Archive for June, 2010

NL Architects

NL Architects

Changing lanes in China

June 30th, 2010 by Gene
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In the United States, we drive on the right side of the road. And that doesn’t change from place to place. What if you had to switch lanes? We’ll see. Today, on Engineering Works!

If you live in Hong Kong and want to drive into the People’s Republic of China, you do have to switch. In Hong Kong, cars and trucks drive on the left side of the street. That’s because Hong Kong used to be a colony of Great Britain, where they drive on the left, too. But in the People’s Republic, they drive on the right, like most of the rest of the world.

You can see this might cause problems. Getting people driving back and forth to change lanes without a traffic jam or a big pileup. Engineers in Holland have come up with a solution. A nifty bridge over the Pearl River, which separates Hong Kong from the mainland.

On the bridge, the traffic lanes take a sort of figure-eight path so the lanes of traffic heading in one direction swoop over or under the lanes carrying cars and trucks from the opposite direction. When you get to the other side, you’re automatically in the proper lane.

Some critics say it would be cheaper and easier to build a simple double-decker bridge without all the swoops. But what do they know? This is way cool.

Anyway, traffic outside is running in our direction and we’re out of here. 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

Start the discussion: We know that there are simpler ways to build bridges that do what this one does. But is simpler always better? Let us know what you think.

Learn more:

http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/9/view/10469/nl-architects-hong-kong-boundaries-crossing-facilities.html

http://www.archdaily.com/64354/pearl-river-necklace-nl-architects/

http://www.fastcompany.com/1660258/traffic-report-how-to-switch-to-the-other-side-of-the-road-without-causing-a-70-car-pileup

See-Ming Lee/Flickr.com

See-Ming Lee/Flickr.com

A new look at an old engine

June 23rd, 2010 by Gene
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To hear some people tell it, the internal combustion engine is dead. Some engineers aren’t so sure. We’ll check it out. Today, on Engineering Works!

Just about everybody knows a little about internal combustion engines. They’re what powers almost all of our cars, trucks and motorcycles. They’ve been around for more than a hundred years, and they’re boring. They’re also really inefficient. Only about a quarter of the energy in fuel actually turns the wheels and takes us down the highway.

The rest, mostly heat, is just wasted. Engineers are looking into some nifty ways to get that wasted energy back.

One group of British engineers are working on a tiny turbine that would fit in the tailpipe. Exhaust from the engine would spin the turbine. It would drive a little electric generator that would go back to the battery to power the car’s electrical systems. This should cut fuel consumption by 15 percent, they say.

Other engineers are looking into what happens when they connect a flywheel to the transmission. When you hit the brakes, the flywheel collects energy from the wheels and stores it. If you need more power, the flywheel puts the energy back to the driveshaft. They say it’s more efficient than conventional hybrid cars.

There are a lot of pretty far out ideas out there, and some of them may actually work.

We’ve recovered about all the energy we’re going to, and we’re done. 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

Learn more:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18769-green-machine-rethinking-internal-combustion-engines.html

http://www.deskeng.com/articles/aaateb.htm

http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/news/4261288

Air Force Research Laboratory/Wikipedia.org

Air Force Research Laboratory/Wikipedia.org

Lighting up lasers

June 16th, 2010 by Gene
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It seems like lasers have always been around. We’ll at where they came from and what they do. Lighting up the laser. Today, on Engineering Works!

The ideas that grew into lasers have been around since some theorizing Albert Einstein did in 1916. But it was 1960 before the first one actually worked. Now lasers are everywhere. Laser printers. CD and DVD players. Barcode readers. And lots more.

In case you weren’t paying attention in physics class, a laser, for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, is what you get when you excite, or add energy to certain atoms. The atoms give off excited electrons which then emit photons, the stuff light is made of.

In a laser, these photons are all one wavelength, or color, and are coherent, or organized. They’re all moving the same direction at the same time. And they’re in a focused beam. Depending on what kind of atoms you start with, that beam can be just a pretty color or it can cut through a piece of steel.

Probably only computers have had a bigger technology impact on our lives than lasers. Doctors routinely use lasers to kill cancer cells and perform delicate eye surgery. Scientists move cells, bacteria and DNA with lasers. High-tech manufacturing makes precise cuts in wood and metal with lasers.

Our laser is excited, but it’s still time to go home. 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

Learn more:

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/58499/title/Inventing_the_Light_Fantastic

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

http://science.howstuffworks.com/laser.htm

iStock.com

iStock.com

Even batteries are bigger in Texas

June 9th, 2010 by Gene
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We like to say everything’s bigger in Texas. Some things really are. Batteries. BIG batteries. Today, on Engineering Works.

This story of batteries starts in the West Texas town of Presidio, on the banks of the Rio Grande. Presidio is one of those West Texas towns that’s pretty far away from just about everything. It gets its electric power over one aging transmission line. 60-miles, across the rugged Davis Mountains from the equally small town of Marfa. Now and then, when storms blow through, that transmission line fails and Presidio goes dark. Even when the power’s on, current fluctuations knock computers offline and interfere with electrical appliances.

So the town got together with the electric transmission authorities and got a battery. A big one. Eighty 8,000-pound modules that store four megawatts of electricity. Enough to power the town for eight hours. The system also features sensors and switches to respond almost instantly to current fluctuations in addition to outages. This battery uses a little-known sodium-sulfur storage technology instead of better known systems like lithium-ion batteries.

The installation in Presidio is the fourth big battery system like it in the United States. If they work out, they may point the way toward large-scale storage that could even out the electrical highs and lows in a future power system that depends more on wind and solar energy than now.

Our battery is topped off, so we’re going to plug in and head out. 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

Learn more:

http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-4/texas-town-turns-monster-battery-backup-power

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100325-presidio-texas-battery/

http://www.ettexas.com/projects/docs/NaS_Battery_Overview.pdf

www.nature.com

www.nature.com

Feathered engineers

June 2nd, 2010 by Gene
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Most engineers walk around on two feet and wear trousers. Some flap their wings and wear feathers. Crow engineers. Today, on Engineering Works!

When we think about engineers, we usually think of them as humans who use science and technology to solve practical problems. Maybe design and build an airplane or a bridge or a computer. Now these humans may be getting some competition from technology-using crows.

These crows live in the jungles of New Caledonia, in the South Pacific, and they seem to be able to use tools to solve a pretty complicated problem. For crows, that is. Some Australian researchers gave them a problem. Pay attention. It’s a little complicated.

They put a scrap of food outside the crows’ cage, far enough away that the crows couldn’t reach it. Also outside the cage was a long stick, long enough to reach the food but farther than the crows could reach. Inside the cage was a short stick, tied to the crows’ perch. It was too short to reach the food, but long enough to reach the longer stick. Got all that?

No problem for the crows. They untied the string and used the short stick to get the long stick, which they used to reach the food. Just like that.

Not much of a problem, for a human engineer, but pretty nifty for a bird.

We don’t see any problem-solving crows around here, but we’re still done. 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

Learn more:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/science/nature/8631486.stm

http://www.sciencemag.org/feature/data/crow/