Archive for May, 2008

Corn gas

May 28th, 2008 by Gene
 
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Farmers and engineers are getting together to turn corn into fuel you could put into your car’s gas tank. We’ll see how they’re doing, today on Engineering Works!

The idea of using corn as the raw ingredient for alcohol and burning that alcohol in your car or truck is nothing new. Some experts think alcohol – ethanol – could be the future of motor vehicle fuel. Others say it’s not as simple as it sounds.

We grow enough corn to produce lots of alcohol fuel. In fact, we’ll probably distill about five billion gallons this year. That’s about three percent of the gasoline we already use. The problem is that current technology uses lots of fossil fuel – natural gas and coal – to produce the alcohol. Enough that some people say it’s not worth it.

Chemical engineers are working on new ways to distill the alcohol with less fossil fuel, including using parts of the corn plant that’s not used for alcohol to produce a gas kind of like natural gas. We could burn it to provide heat for the distilling process. You can get the same thing by feeding the corn to cows and processing their manure into methane.

So. Will you be going to the – ethanol – station to fill up your car any time soon? We’re getting closer. Lots of cars in Brazil already burn alcohol. And Sweden says they want to replace oil almost entirely with alcohol.

Our gas – alcohol? – tank is full and we’re out of here.

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.

Cool Space

May 6th, 2008 by Gene
 
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Working in space can be a sweaty business. We’ll see how engineers are helping astronauts keep cool. Today, on Engineering Works!

Here on Earth, we don’t think much about how astronauts keep cool in their space suits. It’s important and harder than you think. It gets hot up there — as hot as 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot enough to boil water. Dangerously hot.

Astronauts have this problem because there’s no air in orbit. On earth, the sun’s heat rays never hit us directly. Some of the UV rays do hit us, though. They hit molecules of air and heat them. Those molecules pass on their heat to other molecules that eventually touch us — nowhere near as hot as what the astronauts experience in space.

Engineers are trying to solve the problem by adding another layer to the suit’s cooling system. Astronauts already wear mesh suits that circulate cooling water next to their skin. The new cooling system would add high-tech water-absorbing fabric that removes moisture from the skin and holds it. Then when it gets too hot inside the suit, the fabric releases outside the suit the moisture it absorbed, cooling the fabric just like what happens to our skin when we sweat.

Firefighters, steelworkers and others who work in extremely hot conditions already use a cooling system kind of like this, and engineers think it will work for astronauts, too.

It’s time for us to get off the hot seat and into the cool. 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

Autonomous lawnmower

May 1st, 2008 by Gene
 
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Be honest. Nobody likes to cut the grass. But what if your lawnmower did the lawn by itself? We’ll take a look. Today, on Engineering Works!

Everybody likes their lawn to be green and neat. But if your lawn is a big one, you can spend hours keeping the grass trimmed to the height you like. Not fun.

Engineers don’t like to spend time following a lawnmower around the yard any more than we do. So they figured out a way not to.

Enter the robot lawnmower. We’re not kidding — a lawnmower that starts up by itself, mows the lawn and goes back to where it lives. All by itself, once you’ve set it up. It’s not especially complicated — no electronic maps of your yard, no GPS receivers. Just a grass-level antenna and a receiver that keeps track of where the mower is in relation to that antenna. And the ability to follow a pattern it’s cut before.

Robot lawnmowers are electric, so they’re quiet. And since you’re not watching where the mower is going, you could program one to mow your yard while you sleep, if you wanted to.

They’re not cheap. Robot mowers run about $1,500 each. But some people are willing to pay a lot for the extra time they’ll gain from not having to mow their lawns each weekend.

Our lawn is getting shaggy and the only robot pushing our mower is us. 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