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Voice of America is an international news and broadcast organization serving Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Balkan countries

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    If you were a casual observer watching Argonne National Laboratory scientist Seth Darling work, it would be easy to miss the low-tech but groundbreaking invention he's concocted in his brightly lit workspace.  It doesn't have wires or circuitry, it doesn't move, it doesn't do much of anything. It is in fact, at least at first glance, simply a sponge."It looks real simple when you demonstrate it, right?" Darling explained as he lowered the small, dark-colored foam sponges into a bowl of water mixed with blue oil. "I mean, you just stick it down there and it works. But behind that is a lot of work." Darling explains that what we can see with the human eye — these dark-colored pieces of foam, or sponges — isn't the major breakthrough.  It's what's in, and on, the sponges that is revolutionary."After we do our treatment to it, and we create this Oleo Sponge, you put it on there and it's got a voracious appetite for oil. It just soaks that oil right up," he said. Cleaning, saving oil While the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago is best known for its contributions to nuclear energy development, it is also an incubator for technological innovation and discovery, the very environment where Darling created the Oleo Sponge."So we've been working on this Oleo Sponge project for almost two years," Darling told VOA. "The underlying technology is something that we've been working on for much longer." He explains the treatment that gives the Oleo Sponge that "voracious appetite" is the real innovation developed at Argonne — something Darling and his associates call Sequential Infiltration Synthesis, or SIS. "It was just a new way to make materials," Darling said. SIS works at the nano level. When hard metal oxide atoms "with complicated nanostructures" are infused throughout the fibers of the foam, it gives it the extremely effective quality of allowing the foam to bind with the oil in the water, essentially separating the two liquids. The breakthrough could dramatically change cleanup of oil spills, particularly the more difficult task of retrieving oil below the surface of the water. "Once it all goes down below the surface of the water and you have clouds of droplets under the surface, I'm not aware of any technology today that can actually clean those up. And Oleo Sponge can," Darling said. But the Oleo Sponge doesn't just clean up the oil — it saves it.  Oil spilled into water is usually burned off or unusable after cleanup efforts, but the Oleo Sponge can collect, separate and deposit the oil for further use.  Flood of interest The sponge itself can also be re-used and recycled, all qualities that have brought a flood of interest to Argonne's doors."It's a wide variety of companies that are interested in it," said Hemant Bhimnathwala, with Argonne Laboratory's Business Development Group. "We've got inquiries from about 100-plus companies in the last few days … who want to be partners in a slew of things from manufacturing the foam to distribution." While oil spill cleanup in bodies of water is the most clearly identifiable use for the Oleo Sponge, the SIS technology behind it could offer breakthroughs in a variety of other ways, yet to be discovered. "This application is just the tip of the iceberg," Bhimnathwala said. It is an iceberg Seth Darling and other scientists at Argonne are still delving into, while the Oleo Sponge continues to make its journey into the wider market — and hopefully the world's bodies of water — in the coming years.

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    In his first public appearance since leaving the White House in January, former President Barack Obama participated in a discussion in his adopted hometown on the campus of the University of Chicago where he once served on the faculty. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh explains, while the location of his visit has historic meaning, the focus of his conversation shed some light into what an Obama post presidency might look like.

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    His birthplace in a small village outside Mumbai, India, in a home with no running water or electricity, is a far cry from the technology-filled cubicles Pete Tapaskar has come to know well as an information technology (IT) worker. Tapaskar’s journey from India to the United States through Canada came courtesy of an H1B immigrant visa. “H1B has been a great contributor for the innovation of America,” Tapaskar told VOA. Now an American citizen who lives in suburban Chicago, Tapaskar has spent the past 15 years working for the IT company ProSoft as a manager in their immigration program. Lengthy process Most of the people Tapaskar has hired have come from India, but he said hiring those workers has not always been ideal. “It would be cheaper for us to hire Americans where they are available,” he said, “because bringing them from outside, we have to go through the lengthy H1B process and then wait for (a) longer time, and by that time, demand would have changed.” But Tapaskar says there aren’t enough Americans with experience to fill the jobs. “We are not able to employ Americans fast enough into the job market to meet the challenges,” he said. 1.4 million jobs unfilled Richard Burke is CEO of Chicago-based Envoy Global, which sells services to U.S. companies looking to hire foreign workers. “The U.S. Department of Labor has said 1.4 million unfilled software development — software development alone — 1.4 million unfilled jobs by 2020. So the skills gap is real,” Burke said. “Envoy helps companies with their visa and immigration needs,” he told VOA from his desk situated in the same workspace as many of his employees. “What we do is help companies bring talented foreign nationals into the country, we help companies deploy their own employees overseas to pursue opportunity, and we provide software that makes reporting and compliance much easier.” Burke said the skills gap that drives the demand for foreign workers exists because not enough Americans are receiving education or training in high demand jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also called STEM fields, and many foreign students educated in the U.S. aren’t staying to work. “Every year American universities graduate over 300,000 foreign nationals with STEM degrees. We don’t give them any opportunities to stay,” he said. “So what is the wisdom of a policy when we know we have a skills gap, when we know we are graduating the best and brightest — 300,000 — and sending them home to compete with us.” Review process During a recent visit to Wisconsin, President Donald Trump announced he was signing an Executive Order reviewing the H1B visa process. About 85,000 workers come to the United States annually through the program, far fewer than the number of jobs U.S.-based companies say they need experienced technology workers to fill. Burke hopes the review will lead to an increase in the number of visas issued, to fill the skills gap before the jobs flee the U.S. “Work is mobile,” Burke said. “Companies are telling us and they are saying to one another, ‘If I can’t get the work done here, I’ll just move it overseas.’” Which is what happened to Tapaskar, the IT worker. His employer, ProSoft, was sold to another company, which outsourced his specific job to India, Tapaskar said. After 15 years, he’s starting over with a new company and works to help other IT workers as the president of the American Small and Medium IT Employers Association (ASMITEA). Hope for review Tapaskar said he supports Trump’s Executive Order, hoping it helps curb any misuse of the program. But he doesn’t want to see those visas only going to companies offering the highest salaries. “It should be made available for all the sectors,” he told VOA. “(It) should be linked with training programs. America really lacks the training infrastructure at the moment.” This year, U.S. Immigration officials report almost 200,000 petitions were filed for the 85,000 available H1B visas during the lottery period that ended in April.

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    It is what every aspiring baseball player strives for: a Major League appearance. “This is what you’ve been working hard for all the years,” 27-year-old South African Gift Ngoepe said. “This is what you dreamed of since you were a little kid.” Ngoepe’s dream came true April 26 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the top of the fourth inning at PNC Park, Ngoepe got the call to take the field, playing second base. He had just been added to the Pirates roster, promoted from their minor league affiliate Indianapolis Indians. Watch: First Players from Africa, Lithuania Mark New Era for Major League Baseball “My heartbeat was very hard,” he said in an interview with VOA. Game day footage shows teammates Josh Harrison and Francisco Cervelli placing their hands over his heart as he took his position on the field. “And I felt like it was beating a little bit out of my chest,” he said. Facing All-Star pitcher Ngoepe said the intensity increased at the bottom of the inning when he was the leadoff hitter facing All-Star pitcher John Lester of the Chicago Cubs. But Ngoepe did more than just step up to the plate. With a 3-1 count (three balls, one strike), his bat connected with the ball, driving it into the outfield for a single. With a recorded hit for his first at-bat, Ngoepe entered the history books as the first Major League Baseball player from the African continent. “It feels great to be a part of history with the Pirates,” Ngoepe said, reflecting on another moment in his remarkable journey in a sport he was born into. His mother, Maureen, worked for the South African Randberg Mets baseball club, and their family lived in a small apartment near the field. “I rolled out of bed and I was on first base,” he said. “I started playing baseball at the age of 3. I was throwing the ball against the wall. And the coach came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a pretty good arm, why don’t you think about joining the team?’”  Ngoepe moved through the ranks of a sport unfamiliar to many in South Africa. “Baseball’s not very popular,” he said, “because we compete against three other sports, cricket, rugby and soccer, so the youth development for baseball is not going to be as strong.” Pirates contract He developed enough to catch the attention of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who offered Ngoepe a contract at the age of 18. It brought him into the organization’s minor league system, where he formed a friendship with teammate Josh Bell. “Having the courage to make that first step, to say, ‘Hey, I’m coming over to the states. I’m going to try to learn this game the best I can,’ it’s incredible,” Bell told VOA. While Ngoepe is the first from the continent of Africa, he is in good company this season. Another minor league teammate, Indianapolis Indians relief pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas, was called up April 24 to join the Pirates in the bullpen at PNC Park, where they faced the Chicago Cubs. “I got there during the game, and I got to pitch in the game at the same time,” Neverauskas said. “I didn’t have time to think once I got to the field.” By the time he reached the mound, the Pirates were already losing and never recovered. But Neverauskas pitched two solid innings. He is the first Lithuanian player to appear in a Major League Baseball game. Born in Vilnius, where his family still lives, Neverauskas learned the game from his father, Virmidas, who played for Lithuania’s first baseball club formed in the 1980s. The elder Neverauskas now coaches the country’s youth national teams, where Dovydas sees the next generation of talent coming up behind him, reinforcing the importance of his career. “Because if I do good,” he said, “maybe the team will see that there’s potential in Lithuania, and maybe will send more people to look for players.” Waiting on another chance But Dovydas Neverauskas pitched one game for the Pirates and is now back with the Indianapolis Indians, waiting for another chance. “It’s tough knowing that as you play today, there’s another player in every organization trying to take your spot,” said Bell, Neverauskas’s teammate. “I guess it makes it a little bit easier for us to just focus on winning, and focus on the now. And I feel like Gift is a perfect example of that.” Bell added that he isn’t just a teammate and friend, he’s also a fan. “I’m sure he’s got shirts being made. I know the moment I have an opportunity to put on a ‘Gift from Africa’ shirt I’m going to buy one for me and my family,” he said. The Pittsburgh Pirates “gift from Africa” remains with the team, for now, and continues to perform well, both on the field and at the plate, exceeding even his own expectations. “It’s been unbelievable for me,” Ngoepe said, coming off a stretch of games where he continued to get on base and help the Pirates score runs. “The story just keeps on growing bigger.” While Gift looks to write the next chapter, another Ngoepe hopes to have his own storybook career. Nineteen-year-old Victor is following in his older brother’s footsteps, also securing a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and playing on a minor league team in Florida where he waits for his own chance to prove himself on baseball’s biggest stage.

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    Space exploration is not something Chicago student Mawuto Akploh says she finds in her textbooks, or classroom discussion in her school.  “We do physics, biology, earth and space sciences,” she told VOA. “But we never actually take the time to talk about the people who actually do those things.”  Akploh is originally from Togo, and immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was a young child.  She now attends a Chicago area high school career academy, and just became certified as an automobile mechanic.   Akploh says aerospace engineering wasn’t an option at her school.  “It’s not that people don’t want to do it… it’s that people don’t know about it.”  That lack of knowledge has, in part, fueled a shortage of students in the U.S. seeking advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math - also known as STEM.  Fields the aerospace industry depends on.  “There is a shortage across engineering which I think is generally bad for humanity.”  Which is one reason Beth Moses hopes her career serves as an inspiration to others to answer that shortage.  After successfully serving at NASA as the assembly manager for the International Space Station, Moses is now the chief astronaut trainer at Virgin Galactic, founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, seeking to be the first company consistently taking paying passengers into orbit.  “We are doing something, and I am doing something that has never been done before,” she explained to VOA. “There’s no road map, there’s no instruction manual, no guidance on how to do this.”  Which is why, as Moses writes one of the new instruction manuals in the emerging field of commercial human spaceflight, the need for more engineers is critical to help her company - and others - meet the demands of a growing industry that Moses says doesn’t “come in pink or blue.”  “In my entire time, in school and in aerospace engineering both at NASA and here at Virgin Galactic, I’ve never once had any hassle or gender issue, and there have been plenty of women around and also plenty of diversity of all kinds… age, race, points of view.”  It was a message Moses reinforced to those gathered at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where she was awarded the 2017 “Women in Space Science Award” from the Adler Planetarium's Women's Board.  It also was a part of her pitch to hundreds of Chicago area high school students, including Mawuto Akploh, who gathered to see her speak at the place that sparked Moses' own interest in space… the Adler Planetarium.  In front of a large view screen in the Adler’s theater, the audience was awed by her video presentation showing test flight footage from Virgin Galactic, and what the experience of heading into space as a commercial passenger with her company might look like, when it takes off.  Moses views the opportunity for widely available space flight as a unifying endeavor for humanity, but knows well that the final frontier of space is a difficult environment to master.  In 2006, Richard Branson told VOA he was hopeful Virgin Galactic would be orbiting the earth soon.  “Twenty-four months from now, my parents, my children and myself shall be popping into space,” he said with a grin.  But a series of setbacks, including a crash in 2014 that led to the death of one of the test spacecraft’s co-pilots, has pushed that timeline back.  Eleven years later, Branson still waits to be his company’s first passenger.  He told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in April he hopes to see Virgin Galactic’s first sub-orbital flight by the end of 2017.  “We are in the air and we are working our way through a test program,” Moses told VOA. “When it is complete and the vehicle is safe, we’ll start commercial flights with Richard and his family.”   Those are flights that more than 700 passengers have already paid more than $200,000 to experience, reinforcing to students contemplating a career in aerospace engineering that not only is it in demand, it could also be lucrative... something Mawuto Akploh is keeping in mind as she plans for college, where a course of study in physics is her top pick.

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    Few people who live along a quiet, tree-lined stretch of Fulton Street realize that inside the buildings at the end of their neighborhood, the future of human spaceflight is taking shape. “I would doubt many people in Rockford know Ingersoll is manufacturing these components,” Mike Reese, director of sales for Ingersoll Machine Tools, told VOA.  But “these” aren’t just any components …they are critical to NASA’s effort to take people back to the moon, and on to Mars.  “This is going to be some astronaut’s home,” Astronaut Rex Walheim explains, pointing to a shiny, large aluminum ring situated on the floor of Ingersoll’s facility. “This is the barrel section of the Orion, so this is the central section of the pressure vessel.  It’s where the astronauts will basically live and work, and the only place they’ll have to go while they’re on this mission. It’s what keeps us alive.”  The “barrel” is one of four components created by Ingersoll for Lockheed Martin, the aerospace company assembling the Orion capsule.  Although Walheim made history as part of the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011, he admits he probably won’t be a part of the crew that will return to the moon, or go on to Mars.  He has spent the last six years since the shuttle fleet was retired as NASA’s astronaut representative to the Orion program, working on a project he says has taken longer than anticipated.  “Everybody wanted to do this faster,” Walheim explained. “Everybody wanted the gap between our shuttle and deep space program to be shorter, but we are where we are, and we’ve made tremendous progress and now we’re at the point where we’re building the actual vehicles and we’re testing them and we’re going to fly them.”  A budget proposal by the Trump Administration in March outlines a commitment to continue the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s efforts to send astronauts to Mars.  About $3.7 billion is earmarked for development of the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule, which isn’t a replacement for the Space Shuttle, but a next generation space flight vehicle designed to take humans farther into space than ever before.  “NASA’s focus is now on the harder – the more difficult destinations,” Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich told VOA in an interview while touring the progress of manufacturing at Ingersoll’s Illinois facility.   He said part of NASA’s strategy is letting commercial companies focus on developing equipment for low earth orbit spaceflight, which was the primary mission of the now retired Space Shuttle program, allowing NASA to focus resources on the new equipment in the Space Launch System, and the Orion capsule, with Mars as the ultimate objective.  “We have completed two tests flights to date,” he says. “One of our abort system and our first orbital flight test, and right now we are building – we are about 75 percent complete – with our next flight vehicle which will fly on Exploration Mission 1.”  The Orion capsule “barrel” on display at Ingersoll Machine Tools is earmarked for Exploration Mission 2, which will take astronauts back to the moon by 2023, preparing them for the eventual journey to Mars.    The last time astronauts orbited the moon, Ingersoll’s Mike Reese was a young child.    “I’ve definitely played the Orion cool card with my children,” he told VOA. “I’ve let them go up to and touch the flight hardware and get a chance to see what we’re doing here.  They think the whole program and the whole idea of going to Mars is very interesting and very cool.”  Exploration Mission 1, the first full test of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule, is scheduled for later this year.  NASA plans to send that unmanned Orion capsule 64,000 kilometers beyond the moon in the first mission on the agency’s path to Mars, a destination they hope to reach by the 2030s.

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    At Café Bar-Ba-Reeba on Chicago's north side, there is one key ingredient that could make or break Executive Chef Matt Holmes' menu. “We feature it in our paeallas, which are our signature dish here at Café Bar Ba Reeba, as well as use it in a dessert and some other dishes as well, so its incredibly important to have high quality saffron,” Holmes explained to VOA from his test kitchen above the restaurant, where he was preparing one of those signature dishes. Saffron has long been one of the world's most expensive spices, at times traded as currency. The saffron “crocus” that produces the spice grows mostly in parts of Europe, Iran and India. It is a staple in cuisine throughout Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but less so in the United States, where saffron — while a $60 million market  has limited appeal. But Rumi Spice, Holmes' saffron supplier, is hoping to change that. “We are named after Juhalladin Rumi, he was a 13th century poet and philosopher who was born in present day Afghanistan, and a Sufi mystic,” says founder Kimberly Jung.  “One of his most famous sayings is, ‘Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.’” Veterans inspired by relationships Kimberly Jung, Keith Alaniz and Emily Miller are three of the founders of Rumi Spice, U.S. military veterans who served in Afghanistan who returned with more than just combat experience. “I was never able to resolve just going to Afghanistan, spending time, and then leaving and never thinking about the place again, especially when you form relationships with people who live there,” says Alaniz. Those relationships inspired the business strategy for Rumi Spice — increasing demand in the U.S. for saffron produced by Afghan farmers they met in Herat province. Saffron has very limited demand in Afghanistan, leaving the market for it outside the country. “Afghanistan has essentially been cut off from the international market for 30 years,” says Alaniz.  “They are producing a great product but they aren't able to get a fair value for their goods because they are not able to export it anywhere.” Another challenge Afghanistan's enduring instability isn't the only challenge to getting Afghan saffron to market. “Near to 20 years we've been growing saffron, there are still no certificates for our saffron product,” says Abdullah Faiz, chancellor of Heart University, which is working with Purdue University in Indiana to develop a “department of food technology,” with Afghan saffron farmers in mind. “The department of food technology will teach and give training for the farmers to produce the saffron with hygiene quality,” says Faiz, adding that it could help increase demand for Afghan saffron in new markets. Quality, taste is key A lack of international certification hasn't stood in the way of Rumi Spice, which conducts rigorous tests to make sure the saffron it is importing is clean and pure before arriving in the United States. The quality and taste of Rumi Spice saffron is what attracted Matt Holmes as a customer. “It's much higher potency,” says Holmes.  “So while we pay a premium to use Rumi, it actually goes a longer way, so that's another benefit of using a higher quality product  you can stretch how much you are using each time.” Famous investor “Our supply is outpacing our demand,” says Alaniz, “which is good for us because it keeps our prices low at the moment, but we hope to increase more demand here in the U.S. so we can purchase more saffron.” “The good thing about Rumi is they have a premium product that's fantastic to use,” says Chef Matt Homes.  “You are kind of doing double duty with the program that they have with helping farmers in Afghanistan and helping women, being a positive influence instead of just selling a product, so you really get the best of both worlds.” These are qualities investors also are noticing.  Rumi Spice was recently featured on the U.S. reality television show “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneur Marc Cuban committed $250,000 for a 15 percent stake in the company, signaling his faith in Rumi Spice, and the future potential for saffron grown in Afghanistan.  

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