Archive for November, 2008

Saving Venice

November 24th, 2008 by Gene
 

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Photo: Jennifer Trenchard

Venice has a problem. We’ll look into what engineers are doing to help. Today, on Engineering Works!

The beautiful piazzas and famous canals of Venice are in trouble — they’ve got more water than they know what to do with. The thousand-year-old city is sinking into its famous lagoon, a few inches at a time. The water level is nine inches higher than it was a hundred years ago, 40 inches higher than 250 years ago.

The high water damages brick walls never intended to be in the water. There’s a lot of salt from the Adriatic Sea, too. Between the water and the salt, a lot of the city’s beautiful historic buildings are rotting.

A team of Italian engineers is working on a gigantic government-funded construction project they say will save Venice from the rising water. At its heart is a high-tech system of 300-ton concrete barriers that will be raised and lowered to protect the city from damaging tidal surges. Plus thousands of steel poles and other barriers on the floor of the lagoon to slow down the water.

They also plan to re-establish vanished wetlands and reinforce damaged foundations in the city itself. Altogether, the project will cost more than $4 billion and take seven years to complete.
Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea — or that it will help. But the engineers think it will. And it’s better than letting the city sink, they say.

We say, that’s it for this time. See you next week.

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.

Radar bees

November 18th, 2008 by Gene
 
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Radar tracks everything from aircraft in the sky to you when you’re speeding. Radar also tracks some unusual things. We’ll home in on one of them, today on Engineering Works!

People who study bees argue about the dances bees do. You’ve heard of them. Bees gathering pollen do a little dance when they find the pollen they use to make honey. Some experts say the dances tell other bees where the pollen is. Others say it’s just dancing. Everybody had an opinion, but nobody knew.

Engineers in England got together with bee researchers to figure out a way to use radar to track bees after they flew away from the hive after a bee did the honey dance. The engineers designed and built a tiny radar transponder that helps radar to see the tiny bees. The transponder is a micro antenna with a really small computer chip on it. The whole thing weighs about as much as a large grain of sand. When a radar signal hits the transponder, it sends out its own signal that the radar can pick up, just like an airliner flying from New York to Dallas.

It turns out that the bee dances do tell other bees where they can find the pollen. Dancing in a circle means it’s close – within 100 feet or so. A figure eight means it’s farther away. The bees read direction from angles in the dance.
It’s time for us to buzz 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.

Recycling high-tech

November 11th, 2008 by Gene
 
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What happens when your new computer hits retirement age? Recycling high-tech. Today, on Engineering Works!

We can do so many cool things with our new computers that we never stop to think about what to do with them when they get old. Engineers are thinking about it a lot these days.

From the monitor to the hard, drive, your computer is full of hazardous waste waiting to happen. Listen to this list – antimony, arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, polyvinyl chloride. More than eight-and-a-half-million tons of potentially hazardous stuff over the last 20 years or so.

Engineers are working on the problem from both ends. Before computers go into production, and after you get rid of them. Design engineers at one major computer maker now check out how materials in the new machine can be recycled and how long it takes to take one apart for recycling – before it ever goes into production.

They’re also working out how to make it easier to take apart the new computer so it’ll be easier to recycle. Plastic is more difficult to recycle than metal, so some manufacturers are replacing plastic components with metal and cutting down on the different kinds of plastic. Different kinds of plastic need different processes to recycle, you know.

It isn’t just computers. We toss out about 100 million cell phones every year with a lot of the same problems as computers.

It’s time for us to get out of here before somebody recycles us.

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 mileage

November 5th, 2008 by Gene
 

Photo: Grant Hutchison http://flickr.com/photos/splorp/

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Good gas mileage is getting to be almost as sexy as convertibles. A hundred miles a gallon. We’ll look, today on Engineering Works!

Professional and amateur engineers from 60 countries have signed on to an earth-bound competition modeled on the X-prize for commercial space flight. The prize is a big one — $10 million. Instead of space, the goal this time is 100 miles a gallon.

The hopeful automotive engineers are working with all sorts of technology to drive their vehicles. From high-efficiency gasoline engines to hydrogen fuel cells and – ready for this? – compressed air, the stuff that inflates your tires. One team has gotten 92 miles per gallon from gasoline fumes. They’re still working on that extra eight miles a gallon.

And it’s not just the big guys. A team from Cornell University has entered and so has one from an inner city high school in Philadelphia.

So far none of the major American automakers have signed on to the competition. Some foreign companies are interested. Others, like Volkswagen, aren’t. They fielded a 100 miles per gallon car back in 2001 and aren’t interested in doing it again. By the way, that car, the Lupo, is no longer in production.

The only automobile company to enter so far is a Silicon Valley startup, Tesla Motors. Tesla already makes a high-performance electric sports car that gets the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon. Of course, it also costs $98 thousand.

We’re getting a lot less than 100 miles per gallon these days, and we’re about out of gas. 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.