Archive for March, 2004

Rock on!

March 31st, 2004 by dstmartin

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Today, we’re going to meet a rock, a talented rock called a zeolite. On Engineering Works!

To most of us, a rock is a rock. But imagine an odd rock with a network of pores so small they can trap molecules, even atoms. Or trap some things and let others through, like a sieve. You could do a lot with a rock like that. It’s a zeolite.

Zeolites turn up in a lot of everyday products – laundry detergent. Zeolites soften the water so the soap works better and your clothes come out bright and clean. Cat litter – they soak up the smell, so you and Tabby can share the same space. Or water filters – zeolites snag impurities so your drinking water tastes better.

Zeolites are also at the heart of oil refining, where they help transform crude oil into gasoline and other products. They’re a multi-billion-dollar industry around the world.

Zeolites were first found in nature, and each one is good for a particular job. Engineers have created more than a hundred for specialized jobs. Making the right zeolite for the right job is still mostly a mystery, but engineers are working on it.

At Texas A&M, for example, chemical engineers are trying to figure out how to turn silicon, aluminum and oxygen – zeolites’ building blocks – into a zeolite with the exact properties you need.

Talking about zeolites is thirsty work. But at least the water tastes good. Ahh!


The tall and short of car crashes

March 3rd, 2004 by dstmartin

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Today, we’re going to get into the zone — the construction zone — on Engineering Works.

Everybody likes a smooth commute. Nobody likes to see traffic backing up for a construction zone. Even when construction crews are busy repairing or improving roads and streets, we still need to get the kids off to school and get to work ourselves. But it seems like everywhere we drive these days, we run into highway construction.

Well, not exactly. Engineers spend a lot of time and trouble making sure we don’t run into the construction. Portable concrete barriers are one way to keep traffic moving alongside the jackhammers and asphalt spreaders and protect construction workers from wayward vehicles.

For years, these concrete barriers were 32 inches high — about the height of your desk, at work. These barriers worked well for one-way traffic through the work zone. But when you added oncoming traffic, the number of crashes went up.

Here’s why. When the traffic is two-way, drivers pulling out of side roads and driveways couldn’t see over the 32-inch-high barriers. And at night, oncoming headlights were hard to see.

Engineers at the Texas Transportation Institute found that shorter concrete barriers could still do the job. They developed a low-profile design — only 20 inches tall. The shorter height makes oncoming and cross traffic easier to see. The result? Fewer construction zone crashes.

That’s the end of the road for today. See you on down the highway.