Archive for May, 2011

Fraunhofer Research Institution for Electronic Nano Systems

Fraunhofer Research Institution for Electronic Nano Systems

Flat out in batteryland

May 25th, 2011 by Gene
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We seem to live in the land of batteries. Let’s check out some new residents. Today, on Engineering Works!

We live surrounded by our electronic devices. Smart phone. Laptop. TV remote control. Music player. Each of them needs a battery. And each of those batteries is different. Some are cylinders. Some are shiny discs. Others are rectangular.

Now, engineers have some up with  still another battery. And it may help make our electronics even smaller than they are. These new batteries are flat like a piece of paper.

In fact, a company in Florida has a pilot production line that prints lithium-ion batteries, the same thing that runs your phone, on sheets of plastic. Or metal. Just like printing a newspaper.

Getting this to work is a pretty good trick, because the electrolyte, the stuff that actually produces electricity in a lithium-ion battery, is usually a gel. Printing a gel that has to stay semi-liquid to work onto something else doesn’t work very well. Solid lithium-ion electrolytes do exist, but it’s expensive and tricky to make them.

For these batteries, the engineers developed a ceramic electrolyte that can be printed onto flexible sheets at the same time as the metallic terminals. When the sheets of batteries come out of the press they can be cut up into individual batteries and wired into battery packs to provide different amounts of power.

Our batteries are charged and we’re ready 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: Really flat batteries should do a lot to keep shrinking electronic devices. Flip over your laptop and see how much space the battery takes up. Sounds neat to us: what do you think?

For more:

http://www.economist.com/node/18007516

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090702080358.htm

http://www.howstuffworks.com/battery.htm

NASA

NASA

Fly me to the moon

May 18th, 2011 by Gene
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Sometimes fiction and reality turn out to be the same thing. We’ll look into one of those things. Flying with the sun. Today, on Engineering Works!

Science fiction writers have written for decades about using the so-called solar wind to travel in space. And the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society plans to launch a spacecraft in 2011 that will use the force of photons from the sun – the solar wind – to push it on its way.

Now, researchers have come up with an idea they think could be engineered to steer a solar-powered spacecraft as well as move it. The new idea uses the same principles that lift airplane wings into the air and apply them to light instead of air.

Here’s how it works: an airplane wing lifts because its shape causes there to be more pressure on the underside than on the top. It’s called an airfoil. This pressure difference makes the wing move toward the lower pressure. Up.

In space, the pressure would come from photons, instead of air. If the solar sail is shaped like an airplane wing, the lightfoil should move toward the side of the wing where the light pressure is lower.

It works with laser light in a laboratory, but it’s still a long way to space. There’s more, too. Other researchers say the idea could be even more useful to steer micro-sized machines or move particles in liquids.

Time for us to fly on 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: Sometimes technology and science fiction end up coming together in something real. There must be other examples of where this has happened. What are they?

For more:

http://www.nature.com/neews/2010/101205/full/news.2010.647.html

http://bigthink.com/ideas/25305

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=optical-wing-generates-lift

kewing/flickr.com

kewing/flickr.com

This engineering’s for the birds

May 11th, 2011 by Gene
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We usually don’t think that woodpeckers would have much to offer engineers. But they do. We’ll see what, today on Engineering Works!

Engineers are learning that animals sometimes do things that if we look at them from the right angle, could help solve a human problem. This time it’s woodpeckers. If you’ve ever watched a woodpecker, or listened to one, and thought about it, you can see what they might have to offer.

Shock absorbers. Think about it. When a woodpecker’s beak hits that tree, the bird’s brain stops with a force of 12-hundred gravities. To give you an idea of what that means, astronauts taking off in the space shuttle feel about three-gravities. If your head gets a shock of 80 gravities, you’ll probably have a concussion. Woodpeckers keep going after more than 15 times that much.

Engineers analyzed the structure of a woodpecker’s beak and skull and figured out how it absorbed all that energy. Its beak: hard but springy. A springy structure that supports its tongue. A section of spongy bone in its skull. And the way the skull and spinal fluid together damped down vibration. Then they set out to mimic it all with rubber, a metal honeycomb, a layer of aluminum and some tightly packed tiny glass balls.

It works. Well enough that a delicate electronic circuit it protected survived a 60,000-gravity shock.

We’re done with shocks for today. 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: learning useful things from woodpeckers may sound goofy, but engineers are looking to animals for solutions to problems more and more often these days.

For more:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20088-woodpeckers-head-inspires-shock-absorbers.html

John Connell/Flickr.com

John Connell/Flickr.com

The telephones that weren’t

May 4th, 2011 by Gene
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Just about everybody knows that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Or did he? We’ll look into what really happened. Today, on Engineering Works!

We all learned in school that Bell invented the telephone in 1876. From there, engineers developed the technology that has grown into cell phones and the rest of digital communications. It wasn’t that simple. History suggests that giving credit for the telephone can be tricky.

Part of it is a matter of timing. Bell’s main financial backer, Gardiner Hubbard, got to the patent office and registered Bell’s telephone, perhaps only minutes before the inventor of another workable telephone arrived. And that’s not all.

In 1861, Johann Philip Reis presented a telephone that worked to the Physical Society of Frankfurt in Germany. That’s 16 years before Bell’s invention. Another American, Daniel Drawbaugh, convinced three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court that he had a working telephone in his house in Pennsylvania in 1869.

So who really invented the telephone? It’s hard to say. Maybe all of these folks. The most important part may be that other researchers had discovered electricity and described the principles of acoustics. Inventing the telephone would have been impossible without these discoveries of basic science. Making the step from basic science to a product that does something useful is where engineering comes in.

We’re kind of short on inventions, but our telephone is ringing and we’re going to go answer it. 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: If you look closely, the history of technology is full of these little omissions and part-truths. Big discoveries rarely come along by themselves.

For more:

Wu, Tim. Master Switch, Alfred Knopf: 2010

http://www.privateline.com/mt_telephonehistory/

http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/telephone.htm