Archive for July, 2010

Oran Viriyincy/flickr.com

Oran Viriyincy/flickr.com

Traffic jam: build it and they will come

July 28th, 2010 by Gene
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It’s one of everybody’s favorite topics: how bad the traffic is. We’ll check it out. Today, on Engineering Works!

Nobody likes their morning and evening commutes. Even in small towns, people complain about the traffic. And they’re right. Across the country, we waste a lot of time sitting in our cars. Waiting. In its latest annual survey of traffic congestion, the Texas Transportation Institute found that every year traffic congestion costs each of us on the road more than $750. Almost a full work week’s time. Three week’s gas.

The goofy part is that simply building more roads doesn’t seem to help. It might even make it worse, some experts say. For instance, engineers who studied traffic in California found that if we add 10 percent to the capacity of the highways, nine-percent more traffic will show up to drive on it. In four years or less. The number of miles cars travel on roads and streets has grown four-times as fast as the population since the late 1960s.

What to do about it? Those experts are divided. Some say build more highways, but design them better. Others say we’d do better just to close down some lanes, make the highways smaller. Yet others suggest that we need to get real and recognize that towns and cities are going to be congested, but they don’t have to stay congested all day long.

The traffic’s building up outside, so we’d better 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

Start the discussion: Some of these ideas sound pretty goofy, but what we’re doing now doesn’t seem to work, either. What do you think?

Learn more:

http://www.forbes.com/2010/02/22/traffic-intersections-congestion-lifestyle-vehicles-traffic-jams.html

http://bicycleuniverse.info/transpo/roadbuilding-futility.html

http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/

spacex.com

spacex.com

Move over, NASA, here come the entrepreneurs

July 21st, 2010 by Gene
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In the 1960s and 1970s, NASA was the space program. Gemini, Apollo, men on the moon. Things have changed. Today, on Engineering Works!

Those of us of a certain age remember when a launch from Cape Canaveral was exciting. Everything stopped so we could watch. Things are different now. The space program is still important, but budget deficits and different priorities threaten. And NASA’s not the only game in town anymore.

Private companies are pushing to take over pieces of what used to be NASA’s exclusive turf. Everything from building innovative inflatable space stations to developing rockets to put them into orbit. It’s too early to tell if space entrepreneurs like this are going to be able to carve out niches for themselves in space, but it seems to be working.

A small-scale inflatable space station is in orbit now around the earth. You can use the company’s onboard video system to check it out. And they have several other versions of the habitat ready to go. Almost.

Another company has used its own rocket to put a model of its own space vehicle into orbit. Other versions of the rocket, all the way to a massive three-engine heavy-lift rocket are on the drawing board.

These companies want to make space more accessible than it seems to when NASA was the only option. And they think they can do it as well as NASA and cheaper.

We’re going to launch for 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

Start the discussion:

Start the discussion: As long as there’s been spaceflight – at least in our lifetime, NASA has launched the rockets and sent humans into space. That seems to be changing, and we’re not sure it’s a bad thing. What do you think?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/04/AR2010060403360.html?sub=AR

http://www.spacex.com/

http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/

gun4hire/stock.xchng

gun4hire/stock.xchng

Channeling your personal power

July 14th, 2010 by Gene
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Here’s a new one. An electric fuel cell powered by your own body. We’ll take a look, today — on Engineering Works!

These days, everybody’s looking for new sources of electricity. All our portable electronics — iPods, cell phones, laptops — they all need good batteries to keep playing or talking or calculating. The batteries we have really aren’t that good. They’re not much better than the voltaic pile battery Alessandro Volta invented more than 200 years ago.

Engineering researchers are looking into a new power source. They’re looking, well, into themselves.
It’s pretty simple – and complicated, all at the same time. Imagine a small chip – called a biofuel cell – that uses sugar and oxygen to generate electricity. Now, imagine that biofuel cell is implanted in your arm. The oxygen and sugar is in your blood. Can you see it now? Electricity. It’s always there and always being recharged. Runing low on power? Grab a Coke or a candy bar.

The engineers really aren’t interested in a new way for you to power your iPod. Not yet, anyway. They’re looking for lightweight, compact, dependable ways for astronauts to power things like medical sensors in space. Now, they’re getting ready to send one up in a satellite to see how well it does in orbit. No people. Just tiny tanks of sugar and oxygen. The people will come later, they hope.

Well, our iPod sounds like it’s going flat. Guess we need to grab a Snickers bar. 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: What do you think? If there was a way to use a biofuel cell to power your cell phone or iPod, would you get one? Let us know what you think.

Learn more:

http://www.physorg.com/news193470170.html

http://www.ecoseed.org/en/general-green-news/renewable-energy/biofuel/other-biofuel-technologies/7360-Living-batteries-Glucose-biofuel-cells-power-human-implants

http://www.psfk.com/2010/05/biofuel-cells-use-body-glucose-to-generate-electricity.html

s.stask/flickr.com

s.stask/flickr.com

Move over, hydrogen: magnesium power’s here … maybe

July 7th, 2010 by Gene
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When people talk about alternative energy, hydrogen often comes up. How about magnesium? We’ll see. Today, on Engineering Works!

Magnesium is nifty stuff. Pure magnesium is a silvery metal, and you probably remember from high school chemistry that it burns with a hot white flame.

While a lot of research has already gone into using hydrogen to store energy, either directly as a fuel or as part of fuel cell systems, some researchers think we should be looking at magnesium as a way to store energy. Magnesium stores about  10 times as much energy as hydrogen. And there’s enough magnesium in seawater to provide energy for 300,000 years.

Engineers at a Canadian company are working on a fuel cell that uses magnesium, air and water to produce electricity. An Israeli researcher has come up with a magnesium-based battery sort of like the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries we all know about. And a California researcher is working on a way to use magnesium to produce hydrogen for fuel.

All of this sounds good, but there’s a problem. It takes a lot of energy to purify magnesium to a form we can use. Maybe more than we’d get back. One researcher in Japan thinks he has the answer: solar energy to power a laser that would give us the almost 6,700° F. heat needed. We’ll see how that turns out.

Our magnesium power is somewhere in the future, so 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

Start the discussion: What do you think about magnesium’s potential as a direct energy source or a way to store energy? We’d like to know, and we bet others would, too.

Learn more:

http://www.economist.com/node/15939644

http://www.physorg.com/news191259549.html

http://inventorspot.com/articles/japan_magnesium_energy_cycle_5887