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National Science Foundation

THE CRITICAL ROLE OF RESEARCH

Many NSF-supported projects address immediate and obvious disaster needs, such as improved emergency communications or earthquake protection for buildings. However, fundamental, long-term research also plays a critical (but less visible) role in driving future advances in disaster response and prevention. The following descriptions showcase the diverse range of these projects.

Materials
James Mark and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati devised a technique to strengthen silicone rubber with transparent nanoscale particles. The standard techniques currently used often leave the material clouded, which complicates its use in such products as protective masks for emergency responders and medical tubing in hospitals.

Earlier methods enhanced silicone strength by adding silica particles—the same material found in quartz. The new technique infuses silicone rubber with silica nanoparticles up to five times smaller than those from competing methods. The result is a material with enhanced strength, yet pristine clarity and implications for improved emergency and medical response.

Computer Software
Mark Goldberg, Malik Magdon-Ismail and William “Al” Wallace of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute tackled the need to root out terrorist communications on the Internet.

The researchers apply statistical methods, social theories and other techniques to create software that detects communication patterns in email, newsgroups, chatrooms and other Internet forums frequented by suspected terrorists. The researchers hope the tools will alert law enforcement to suspicious message patterns without the need for an agent to first read or understand the messages.

Earthquake Prediction
Terry Tullis and David Goldsby of Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Giulio Di Toro of the University of Padova in Italy discovered a mineral gel created when rocks abrade each other. The gel creates a slick surface that may amplify the energy that earthquakes transmit through the planet’s crust.

The researchers sheared quartz-rich rocks against each other under controlled conditions, simulating several aspects of a geologic fault environment. At the highest shearing speeds, resistance between the rocks approached zero.

Scanning electron microscope images revealed the possibility that the mineral powder generated during the abrasion is combining with water from the atmosphere to form the lubricating gel. If confirmed with field observations, these findings could apply to computer earthquake models and may help scientists and emergency personnel better predict the magnitude of strong ground motions that damage man-made structures.

Economic Game Theory
Over the last two decades, economists Todd Sandler of the University of Southern California and Walter Enders of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa have been applying economic theories such as game theory to identify unintended consequences of U.S. counterterrorism policies. Game theory looks at mutual responses between two thinking agents such as governments and sophisticated terrorist groups.

The researchers have found that at the time of the study (in 2003), the likelihood of death or injury from terrorism had increased—despite a decline in the number of terror incidents. High on the list of reasons for this trend: The way governments respond to terrorist threats and the changing face of terrorism (to involve more religious groups and so-called “amateurs”).

Since the early 1980s, Sandler and Enders have looked at various strategies in hostage-taking incidents, antiterrorism agreements between governments and effective government responses. A paper for The American Political Science Review in 1993, and other writings based on the project, led the Department of State's security office to consult the researchers about current U.S. policy.

Alternative Energy
Bruce Logan and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University have developed a bacteria-driven fuel cell that generates electricity as microbes clean wastewater. On a larger scale, such a fuel cell might produce both electricity and potable water at disaster sites. Recently, the researchers created a similar wastewater treatment cell that produces hydrogen instead of electricity.

A hydrogen-making catalyst developed by James Dumesic and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin at Madison points to a cheaper, cleaner chemical process that could help produce fuel for portable devices such as military equipment and batteries.

Hazard Detection
Rick Weber and colleagues at Containerless Research, Inc. developed a new family of glasses that may bring higher power to smaller packages in lasers and optical devices—at a lower cost than alternatives. Applications might include communications devices, medical lasers and sensors to detect explosives and toxins.

A Special Report: Disasters

Photo of graduate student studying smooth muscle cells

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Photo of NY firefighters working at the World Trade Center site

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Scanning electron microscope image of novaculite

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Photo of powdered rock from experiments

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Photo of a Sept. 11 memorial near the Pentagon

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Microscope image of bacteria Pseudomonas syringae

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Still image from animation showing a single-chambered microbial fuel cell
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This animation shows the anatomy of a single-chambered microbial fuel cell developed at Pennsylvania State University.  For more information, see the NSF press release on the wastewater-processing fuel cell.

Photo of glass samples made by CRI

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