Archive for November, 2009

Laptop

Photo: Ayelie/Flickr

Hidden power hogs

November 24th, 2009 by Gene
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Most of us use quite a bit of electricity. Probably more than you think. We’ll count it up. Today, on Engineering Works.

It’s easy to think of big ways to keep down how much electricity we use. Compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of regular ones. Energy Star washers, driers and refrigerators. Programmable thermostats to use your heating and air conditioning efficiently. It all helps and more of us are using them.

But we’ll bet you’re wasting a lot of electricity, too. Little things. Laptops. Cell phone chargers. iPods. Game consoles. Power engineers estimate that these little power hogs make up 15-percent of household electric demand. And that’s expected to double in the next 20-years. Worldwide, it’ll take the equivalent of five-hundred-60 coal-fired power plants or two-hundred-30 nuclear plants, just to keep up with it.

Try this some time. Wait ’til it’s dark and turn out all the lights. Then start counting how many little green lights you find. You know, the little green LED that shows your computer or TV is on standby. The average American household has about 25. Each one of them is slurping up electricity.

You can cut some of this energy hogging by unplugging them when you’re not using them, or using smart power strips. Some of them just use a lot of electricity, like the cool new plasma and LCD TV sets. Some use more power than your refrigerator.

We’re unplugging our little green light and we’re gone. 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. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Crowd of People

Image: Dieter Drescher

Move ‘em out

November 17th, 2009 by Gene
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We’ve all come across things that just don’t make sense, even though they work. Engineers do, too. We’ll look at one, today on Engineering Works!

If you’ve been to a big concert, or a ball game, with a big crowd of other people, you know what happens when it’s time to leave. No matter how big the exit is, everybody gets jammed up and it goes really slowly.

Engineers in Japan have been looking at what’s going on and how to fix it. What they found makes no sense to us, but it seems to work. At least in experiments.

They started with what we’ve all seen. Even when exits are wide open, people seem to jam up in front of it. Then they tried something goofy. They put something in the way of the people trying to get out. Not so big that it blocked the way, but big enough that people had to detour around it. And it had to be in just the right place. Guess what? Everybody got out faster.

Here’s why. Usually, so many people get to the exit at the same time that it turns into a people traffic jam. Everything slows down. When there’s an obstacle, it slows some people down just enough that the congestion in the exit never happens. Even though they’re getting there slower, more people get through the exit faster than before.

Our way to the exit is clear now, and we’ll 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. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Transistors rule

November 9th, 2009 by Gene
 

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Image: Travelin’ Librarian

Transistors, the things that make your iPod and computer possible. We’ll look back in history. Today, on Engineering Works!

If you look around at all the things we have that use transistors, it seems like we always must have had them. We haven’t, of course. An engineer working at Bell Laboratories invented the transistor in 1947. It was a big deal, even if nobody realized it at the time. Some folks say it was the most important invention of the 20th century.

Before transistors, we used glass vacuum tubes to process electrical signals for things like radios and the earliest computers. They did the job, but they were bulky, heavy, hot, and they broke. Easily. It took the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the race to put a man on the moon to show us how important transistors are and what they can do.

Now, transistors are the basic ingredient for computer chips. Think about it. In 19-61, a single computer chip cost more than $30. By 1971, that price had dropped to $1.25. Today, that same chip is less than a nickel.

There was a time, in the 1960s, when a radio with six or seven or 10 transistors was a big deal. Now just one high-end microprocessor chip has a billion or so. Fire up your computer and printer and print two or three periods. Each one of them could cover two million transistors.

We’ve covered transistors for today. 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. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Grow your own … electricity

November 4th, 2009 by Gene
 

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Engineers in Germany are getting ready to turn the electric power industry inside out. We’ll see how, today on Engineering Works!

Everybody knows how we get electricity. Big generating plants powered by coal or nuclear energy or water. It sizzles along power lines to where we use it to light our houses and power our washing machines and computers and stuff.

Maybe there’s another way. How about a really small power plant in your basement? And your neighbors and the folks down the street. Engineers at automaker Volkswagen are getting ready to build small natural gas-powered generators intended to go into people’s basements or garages.

This isn’t what you probably think. The electricity coming from your basement won’t light up your house. Not directly. It’ll go back onto the power grid as a backup for green generating systems like wind or solar power. The idea is to reduce demand on backup generators and let the power company get by with smaller and less-expensive generators.

Everybody should come out ahead. The power company because these little generators are almost twice as efficient as conventional power plants. Homeowners because heat that’s wasted in conventional generating plants heats their houses in place of conventional central heat.

Not everyone thinks it’s going to work. We’ll see. In the meantime, watch your electric meter.

We’re shutting down our power for now. 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. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu.