Illinois Public Media News
Optimism remains that construction on the long-delayed FutureGen power plant will get the federal government's okay soon.
In the meantime, local officials can do little more than watch and wait for a decision from the Energy Department. It's in talks with corporate members of the FutureGen Alliance who want to get the $1.8 billion dollar coal-to-energy plant built and operating near Mattoon.
Angela Griffin heads the economic development group Coles Together. "As far as we know they're still in negotiations," Griffin said. "There's still a lot of details to be worked out with the agreement going forward, and they're not at liberty at this point to talk about those."
But Griffin says she and others in the Mattoon area are being kept up to date on the talks, even if she doesn't know the details. Griffin wouldn't estimate when the government and the Alliance can reach a conclusion.
She does say that once that agreement takes place, the construction phase will have a big impact on Mattoon. She says plant developers expect to keep cement plants within a 100-mile radius of FutureGen busy as they drill the initial wells for the plant's carbon-sequestration unit.
Faculty at the University of Illinois will head up a team working to place more medical records on line, and keep them out of the wrong hands.
A $15 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services was awarded to 20 researchers from 12 universities, led by the U of I's Information Trust Institute. Computer Science Professor Carl Gunter is the lead investigator for a project called Strategic Healthcare Information Technology Advanced Research Projects on Security, or 'SHARPS.' Gunter says moving from a paper record system to one that's electronically based offers a series of challenges. He says threats to privacy can exist inside a hospital or in the process of transferring records between medical facilities, which requires patient consent.
Gunter says a third challenge exists for patients wanting to relay medical information electronically from their home... accessing those records as they would a bank account. "Allowing someone who may have health problems to get a blood pressure reading at home once a day," says Gunter. ''...and then their physician can track their position more closely, like outpatient care, where it uses individual monitoring devices to allow people to use networks to transfer their data back." Gunter says the federal grant will support collaborative efforts. His work will integrate cyber security research at sites like the U of I and New York University with medical facilities like Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The grant will last four years. Three others totaling $45 million were awarded to other institutions in related areas.
Champaign-Urbana is ready to say "yes" to a federal grant for a fiber-optic broadband network. The Urbana City Council voted 5 to nothing Monday night to accept the grant --- joining Champaign and the University of Illinois in endorsing the "UC2B" Broadband project.
Champaign, Urbana and the U of I are accepting a $22.5 million federal recovery grant to pay the lion's share of the cost of building the fiber-optic rings linking schools, hospitals, city buildings and libraries --- plus fiber-optic connections to send low-cost service to 4600 homes in underserved areas. U of I Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement Pradeep Khanna told council members of the value of the new high-speed telecom network in attracting business.
"From first-hand experience, I can say, the lack of redundant broadband access already has been cited by many firms, as the key reason for not being interested in locating in Champaign-Urbana", said Khanna, who also heads Corporate Relations for the university's Public Engagement office.
Once the broadband network is built, local officials will have to figure out how to manage and market it ... and how to find the money to complete home service connections for the rest of Champaign-Urbana.
Alderman Brandon Bowersox, who will now serve on the Broadband Project's Policy Committee, says the economic questions pose the biggest risks. He says UC2B must offer service that makes enough money to pay for its operations and maintenance.
Meanwhile, project organizer Michael Smeltzer says they've already applied to Google, which is planning to install high-speed broadband service in select cities. Although he concedes it's a long shot, Smeltzer says they hope Google will consider funding the installation of broadband connections in the rest of Champaign-Urbana.
Monday night's vote commits Urbana to $345,000 in matching funds for the UC2B project. Champaign, the U of I and the state are also providing funding.
Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband proposal cleared a major hurdle last Tuesday night. The Champaign City Council voted 7-1 to accept a federal grant to help create a new high-speed fiber broadband system --- despite worries about possible future costs.
Champaign is saying yes to a $22 million federal grant plus $3.5 million in state funding to pay for the core infrastructure of the broadband system, plus fiber-to-the-home broadband installations in underserved neighborhoods. Councilman Tom Bruno says the system will give Champaign-Urbana a competitive edge with businesses for the next few years.
"We will have better connectivity than other similar communities," Bruno said. "When somebody trying to decide where to invest, or where to bring the jobs, will like Champaign-Urbana a little bit more than some other city, we will be a little bit ahead of the curve."
But accepting the broadband grant also commits Champaign to spending $688,000 of its own money. Along with Urbana and the U of I, Champaign will become a retail broadband provider, a risk that worries Mayor Jerry Schweighart, who cast the only vote against the project.
"I see a lot of pitfalls on this, and it's going to cost the cities a lot of money at a time when we don't have a lot of money," Schweighatr told council members. "I hope I'm wrong, hope it's highly successful. But I cannot, after reading everything, convince myself to support it."
The Urbana City Council takes its own vote on the Big Broadband project next week.
The University of Illinois says a junior there has won a $30,000 prize for developing an affordable prosthetic arm for people in developing countries.
The winner of the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize for innovation is Jonathan Naber, a major in materials science and engineering.
Naber has been working with the Illini Prosthetics Team to create an arm that is functional, durable and easily made. He plans to travel to Guatemala this summer to field-test the prototype at a prosthetics clinic in the Central American nation.
The prize is funded through a partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program and is administered by the UI's Technology Entrepreneur Center.
The U-S Commerce Department has awarded $22.5 million for Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband project. Now, the Champaign and Urbana city councils and the university of Illinois have 30 days to decide if they'll commit matching funds to the project --- a combined total of $1.3 million.
Champaign City Councilman Will Kyles says he's looking forward to a March 16 council meeting with the consultant the two cities hired to review the Big Broadband proposal. Kyles says he wants to ask Doug Dawson about his concerns with the long-term financial viability of the Big Broadband plan.
"I think it's more the sustainability piece that we're concerned about, as in his report he's projected that we would eventually start losing money. And he also talked about how technology is always changing. So I'd definitely want to talk to him," said Kyles
The federal stimulus money announced Tuesday would fund two major components of the Big Broadband project --- the installation of underground fiber-optic rings making up the backbone of service, and fiber-to-the-home installation of the service in areas considered underserved by broadband providers.
Two other components did not win federal funding. They're both aimed at expanding computer access for underserved populations. Big Broadband proponent Mike Smeltzer says efforts are already underway to re-enter those components in the 2nd round of federal funding.
Environmental experts are looking for a little creativity this week when it comes to diverting tons of old TVs, computers or cell phones from the landfill - or worse.
Electronic waste can create pollutants as well as lots of solid plastic or metal waste, and much of it will come from machines that are still in working order. A two-day symposium on the University of Illinois campus begins Tuesday to address the large-scale problem.
Tim Lindsey is with the U of I's Sustainable Technology Center. He says everyone involved in the process - from manufacturers to retailers to recyclers - are getting together to talk about reducing the waste stream, and new reuse methods can play a huge role.
"You can take a ten-year old Pentium 3 computer, you could refurbish it, load it with Windows 7, and for most applications it will perform as well as a brand new computerwith respect to word processing, surfing the internet, spreadsheets and so forth. It would do just as well," Lindsey said.
Lindsey says one future answer may be to rethink how we buy electronics. He says consumers might warm up to the concept of buying a shell computer or cell phone and occasionally improving its performance with the newest technology.
It will be sometime next year before researchers can utilize the world's fastest supercomputer on University of Illinois Urbana campus -- but there's already a list of teams who will have first dibs when Blue Waters comes on line. And the U of I's National Center for Supercomputing Applications is seeking applications for more through mid-March.
Blue Waters is the result of a collaboration between the U of I and National Science Foundation, which is providing monetary awards to those researchers.
NCSA spokeswoman Trish Barker says it will take some time for research teams to adjust from a machine that does trillions of calculations each second to one that does a quadrillion every second. She says that will require an understanding of the huge computer's applications, or codes, in the same way we would use a common consumer program.
"They're written to run on supercomputers -- that means that things have been parallelized so that programs are sort of broken up and different pieces of them are being run on different parts of the supercomputer that are communicating with each other," Barker said. But those have to scale up now to take advantage of many many more processors than they're currently using. It's kind of like if you've tried to think about, I've used Microsoft Word on one computer -- what if I wanted to use it on five computers?
The first 18 teams learning Blue Waters' codes includes a group from the U of I's department of atmospheric sciences to build a tornado model. And another group on campus will study molecular dynamics.
Barker says the NSF awards are partially for travel... allowing teams to all meet on campus to begin researching the programming code for when Blue Waters comes on line. Some of the funding is also dedicated to getting the teams together to prepare their research.
Candidates are taking to the Web to connect with Illinois voters more than ever. A University of Illinois researcher is studying how much good it will do them in the upcoming primary election.
There are exceptions - mainly third party candidates without primary competition. But by and large, most candidates running for statewide office have a Web presence, Republicans a bit more so than Democrats. According to Michael Cheney, a fellow at the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs, all 27 GOP candidates running statewide have a Web site compared with 84% of the Democrats.
Social media is common for campaigns too. Cheney says half of all statewide candidates have Twitter accounts, and 63 percent are on Facebook. But Cheney says the payback for online efforts is so far low. "A good part of that may be just to the number of candidates in each of the various contests, creating such clutter that it's really hard," Cheney said. "If you wanted to go out and check the Facebook pages for every candidate, you'd probably tire after you got about halfway through the list."
Cheney predicts an uptick in voters' online activity after the February 2 primary, when they can focus on the nominees.
Researchers at the University of Illinois are part of an international group of scientists that's decoded the DNA of the domestic pig.
Their research may one day prove useful in finding new treatments for both pigs and people, and perhaps aid in efforts for a new swine flu vaccine for pigs.
Larry Schook is the U of I biomedical science professor who led the project. He says the pig is the ideal animal to look at lifestyle and health issues in the United States. That's because pigs and humans are similar in size and makeup, and swine are often used in human research.
Researchers announced the results of their work today at a meeting in the United Kingdom. Schook says they'll spend the meeting discussing ways to use the new information.
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