Archive for February, 2011

Stefan Andrej Shambora/Flickr.com

Stefan Andrej Shambora/Flickr.com

Unintended consequences of going green

February 23rd, 2011 by Gene
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If you ask, most people will tell you going green is a good thing. Maybe, and maybe not always. Check it out, today on Engineering Works!

Many people who think about global climate change look forward to the time when cars are powered by non-polluting electric motors – or something else – instead of engines that burn gasoline. Think about it. No more polluting exhaust fumes. No more climate-threatening carbon dioxide. No more gasoline to be refined or drilled for.

Sounds nice. But let’s think about it for a minute. No more gasoline engines means less air pollution. But it also means no more jobs making gasoline engines. No more exhaust systems. No more spark plugs.

Process engineers in Japan have started thinking about this darker side of green. And the numbers are scary. No more gasoline engines could mean closing down $129 billion with a “B” worth of industrial production.

They’re looking at what kind of parts will be affected most, and what the manufacturers that make them can do to begin making the transition. Even that’s not easy. It’s not clear what technology will replace gasoline engines. Gas-electric hybrids? Plug-in hybrids? Purely electric? Hydrogen? Fuel cells? Nobody knows yet.

Whatever comes next, it seems clear that it’s not too early to start figuring out what’s going to come next.

Whatever it is, we’re finished for this time and it’s time to go home. In our gasoline-powered car.

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’re in favor of going green, really. It just seems that we haven’t looked at the situation from all sides yet. And that’s important.

For more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/03/business/global/03japancar.html?_r=1

Zoomar/Flickr.com

Zoomar/Flickr.com

Small but mighty

February 16th, 2011 by Gene
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Surgeons are getting better and better at working in smaller and smaller places inside our bodies. Engineers are helping out. Today, on Engineering Works!

Smaller is sometimes better, especially when we’re talking about surgery. Surgeons regularly repair blood vessels and nerves too small to be seen without a microscope. These techniques allow them to reattach severed fingers, toes, arms and legs. It’s almost routine.

Newly engineered tools promise to extend even farther what can be done inside the body’s small spaces. These tools look like tiny daisies, a circle of miniature fingers around a center. Current versions are small enough that you could line up 25 of them in an inch. Doctors say the devices could be used for tasks such as taking tissue samples inside an organ without surgery, or opening blocked blood vessels.

One nifty thing about these tools is that they carry their own power source. Devices now being tested begin with silicon wafers, which are then coated with layers of metal and natural polymers. Special proteins called enzymes, found naturally in your body, attack the polymers. Different enzymes attack different polymers. Depending on which layer the polymer is in, the fingers spread open or snap shut. You can see how that would work.

And they show promise. In early lab tests, engineers have used the tools to reach inside simulated organs to retrieve tissues.

Big and small, we’re putting away our tools and 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.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/63745/title/Tiny_tools_aren%E2%80%99t_toys

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

Franz Neumeier/Flickr.com

Franz Neumeier/Flickr.com

Harnessing Old Man River

February 9th, 2011 by Gene
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People have been using the power of the Mississippi River for thousands of years. Here’s a new one. Generating electricity, today on Engineering Works!

As long as there have been people in what’s now the middle of the United States, they’ve been using the Mississippi. To travel, trade, fish, drink. These days, the river carries millions of tons of cargo every year. Some engineers would like to see it producing millions of kilowatts of electricity, too. And they’ve got some nifty technology to do it with.

The power would come from hundreds of especially designed turbines anchored to the river bottom. The turbines would harvest the energy from the Mississippi’s steady current and produce a reliable supply of electricity that wouldn’t depend on the wind blowing or the sun shining. Each of the turbines would be about the size of a jet engine and produce about 40 kilowatts of electricity. Clusters of turbines would be located at 88 places along the river.

The company proposing the project says that eventually the turbines could produce as much as a gigawatt of electricity, a billion watts, enough to power about 250,000 homes.

Not everybody is thrilled with the idea, starting with the operators of towboats and barge lines that carry everything from coal and Portland cement to wheat up and down the river. Environmental advocates are worried, too, about potential injury to fish and other river organisms.

Time will tell, we suppose. 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: A lot of ideas for generating power without using fossil fuels are wandering around out there. It would be good to see some actually producing electricity.

For more:

http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/26679/?pl=MstRcnt

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

Chuck Coker/Flickr.com

Chuck Coker/Flickr.com

Do-it-yourself electricity … sort of

February 2nd, 2011 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.

Start the discussion: We don’t know about you, but we think this is a really nifty idea, one that could make a noticeable difference in how we produce energy. What do you think?

For more:

http://cleantechnica.com/2009/09/15/volkswagen-to-make-electricity-in-your-basement/

http://www.gizmag.com/vw-enters-the-home-power-market/12842/

http://locavolt.com/energy/power-generation/distributed-network/88/swarm-power-schwarmstrom