Archive for July, 2007

Engineered Dunking

July 25th, 2007 by Gene

Those British engineers are at it again. We’ll see what they’re up to. Today, on Engineering Works!

A while ago, we told you how some engineers in England had figured out why cookies crumble. There really is a reason, and they found it. Now, other English engineers have figured out the best way to dunk a cookie – or biscuit, as the Brits say – in your coffee without it falling apart. They’ve even put together a mathematical formula that explains how it works.

Here it is. The average pore diameter in a cookie is equal to four times the viscosity of the coffee, times the height the coffee rises squared, divided by the surface tension of the coffee, times the length of time the cookie is in the coffee. Got that? Right.

Here’s what it means. Cookies are basically lumps of starch glued together by sugar. When you dunk a cookie, your hot coffee soaks into the spaces between the lumps and dissolves the sugar. When enough of the sugar has dissolved, your cookie falls apart into the coffee.

A big cookie maker in England is financing the engineers’ research. The company thinks that cookie dunkers might buy more of their cookies if they can dunk them with less risk of cookies in the coffee. The company plans to publish a list of their cookies, with the optimum dunking time for each kind.

We’ve had our fill of cookies for today, so we’re going to quit now. 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

Colonias wind

July 17th, 2007 by Gene

Electric power. It’s blowin’ in the wind, in some unlikely places. We’ll check it out, today, on Engineering Works!

When we flip that switch, we expect the lights to come on. That doesn’t happen in more than 1,800 rural communities called colonias along the Texas-Mexico border. A group of engineers and high school students are changing that.

Colonia is the Spanish word for community or neighborhood. In Texas, colonias are unincorporated communities, usually along the border with Mexico. They’re pretty basic. Colonias usually have no running water or flush toilets. Gravel streets. No electricity.

This is where the engineers come in.

A group of engineers, experts in wind power, from the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, are working with high school students and teachers in Laredo, Texas, to electrify nearby colonias. Using wind turbine generators.

The engineers are teaching the students how to build small wind turbines that colonias residents will be able to use to generate electricity for their homes. Not a lot, but enough for some of the simple things we take for granted.

But that’s not all. In fact, it’s not even the most important part. As the students build the wind turbines, they’re writing down everything they do in a set of detailed instructions — do-it-yourself wind turbines. And they’re translating the directions into Spanish so that colonias residents will be able to build more wind turbines to electrify their own homes.

Our turbines are spinning and we’re 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


July 9th, 2007 by Gene

It’s a new kind of war. Fighting with bits and bytes instead of bullets and bombs — cyberwar, today on Engineering Works!

The tiny Baltic country of Estonia seems to be the first battlefield in this new kind of war. Computer engineers and security experts have worried about cyberwar for years. But nobody had ever started one — until now.

This war started when computers in Russia and around the world started flooding Estonian computer networks with data. So much data that many of them crashed. Imagine everything in Microsoft’s newest operating system downloaded onto your system, every six seconds — for 10 hours.

The attack almost shut down Estonia’s digital infrastructure. That’s saying something. Estonia is one of the most wired countries in the world. People there use the internet for everything — vote, pay taxes, shop, pay for parking.

The president and prime minister’s web sites crashed. So did computer systems at the parliament and other government departments. It was a near thing for the country’s biggest bank.

Good computer security and emergency planning seems to have saved Estonia from being shut down by this cyber attack, but security experts are worried about the next time.

What started the war? If you’re not Estonian or Russian, it seems pretty silly and we’re not going to go into it here. The Estonians say the Russians did it. The Russians say they didn’t. We don’t really care.

Nobody’s attacking our system, but we’re still out of data. 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


July 5th, 2007 by Gene

What would the Fourth of July be without fireworks? Today, we’ll ooh! and ahh! over those spectacular aerial displays, on Engineering Works.

From pom-pom bursts to sparkling flares, there’s nothing like fireworks to captivate a crowd. For centuries, we’ve celebrated royal weddings, baptisms and other special events with lavish productions that light up the night sky. Today fireworks shows set to music have become big entertainment spectacles for sports events, theme parks and holidays.

Your basic firework is a shell, filled with explosive powder and stars – pellets made of metallic salts and other chemicals. The pellets make the shape, and the chemicals in the pellets make the colors. When the powder ignites and bursts – anywhere from 400 to 1,000 feet up – the explosion pushes out the stars. Then the stars themselves explode into the shapes that draw oohs and ahhs – a glittering ring, a weeping willow, a starburst. The pattern you get depends on how you arrange the stars in the shell.

Thanks to advances by experts in pyrotechnics – “fire artâ€? – fireworks get fancier every year. Instead of lighting them by hand, technicians switch on an electric current. They use computers to control the timing of music and fireworks to create displays that seem impossible. With such excitement, it’s enough to keep all eyes on the fireworks show at the Super Bowl unless there’s another … wardrobe malfunction.

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