Archive for January, 2006

Flexible computers

January 30th, 2006 by Gene
Flexible Computers


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This is either a step forward or a step back. You tell us. A computer display that you can roll up and stick in your pocket like a magazine. We’ll check it out. Today. On Engineering Works!

Computers are nifty. But they’re hard to take with you. Even a laptop is too big to put in your pocket. And the displays on small portables like Blackberries are hard to read.

But what if your computer looked like a magazine? And worked like one? You could hold it in your hands and read it like a magazine or a book. The display would be made of flexible plastic. The processor would be in the spine of the – magazine. You’d use a cable or wireless connection to load whatever you wanted to read from your desktop compute or laptop.

You’d use touch controls in a corner to open and close what you’re reading and turn the – page. Roll or fold it up and put it into your pocket or briefcase when you’re ready to go. One of the coolest things about a device like this is that you could load a whole shelf of books and magazines into it and walk off with them.
Computer engineers are getting close, but you can’t buy one yet. The displays aren’t sharp enough yet to read comfortably more than a few minutes. And the technology is still really expensive.

We can’t take our computer with us, but we’re still out of here.


Gas Mileage

January 17th, 2006 by Gene
gas milage

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How’d you like an S-U-V that gets 40 miles to the gallon? Engineers are working on it. We’ll take a look. Today. On Engineering Works!

Everybody’s thinking about gas mileage these days. Especially those of us who drive pickups and S-U-Vs. Gas prices spiked in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast oil refineries and production rigs. They’re coming back down, but you can bet they’ll go up again.

Some engineers are working on new engines that use fuel cells to power electric motors. Or run on hydrogen. But what if we could get better gas mileage out of the engines we already have? Other engineers say we already have technology that could help a 16-miles-per-gallon S-U-V get 40-miles-a-gallon. Without losing anything in performance. At least in theory.

None of it’s particularly complicated. The short explanation is to stop doing things that rob power from the engine. Run the valves with electricity and control them with computers instead of gears that use power that could be turning the wheels. Make carburetors and transmissions more efficient and vehicles more streamlined. Engineers know how to do these things. But nobody’s been interested in putting them into real vehicles.

If we could improve average gas mileage to 40-miles-per-gallon, we’d save two-million-gallons of oil. A day. That’s three-quarters of all the oil we import from the Middle East. Plus cutting greenhouse gases by almost a third.

Our truck is gassed up and ready to go. See you next time.


Bad smells

January 4th, 2006 by Gene

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Sniff. Sniff-sniff. Something smells. Let’s find out what. Today. On Engineering Works!

If you’ve ever stood downwind of a big farm or feedlot, you know that a lot of cattle in the same place can smell pretty bad. Pigs and chickens, too. In the old days, when farms were smaller, it didn’t used to be a problem. Now it is.

Imagine living in a new subdivision just down from a big feedlot. You wouldn’t be able to open your windows. It’s a big deal in places with a lot of cattle. Like Texas, Nebraska and Kansas. Together, we have more than seven-million cattle. That’s a lot of bad smell.

Biological engineers are using computers to help put some space between the cattle and the rest of us. They look at how many animals will be on the farm or feedlot. How they’ll be housed. What direction the wind usually blows from. Then they work out how far away you’ll be able to smell what’s going on.

Now, government planners and developers sort of guess how far away you should be to get away from the cattle smell. The engineers’ new calculations will help them figure out how big a buffer zone they need to leave between the farm and new developments. Big enough, but not too big. It should make life more pleasant for everyone.

Well, the wind’s kicking up and it’s time for us to leave. Talk to you next time.