Archive for March, 2008

Fab lab

March 25th, 2008 by Gene
 
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It’s almost like the fairy tale of the genie in the lamp. But you get more than three wishes — personal fabrication, today on Engineering Works!

All of us have wanted things that we couldn’t find. Not big or expensive, but we couldn’t find it anywhere — spent hours Googling. It didn’t exist.

Now information technology experts and engineers are working on an idea that may make our wishes come true. They call it fabrication laboratories, or fab labs. Your own personal genie in the lamp — with unlimited wishes. Almost.

Fab labs put together easy-to-use design software and computer-controlled tools so people can design and make – themselves – things that they want, but nobody makes. It sounds like it ought to be science fiction, but it’s already fact. In a small way.

How about this one? A farmer in far northern Norway kept losing some of his sheep as they grazed in the rugged hills around his farm. He used a fab lab in one of his barns to design and build little devices based on cell phones and GPS locators that the sheep wear on collars. When he couldn’t find one, he’d call its locator and it would tell him where the sheep was. Pretty slick.

This kind of personal fab lab is still mostly experimental, but the engineers working on them say they should be getting more common.

Our time is up for now, so we’re going to fabricate our way 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 at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Doppler

March 19th, 2008 by Gene
 
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We’re going to listen to a sound that fascinated an Austrian scientist 150 years ago. Today, on Engineering Works.

We may not remember what it’s called, but we’ve all experienced something called the Doppler effect. It’s the change in the pitch of the sound of a locomotive as it goes by you. Or maybe the sound of an ambulance siren as it comes toward you and then goes away. That’s the Doppler effect, too. Austrian physicist Christian Doppler discovered it 150 years ago.

That change happens because the sound waves you hear as the ambulance comes toward you get squeezed together in the air, just a little. Then as it goes away, the sound gets stretched. The squeezing and stretching changes what it sounds like.

This may sound like just physics trivia, but engineers are putting the idea to work in important ways. Doppler radar, for instance, uses the same idea to watch the winds inside big thunderstorms. If part of the wind is blowing toward the radar and part away from it, that means the wind is spinning. And that means a tornado.

Doctors use Doppler ultrasound to find problems in the way your blood circulates through your heart and arteries. The Doppler effect lets them look at how fast blood flows and in what direction. If there’s a problem, the Doppler effect helps the doctors see it.

Our problem is we’re out of 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 at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Dirty bombs

March 12th, 2008 by Gene
 
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We’re going to look into one of the threats that make terrorists terrifying. Dirty bombs. Today, on Engineering Works!

Only a while ago, terrorism was just a word. Now it’s something everybody knows about. Car bombs. Hijacked airliners. Anthrax in the mail. One of the scariest threats is something called a dirty bomb. Dirty bombs are bombs that scatter radioactive material around where they go off. They’re not nuclear bombs. They’re not weapons of mass destruction. They’re weapons of mass disruption.

Unless you’re near the explosion, your chances of getting seriously hurt by one are pretty small. It’s important to understand that. Dirty bombs are not nuclear bombs. Compared to real nuclear bombs, dirty bombs are firecrackers.

But they are easier to build than nuclear bombs. Lots less engineering. That’s what makes them so scary. All you need to make one is some explosives. One stick of dynamite would do for a small one. And radioactive stuff. The most likely stuff is radioactive material hospitals use for nuclear medicine. Or the radiation sources industry uses for all sorts of things. It’s easy enough to get, to be concerned about.

The people in the most danger from a dirty bomb are probably the fire and rescue personnel who treat people injured in the explosion and clean up afterward.

Don’t get us wrong. A dirty bomb is a serious thing. But it’s a long way from a major disaster.

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.

Zeolites

March 5th, 2008 by Gene
 
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Today, we’re going to meet a rock, a talented rock called a zeolite. On Engineering Works!

To most of us, a rock is a rock. But imagine an odd rock with a network of pores so small they can trap molecules, even atoms. Or trap some things and let others through, like a sieve. You could do a lot with a rock like that. It’s a zeolite.

Zeolites turn up in a lot of everyday products – laundry detergent. Zeolites soften the water so the soap works better and your clothes come out bright and clean. Cat litter – they soak up the smell, so you and Tabby can share the same space. Or water filters – zeolites snag impurities so your drinking water tastes better.

Zeolites are also at the heart of oil refining, where they help transform crude oil into gasoline and other products. They’re a multi-billion-dollar industry around the world.

Zeolites were first found in nature, and each one is good for a particular job. Engineers have created more than a hundred for specialized jobs. Making the right zeolite for the right job is still mostly a mystery, but engineers are working on it.

At Texas A&M, for example, chemical engineers are trying to figure out how to turn silicon, aluminum and oxygen – zeolites’ building blocks – into a zeolite with the exact properties you need.

Talking about zeolites is thirsty work. But at least the water tastes good. Ahh!

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.