Archive for September, 2010

Trey Ratliff

Trey Ratliff

High tech for highway safety

September 29th, 2010 by Gene

We’re going to take a look at accidents on the highway. And technology that could prevent them. Today, on Engineering Works!

Cars and trucks have been getting safer for years. Seat belts. Airbags. Safety cages. Crumple zones. All kinds of technology that helps us survive a car crash. It works pretty well, but not well enough. More than 40,000 of us still die every year in vehicle accidents.

Now, automotive engineers and safety experts are looking in a different direction to keep us safe on the highway. How about simply avoiding the crash? That’s even safer than trying to make sure we don’t get hurt too badly.

Using technology to prevent highway accidents is an idea that’s catching on with engineers around the world. Sweden, Germany, Japan. And the United States, of course.

One idea is the smart highway. The smart highway would combine sensors at street or highway intersections with computer processors, GPS units and radio receivers in each car. The sensors would sort of watch the traffic and send the information to cars on streets nearby.

If the sensors saw an accident getting ready to happen, like a car getting ready to run a red light, they would send the information to cars that might get involved. The cars’ onboard systems could sound an alarm for drivers. Or even stomp on the brakes in real emergencies.

There’s no emergency here, so we’re going to shut it down and go home. 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 http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: We think that technology like this could have a big impact on highway safety. Two questions, though: will people be willing to pay for it? This kind of tech isn’t cheap. And should we?

Learn more:

http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/technology-reduces-severity-car-crashes-fatalities-injuries/story?id=8523234

http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=1689610&tag=1

http://www.prevent-ip.org/download/Events/20050601%20ITS%20Hannover%20papers/22955.pdf

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PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE/Flickr.com

PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE/Flickr.com

Heat to electricity to heat to …

September 22nd, 2010 by Gene
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If you sneer at science fiction, think again. Interchangeable electricity and heat. Today, on Engineering Works!

Science fiction has always been full of nifty gadgets that would almost work in real life. Almost, but not quite. Put away your skeptical hat. Engineers are turning some of these far-out gadgets into reality.

How about a jacket that uses your body heat to charge your cell phone? Or a tiny power plant that uses the heat from your apartment to light your living room?

These science fiction-sounding items are theoretically possible. They use something called the thermoelectric effect to turn heat into electricity and electricity into heat. In the past these gadgets have been too inefficient and too expensive to be worth developing. That’s changing as the cost of energy gets higher.

Now, engineers are using nanotechnology to pull off this heat-into-electricity-into-heat trick. They start with a high-tech alloy, bismuth antimony telluride, and crush it into really tiny particles. You could line up a-thousand of them across the end of a human hair. Then they press it into a wire or tape.

What’s important here is that these new wires conduct electricity with almost no heat. This is what makes thermoelectric devices practical.

The engineers working on this new generation of thermoelectric devices are looking ahead to a time when thermoelectric coolers will replace refrigerators and thermoelectric power generators will be standard equipment for any green house.

Thermoelectric or not, our effect is running down. 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: Some things, like interchangeable heat and electricity, used to be something you’d only see in science fiction. Now, physicists understand that it does work that way, and soon you and I may be using it. What kinds of application might use this phenomenon?

For more:

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

http://newenergyandfuel.com/http:/newenergyandfuel/com/2008/03/25/what%E2%80%99s-that-thermoelectric-effect-and-why-is-it-so-important-now/

http://technologywonk.com/2007/giant-thermoelectric-effect-in-graphene/

NASA

NASA

Nukes on the moon?

September 15th, 2010 by Gene
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When astronauts move in with the man in the moon in a few years, they’re going to need power. Nuclear energy on the moon. We’ll check it out. Today, on Engineering Works!

When the Apollo astronauts were on the moon, they only stayed a few days at a time, and batteries or fuel cells did them just fine. But now NASA is talking about astronauts staying for weeks or months. Batteries just won’t do it. They’re going to need a long-term source of power for their exploration and scientific activities.

Space experts are proposing all sorts of power sources, from solar panels to king-sized fuel cells. One of most popular ideas is a small nuclear reactor.

NASA engineers are working on an ultra-compact nuclear power plant that should generate enough electricity to run an average American house. Or a lunar exploration base. And do it for eight years. Or longer. The reactor itself is about the size of a big wastebasket. The whole thing would fit into an 18-wheel trailer with room to spare and would weigh about the same as an armored Humvee.

Not everybody is convinced sending a nuclear reactor to the moon is a good idea. Protestors objected to launching NASA’s 1997 Cassini probe, which carried 72 pounds of plutonium fuel. But the NASA engineers are convinced the lunar reactor is safe.

Our reactor is still powered up, but it’s time to go. 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: Power — enough to keep life support and research systems running for a long time — is one of the most important puzzles engineers will have to solve if we’re going to stay on the moon. Compact nuclear power seems like a workable way to do it. What do you think?

Learn more:

http://shiftboston.blogspot.com/2010/03/moon-colony.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3161695.stm

http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/home/why_moon.html

John Bennett Photography/Flickr.com

John Bennett Photography/Flickr.com

Borrowing from butterflies

September 8th, 2010 by Gene
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Butterflies are free, the saying goes. They’re also giving materials engineers useful hints on producing vivid colors. Today, on Engineering Works!

The next time you see a butterfly flutter by, take a moment to notice the colors on its wings. They’re some of the most vivid colors you’ll ever see. No matter how carefully we print images of butterflies, the colors are never quite the same.

There’s a reason, and it’s an odd one. Those butterfly wing colors are not like other colors. Unlike paint or ink or most other things that produce colors, butterfly wings have no pigments. Pigments are the stuff in paint or ink that reflect light that we see as different colors. Instead, the surfaces of the wings are made up of microscopic structures that would look like the inside of egg cartons if you could see them. The way light reflects from different layers gives us butterfly wings’ intense colors.

The researchers have figured out how to assemble their own butterfly wing colors by putting together layers of material, sometimes only atoms thick.

There is a reason for this. It may give a new tool to people who need to keep forgers from making counterfeit versions of paper money or credit cards. It’s not that hard to match color pigments, but duplicating the tiny holes and bumps would be really difficult.

We’re not as colorful as a butterfly wing, so we’re going 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: Engineers are using inspiration from nature more and more: biomimitics. This isn’t quite the same – or is it? Let us know what you think.

Learn more:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100530144025.htm

http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2010/06/02/Bright-butterfly-wing-colors-duplicated/UPI-80731275501428/

http://www.physorg.com/news85033468.html

Dtraveller

Dtraveller

Materials engineering long, long ago

September 1st, 2010 by Gene
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Just about everybody’s bounced a rubber ball. But making that ball bounce the first time was quite an accomplishment. Who did it? We’ll see. Today, on Engineering Works!

We’re used to high-tech materials. Lightweight composites. Superstrong adhesives. Polymers that shift shape on command. And it’s easy to think that coming up with new materials or changing old ones is something new. It’s not. Take latex, or rubber, for instance. Charles Goodyear invented the process we call vulcanization in 1839. Before that, rubber was sticky stuff that got soft in heat and stiff in cold. Goodyear’s process gave us the tough rubber that we use in everything from tires to rubber boots and rubber bands.

Goodyear’s process was important, but the Mayans in Central America were probably the first to understand how to change latex into more useful forms. And they did it hundreds of years before Goodyear. Mayans mixed latex with juice from the morning glory plant and got rubber that they used for all sorts of stuff. Rubber balls. Rubber bands. Rubber sandals. Rubber statues. Adhesives, glue.

The interesting part of this is that each of these things uses a different kind of rubber. Bouncy for balls. Tough for sandals. Sticky for adhesives. What they got depended on how much of morning glory juice they added to the raw liquid latex. But they did it and it worked.

We’ve done it for today and it’s time to bounce 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: It’s useful to remember that sometimes even the most high-tech engineering has roots in “technology” that’s been around for hundreds or thousands of years. What other technologies got started long ago? We’d like to know what you think of, and we bet others would, too.

Learn more:

http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/31/science/la-sci-rubber-20100531

http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/mayaball-0524.html

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