The College of Engineering -- University of Wisconsin-MadisonAnnual Report 1998

Big LetterW-Madison technology that helped plants thrive in outer space has landed in grocery stores, helping extend the freshness of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Normally, these products are at the mercy of ethylene, a natural hormone that causes them to prematurely wither and spoil. But the new technology, developed by Professor Marc Anderson, uses titanium dioxide as a catalyst to break ethylene into the harmless byproducts of carbon dioxide and water vapor. Anderson holds cantaloupe This process was originally used by the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics for a series of plant-growth experiments on the Space Shuttle. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has patented Anderson's technology, and the project received marketing assistance from UW Technology Enterprise Cooperative. KES Irrigation Systems of Atlanta has now licensed it. The firm markets a device called Bio-Kleen to grocery stores throughout the country, including Copps in Madison. Since the device eliminates ethylene rather than filtering it, there is virtually no maintenance required. It is estimated that Bio-Kleen can increase the shelf-life of produce and flowers by a week. Here, Anderson displays a cantaloupe that has benefited from Bio-Kleen.

Study focuses on learning from landfills

Robert Ham believes well-designed landfills can be tools for recycling rather than tombs that harbor trash for generations. As one of the nation's leading landfill experts, the emeritus professor's latest study has demonstrated that much garbage, under the right conditions, moves quite nicely toward oblivion.

His six-year test involved burying mesh bags of garbage--everything from diapers to lima beans--at landfills in three states. Periodically, the bags were dug up so their contents could be dried and weighed. Knowing how and what materials degrade is the first step toward making landfills better "garbage-eating machines," says Ham. Among his discoveries were that food, diapers and items with low lignin contents decompose relatively quickly; most newspaper did not.

Using information from this study, Ham has started a new project to design landfills of the future. In partnership with industry, he is creating a full-scale demonstration that will promote degradation of waste in landfills, forming methane gas for use as an energy source. Some of the nation's landfills put out enough energy to provide electricity for 10,000 homes, says Ham.

Guarding the nation's highways

Professor Lawrence Bank and his composite structures research team have developed an innovative design for a guardrail that could make life much simpler for highway workers and a lot safer for drivers. The guardrail, made from glass fibers in a polymeric matrix, has several key advantages over the ubiquitous steel variety, says Bank.

Its shape has been optimized to provide maximum impact absorption; it doesn't corrode; it's 30-percent lighter, so workers can easily install longer sections (reducing hourly labor costs and lane closures); and it confines impact damage to a smaller area. Bank's rail would also be mounted higher, providing extra protection for taller autos such as sport utility vehicles. Composite guardrails could prove particularly useful in Snowbelt states like Wisconsin, where winter precipitation often means more accidents and more road salt, explains Bank.

Together with graduate students Dave Merkes and Jason Smith, Bank is testing prototypes of the composite guardrail. They hope to see test sections of their innovation installed on the nation's highways in the next few years.

Robert L. Smith, Jr., Chair

Robert L. Smith, Jr.
2205 Engineering Hall
1415 Engineering Drive
Madison, WI 53706-1691

Tel: 608/262-3542
Fax: 608/262-5199

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1998 Annual Report Contents