Archive for May, 2007

Finding Ithaca

May 23rd, 2007 by Gene

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Engineers look into some strange problems now and then. This one is pretty strange. Finding a lost island. Today, on Engineering Works!

An island called Ithaca seems to be missing. If you don’t recognize the name, think back to your literature classes. Ithaca was the home of Odysseus, the hero of an epic Greek poem called the Odyssey. The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’s 10-year voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. It’s a nifty story. Scholars and historians have been studying it for centuries. Now engineers are lending a hand. Here’s what they’re doing.

There is an island of Ithika in the Aegean Sea. The trouble is that this Ithika doesn’t look much like the Ithaca the poet wrote about in the Odyssey. It faces the wrong direction, for one thing.

Researchers in England and Scotland think this can be explained if earthquakes closed a narrow water passage between the original Ithaca the poet wrote about and a larger island nearby. Their idea is that the smaller island may have been Odysseus’s Ithika.

The engineers have figured out how to use the kind of imaging and analytical techniques petroleum engineers use to decide where to drill oil wells to see if the place the water would have been between the two islands is solid. If images show a gap filled with earthquake debris, it would support the researchers’ ideas.

It’s time for us to begin our voyage home. See you later.

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

Fast Trains

May 16th, 2007 by Gene

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Once railroads were the engineering marvels. In France, they still are. We’ll check it out. All aboard! Today. On Engineering Works!

Trains used to be the way to travel — across town or across the country. In much of the world, it still is. Railroads of one sort or another have been around a long time. The first trains were pulled by horses on wooden rails in Germany more than 400 years ago.

The first steam engine hauled freight and passengers in 1804 in Wales. A nine-mile trip took about two hours. The first railroad to run on a regular schedule pulled out in 1825.

In the United States, railroads and towns that grew up along them did a lot to settle the West. The east and west coasts were connected when the rails met in Promontory Point, Utah, in 1867.

These trains were pretty fast for their time, but pretty slow by modern standards. Now, some trains are flying down the rails faster than a lot of airplanes. Just a while ago, a high-tech French train, the TGV, set a new speed record – just over 350 miles an hour. That’s almost as fast as a World War II Spitfire fighter going flat out.

The TGV set the record for conventional trains, with wheels. But a Japanese train that ran suspended over the tracks by magnetic levitation is even faster — more than 360 miles an hour.

Our train is getting ready to pull out, so we’ll talk some more later.

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

Solar-Powered Swimsuit

May 9th, 2007 by Gene

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The engineers are at it again. Recharge your iPod from your swimsuit. We’ll look into it. Today. On Engineering Works!

One of the biggest problems with portable high-tech equipment like cell phones and iPods is that the batteries keep running down. It’s hard to recharge a fading iPod at the beach.

Some engineers in Germany may have an answer for you. A solar-powered swimsuit, complete with a miniature plug-in for your MP3 player’s power cord. And you can even swim in it.

Engineers at an energy company in Hamburg are working with a German fashion house to design and build a swimsuit with banks of photovoltaic cells to convert all that seaside or poolside sunlight into electricity. You have to let the cells dry off before you plug in after your swim, but it’s the idea that counts.

In case you’ve forgotten, or didn’t know, photovoltaic cells are those little solar cells on the front of your calculator. Bigger versions produce electricity that powers traffic signals and streetlights in some places and satellites in orbit.

Photovoltaic cells use sunlight to produce electricity directly from sunlight. The process works because flat layers of semiconductors in the cells absorb energy from sunlight. This energy knocks loose electrons in the semiconductors and they move around. When they move, we get electricity. Someday maybe enough to run our houses or cars.

Our swimsuit seems to be running down and we better turn off the mike. 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

Smoke Detectors

May 2nd, 2007 by Gene

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This is one sound just about guaranteed to get your attention. Today on Engineering Works, we’ll listen to why you hear it, even before the smoke gets in your eyes.

So you settled down on the couch to watch “Friends” last night and forgot all about that pot roast you put in the oven. And the hot pad you left sitting on the hot stove. Have no fear, the smoke detector’s here, right? You may be wrong.

Many people do not realize that their detector is old and needs to be replaced. Engineers study smoke detector failures by staging full-scale fires in residences and have discovered that ionization detectors can take more than twice as long as photoelectric types to detect smoldering fires, often a delay of 15 minutes or more.

About 90 percent of smoke detectors in homes and on the market sense fire and smoke by using an ionization chamber. These detect flaming fires faster than others, but they just aren’t as quick to detect flameless combustion like smoldering fires.

The typical smoke detector in stores is probably the ionization type, although the labeling won’t necessarily tell you that. Photoelectric detectors will often be labeled as such, sometimes with wording about optical sensing.

If you don’t know how old your smoke detector is, or it’s more than eight years old, replace it. Have both photoelectric and ionization detectors installed or purchase a combination model. Place detectors in every bedroom and hallway. Change the batteries at least twice yearly and test detectors regularly. Or forgetting about that hot pad might become a baptism of fire.