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Articles - December 2011
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

By Linda Baker

1211_NextChemistry is like cooking. Except instead of tenderizing a pork roast with lime, spices and soy sauce, a chemist might mix up a batch of indium cobalt antimony, sink the concoction in copper oxide and then nuke the results in the microwave. Or at least that’s what materials science professor Mas Subramanian and his post-doctoral researchers did recently in their Oregon State University lab. The goal was to produce a “skutterudite,” a type of compound that’s very good at solving an age-old problem: converting excess heat into useful electricity. Waste heat, be it car or factory exhaust, is considered an abundant source of electric power. It is also underutilized, in part because making materials such as skutterudites is a time-consuming undertaking. So like any harried chef, Subramanian took advantage of the microwave’s efficiencies to reduce the amount of time from a couple of days to just a few minutes. “It really speeds up the process,” says Subramanian, adding that the team is now looking for industrial collaborators to help scale up the research, an effort that could lead to more efficient factories and cars. So how did the team decide to zap a metal mixture? “It was mainly curiosity,” says Subramanian. The serendipitous outcome was classic “kitchen chemistry,” he adds. “Like making a pizza.”

 

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Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

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Our Powerbook issue might be viewed as a case study in the new-power transition. This annual book of lists provides information on leading businesses, nonprofits and universities in the state. Most of the featured companies are entrenched power players now pursuing more flexible and less hierarchical approaches to doing business. Law firms, for example, are adopting new technologies and fee structures to make legal services more accessible and affordable.

This month we also take a look at a controversial new U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring public companies to disclose the median pay of workers, as well as the ratio between CEO and median-worker pay. 

Part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, the rule will compel public companies to be more open about employee compensation, with the assumption that greater transparency will improve corporate performance and, perhaps, help address one of the major challenges of our time: income inequality.

New power is not only about strategy and tactics, the Harvard Business Review authors say. “The ultimate questions are ethical. The big question is whether new power can genuinely serve the common good and confront society’s most intractable problems.”

That sounds like a call to arms. Or a New Year’s resolution. Old power or new, the goals are the same: to be a force for positive change in the world. Happy 2015!

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