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E N G I N E E R I N G   &   T E C H N O L O G Y

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Home Improvements

Newly constructed homes now come chock-full of amenities and features not available 20 years ago. Wiring for high-speed Internet access, for example, is part of a growing trend to incorporate entertainment and security components into a home’s electronic systems. Other products such as energy-efficient windows and heating and air-conditioning systems are reducing household costs, while more technologically advanced appliances in kitchens and baths are making home-life easier to manage.

The Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), a public-private initiative managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is playing a role in these developments by fostering technological innovation in the U.S. housing industry. The program’s mission is to expand the development and use of new technologies in home construction and remodeling by funding research and demonstration programs, as well as linking federal agencies with leaders in the home building, manufacturing, insurance, and financial industries. The program’s ultimate goal is to stimulate technological innovation in ways that will make American homes stronger, safer, more energy efficient, environmentally friendly, and less expensive to purchase and maintain.

Through a multiyear assessment process, a new Research Council committee will review PATH’s overall objectives and its approaches to meeting them. To complete this task, the committee will develop a framework for evaluation and performance measures specifically tailored to the PATH program. — Bob Ludwig (See listing under New Projects.)


Radioactive Roundup

During the Cold War, the U.S. Department of Energy built and tested nuclear weapons at several sites around the country. The Savannah River Site in South Carolina — a 300 square-mile facility along the Georgia border — produced plutonium and tritium for warheads. And in doing so, it also produced millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste. Now faced with the onerous task of cleanup and safe disposal, DOE is planning to separate out many of the radioactive elements, immobilize them in glass, and eventually ship them to a permanent geological repository such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Savannah River officials thought they had figured out a way to do this five years ago, but when the chemical reaction that was being used to separate one of the radioactive elements — cesium — unexpectedly reversed and released a flammable byproduct in the waste-storage tanks, the operation was called to a halt and DOE began looking for alternative separation procedures.

Last year DOE asked the Research Council to help evaluate the feasibility of using several alternatives identified by the department. After extensive study, the Research Council committee assembled to examine the alternatives concluded that none is ready for immediate implementation. Instead, a robust R&D program is needed to address the scientific, technical, and regulatory uncertainties that remain for each of them.

For example, one of the alternatives still relies on the same problematic chemical process previously used to separate cesium from the waste, albeit in smaller tanks specially designed for carrying out chemical reactions. The committee said that although the chemical being used — sodium tetraphenylborate — is relatively inexpensive and allows cesium to be easily separated, an insufficient understanding still exists as to why it decomposed in earlier operations. And in laboratory experiments where the chemical was mixed with simulated waste, a foam formed that could clog waste-transfer pipes and adversely affect cesium separation operations.

Moreover, all of the alternatives still rely on monosodium titanate to remove radioactive strontium and actinide elements, such as plutonium, from the waste, but the committee said this too needs to be studied further before it can be implemented.

And since one of the alternatives calls for the cesium to be mixed in grout and disposed of at the site, the committee urged DOE to hold discussions with federal and state regulators to determine if this would be allowed should the other alternatives fail.

A more fully integrated systems-engineering approach that considers the possibility of tailoring processing techniques to the contents of individual storage tanks, which can vary greatly from one tank to another, should also be considered, the committee said. And R&D activities recommended in the committee’s report should be reviewed by outside experts and oversight groups. — Bill Kearney

Alternatives for High-Level Waste Salt Processing at the Savannah River Site. Committee on Cesium Processing Alternatives for High-Level Waste at the Savannah River Site, Board on Radioactive Waste Management, Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources (2000, 150 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07194-1; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $33.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

Milton Levenson, Bechtel International (retired), Menlo Park, Calif., chaired the committee. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.


Making Digital History

Two hundred years ago, the Library of Congress occupied a room in the Capitol building, housing just 740 volumes. Today, the library has grown into the world’s largest, with the most comprehensive collection of the nation’s historical and cultural record. From the papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Wright Brothers, to the video archives of the Martha Graham Dance Company and the original compositions of Leonard Bernstein, the library’s collection continues to grow in volume and diversity. And now that a significant amount of the nation’s creativity extends to Web sites, electronic journals and magazines, software, and CD-ROMs, the institution faces daunting new challenges in collecting and storing an even more diverse range of information.

A new report by a committee of the National Research Council says that unless the library acts quickly to develop a strategy for preserving electronic information, the institution is in danger of falling from the ranks of the world’s leading libraries. Management, staffing, and funding issues must be addressed to enable the library to develop a system for collecting and archiving digital information that is as effective as the one in place for handling traditional works.

The library’s process for adding to its collection, including registering and depositing items with the U.S. Copyright Office, remains focused on physical artifacts such as books, videotapes, and compact disks. The institution urgently needs a new system for digital objects that can be integrated with the well-established system for acquiring and archiving physical formats, the report says.

In this digital era, the library needs to create a new senior management position to help formulate library-wide strategies with much greater attention to information stored electronically, the report says. The library also should establish an information-technology vision, strategy, research, and planning group, along with a technical advisory board with an external membership.

Computer networking and security capabilities at the Library of Congress lag far behind not only the commercial sector but also other research libraries, the report says. The library’s technology infrastructure must be upgraded. And the institution should form partnerships with other libraries and the publishing, entertainment, and computer software industries here and abroad. Sharing information and collaborating with these entities, which are on the cutting edge of digital information, could help transform the ability of the Library of Congress to serve future generations.

The library should expand on its successful pilot project, the National Digital Library, which is digitizing 5 million items already in the library’s collection and making electronic information available over the Internet. The next challenge is to incorporate more kinds of digital material on a larger scale, the report says. Both of those tasks can be achieved only if the library works in partnership with a broad range of institutions.

Keeping up with the breakneck speed of new developments in digital information will be key to the library’s success. Congress should significantly increase funding for staff-training opportunities, the report says. Staff involvement in professional organizations should be encouraged to promote learning and establish teams of people with different skills to promote further technical development at the institution.

Digital preservation raises issues that cannot be addressed by a single institution. The library must take the lead and work with electronic publishers and the R&D community to resolve legal, economic, and technical questions that relate to digital works. Establishing contractual arrangements with publishers and distributors of significant digital content will enable the library to conduct experimental pilot programs for storing and maintaining such information off-site as well as at the library. — Molly Galvin & Bob Ludwig

LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress.Committee on an Information Technology Strategy for the Library of Congress, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications (2000, approx. 260 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07144-5; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $37.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by James O’Donnell, vice provost for information systems and computing, and professor of classical studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. The study was funded by the Library of Congress.


The Internet's Evolution

The transformation of the Internet from a research network used by a few thousand scientists into a global communications infrastructure vital to many aspects of daily life is celebrated as the basis for a new economic order.

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A new report from the National Research Council pronounces the Internet fundamentally healthy, but it faces several challenges including the need to keep pace with demands for growth and reliability. For example, the Internet’s standard governing the exchange of information was designed to accommodate roughly 4.3 billion network addresses. But the number of computers connected to the Internet continues to expand. Without ongoing investment to deploy IPv6 — a new standard that would provide many more addresses — the address shortage will become a serious problem in the long term.

As Internet technology swiftly advances, a problem in many instances may fix itself or evolve into an entirely different one. For such a dynamic environment, the current policy of not regulating the Internet’s infrastructure is appropriate; caution should be used when contemplating any regulatory measures, the report urges.

A period of watchful waiting is needed, with close attention to several areas, including services such as telephony, or voice service, which pits the unregulated Internet against a regulated industry, as well as the interconnection agreements that link the Internet’s many thousands of networks together. The report also recommends that Internet service providers develop voluntary measures to make more information on major problems or outages available to enhance the ability of industry and research to develop fixes.

The report provides a set of principles to guide policy-makers when approaching changes to the Internet. Most important of these is a reminder that any new laws or regulations should focus on specific online activities and behaviors, and avoid mandating changes to the Internet’s architecture, which may have adverse implications that could reverberate throughout. — B.L.

The Internet’s Coming of Age. Committee on the Internet in the Evolving Information Infrastructure, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications (2000, approx. 176 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06992-0; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $24.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Eric Schmidt, chairman of the board and chief executive officer, Novell Inc., San Jose, Calif. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.


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