Archive for March, 2010

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Internet imaginings

March 31st, 2010 by Gene
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The internet has been around long enough that most of us take it for granted. We’ll look back to its beginnings. You’ve got mail! Today, on Engineering Works!

It’s hard to imagine life without the internet. E-mail. The World Wide Web. Online shopping. In fact, Finland has declared broadband internet access a legal right. The internet has come a long way since the first message, it wasn’t even e-mail yet, in 1969. At first, it wasn’t even the internet. It was the ARPA-net, and it connected computer terminals, terminals, no PCs or laptops yet, in California and Utah.

And that first message wasn’t even a joke. It was just two letters. L and O. It was supposed to be longer: the word, login. But the system crashed after the first two letters. Some things never change.

The internet has come a long way since those first four terminals. Now more than a billion people a month access the ‘net. And they use the ‘net differently from what the earliest developers expected. The first network’s computers were about 400 miles apart. Now we get spam from all over the world. The early research that led to today’s internet was paid for by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA. The idea behind the original network was to give researchers a way to exchange research information quickly. Not an Amazon.com in sight.

We’re logging off our net. 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

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/10/091029-internet-40th-anniversary.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet

Photo: enciclopedia.com

Photo: enciclopedia.com

Science fiction to medical reality: the bionic arm

March 24th, 2010 by Gene
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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.

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

For more:

http://www.savevid.com/video/claudia-mitchell-operates-a-bionic-arm-with-her-brain-at-ric-no-sound.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MedicalMysteries/story?id=5715902&page=1

http://www.ric.org/aboutus/mediacenter/press/2007/07302007.aspx

Derek Curry

Derek Curry

Old technology, new promise

March 17th, 2010 by Gene
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Promising new solar technology to generate electricity is almost a cliché these days. Let’s look at some promising, old, technology. Today, on Engineering Works!

When people talk about solar energy, they usually mean one of two things. Photovoltaic panels or solar concentrating plants. Some engineers are trying something else. An updated version of a 200-year-old invention to turn sunlight into electricity. This old technology is something called a Stirling engine. A Scottish clergyman named, you guessed it, Stirling, invented it in 1816.

The idea is simple. A Stirling engine has two cylinders and pistons. Kind of like a two-cylinder motorcycle engine. The space above the pistons is filled with a fluid, usually air or helium. Heat the gas in one cylinder and it expands, moving the piston. The gas cools and moves to the other cylinder, where it moves that piston and flows back to the first cylinder, where it’s heated again and the whole cycle starts over. It’s more complicated than this, but you should get the idea. They’re a lot more efficient than conventional internal combustion engines and need only a little outside heat to keep the cycle going.

In solar power plants, sunlight provides the heat that makes the gas expand. Sunlight is focused on the Stirling engine by a concentrator that looks like a big, shiny satellite TV dish. Stirling engines spin electric generators the same way turbines or diesel engines do.

Whew! It’s getting hot in here. 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

For more:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stirling_engine

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=are-engines-the-future-of-solar-power

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=stirling-in-deep-space

Photo by: Matt Zeringue/TEES

Photo by: Matt Zeringue/TEES

Heavy duty road trip

March 10th, 2010 by Gene
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Who’s up for a road trip? We’re going to take one. A heavy-duty road trip. Today, on Engineering Works!

Just about everybody’s taken a road trip at some point in their lives. Vacation. Visiting relatives in another state. Finding yourself. This trip was more ambitious than any of those.

First, when we say heavy-duty, we’re not kidding. This road trip moved a 900,000 pound electric generator from the Port of Houston to a power plant under construction near a small town in central Texas. About 250 miles away. The generator itself was about 20 feet high and almost 40 feet long. That’s pretty impressive, all by itself.

But it’s just the beginning. The generator rode on a two-part heavy hauler. Together, the two parts were about 300-feet long and rolled along on almost 300-tires. Imagine a 30-foot-wide slice of a football field, rolling down the highway. Generator and carrier together weighed almost 2,000,000 pounds. Nine hundred tons.

If you were looking for speed, this wasn’t the trip for you. Generator and hauler rolled down the highway at less than 10 miles an hour. It was pushed and pulled along by four diesel tractors, kind of like the ones that pull semi-trailers, but bigger. Planning the trip took about six months and it took about a month to get the generator to its new home.

Our road trip is over now, and we’re heading home. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by K-A-M-U F-M in College Station. Learn more about Engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

For more:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2mSat0tEBA

http://www.roadtransport.com/blogs/big-lorry-blog/2010/02/mammoet-usa-heavy-hauling-with.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhhCZwQLbTc

Photo: Federal Highway Administration

Bridge in the sky

March 3rd, 2010 by Gene
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Bridges are some of the coolest things engineers build. We’ll check out a nifty one. Today, on Engineering Works!

The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River is one of the biggest and most complex engineering projects ever. The water and electric power it provides made Las Vegas and other Western sun belt cities possible. But it doesn’t make a very good bridge. US 93 crosses the Black Canyon of the Colorado on top of the dam. The highway there is only two lanes wide and twists and turns a lot on either side of the dam. The highway is a major NAFTA route through Arizona, Colorado and Utah, and more than 14-thousand vehicles cross it every day. Sometimes traffic gets pretty tied up around the dam.

Engineers started building a real bridge about a quarter-mile south of the dam in 2005. It’s an impressive project. The roadway crosses the canyon 900 feet above the river on an arch and columns that seem to hang in the air. The bridge itself is almost 2,000 feet long and carries four lanes of traffic and a sidewalk so tourists can get a good view of the dam.

Building it was a bit of a trick. They started the arch from both sides of the canyon, and it met in the middle. A network of cranes and cables kept it up until the two halves met.

We’ve crossed our bridge today and we’ll be on our way. 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

For more:

http://www.hooverdambypass.org/

http://scienceray.com/technology/engineering/the-incredible-hoover-dam-bypass-bridge-under-construction/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_O%27Callaghan_%E2%80%93_Pat_Tillman_Memorial_Bridge