Archive for May, 2006

Space Cool

May 31st, 2006 by Gene
Space Elevator

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Working in space can be a sweaty business. We’ll see how engineers are helping astronauts keep cool. Today, on Engineering Works!

Here on Earth, we don’t think much about how astronauts keep cool in their space suits. It’s important and harder than you think. It gets hot up there — as hot as 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot enough to boil water. Dangerously hot.

Astronauts have this problem because there’s no air in orbit. On earth, the sun’s heat rays never hit us directly. Some of the UV rays do hit us, though. They hit molecules of air and heat them. Those molecules pass on their heat to other molecules that eventually touch us — nowhere near as hot as what the astronauts experience in space.

Engineers are trying to solve the problem by adding another layer to the suit’s cooling system. Astronauts already wear mesh suits that circulate cooling water next to their skin. The new cooling system would add high-tech water-absorbing fabric that removes moisture from the skin and holds it. Then when it gets too hot inside the suit, the fabric releases outside the suit the moisture it absorbed, cooling the fabric just like what happens to our skin when we sweat.

Firefighters, steelworkers and others who work in extremely hot conditions already use a cooling system kind of like this, and engineers think it will work for astronauts, too.

It’s time for us to get off the hot seat and into the cool. We’ll see you next time.


Space Elevator

May 24th, 2006 by Gene
Space Elevator


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Sometimes you can do some pretty nifty engineering even before you’re an official engineer. We’ll take a look at some university students who are competing for a prize in the engineering big leagues. Today, on Engineering Works!

If you think much about engineering, one of the first names that probably comes to your mind is NASA. The space agency does some of the best engineering there is. NASA is sponsoring a contest – open to anyone – to design some far-out machines that could be used in space exploration. Prizes range from $200,000 to $5 million.

A group of university students is designing a tiny elevator that might turn into the prototype of an elevator that could move people and cargo into orbit – much cheaper than a conventional rocket or shuttle launch. This is the second time they’ve entered the contest, the Centennial Challenge. Last time they tried it, their elevator was voted Most Likely to Win next time.

Using an elevator instead of rockets to get stuff into orbit is an idea that’s been around a long time among space junkies. This contest gives amateurs a chance to see if they can make the idea work.

The students’ elevator uses solar-powered rollers to climb up a fiber ribbon coated with rubber. To win, their elevator needs to climb 20-feet in less than a minute. So far, no one has made it, but theirs came closest.

Our elevator has gotten us to the top, so we’ll leave now. See you next time.


Bird Flu Vaccine

May 17th, 2006 by Gene
Bird Flu Vaccine

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Doctors and disease experts are calling for reinforcements in the fight to prevent a worldwide bird-flu epidemic. Not the cavalry. Engineers. We’ll find out what’s going on today on Engineering Works!

Bird flu is a kind of influenza that has killed thousands of birds in Asia and spread to Europe and Africa. About 200 people have gotten sick with bird flu, and about half of them died. So far it’s been harder on birds than on humans. That’s good. But it’s likely to get more infectious. When it does, we could be in for a worldwide epidemic. A pandemic.

If a bird-flu pandemic takes off, we’re going to need a lot of vaccine in a hurry. Probably at least a billion-with-a-B doses faster than we can get them now.

The vaccine experts hope this is where the engineers ride in to work with the pharmaceutical industry to find new and faster ways to produce vaccines. It should work. Industrial and systems engineers know a lot about efficient production lines and what’s needed to keep them running. They keep automobile and computer chip plants running efficiently. But chips or vaccines, a production line is a production line. Chemical engineers know a lot about how to design chemical processes on an industrial scale for gasoline, plastics, ceramics. Vaccines are a chemical product — a complicated one — but the idea’s the same.

It’s time for us to go watch for the engineers. We’ll talk with you later.


Cleaning Up With Scum

May 11th, 2006 by Gene

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Everybody knows about algae. It’s, well, scummy. But put it together with high technology and it might help us clean up some of our polluted waterways. We’ll find out how, today on Engineering Works!

When most of us think about clean water, algae is one of the last things that comes to mind. Think again, say some civil engineers. That pond scum could be an important part of an experimental system that rids waterways of pollution from mercury and other heavy metals.

It works like this. Start with an ultrasonic transmitter. Jewelers use little ones to clean jewelry and watch parts. The high-frequency vibration cleans the gunk right off. The engineers found that if you bombard the bottom of polluted waterways with powerful bursts of ultrasound, it will knock mercury and other heavy metals out of the bottom sediment.

That’s a start, but you still have to get it out of the water. That’s where the algae comes in. Researchers used genetic engineering to make algae that love mercury. It absorbs more than five times as much mercury as other heavy-metal-eating algae. In laboratory tests, the ultrasound-algae combination absorbed more than half of the mercury in the water in just a few minutes.

The engineers think that boats carrying powerful ultrasound equipment and filters based on algae could dredge contaminated sediment from the bottom, clean it and put it back. Pretty slick.

We’ve had about all the ultrasound we can handle for this go-round. Talk to you later.


Looking Underground

May 3rd, 2006 by Gene
Underground Hole

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There must be a joke here somewhere, but engineers are working on a better way to look into holes in the ground. We’ll see what’s going on, today on Engineering Works!

Unless we’re planting shrubs in the yard, most of us don’t spend much time thinking about holes in the ground. Some engineers think about them a lot. Most of the big things that engineers design and build start with a hole in the ground. These holes – for foundations, footings and things like that – are pretty simple as far as holes go.

It’s when you start excavating tunnels, mines or big underground chambers, that things get interesting. Being able to understand what’s going on with these holes is important. You want the holes to stay holes and not collapse on top of whatever you put into them. Not easy. It’s hard to see through rock and dirt.

Now engineers and computer experts are working up a way to use computed tomography – the same technology that goes into a CAT scan in the hospital – to get a clear look at what’s under there. The whole thing should be able to run out of a handheld personal data assistant, or PDA, that engineers on the site could carry with them.

They’re also working on a virtual reality program that will let the engineers walk through the hole they’re excavating before they’ve dug it out.

It’s time for us to get out of this hole. See you next time.