Archive for October, 2006

Heart Failure

October 25th, 2006 by Gene
Heart Failure
 

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Realistic simulators help pilots learn how to fly. How about a simulator to help physicians learn what heart failure feels like? We’ll find out more, today, on Engineering Works!

Congestive heart failure is one of the most common illnesses we face as we get older. It’s the number one reason people over 65 are admitted to the hospital. The symptoms are pretty scary. Walking even short distances makes you tired. It’s hard to breathe and you have trouble catching your breath. After a while, just getting out of bed takes everything you’ve got.

Engineers and computer programmers are using virtual reality to help physicians understand what congestive heart failure feels like.
The computer-controlled simulator is pretty neat — you sit facing a big video screen; feet go on a set of pedals in front, and an inflatable band goes around the chest.

The simulation begins with a congestive heart failure patient on the screen taking a walk in the park. The physicians take a virtual walk with the guy on the screen, pedaling in time to the on-screen patient’s walk. As the disease develops, it gets harder to pedal, just as in real life walking gets more tiring. As it gets even worse, the chest band inflates and it’s hard to breathe. Special headphones block outside sound and play the sound of a heartbeat. Physicians who’ve used the simulator say it’s very real.

Our heart is feeling fine. But it’s still time to wrap it up. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

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Navigating Blind

October 19th, 2006 by Gene
Busy City
 

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It’s hard to get where you want to go if you can’t see to get there. Engineers are using technology to help. We’ll see how. Today, on Engineering Works!

Most of us have tried to find our way through a city we’ve never visited before. It’s not easy. Now, imagine doing that if you couldn’t see where you were going.

Blind people or folks with impaired vision run up against this problem all the time. In different ways, so do firefighters in smoke-filled buildings and soldiers fighting at night. Engineers are combining a bundle of high-tech gadgets to help.

The guidance system includes a global positioning system receiver, digital compass, four video cameras, a head-tracking sensor that understands which direction you’re facing, and artificial intelligence software originally written to help robots cooperate.

It works like this. First, the GPS system calculates where you are and where you’re going, and the head-tracking device figures out what direction you’re facing. Then the GPS maps a route from where you are to your destination. A 3-D audio system gives you a signal to keep you headed in the right direction, and other audio alarms warn you about nearby obstacles you might walk into.

A small laptop computer operates the system. At this stage, the whole thing fits into a small backpack. Engineers are working to make it even smaller.

We don’t have a nifty system like this, but it’s time for us to find our way home. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

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Big Magnet

October 11th, 2006 by Gene
Magnets
 

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Everybody played with magnets as kids, but you never played with one like this. We’ll explain — today on Engineering Works!

Magnets come in all shapes and sizes. When we were kids, we played with little horseshoe magnets and bar magnets. One of our favorite things was to make patterns in iron filings on a sheet of glass.

The magnets engineers are playing with these days are a little bigger. Make that a lot bigger. Visualize a magnet that weighs 150 tons. That’s about the same as a diesel locomotive. This massive magnet is going to be part of an international project that intends over the next few years to find out more about using nuclear fusion as a source of energy.

Fusion is the opposite of the nuclear fission that drives today’s nuclear reactors. Instead of splitting atoms, fusion combines atoms. Fusion produces even more heat than fission, but so far nobody has been able to keep a fusion reaction going for more than a fraction of a second.

Researchers will use huge magnets to start and control the fusion process. The 150-ton magnet is pretty big, but it’s only a trial run to be sure an even bigger 925-ton magnet will work the way engineers think it will.

And if 925 tons wasn’t already big enough, this one will be part of a mammoth magnet system that will weigh about 10,000 tons.

Anyway, our magnet is outclassed here, so we’ll wrap it up. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

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Levee

October 9th, 2006 by Gene
Canal Street
 

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Let’s talk about water, floods, and one way engineers deal with them. Today, on Engineering Works!

Humans have been trying to figure out what to do about floods for a long time. Most of us are thinking more about floods now than we used to, ever since Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans in 2005.

One of the oldest ways of dealing with floods is to build levees to keep the water out. Levees are earthen walls along rivers that usually keep flood water in the river and out of your house. That’s what was supposed to be protecting New Orleans.

Ancient engineers built the first levees about 3,000 years ago along the Nile River. Today, you can find levees all over the world — Germany’s Rhine River, the Po River in Italy, and the Danube. The Mississippi River has about 3,500 miles of levees, all by itself.

Levees are more complicated than they look. They’re more than just piles of dirt along the riverbank. Levees need to be able to resist floodwaters, and they’ve got to be protected against erosion by the river.

The first levees around New Orleans were built in 1718. By the time Katrina got there, there were 350 miles of levees along the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain.

Now, engineers are busy figuring out what went wrong with the New Orleans levees and working on ways to keep them from failing again.

The rain has stopped, so we’re going to get out of here. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

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