May 29th, 2013 by Gene

Photo: Jay Simmons/stock.xchng

Let’s listen to the sound of radiation. Today, on Engineering Works!

The first time most people heard of radiation was probably when we dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The destruction and death they caused made radiation scary.

But radiation has been around for as long as there’s been an earth. Millions of years.

Each of us is bombarded every second of every day by radiation from space. From the ground. Cosmic rays. If you like to tan by the pool, that’s radiation, from the sun. If you stay in the shade, you’re still getting radiation from the ground. In central Texas, where we live, it’s about 23 millirems a year. In Denver, it’s about 90 millirems.

In case you’re wondering, a millirem is one-thousandth of a rem, a Roentgen Equivalent Man. Rems measure radiation exposure. Like using inches to measure distance.

Ready for more? If you travel a lot, you’ll get about 1 millirem for every thousand miles you fly. Don’t travel? A year’s worth of watching TV adds one millirem. Smoke detector in your house? That’s eight-thousandths of a rem. Got an x-ray with your annual physical? 40 millirems more.

Live near a nuclear power plant? Compared to the other stuff that bombards you with radiation, it’s pretty puny – nine-thousandths of a rem. About like your smoke detector. A coal-fired power plant gives you more than three times as much, but it’s still pretty small.

We’re ready to stop radiating words. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Streetlights at night

Photo: HarshWCAM3/Flickr.com

Turning down the lights

May 22nd, 2013 by Gene

Paris may be the city of lights, but engineers in France are trying a new way to reduce municipal electric bills. Streetlights. Today, on Engineering Works!

It’s not Paris, but people in the French city of Toulouse still like to have their streets lit at night. There’s a problem, though. The city’s electric bills are high and climbing. So they’re trying a new way pedestrians who walk the city’s streets after dark can help. It’s easy. Just keep walking.

What they’re doing is to install sensors in the lampposts that hold up the streetlights. When the sensors detect the body heat of an approaching pedestrian, the light clicks from dim to bright. When the pedestrian moves on – between 500 and 600 yards away – the streetlight dims its light again.

They’re testing the sensor-operated streetlights now, and if it works on a short stretch of mostly residential street, they’re going to start by installing the sensors along a stretch of busy street between the city’s sports stadium and the university campus. If it works there, they plan to take it citywide. They expect to cut electricity consumption by streetlights on busy streets in half.

City administrators across France are watching what happens, and others around the world are watching, too. A group of city council members from Osaka, Japan, visited a while ago to see firsthand how it’s done.

Our streetlights are still shining, so we’ll leave before somebody dims them. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Hyperion Power Generation

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The reactor down the street

May 15th, 2013 by Gene

Powering your town with nuclear energy. Small reactors for small towns. Today. On Engineering Works!

Usually, when we build nuclear power plants, we build them big. The largest nuclear plants produce more than 1,400 megawatts of electricity, enough power for about 1.5 million households. That could be changing. The Department of Energy is studying smaller power plants that would produce about 300 megawatts. Enough to power, say, Jackson, Mississippi. Other researchers are looking into power plants that could serve even smaller communities.

Experts estimate that a 50 megawatt reactor about the size of a garden shed could provide electricity for small towns or even individual work sites away from the power grid. Even better, these small reactors could be linked together as the town grows and electricity demand increases. There could be another benefit to these small power plants, too.

Since the generators would be located close to where the electricity is used, there would be less loss as it moves along transmission lines. Now, with large regional power plants, between four percent and 10 percent of electricity is lost before it gets to where it is used.

And there’s more. Odd as it sounds, people who live near a nuclear power plant are exposed to less radiation than if they live near a coal-fired plant. In either place, the amount of radiation is so small that there’s no real danger.

In any case, it’s going to be a few years before the first of these mini-reactors is built. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU- FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: nuclear energy is still a controversial idea, although it shouldn’t be. What do you think of spreading out nuclear generator plants like this? Let us know.

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GPS to help a wandering mind get home

May 8th, 2013 by Gene

Getting lost can be scary. It’s especially frightening for a special group of people. We’ll look in. Today, on Engineering Works!

It’s not obvious what engineering has to do with Alzheimer’s Disease. But there is a connection. And it’s a helpful one.

Alzheimer’s is a scary disease. It robs the people who have it of their minds and, eventually, their bodies. It affects more than 5 million people in the United States. And that number is growing as the population gets older.

One of the scariest parts of Alzheimer’s is that people who have it gradually lose their memories. Including where they live. As many as seven in 10 Alzheimer’s patients wander away at some time. Half of them could die if they’re not found within 24 hours.

Now, engineers are working out how to use GPS technology, the cellular telephone system and the World Wide Web to help Alzheimer’s patients stay found. GPS is already used to track down stolen cars. The idea is to put a GPS device into a necklace, bracelet, wristwatch. Even a pair of shoes. Tie it in to the cellular network and it’s good to go.

The Alzheimer’s Association is even working on a Web-based system that relatives and caregivers can use to set up a “safety zone.” When the Alzheimer’s patient gets out of the zone, it sounds an alarm.

If we get lost on the way home, we hope someone helps us find our way. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.


Start the discussion: Alzheimer’s disease is one of the scariest illnesses any of us can face. Technology like this can’t cure the disease, but it can make it a little easier to deal with.

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Accident Technology

May 1st, 2013 by Gene

Everybody complains about getting tied up in traffic. We’ll take a look at some unusual ways traffic engineers are helping traffic move faster, and safer — today, on Engineering Works!

We’ve had traffic engineers almost as long as we’ve had cars and traffic. Traffic engineers are civil engineers who specialize in keeping traffic on streets and highways flowing smoothly and safely — things like how wide you make the roadway, traffic lights, the speed limit, where you install signs, sidewalks and crosswalks to keep vehicles and pedestrians moving along.

We complain about traffic tie-ups, but traffic engineers’ plans usually work pretty well.

In one small town in Holland, traffic engineers cleaned up traffic at a dangerous intersection by doing the opposite of what you’d expect. They ripped out the traffic lights, road markings and some pedestrian crosswalks; then they put in a traffic circle. But they didn’t replace any of the signs – speed limit, who has the right of way; none of them.

Goofy, huh? But it worked. Traffic slides through that intersection more smoothly than when the lights and warning signs were there, and with fewer accidents. The idea may sound crazy, but it’s catching on, from Holland and Denmark to England and Palm Beach, Fla.

Fewer signs and traffic lights, less distance between cars and people on the sidewalk; people have to pay attention to what they’re doing. So they drive safer.

It’s time for us to drive on out of here. We’ll see you later.