Archive for October, 2009

Sucking up the storm

October 27th, 2009 by Gene



The hammering that Hurricane Katrina gave New Orleans isn’t news anymore. Engineers are building something they say will keep it that way. It’s a pump. A big pump. Today, on Engineering Works!

People who live in New Orleans found out the hard way that the city can be a bad place to be when a big hurricane comes. Most of the Big Easy is below sea level and it filled up with floodwaters from the storm surge when the levees broke.

Engineers are installing a big new pump they say should keep the city dry in case another big hurricane blows in. In engineer-talk, they call it the West Closure Complex, or WCC, and they say it’s the biggest pump station ever built. If everything stays on schedule, it should be completed in 2011.

The West Closure Complex will protect the city from storm surge in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway with two layers of defense. Protection starts with steel floodgates sturdy and tall enough to block a 16-foot storm surge. Then they’ll fire up the pumps. These are big pumps, big enough to empty an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than five seconds.

They’re built solid, so they won’t collapse under pressure, the way the city’s levees did last time. The WCC is built to stand up to 140 mile-per-hour wind. Even runaway barges can’t dent it.

The wind sounds like it’s rising, and we’ll see you later.

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.

Robo Soldiers

October 20th, 2009 by Gene

Photo: EPA/Maurizo Gambarini


Sometimes engineering doesn’t work out the way we planned. We’ll take a look, today on Engineering Works!

Top brass in the German army are raving about some new equipment that they say will give their soldiers a big advantage on the battlefield. The soldiers who use the new gear aren’t so enthusiastic. They say it’s too bulky, too heavy and unreliable.

The new equipment package, the – infantryman of the future – looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Think Robo Cop.

The new combat gear starts with a protective vest. Plus a built-in mini-computer, new radios and protective goggles. The whole package costs almost 30-thousand-dollars. Each.

And guess what? A lot of the German soldiers who have used it for real in Afghanistan hate it. The body armor is so bulky that soldiers wearing it have to scrunch down whenever they get into a vehicle. Really uncomfortable. The goggles tend to fog up at anything more than a brisk walk.

Then there’s the computer, which includes a satellite navigation system and electronic maps. It doesn’t have enough memory, and sometimes just plain gives wrong answers. The new radios don’t have enough range, and their earpieces tend to fall out of soldiers’ ears.

One fed-up field commander has suggested that the army start over and replace parts of it with off-the-shelf equipment that would work better and be cheaper, to boot.

We hope our engineering words are working better than that. 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.

Beyond genetic engineering

October 13th, 2009 by Gene

Image: National Human Genome Research Institute


Just when you were getting used to the idea of genetic engineering, there’s something new. We’ll take a look. Today, on Engineering Works.

If you’re at all interested in new technology, you probably know that inserting a gene or two into a plant and getting something useful back is no big deal any more. That’s genetic engineering as we now know it.

But listen to this. A new breed of genetic engineers are inventing a new field. They call it, synthetic biology. They aim to use the technology pioneered in genetic engineering to build whole new organisms. One new organism these guys are working on is a plant we could harvest and process into petroleum. Not ethanol, like people are talking about to replace gasoline, but good old oil. Growing in a field instead of miles underground.
ne ambitious group of researchers is aiming eventually at reprogramming trees to grow into the shape of a house instead of leaves and branches. It sounds like science fiction, but they’re serious. We think.
All this will be pretty neat, if it works. But there’s still a long way to go. So far, the longest DNA sequence duplicated in the laboratory is about 35-thousand units long. Compare that to human cells that duplicate a sequence three-billion, with a B, units long.

Where will it all end? Hard to tell from here. But we’re out of time, and we’re ending 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