Archive for June, 2009

Solar-powered swimsuits

June 24th, 2009 by Gene
 
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Photo: iko/flickr.com

The engineers are at it again. Recharge your iPod from your swimsuit. We’ll look into it. Today. On Engineering Works!

One of the biggest problems with portable high-tech equipment like cell phones and iPods is that the batteries keep running down. It’s hard to recharge a fading iPod at the beach.

Some engineers in Germany may have an answer for you. A solar-powered swimsuit, complete with a miniature plug-in for your MP3 player’s power cord. And you can even swim in it.

Engineers at an energy company in Hamburg are working with a German fashion house to design and build a swimsuit with banks of photovoltaic cells to convert all that seaside or poolside sunlight into electricity. You have to let the cells dry off before you plug in after your swim, but it’s the idea that counts.

In case you’ve forgotten, or didn’t know, photovoltaic cells are those little solar cells on the front of your calculator. Bigger versions produce electricity that powers traffic signals and streetlights in some places and satellites in orbit.

Photovoltaic cells use sunlight to produce electricity directly from sunlight. The process works because flat layers of semiconductors in the cells absorb energy from sunlight. This energy knocks loose electrons in the semiconductors and they move around. When they move, we get electricity. Someday maybe enough to run our houses or cars.

Our swimsuit seems to be running down and we better turn off the mike. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Levee

June 17th, 2009 by Gene
 
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Photo: Mike Small/flickr.com

Let’s talk about water, floods, and one way engineers deal with them. Today, on Engineering Works!

Humans have been trying to figure out what to do about floods for a long time. Most of us are thinking more about floods now than we used to, ever since Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans in 2005.

One of the oldest ways of dealing with floods is to build levees to keep the water out. Levees are earthen walls along rivers that usually keep flood water in the river and out of your house. That’s what was supposed to be protecting New Orleans.

Ancient engineers built the first levees about 3,000 years ago along the Nile River. Today, you can find levees all over the world — Germany’s Rhine River, the Po River in Italy, and the Danube. The Mississippi River has about 3,500 miles of levees, all by itself.

Levees are more complicated than they look. They’re more than just piles of dirt along the riverbank. Levees need to be able to resist floodwaters, and they’ve got to be protected against erosion by the river.

The first levees around New Orleans were built in 1718. By the time Katrina got there, there were 350 miles of levees along the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain.

Now, engineers are busy figuring out what went wrong with the New Orleans levees and working on ways to keep them from failing again.

The rain has stopped, so we’re going to get out of here. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Natural design

June 10th, 2009 by Gene
 
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Photo: Neerav Bhatt/Flickr.com

Engineers are finding design inspiration in new places. We’ll find some, too. Today on Engineering Works!

When most of us think of engineering design, we picture computers and high-tech laboratories. A lot of engineers do, too. But some are finding inspiration in odd places. Like the Australian outback. A spiky inch-tall lizard called the thorny devil that lives in the dry, 100-degree-plus desert is giving engineers ideas for efficient ways to move traces of water from one place to another.

This lizard doesn’t even have to open its mouth to get a drink. All it has to do is step into water and the water wicks up its legs and disappears. Researchers don’t understand how this works, but it could give important clues to designing emergency gear to help humans collect water in the desert.
Other engineers are studying everything from beetles than can detect forest fires burning 60-miles away to the way flies buzz through the air and how geckoes scamper up and down walls.

They don’t want to build artificial beetles or flies or geckoes. They do want to understand how these creatures do it so they can use the same principles to build things humans can use.
An artificial fly, for instance, could be sent into a collapsed building through passages too small for humans to find and report on survivors buried in the rubble.
We’re not an artificial fly, but it’s time for us to buzz on 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. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Heart pocket

June 4th, 2009 by Gene
 
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Photo: Walter Groesel/stock.xchng

Getting your heart healthy again after a heart attack can be complicated. Engineers think they can help. We’ll see how – today, on Engineering Works!

More than a million people suffer heart attacks every year in the United States. Most of them survive, but that’s just the beginning. Just because you survive a heart attack doesn’t mean your heart is healthy. In fact, chances are that it’s been damaged – a lot or a little.

If you pull a muscle playing softball on the weekend, getting it healthy again isn’t hard. The first thing is don’t play softball for a while. Getting your damaged heart healthy again is more complicated. It can’t just stop pumping blood while it heals.

Biomedical engineers are working on a way to help your heart take it easy after a heart attack. It’s a device they call a direct cardiac compression device, or DCCD.

A DCCD is like an inflatable bag that fits around your heart and inflates and deflates as your heart beats. The bag inflates and presses in on your heart at the same time your heart contracts to pump blood. The extra pressure from the inflating bag means the heart muscles don’t have to work as hard to move blood through your veins and arteries.

For your heart, it’s like sitting on the bench instead of stepping up to the plate before your hamstring is healed.

Our heart feels fine, so we’ll wrap it up for today.

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. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.