Archive for December, 2007

TB scanner

December 20th, 2007 by Gene
 
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Engineers are looking into a nasty disease. We’ll look, too. Today, on Engineering Works!

Tuberculosis, or TB, is one of the nastiest diseases there is. If it’s not treated, eventually it destroys the inside of your lungs, and you drown in your own blood.

TB kills between two million and three million people a year, mostly in developing countries. Doctors can treat most TB effectively with antibiotics, but first you and your doctor need to know you have it. In the United States and other industrialized countries, diagnosing TB is no problem. In developing countries, it is.

Many developing countries are short of the kind of medical diagnostic equipment we take for granted.

This is where the engineers come in. Doctors have figured out that a detector originally designed to look for life on Mars works really well at diagnosing TB here on Earth. It’s called a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, or GCMS. GCMSes are standard analytical equipment in chemical labs, but they’re big and heavy.

Because this GCMS was designed to ride to Mars in a space vehicle, it’s light and compact — about the size of a shoebox. This means that taking it from place to place in countries without many chemical or diagnostic labs is easy. And it gives doctors there a tool to diagnose TB, quickly and accurately.

A diagnostic tool called a clock is telling us that our time is up. We’ll see you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Sensor helmets

December 11th, 2007 by Gene
 
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It’s Friday Night Lights — a new helmet that may make football safer. Today, on Engineering Works!

Football is supposed to be fun, but sometimes it hurts. One in five high school football players suffer concussions. More than 67,000 every year. Retired NFL players who’d had more than three concussions were 20 percent more likely to develop clinical depression later in their lives. They’re also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Engineers are using technology to help coaches and doctors fight back — new helmets with sensors that send information about each hit to a PC on the sidelines. Software on the computer analyzes where the helmet got hit, how hard the hit was, what direction it came from and how fast it was. Coaches and doctors can then work out a profile for each player and see each hit his head takes.

Another new helmet shows a red warning light that warns the coach that the player got hit hard enough to be at risk of concussion. Coaches are using the systems to see when players need to work on good tackling techniques as well as monitor potential concussions.

It’s not cheap. One school district in Illinois spent $30,000 on a waterproof computer to monitor the helmet sensors and about $1,000 each for the helmets.

Nobody has thumped us hard enough for a concussion, but it’s still time to get out of the game. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

High tech pets

December 5th, 2007 by Gene
 
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Here’s something the inventors of the internet never thought of – petting your chicken. We’ll take a look, today – on Engineering Works!

Computer scientists and engineers in Singapore have come up with a nifty system that you can use to pet your pet chicken without touching it with your fingers. Pretty neat, huh? Well, maybe.

Here’s how it works. Sensors in a life-sized statue of a chicken are linked with a wireless connection to a nearby PC. The PC uses another wireless connection to send what the sensors feel to a network of tiny vibrating motors in a sort of jacket that the chicken wears. The little motors transfer the pressure of your fingers to the chicken. We’re not sure what the chicken thinks about it, but the researchers are pretty excited. They see it as the first step in a whole new system of long-distance touching.

Before anybody starts snickering, they’re really not that interested in petting chickens – near or at a distance. They are interested in touching by long distance for other more practical reasons. Imagine a security guard silently directing a guard dog by long-distance touch, or a search-and-rescue operator directing a search dog by touch deep inside a wrecked building. Or how about learning how to dance by feeling the same motions in your legs as an expert dancer feels, or – you fill in the blank.

Uh-oh. I can feel it. Somebody’s messing with my chicken. Gotta go.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Bacteria charger

December 3rd, 2007 by Gene
 
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If you’re going to talk on your cell phone, you’ve got to keep the battery charged. Engineers and bugs? may help. We’ll see how, today on Engineering Works!

Everybody has a cell phone these days. They’re everywhere. Some places, they’re the only phones there are. Consider Uganda. In rural Uganda fewer than one household in 100 is connected to the utility grid. No electricity. No landline telephone. But more and more people have cell phones. In developing countries, it’s cheaper and easier to build a cell network than a conventional landline system.

Of course, this brings another problem. How to recharge cell phone batteries without electricity to power the charger. This is where the engineers and the bugs come in.

Some engineering students have come up with a way to capture the energy that bacteria produce as they chow down on plant wastes to get electricity. It’s called a microbial fuel cell, or MFC. MFCs would be a perfect fit for electricity in rural areas of developing countries.

But don’t look for MFCs at your local big box store any time soon. The inventors are still early in the development process, and their prototype is kind of slow. It would take about six months to recharge a cell phone battery. But you can connect several together to get more power, and the engineers say future versions are likely to be more powerful still.
Our batteries are going flat, so 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. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Heart failure

December 3rd, 2007 by Gene
 
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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. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu