul Van Steenberghe of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and Ben Dresser of the Department of Bio-Resource Engineering received the George Bradford Teacher Award from NSEA for their work on the Tour de Sol.

Natural arsenic

A study of high arsenic levels in the groundwater of the coastal Maine community of Northport has led to a new understanding of how the toxic element migrates under some conditions from bedrock into well water.

The results suggest that in some locations, high arsenic concentrations in groundwater are caused by natural conditions underground, rather than by land use activities, such as pesticide applications or industry pollution.

Northport residents first discovered unusually high arsenic levels in their groundwater in 1998. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that arsenic levels in well water should be no greater than 50 parts per billion. But in parts of Northport, the level was about 5,500 parts per billion. Arsenic can cause liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.

Pursuing the mystery, UMaine hydrogeologist Andrew Reeve spent two years collecting water samples and conducting chemical analyses to determine the cause of the high arsenic levels. He found arsenic contamination was occurring naturally, apparently traveling from the bedrock itself into groundwater.

The UMaine examination gives communities and policymakers greater information with which to protect and remedy groundwater contamination.

SPIFFY students succeed

Students at UMaine are making money. A lot of it.

Forty students, mostly business majors, oversee the Student Portfolio Investment Fund of the University of Maine Foundation (SPIFFY). Meeting weekly to discuss the news on Wall Street and to make investment decisions, the students manage a portfolio worth more than $900,000.

SPIFFY began in 1993 with an initial investment of $200,000 provided by the University of Maine Foundation. Two years later, the foundation added another $150,000. In each of the past five years, SPIFFY's funds grew an average of 15.3 percent.

The educational value of investing real money has been especially beneficial in recent months because of the stock market's decline, says Robert Strong, professor of finance and SPIFFY advisor.

"Most students have only seen a market that's gone up," Strong explains. "Now companies everyone thought were great investments are being hammered down. It's educational for students to see that the market can move substantially in both directions."

In April, SPIFFY was one of five student investment groups to be named "value style" finalists in the first annual University of Dayton National Student Investment Strategy Symposium. Nearly 50 universities from the U.S. and Canada participated. Strong says the judges were particularly interested in the group's use of options to reduce risk and to create additional portfolio income.

Paul Kariya's number retired

The University of Maine officially retired ice hockey jersey number 9 worn by Paul Kariya during his career for the Black Bears. A presentation to commemorate the retirement was held July 1 as part of the Alumni Hockey Game.

Kariya, an all-star member of the NHL's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, played hockey at the University from 1992-94, serving as captain of the team in his sophomore year. He helped to lead his 1992-93 team to a 42-1-2 record, one of the best seasons in college hockey history, and Maine's first Division I team national championship.

Kariya, an All-American while at UMaine, is the first and only freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's best college hockey player. He was named to the Hockey East All-Decade team and inducted into The University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

Kariya is the 13th Black Bear to have a number retired.

Virtual vision

Two University of Maine engineering students have turned a bright idea into a low-cost prototype device to assist people who are blind.

Rachel Morehouse and Eric Soucie designed a "virtual cane" a portable electronic device that transmits an ultrasonic wave and indicates to the user the presence of an object up to 8 feet away. The virtual cane senses how close it is to objects, and vibrates with different intensities depending on the distance.

Already the potential of the device is gaining recognition; it recently won the "Most Marketable" award in the Rochester Institute of Technology Student Design Contest.

The device, which measures 6 inches by 2 inches and can be made smaller, operates on three AA batteries. The students kept the cost of building the virtual cane low about $20 worth of electronic parts and plastic casing to create a device that consumers could afford.

The idea for such a device came from Brian Higgins of Brewer, Maine, president of the National Blind Veterans of America.

Morehouse and Soucie developed the virtual cane for their capstone engineering project, a final academic project graduating students undertake in which they identify and resolve a challenge through application of their engineering studies.

Morehouse and Soucie both received their bachelor's degrees in electrical and computer engineering May 19.

Monitoring dioxin with fatbags

A collaborative effort guided by a graduate student in UMaine's Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program has resulted in a new technology to improve pollution monitoring of Maine's rivers.

Heather Shoven, a native of Kankakee, Ill., conducted the project in collaboration with environmental agencies, the Penobscot Indian Nation and other scientists in UMaine's Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research.

The technology Shoven studied is known as a "fatbag" a semi-permeable membrane device, or SPMD, containing highly refined fish oil encased in a membrane. The fatbag absorbs certain types of pollutants in the water and enables scientists to determine their concentration over a specific amount of time. Through her work, Shoven has helped to develop ways to strategically deploy fatbags in Maine rivers and analyze the data collected. The information gathered will give environmental scientists a more consistent and accurate picture of dioxin levels in the water and the possible sources.

Environmental regulators currently monitor dioxin in Maine rivers by testing fish. But since fish are mobile and accumulate the toxin throughout their lives, that method is not as effective in pinpointing dioxin sources or concentrations that vary over time.

In 1997, Maine adopted a state law calling for more effective monitoring of dioxin levels in rivers, requiring the collection of information on dioxin concentrations both upstream and downstream from pulp and paper mills. The deadline for establishing an effective measuring protocol is just two years away.

"By 2003, we need to determine the way to monitor dioxin to comply with the 1997 upstream-downstream law," Shoven says. "While the (conventional) fish test has proven effective, the high variability of dioxin concentrations in the fish has fueled a need to find a better test that can detect smaller potential differences."

Pushing up daisies

They're pushing up daisies at The University of Maine.

Two new perennials The Plainview Farm Daisy and the UMaine Daisy have been developed for the nursery industry by researcher Donglin Zhang, assistant professor of horticulture.

Both plants are derived from the black-eyed Susan. But unlike the widely recognized late-summer flower with a single row of gold petals around a dark center, the blossoms of the new plants have multiple rows of yellow petals.

It took more than 11 years of breeding to produce the new plants.

The Plainview Farm Daisy was made available to Maine nurseries this summer as part of the ongoing efforts of UMaine's Landscape Horticulture Program to explore and develop new garden plants in the state. The UMaine Daisy is still in the testing phase and has not been released to the public. The goal is to develop new cultivars of native plants in an effort to increase the market share of Maine's nursery industry.

Decomposing pesticides

A team of University of Maine chemists has reported that exposing pesticide-contaminated water to natural light and a mineral known as zeolite can dramatically speed up the breakdown of the pesticide. The finding could be useful in developing technologies for protecting drinking water supplies or improving environmental quality.

Among the pesticides studied was malathion, which is suspected of being a contributing factor in the recent deaths of lobsters in Long Island Sound. Malathion had been sprayed in the New York area to control mosquitoes thought to be carrying the West Nile virus.

Zeolites are naturally occurring volcanic minerals. Because of their honeycomb structure, they can absorb other materials, much as a sponge absorbs water. They are currently used in a variety of industrial processes and products, such as cat litter, shoe deodorizers, and aquarium and pond filters.

The UMaine team may be one of the first to study the technology for reducing pesticide concentrations in water, says UMaine Professor of Chemistry Howard Patterson, who led the research team.

In laboratory experiments, UMaine scientists tested commonly used agricultural insecticides that have been detected in rivers and drinking water supplies in the U.S. Each compound breaks down naturally in sunlight, but the decomposition process showed "astonishing increases in the rate of each reaction" when an A-type zeolite was present, the researchers reported.

The reaction rates for malathion, carbofuran and carbaryl were 35, 120 and 164 times faster, respectively, than the rates for those compounds when the zeolite was not present.

To be used effectively to treat pesticide pollution, "it's important to find the zeolite with the right size channels and surface chemistry" to facilitate the decomposition, says Patterson. "You want it tailored to the size of the molecule that you want to break down."

Sizing up ice sheets

Whether the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are shrinking or growing has become one of the central questions in the study of global change and a focus of research in the Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies.

University of Maine scientists are working to understand the physical processes that control ice sheet movement and the steps leading to their collapse after the end of the last Ice Age. One of the latest research initiatives is aimed at understanding how ice sheets respond to factors such as changes in climate.

"We use GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to make measurements of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland," says Gordon Hamilton, a research assistant professor. "We want to understand if the ice sheets are currently changing size and contributing to sea level rise."

Hamilton has spent most of the last decade perfecting field techniques to collect reliable data. His field experiments entail measuring the vertical velocity of ice and comparing that with snow accumulation rates derived from ice core analyses. If vertical velocity exceeds snow accumulation, the ice sheet is getting thinner, and vice versa.

So far, the results of work by Hamilton and others suggest that the ice sheets may be thinning at the edges but getting thicker inland. Nevertheless, some stations show little movement while others are rising or falling, and no clear pattern has emerged.

Hamilton and a colleague, Ian Whillans of The Ohio State University, are currently funded by the National Science Foundation to carry out measurements as part of the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition.

Data collected will assume new importance after the December 2001 launch of ICESat (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite) by NASA. ICESat will use lasers to measure elevations across the world's ice sheets. Results of Hamilton's work will be critical to the process of validating data from the satellite.

In advance of ICESat's launch, Hamilton and colleagues have been conducting measurements in Greenland as part of the Program for Arctic Regional Climate Assessment (PARCA). This NASA-funded initiative combines ground-based GPS work with overflights by a research aircraft equipped with a laser similar to that on board ICESat. PARCA is providing valuable experience that will guide future work interpreting data from the satellite mission.

Space-age gavels

In the latest session of the Maine legislature, at least nine wooden gavels were broken in the House of Representatives by House Speaker Michael Saxl as he pronounced votes on bills and other matters.

That's when a legislative colleague turned to The University of Maine for a solid solution to a problem of smashed gavels that, for years, has sent more than one House staffer ducking for cover.

At the request of Rep. Shirley Richard, the House chair of the legislature's Education Committee, a UMaine engineer from the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center on campus designed and built three "space-age" gavels. The new gavels are made of wood laminates covered with a carbon fiber material to make them almost as strong as concrete.

Similar fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composite technology is being used by the center for bridge and pier construction projects throughout the state. Researchers also are exploring the use of advanced engineered wood composites in construction of disaster-resistant housing.

In June, the wood composite gavels were presented to Saxl, Maine Senate President Michael Michaud and President Pro Tempore Richard Bennett.


UMaine Today Magazine
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