Archive for March, 2006

Hyperspace

March 22nd, 2006 by Gene
Hyperspace
 

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We’re going to step into the middle of a nifty science and engineering controversy, today on Engineering Works!

If you’ve ever taken a physics course, you know that nothing can go faster than the speed of light — 186,000 miles a second, 700 million miles an hour. Everything physicists know says you can’t go faster. But some physicists and engineers think they can do an end run around the speed-of-light limit.

They say that ideas developed about 50 years ago by a German scientist named Burkhard Heim suggest that we could use a very strong magnetic field to push spacecraft into another dimension — a dimension where the physical laws that make the speed of light as fast as anything can go, don’t exist.

The idea sounds like science fiction. And a lot of top physicists say that’s all it is. But if it’s real, it could mean traveling to Mars in three hours or to a nearby star in three months. The interesting part is that the Department of Energy has a device – the Z-machine – that could produce the kind of ultra-powerful magnetic field we’d need to see if the idea might work. If it does, researchers could be testing a working engine in five years.

Even if everything turns out the way the visionaries think it will, it’ll be a long time before you can buy a ticket for a day trip to Mars.

So, beam us up, Scotty. We’re through here for now.

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Biofuel Cell

March 8th, 2006 by Gene
Biofuel Cell
 

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Here’s a new one. An electric fuel cell powered by your own body. We’ll take a look, today — on Engineering Works!

These days, everybody’s looking for new sources of electricity. All our portable electronics — iPods, cell phones, laptops — they all need good batteries to keep playing or talking or calculating. The batteries we have really aren’t that good. They’re not much better than the voltaic pile battery Alessandro Volta invented more than 200 years ago.

Engineering researchers are looking into a new power source. They’re looking, well, into themselves.
It’s pretty simple – and complicated, all at the same time. Imagine a small chip – called a biofuel cell – that uses sugar and oxygen to generate electricity. Now, imagine that biofuel cell is implanted in your arm. The oxygen and sugar is in your blood. Can you see it now? Electricity. It’s always there and always being recharged. Runing low on power? Grab a Coke or a candy bar.

The engineers really aren’t interested in a new way for you to power your iPod. Not yet, anyway. They’re looking for lightweight, compact, dependable ways for astronauts to power things like medical sensors in space. Now, they’re getting ready to send one up in a satellite to see how well it does in orbit. No people. Just tiny tanks of sugar and oxygen. The people will come later, they hope.

Well, our iPod sounds like it’s going flat. Guess we need to grab a Snickers bar. See you next time.

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Robot Surgery

March 1st, 2006 by Gene
Robot Surgery
 

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It’s not quite R2D2, but there may be a robot in your doctor’s future. And in yours. We’ll introduce you, today on Engineering Works!

Engineers are giving surgeons – and their patients – a helping hand in the operating room. They aren’t scrubbing up and passing scalpels and sponges. They’ve designed a robot that is helping surgeons perform tricky surgery. Maybe better than doing it by themselves.

Surgeons are using the robot to fix ailing hearts, take out cancerous prostate glands. And even help obese patients lose weight. This is real stuff. The robots assisted in at least 20,000 operations in 2005. They were originally designed to help military surgeons deal with battlefield wounds. But it can make most kinds of surgery go better — more precise cutting, smaller incisions, less bleeding. It even smoothes out the tiny tremors that make everybody’s hands – even surgeons’ – shake, just a little.

Surgeons who use the robot never actually put their hands inside patients’ bodies. They use special handgrips to control the scalpel and look through tiny fiber optic cameras to see what they’re doing — clearer than using their own eyes. It’s slick.

The robots aren’t cheap. More than a million dollars each. That’s why there aren’t more of them yet. But using them seems to pay off. People who’ve had robot surgery usually have smaller incisions, less pain. And they recover faster than from conventional operations.

Our robot is telling us it’s time to close up. See you next time.

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