Iowa State University


Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Modern computing began with the ABC

Iowa State University officials will unveil a replica of the first electronic digital computer Oct. 8 in Washington, D.C. The replica is an authentic working model of the Atanasoff- Berry Computer (ABC), which was designed and built at Iowa State in 1939-42 by John V. Atanasoff, a physics and mathematics professor, and Clifford Berry, his graduate student. The replica was built to honor the genius of its two inventors.

The original, desk-sized ABC was never patented and eventually discarded. Later computing machines dwarfed the ABC in size and stature. But the ABC was the first machine to demonstrate many of the concepts that are the basis of modern computing, said John Gustafson, a computational scientist at the Ames Laboratory at ISU and a member of the replica team. The ABC was the first to employ a binary system of arithmetic, have separate memory and computing functions, have regenerative memory, use electronic amplifiers as on/off switches, perform parallel processing, employ circuits for logical addition and subtraction, have clocked control of electronic operations, and employ modular design construction. "The architecture of the original was ingenious," Gustafson said. "Atanasoff was to the computer industry what the Wright brothers were to aviation."

For more information on the ABC replica and the history of computing, contact John Gustafson at (515) 294-9294. The Oct. 8 press conference will be held at 10 a.m. at the National Press Building, Washington, D.C., during which the replica will be operated. For more information, contact Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.

SEM lab leads the way

In 1989, the National Science Foundation (NSF) called it too advanced for practical applications in teaching. Now the multi-user, remote controlled, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) classroom at Iowa State University is a prototype for other universities and a powerful learning tool for Iowa secondary school students.

The NSF eventually caught up with -- and funded -- the innovative teaching lab at ISU's materials science and engineering department. Faculty-developed software and hardware allow the SEM to be operated simultaneously by several users at remote stations. Each station in the SEM classroom contains a computer and a video monitor from which students can operate the SEM and perform chemical and image analysis. The first-of-its-type lab helps materials science students become experienced operators of an SEM, one of the most widely utilized instruments for materials characterization.

The lab's applications go far beyond campus, says Associate Professor Scott Chumbley. During August, 60 secondary science teachers learned during workshops at ISU that the SEM can excite students about science and engineering careers. Using the Internet, the SEM on campus can be electronically linked to their classrooms. "Science students all over Iowa can conduct microscopic examinations of specimens -- just like a real materials scientist," Chumbley said. Contact Chumbley at (515) 294-7903, or Teddi Barron, Engineering Communications, (515) 294-0262.

Helping the body become whole again

The human body has significant recuperative powers, but when it does not or cannot regenerate tissue, Carole Heath wants to make it whole again. Heath, associate professor of engineering, has several related projects focusing on tissue regeneration. All of the projects draw from her expertise in two fields -- chemical engineering and biology.

In one project, Heath uses cartilage cells from horses to grow cartilage "pads," a process that eventually will be modified for human tissue. The work could provide relief to people with osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition of the joints. A second project focuses on replacing islets, the pancreatic cells that produce insulin. A diabetic loses these islets and the ability to produce insulin. The idea is to either regenerate the islets or take them from animals and use them in humans.

A third project is aimed at stimulating nerve regeneration. Most severed nerves don't grow back. The current remedy is to take a nerve from another part of the body and use it to form a bridge to the severed ends. Heath's group is working on a straw-shaped plastic material containing living cells that will form a path for nerve cells to grow.

Heath said the research still is several years from actual use. "Look how long it takes a person to grow," Heath said, "and you'll see the time scale we are working on." For more information, contact Heath at (515) 294-4828, or Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.

Technology aids nuclear power plant inspectors

A signal and imaging process system being developed at Iowa State University may soon improve the safety of the more than 100 nuclear power plants now operating in the U.S. John Basart, a scientist at ISU's Center for Nondestructive Evaluation (CNDE) and professor of electrical and computer engineering, is working with CNDE scientist John Moulder and graduate student Sheng-Fa Chuang, to develop a way to detect flaws in nuclear plant steam generator tubes. By providing impartial, accurate information, the system could serve as a second line of defense to ensure nuclear power plant safety. There are more than a thousand heat-exchange tubes submerged in the radioactive fluid of a nuclear power plant. The tubes transfer heat from pressurized radioactive fluid to the fluid that powers the electric generators. Because the radioactive fluid is highly corrosive, these tubes can become damaged and carry the radioactive fluid, putting workers at risk. To prevent this, commercial inspections of the tubes are conducted. The plant is shut down and inspectors work around the clock until the evaluation is complete.

The signal and imaging technology increases the efficiency, consistency and reliability of the inspections. The researchers have developed a computer program to automatically study the tube data and identify changes in a tube's condition. The system has proven its ability in a number of tests. "We can automatically detect flaws in almost all of the cases where a human can detect flaws," said Basart. The team expects that as the system becomes faster and more accurate it will eventually minimize the human effort needed to conduct such inspections. For more information, contact Basart at (515) 294-4955, John Moulder, (515) 294-9750, or Anita Rollins, IPRT Communications, (515) 294-1113.

Marston water tower turns 100

Most water towers usually last three to four decades. But Anson Marston, ISU's first dean of engineering, broke all of the rules when he designed and built the ISU water tower 100 years ago. He used steel instead of wood; he doubled the load requirements; and he elevated the 162,000-gallon barrel more than 150 feet in the air -- making it the tallest water tower west of the Mississippi River. Today, the water tower still is the tallest structure on the Iowa State campus.

Marston's project became a number one priority in 1896 when ISU classes were forced to close due to lack of water. Marston wanted the water tower, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, to "serve as an object lesson, both to citizens of the state and to hundreds of young engineers." For more information contact Professor David Kao, Civil and Construction Engineering, (515) 294- 0936, or Mitch Mihalovich, Engineering Communications, (515) 294-4344.

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