Archive for May, 2009

The other ethanol

May 27th, 2009 by Gene

Photo: Francois Lariviere/iStock

Some people aren’t so sure using more ethanol fuel is a good idea. We’ll see what engineers think. Today, on Engineering Works!

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that not everybody thinks producing more ethanol fuel is a good idea. It’s not that most of them have anything against alcohol. They’re worried that since ethanol comes from corn, more ethanol means less corn for food. Especially for poor people around the world.

Engineers say people questioning the wisdom of using corn for fuel instead of food are asking the wrong question. Instead of choosing between fuel and food, they say, we need to be deciding what’s the best material to make alcohol fuel from. Guess what? It isn’t corn.

Chemical engineers are hard at work on processes that produce fuel-grade alcohol without a cornfield in sight. They’re using everything from sorghum and sugar cane to municipal solid waste and something called – water hyacinth – to produce alcohol. Sometimes more than from the same amount of corn.

In fact, one Texas A&M University chemical engineer is working out the details of an agreement to help the city of Laredo, Texas, produce alcohol fuel for its city vehicles – from sewage sludge.
Most of these non-corn alcohol production methods are still not ready for prime time. But they’re getting closer all the time.

We don’t know if we’re powered by corn or sewage sludge, but we’re done for now. 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.

Bionic arm

May 22nd, 2009 by Gene


It used to be that you could only find the bionic man or woman in science fiction. Biomedical engineers are changing that. Stay tuned.

If you wanted to see bionic arms or legs in action, you used to have to look back to 1970s television shows or Star Wars movies. Now, those fantasies are moving off the screen and into real life.

A young woman who lost an arm at the shoulder in a motorcycle accident is using a computer-controlled, electric-powered arm to do almost everything her own arm could do. Peel and eat a piece of fruit. Fold clothes. Even wash the dishes. And maybe best of all, all she has to do is think about what she wants to do, and it happens.

It works like this. Doctors moved the ends of the nerves that used to connect to her mangled arm to her chest. Electrodes on a harness detect tiny electric signals from those nerves and transmit them to a miniature computer. The computer translates them into signals that control small electric motors in her new arm and hand. When she wants to pick up an apple from the kitchen table, she thinks it and her arm, hand and fingers do it.

One problem — the arm and hand have no sense of touch. But everything else seems to be working fine.

Our arm isn’t computer controlled, but it’s still time to close the mike and leave. See you next time.

Low-tech engineering

May 13th, 2009 by Gene

Photo: Jeff Hire

We’re so used to the wonders of high technology that it’s easy to forget there’s any other kind. Low-tech wonders, today on Engineering Works!

High technology seems to drive a lot of things these days, from the way we do business to who’s got the hottest new phone. But if you live in a remote village in the developing areas of Africa or Latin America, that super-fast new processor is pretty much irrelevant. You’ve got other things on your mind. Like shucking the corn that’s going to feed you and your animals until the next harvest.

Folks like these are getting help from engineers that are thinking about new ways to apply old-fashioned low technology to problems that have nothing to do with computers or new high-rise office buildings. This isn’t stepping backward in engineering. It’s understanding how to think about problems in a new way, understanding that sometimes the simple way works better.

Like a portable pedal-powered corn shucker built from worn-out bicycle parts. The idea came from a conversation with a bicycle mechanic in Tanzania. It had to be easy to build, cheap, and something farmers could move from one farm to another. Or the two-dollar charcoal briquette maker. The whole thing is about two inches long and can mold briquettes from almost anything that’ll burn. Rice hulls. Ground up cornstalks. Sawdust.

Our watch is a complicated way to figure out what time it is, but we’re still running out of it. See you next time.

Engineering Works! 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.

Radiation and you

May 6th, 2009 by Gene

Photo: Jay Simmons/stock.xchng

Let’s listen to the sound of radiation. Today, on Engineering Works!

The first time most people heard of radiation was probably when we dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The destruction and death they caused made radiation scary.

But radiation has been around for as long as there’s been an earth. Millions of years.

Each of us is bombarded every second of every day by radiation from space. From the ground. Cosmic rays. If you like to tan by the pool, that’s radiation, from the sun. If you stay in the shade, you’re still getting radiation from the ground. In central Texas, where we live, it’s about 23 millirems a year. In Denver, it’s about 90 millirems.

In case you’re wondering, a millirem is one-thousandth of a rem, a Roentgen Equivalent Man. Rems measure radiation exposure. Like using inches to measure distance.

Ready for more? If you travel a lot, you’ll get about 1 millirem for every thousand miles you fly. Don’t travel? A year’s worth of watching TV adds one millirem. Smoke detector in your house? That’s eight-thousandths of a rem. Got an x-ray with your annual physical? 40 millirems more.

Live near a nuclear power plant? Compared to the other stuff that bombards you with radiation, it’s pretty puny – nine-thousandths of a rem. About like your smoke detector. A coal-fired power plant gives you more than three times as much, but it’s still pretty small.

We’re ready to stop radiating words. See you next time.

Engineering Works! 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.