Archive for September, 2008

Pneumatic tubes

September 30th, 2008 by Gene
 

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Photo: Curious Expeditions

Everything’s going down the tubes, today on Engineering Works!

Sometimes the niftiest gadgets are nothing new. If you use the drive-up window at your bank, you know about one of them. The contraption that slurps up your check and gives you back money. It’s a pneumatic tube, and it’s been around since the Victorian Age, back in the 1800s.

Pneumatic tubes use compressed air to move things. Sort of like a vacuum cleaner in reverse. A puff of air sends them away. Lower the pressure and they come back. In the beginning, engineers thought big pneumatic tubes might be a good way to move freight, even people.

In 1870, inventor Alfred Beach built New York City’s first subway – a 300-foot pneumatic tube big enough to carry wheeled vehicles. It ran for a block from City Hall. City officials decided to build elevated trains instead.

By the early 1900s, underground tube systems in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and other cities whisked mail all over town faster than a horse-drawn wagon could. The New York Stock Exchange moved orders with pneumatic tubes faster than messengers on foot. And sales clerks in almost every department store traded payments and receipts with cashiers at the other end of pneumatic tubes.

Today, banks, hospitals and some businesses use pneumatic tubes to send things quickly within their buildings. Paperwork. Machine parts. Try sending a bottle of antibiotics over the Internet.
Well, we’re done here.

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

Leveraging engineering

September 23rd, 2008 by Gene
 
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Most of the time when we think about engineers, we think about the nifty things they’re designing and building, now. But a lot of what they do now started a long time ago. We’ll take a look back, today on Engineering Works!

The engineers we know design and build new fuel-efficient cars, ultra-fast computers, tall buildings. Cool stuff. But many of the principles they use are thousands of years old. Consider the lever. You know what a lever is. It’s a bar of something that pivots over something else. It’s a powerful idea. Every geometry student knows what the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes said about levers: give me a fulcrum and a place to stand and I’ll move the world.

If we think about levers at all, we probably picture playground teeter-totters or prybars. But these are only the beginning. Hammers, the oars in a rowboat, wedges used to split wood. They all use the principles of the lever. Then there’s the wheel and the pulley. And the screw. They’re levers, too.
Archimedes gets a lot of credit for understanding the lever. But he wasn’t the first to think about how levers work. The earliest recorded discussion of levers appeared at least a generation before Archimedes and his famous statement.

So the next time you see something really neat that an engineer did, take a minute to wonder a little. It all started a long time ago.

Long time or short, we’re done. 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

thermos bottle

September 17th, 2008 by Gene
 
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They say that some people run both hot and cold. Here’s an invention engineered to do that – on purpose — the thermos bottle. Today on Engineering Works.

It keeps the milk cold in your kid’s Spiderman lunch box and a construction worker’s coffee hot ’til break time. It’s the thermos bottle – an insulated container with a screw-on cap that’s a cup. Remember yours from grade school?

Maybe you took your thermos apart to find out how did it know when to keep things hot or cold? But there’s nothing magic about a thermos. It works simply by slo-o-w-ing down temperature changes – so hot liquids don’t cool off, and cold liquids don’t warm up.

Let’s take a look inside a thermos. That shiny thing is the liner, where you pour whatever beverage you want to drink later. Don’t drop it – it’s glass. The outer case – the one decorated with your favorite superhero – protects it. The liner looks kind of like a mirror, to keep heat from radiating out.

What you can’t see is that the liner has two walls. The space between them is filled with – nothing, not even air. It’s a vacuum – the best insulator there is. This makes it hard for heat to move in or out of the thermos.

Your coffee won’t stay hot forever in a thermos, but it will be just the temperature you like with your donut at the office.

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

burgers on the … tailpipe?

September 9th, 2008 by Gene
 
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Most engineering is serious stuff. Some isn’t. We’re going to take a look at some of the not-so-serious stuff, today on Engineering Works! Would you like fries with that?

Think Saturday evenings in the summer. Think burgers on the barbecue pit. Think what hard work it is to grill those burgers. Okay, maybe you don’t think it’s too hard, but some young engineers in Iran did. So they designed a way to use the excess heat that goes out our cars’ tailpipes to cook them. Automatically. Well, almost.

We can hear you thinking: that sounds awful. Who wants to eat a burger after your car has breathed on it for 10 minutes? Not to worry. The burger cooker is actually a burger-shaped container with an exhaust pipe-shaped extension running across the top of it. The burger is closed inside the container so it never comes near the exhaust gases.

Using it is easy. Put your burger into the container. Stick the extension into your car’s tailpipe and head home. By the time you get there, you’ve got a freshly grilled burger.

You can probably see some problems with this idea. We know we can. Like how you know when the burger’s done. And what you do about it. You can’t just stop in traffic and disconnect your cooker from your car. Oh, well. It’s still a pretty neat idea.

Our burgers seem to be done just right, so we’re going to go eat. 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.

Concussion

September 2nd, 2008 by Gene
 
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Put on your coat and come along. We’re going to watch some football. Today on Engineering Works!

Everybody catches their breath and winces when a linebacker puts a big hit on the ball carrier. Sometimes you can feel it all the way up in the stands.

It’s exciting, but some of those big hits can knock a player silly, especially if he gets hit in the head. During six recent seasons, NFL players suffered almost 900 concussions, some severe enough that players had to stop playing football.

Biomechanical engineers studying the problem for the NFL are finding that concussions are complicated events. They happen very quickly, in about 15 thousandths of a second. They happen most often when one player’s helmet rams into the side of another player’s helmet. The most dangerous place for a player to get hit is just below the ear. And they get hit hard. Sometimes almost a hundred times the force of gravity.

It’s even led to a whole new field of study – concussion physics.

One team of engineers is using computers to build a virtual model of a helmet to help them figure out how to best protect players’ brains against the shock of a hard hit. The model they come up with could be used to design and build better helmets for other sports, like hockey

Time to get back to the game. That looked like a clip!

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.