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Team Makes Voices Clearer for Recognition

TUNIS, Tunisia, Sept. 9 (UPI) — Researchers in Tunisia say they’ve developed a method of making voice signals clearer for ubiquitous speech recognition systems to understand.

As the recognition systems become commonplace — in computers, at call centers, in airplanes and cars — clear voice input becomes important, a team of scientists at University Campus in Tunis, Tunisia, says.

It could make the difference between a safe maneuver in a car or airplane or an accident, they say.

Cellphone conversations would benefit, and even clandestine recording of speech for security and law enforcement would improve, they say.

“The presence of background noise in speech signal processing constitutes a very serious problem,” the researchers say, explaining it can lead to failed voice commands and errors.

This noise is often referred to as “white noise” and is commonly perceived as random background hiss on a sound recording.

The Tunisia team uses computers to reduce the background noise and has demonstrated the effectiveness of their approach against F16 fighter jet cockpit noise and the noise inside a Volvo car.

“We have applied our hybrid method on several kinds of noises and noisy speech database and the obtained results show an increase in the signal to noise ratio from 5 dB to 12 dB,” the team says.

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Aluminum 'nanometal' is Strong As Steel

RALEIGH, N.C., Sept. 8 (UPI) — U.S. researchers say they’ve learned how make an aluminum alloy — a mixture of aluminum and other elements — that’s as strong as steel.

North Carolina State University scientists say the search for ever lighter yet stronger materials is important for everything from more fuel-efficient cars to safer airplanes.

Yuntian Zhu, professor of materials science at NC State, says nanoscale architecture within the new aluminum alloys give them unprecedented strength but also reasonable plasticity to stretch and not break under stress, a university release reports.

The new aluminum alloys have unique structural elements called “grains,” each a tiny crystal less than 100 nanometers in size, that make them super-strong and ductile, Zhu says.

Bigger is not better in materials, he says, as smaller grains result in stronger materials.

The technique of creating these nanostructures can be used on many different types of metals, Zhu says.

He says he is working on strengthening magnesium, a metal even lighter than aluminum, and is working with the Department of Defense to make magnesium alloys strong enough to be used as body armor for soldiers.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Farmland Comes at Expense of Forests

PALO ALTO, Calif., Sept. 3 (UPI) — More than 80 percent of the new farmland created in the tropics since 1980 has come from felling forests, which drives global warming, researchers say.

A study led by a Stanford University researcher says global agricultural expansion cut huge swaths through forests, mostly tropical forests, from 1980 to 2000 when half a million acres of new farmland was created, a university release said.

“This has huge implications for global warming, if we continue to expand our farmland into tropical forests at that rate,” Holly Gibbs, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Earth System Science, said.

Gibbs and colleagues at several universities analyzed Landsat satellite data and images from the United Nations.

“Every million acres of forest that is cut releases the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as 40 million cars do in a year,” Gibbs said.

Most of the carbon release comes from burning the forests, but even if the felled trees are simply left in place the bulk of the carbon from the plants makes its way into the atmosphere during decomposition, she said.

But there are encouraging signs, Gibbs said.

During the 1990s, more of the deforestation was done by large corporate-run farms rather than by small family farms as was the case in the 1980s.

Big agribusiness tends to be more responsive to global economic signals as well as pressure campaigns from advocacy organizations and consumer groups, Gibbs said.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Italian Electric Car to Go on Sale in U.K.

LONDON, Sept. 1 (UPI) — A British retailer of electric vehicles says it will start selling an Italian-made two-seat electric car in its showrooms this month.

EV Stores — which sells electric cars, bikes and scooters — says the Tazzari Zero will go on sale for about $33,000 Sept. 12, BusinessGreen.com reported Wednesday.

he Zero uses rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and can go about 85 miles between charges with a top speed of about 62 mph.

Tazzari is an Italian firm with a background in aluminum casting and engineering services. Use of aluminum in the Zero means the car, with battery pack, weighs less than 1,200 pounds.

The Zero qualifies as a quadricycle under European regulations, meaning it is not required to pass crash tests or meet other safety regulations cars must meet, the Web site said.

Because of its quadricycle designation the Zero will not qualify for the $7,700 rebate the U.K. government plans to make available to purchasers of full-blown electric cars like the upcoming Nissan Leaf, authorities say.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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China Corners World 'rare Earth' Supply

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (UPI) — China’s monopoly on elements used in computer disc drives, electric cars, military weapons and other key products could mean a crisis for the West, experts say.

China’s control of the supply of most of the world’s “rare earth” elements, and its increasingly hard-line stand on limiting exports, could create a supply crisis for the United States and other countries, an article in the magazine Chemical & Engineering News says.

China has cornered the global market on the family of chemical elements used in devices like lasers, computer memory, batteries and superconductors and produces most of the world’s supply, the magazine says. China has been raising prices and restricting exports since 2005, most recently this year.

One U.S. response is a plan to boost domestic supplies. U.S. authorities are reconsidering reopening the largest U.S. rare earth mine at Mountain Pass in Southern California, dormant since 2002.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense are among the government agencies involved in seeking solutions to a possible supply crisis, the magazine says.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Wildfires Contained in Southern France

MARSEILLE, France, Sept. 1 (UPI) — Thousands of acres of forests have been destroyed by wildfires in France that also burned houses and cars, authorities said.

Firefighters said late Tuesday the fires burning in the south of France near the cities of Marseille and Montpellier had been contained, Radio France Internationale reported.

No injuries were reported, but the flames destroyed three homes, a warehouse, a plant nursery and at least 10 cars, officials said.

Water-dropping aircraft halted the advance of the fire Tuesday near the coastal town of La Ciotat about 6 miles from Montpellier.

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux visited the Montpellier area to thank more than 1,000 firefighters for “their fight against the worst fires this summer.”

The fires could rekindle, authorities warned, and fire official Col. Christophe Risdorfer said his crews would remain on alert.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Gas Mileage Could Triple with 'evolution'

ANN ARBOR, Mich., Aug. 31 (UPI) — Cars could get triple current fuel economy figures by 2035 if U.S. drivers will accept smart technology over pure horsepower, a researcher says.

As federal regulators prepare the next round of fuel economy mandates, John DeCicco of the University of Michigan and the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute says the most cost-effective answer is steady progress in advanced combustion engines and hybrid drive, an institute release said Tuesday.

DeCicco says the solution is a “revolution by evolution” rather than politically trendy breakthrough technologies that will remain too expensive for most consumers.

“If we really prioritize efficiency, we can get just as far with less sticker shock,” he said. “Evolutionary change can be of profound consequence for cutting oil use and greenhouse gas emissions, and do so with manageable costs and minimal risks for automakers.”

Optimizing internal combustion engines and more adoption of grid-free hybrids will enable new fleet efficiency levels to reach 52 mpg by 2025 and 74 mpg by 2035, he predicts.

“The fleet I’ve modeled for 2025 does not give up any of the performance and creature comforts consumers already enjoy,” he said. “You don’t have to go back to being Fred Flintstone, but you will see lower fuel costs instead of ever more mass and muscle.”

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Study: 20K U.S. Sledding Injuries a Year

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Aug. 27 (UPI) — Wintertime sledding the United States results in an average of more than 20,000 injuries a year, U.S. researchers reported.

Researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found an estimated 229,023 patients in children and teens younger than age 19 treated from 1997 to 2007 in U.S. emergency departments for sledding-related injuries.

The study, scheduled to the published in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics, attributes the majority of injuries — 51 percent — to collision. Overall, the head was the most commonly injured body part, with 34 percent of sledding injuries involving the head.

Fifty-two percent of the injuries occurred at recreation centers and 31 percent on private property. Sledders injured on a street or highway were more likely to sustain injuries to the head and to be hospitalized, the study said.

“Two of the main factors that contribute to sledding-related injuries are the environment and locale,” study co-author Lara McKenzie said in a statement. “To reduce the risk of injury, sledding areas should be clear of trees and other obstacles and should have sufficient run-out areas away from streets.”

The use of motorized vehicles such as cars and all terrain vehicles to pull sleds was a finding of particular concern.

“Our findings indicate that the prevalence of this activity may be much greater and the practice more common than previously thought,” McKenzie said.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Study: Motor Vehicles Make Americans Fat

KNOXVILLE, Tenn., Aug. 21 (UPI) — European countries with high rates of walking and cycling have fewer obese people than Australia and the United States, U.S. researchers found.

David Bassett Jr. of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville said “active travel” — bicycling or walking — fosters healthier communities compared with regions where cars are the favored way to get around.

Bassett and colleagues conducted a study on “active travel” in the United States and 15 other countries. They linked more than half of the differences in obesity rates among countries to walking and cycling rates, finding places with the highest walking and biking rates have fewer obese people.

In addition, about 30 percent of the difference in obesity rates among U.S. states and cities was also linked to walking and cycling rates.

“A growing body of evidence suggests that differences in the built environment for physical activity (e.g., infrastructure for walking and cycling, availability of public transit, street connectivity, housing density and mixed land use) influence the likelihood that people will use active transport for their daily travel,” the study said.

“Moreover, land-use policies should foster compact, mixed-use developments that generate shorter trip distances that are more suitable for walking and biking.”

The findings are published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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NYC: Bad Summer Air, Manhattan, Highways

NEW YORK, Aug. 17 (UPI) — Four major air pollutants are heavily concentrated in high-traffic areas in Manhattan and along highways during the summer in New York, health officials say.

However, the New York City Community Air Survey shows ozone concentrations — resulting from chemical reactions among other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide, in the presence of sunlight — were highest in downwind suburban locations, such as the Rockaways and lower Staten Island.

“It’s important to remember that all New Yorkers have a stake in improving the city’s air quality,” Dr. Thomas Farley, city health commissioner, says in a statement. “Exposure to the pollutants evaluated in this report can cause grave health problems, including cardiovascular and lung diseases and premature death. This study reiterates the need to switch to more fuel-efficient cars, reduce car traffic, and increase use of public transportation.”

The air survey shows the four major pollutants — carbon, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone — are heavily concentrated in high-traffic areas such as Midtown and Lower Manhattan and areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island that run along busy highways.

The fine-particle pollutants can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing inflammation of the airways, exacerbating lung and heart disease, health officials say.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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