Archive for July, 2009

High-speed running

July 29th, 2009 by Gene

Photo: Huw Pritchard/

Hold onto your hat! This one’s going to go by fast. High speed, today on Engineering Works!

High fuel prices are driving most automotive engineers these days to find ways to give you better gas mileage. But not all of them. Some are looking for speed.

The ultimate in all-out speed are top fuel dragsters. These vehicles are – fast. Like 300 miles an hour fast. Like getting from one end of a quarter-mile strip to the other in about four and a half seconds. About as long as it took to read that sentence.

Here’s how they do it. Horsepower. Lots of it. A 500-cubic-inch Hemi engine turns out so much horsepower that we don’t have the instruments to measure it. Engineers calculate it at about 5,000 horsepower. That’s more than the first four rows at Indianapolis on Memorial Day.

These engines are hot. The fuel burns at more than 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end of the run, the spark plugs have pretty much melted and the engine keeps running by itself. The only way to stop it is to shut off the fuel.

And talk about gas mileage. Going flat out, a top fuel dragster burns a gallon and a half of nitro methane fuel – every second. That’s as much as a 747 airliner uses. But the dragster produces more energy.

The timer here is running down and our light is green. We’re out of here.

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.


July 22nd, 2009 by Gene

Photo: Wendy Longo/

This one’s going to be rough. Or maybe it’ll be smooth. Engineering what you feel, today on Engineering Works!

Think about something nice to touch. The smooth wood of fine furniture. A freshly laundered towel. A baby’s cheek. We all know what they feel like, but try to tell somebody what that feeling is. Hard to do, isn’t it?

Maybe this explains why a new field engineers are exploring is so difficult. It’s called – haptics – from the Greek word for touch. More and more products feature haptic technology. In a simple way, the tiny motors that make your cell phone vibrate in your pocket are haptic technology.

Cell phone makers are hinting that new phones may have haptics built into their touch screens. Maybe the feel of a switch clicking on or off. Or pushing a button. Some visionaries are dreaming about adding the right vibrations to music, to make listening to your iPod more like being at a live concert.

One of the most interesting applications of haptic technology is also one of the most useful. It’s a simulator that helps nurses and medical technicians learn how to start an I-V or draw blood from a vein. It looks and feels like a human arm, and you can actually feel when you’ve gotten the needle into the vein. Or missed it. We don’t know if it says ouch!

Even if it’s not haptic, our timer is buzzing and our time is up. 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.

Putting the electricity in your electric guitar

July 15th, 2009 by Gene

Photo by: LostBob Photos/

We’re going to listen to the music. Today, on Engineering Works!

Guitars, especially electric guitars are an important part of modern popular music. Imagine the Beatles without George Harrison’s guitar. Or Jimi Hendrix without distortion. Electric guitars made it work.

Guitar players started experimenting with electricity to amplify their instruments during the 1930s, when big band swing was big. The guitar was getting lost in all that brass.

The first pickups for guitars were pretty simple – a magnet the size and shape of a tube of lipstick wrapped lengthwise with wire. Simple, huh? But basically, that’s it.

Here’s how it works. The magnet is surrounded by a magnetic field. Think elementary school science class: Iron filings; a magnet; and a sheet of glass.

Put that wire-wrapped magnet under the steel strings of a guitar and you’re ready to go. As the strings vibrate, they disturb the magnetic field and create a small electric current in the wires wrapped around the magnet. Feed that tiny signal into an amplifier and you’ve got the sound that made electric guitars with names like Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker famous.

The sound those early pickups produced wasn’t that great. They tended to pick up noise from room wiring, too, but they worked. And engineers and musicians have made them lots better over the years, since. The pickups on today’s guitars provide cleaner, stronger sound, but they’re still basically magnets and wire.

It’s time to wrap up this gig. See you later.

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 at

Your GPS tour guide

July 8th, 2009 by Gene

Photo by: FogCityFog/

Break out your flowery shirt and digital camera. Today, we’re tourists, on Engineering Works!

Seeing new places is one of the big reasons tourists are tourists. They want to see and find out about things they’ve never seen before. Let’s go to Rome and see the coliseum. Or ride the cable cars in San Francisco.

There’s one problem, though. If you’ve never been in San Francisco, you might have trouble figuring out where all the neat stuff is. Engineers have come up with the perfect tour guide. This one knows the important things to see, knows all about them, and won’t get lost trying to find them.
This tour guide combines a special two-seater rental car, a GPS system and a computer. Pick the attraction you want to see, turn the system on and you’re off. The G-P-S keeps track of where you are and tells you where to turn to get to where you want to go. Along the way, the GPS keeps track of where you are and the computer describes what you see around you.

When you get where you’re going, say, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, it tells you what’s there to see. Pretty neat!

The only problem is that so far the GPS tour system only operates in three cities. But at least you don’t have to remember to tip the guide at the end of the day.

Our tour is over for today, but we’ll see you on down the highway.

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 at

Putting the fire in fireworks

July 1st, 2009 by Gene

Photo: rawkus/

What would the Fourth of July be without fireworks? Today, we’ll ooh! and ahh! over those spectacular aerial displays, on Engineering Works.

From pom-pon bursts to sparkling flares, there’s nothing like fireworks to captivate a crowd. For centuries, we’ve celebrated royal weddings, baptisms and other special events with lavish productions that light up the night sky. Today fireworks shows set to music have become big entertainment spectacles for sports events, theme parks and holidays.

Your basic firework is a shell, filled with explosive powder and stars – pellets made of metallic salts and other chemicals. The pellets make the shape, and the chemicals in the pellets make the colors. When the powder ignites and bursts – anywhere from 400 to 1,000 feet up – the explosion pushes out the stars. Then the stars themselves explode into the shapes that draw oohs and ahhs – a glittering ring, a weeping willow, a starburst. The pattern you get depends on how you arrange the stars in the shell.

Thanks to advances by experts in pyrotechnics – “fire art” – fireworks get fancier every year. Instead of lighting them by hand, technicians switch on an electric current. They use computers to control the timing of music and fireworks to create displays that seem impossible. With such excitement, it’s enough to keep all eyes on the fireworks show at the Super Bowl unless there’s another … wardrobe malfunction.

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