NOTE TO EDITORS: "BNL Spotlights" is issued periodically to bring you up to date on some of the latest newsworthy developments at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. For more information on any of these items, call Diane Greenberg or Mona S. Rowe at BNL's Public Affairs Office at (516)344-2345.
DEVISING A QUIET JACKHAMMER Invented in the 1920s and still being used today, the jackhammer may soon be replaced by a silent, more efficient, safer tool. BNL, Brooklyn Union Gas Company, Consolidated Edison, and the Gas Research Institute are developing RAPTOR, a 50-pound device that looks and works like a gun. Equipped with a silencer and fueled by helium gas, the updated jackhammer can spit out tiny steel projectiles at a velocity of up to 8,000 feet per second, which can easily penetrate concrete. The prototype device, designed at Brookhaven, works well in laboratory tests; if it passes field tests, it may be marketable within the next two years.
USING A CHINESE HERB TO TREAT ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE A compound from an ancient Chinese herb may be used in a new drug to treat Alzheimer's disease. Researchers from Brookhaven Lab and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, working in collaboration with researchers from Georgetown University and the Mayo Clinic, solved the 3-D structure of the herbal extract, Huperzine A (HupA), combined with a key enzyme in the nervous system, acetylcholinesterase (AChE). Derived from the Huperzia serrata moss, which has been used in China for centuries to treat many ailments, including memory loss, HupA blocks the enzyme, which is thought to play a role in Alzheimer's disease. This study may help researchers to design an Alzheimer's drug that is less toxic and more effective than others now on the market. The three-dimensional structure of HupA-AChE complex can be seen on the Brookhaven Protein Data Bank's web page (http://www.pdb.bnl.gov).
CHANGING MATERIALS FROM INSULATORS TO CONDUCTORS Researchers from Brookhaven, Princeton University and the University of Tokyo have discovered that a certain class of materials will change from an insulator to a conductor when exposed to x-rays. The materials are known as colossal magneto-resistive materials, and they exhibit dramatic changes in electrical resistance when exposed to a magnetic field.
While using x-rays as probes to study a compound called praseodymium calcium manganese oxide at Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source, the researchers found that the radiation changed the material's electrical characteristics, effectively from an insulator to a conductor. They also believe that the x-rays made the sample magnetic. This unusual effect may lead to the ability to create and manipulate tiny magnetic structures for use in basic research on magnetism. Researchers also hope that studying this effect will lead to new insights on how magneto-resistive materials work. Since these materials are used in computer hard disk drives and speed sensors of anti-lock brakes, this research may lead to improvements in these devices, as well as more sensitive x-ray detectors and other applications.
BETTER BATTERIES, BETTER CARS As part of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, established by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in 1993, Brookhaven researchers are performing basic studies of batteries and fuel cells that may be used in electric cars. They are conducting the research to produce affordable, safe, vehicles that meet Clean Air Act standards. At Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source, the researchers use x-rays to investigate electronic and structural parameters of complex electrodes in batteries and fuel cells and correlate the resulting data with the stability and performance characteristics of the electrodes. Basic studies of corrosion, cycle life, safety, as well as performance variables can lead to better batteries and fuel cells, and, thus, more efficient cars.