Archive for April, 2012

abbyladybug/Flickr.com

abbyladybug/Flickr.com

Fueling with liquid sunshine

April 30th, 2012 by Gene
Play

We’ve all heard about the unlimited power of the sun. Engineers are getting some of it in an unusual way. Sunshine and bugs. Today, on Engineering Works!

One of the problems with using electricity from the sun, or anywhere else, to power things like cars and trucks is that electricity is not very energy dense. This means that a pound of battery won’t take you as far as a pound of gasoline. The difference gets more important the farther you want to go.

Chemical engineers are working on a way to use electricity from the sun – photovoltaics – to power a biological reaction that uses genetically modified microbes, bacteria, to produce an energy-dense liquid fuel called butanol.

The microbe the researchers are using already is used in industrial processes to produce non-fossil-fuel-based plastics. By modifying the bacterium’s genetics, they get it to turn out butanol instead. It all happens when electricity from solar-powered photovoltaic cells starts a reaction that produces a substance the bacterium eats. Out comes the butanol and carbon-dioxide. The CO2 is recycled back into the reaction. It’s pretty slick.

There are still problems with the process: It quits after about 80 hours. But the researchers are confident they can tweak it so it runs longer. And, they say, their results point the way to using the bacterium to turn out other energy-dense liquid fuels.

Our energy is getting pretty thin, 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

Start the discussion: This is cool stuff, so cool it seems almost too good to be true. What do you think?

For more:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?=microbe-uses-solar-electricity-to-build-liquid-fuel?WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_TECH_20120403

Nick Young/Flickr.com

Nick Young/Flickr.com

From the mine to the Bugatti

April 25th, 2012 by Gene
Play

If you watch TV, you’ve seen ads for new cars. If you’ve seen those ads, you’ve heard all about horsepower. But what is horsepower, anyway? We’ll figure it out, today on Engineering Works!

Horsepower, the word and the idea, has been around since about 1700. And at its simplest, it means what it sounds like. Horsepower is a measure of power, of strength. It’s equivalent to the power walking around on a horse’s four feet. We could get really complicated about horsepower, but not today.

People first started thinking about horsepower when the first steam engines began to be used in British coal mines. The engines raised coal from the bottom of the mines to the surface. Before steam engines came along, the loads of coal were hauled by horses. Inventor and engineer James Watt used the idea of the amount of work a horse could do to describe his improved steam engines.

Watt and his colleagues calculated the amount of work a horse could do at 33,000 foot-pounds per minute. This means that a horse, or a one-horsepower engine, could move a 33,000-pound weight 1 foot in 1 minute. It’s not quite that simple in real life, but that’s where horsepower started.

Since then, horsepower has become one of the best-known measurements there is. Everything from locomotives and lawnmowers to cars, trucks and even electric fans are measured in horsepower.

We’re going to fire up the horsepower in our truck now and 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: Lots of the terminology – and the ideas – we take for granted in our technological world has been around for a long time. Horsepower is only one of them. What other tech terms have their roots in history? Let us know.

For more:

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

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

tribune.com.pk

tribune.com.pk

Preventing the unkindest cuts

April 11th, 2012 by Gene
Play

The army is looking for some new underwear. And, no, this isn’t the start of a bad joke. We’ll explain, today on Engineering Works!

It sounds goofy, but in the right place and time the right undershorts can be the difference between life and death or disability. Think about it. In Iraq and Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, planted along roadsides have become the weapon of choice for insurgents.

Soldiers spend a lot of time walking those roads. And when an IED goes off next to one of them, a lot of the fragments end up aimed at the soldier’s groin. In fact, this kind of injury accounts for more than one in every 10 admissions to military combat hospitals.

The idea behind protective underwear is pretty simple. Make undershorts of cloth woven with thread that won’t stretch or break. This keeps shrapnel, dirt and debris from reaching the skin and cutting into it. One way to do it is to make the underwear from silk. Silk is tough and won’t stretch. But there’s a problem. We have almost no silk in the United States. And buying military supplies from foreign companies is illegal.

American companies have developed fabrics woven from thread that is at least as tough as silk. And they’re testing underwear sewn from it. We’ll see how it works out.

Our underwear isn’t silk, but we don’t plan to be near any IEDs either. 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 things that sound silly can end up being pretty important, especially when you’re talking about keeping people safe.

For more:

http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/the-army-tries-on-bombproof-briefs-01122012.html

http://secureplanet.com/armor/shrapnelshorts.html

Bridgestone

Bridgestone

Taking the air out of your tires

April 4th, 2012 by Gene
Play

Imagine this: no more flat tires. We’ll check it out. Today, on Engineering Works!

Unless you’ve been unnaturally lucky, if you’ve driven a car, you’ve had a flat tire sometime, somewhere. Probably in some inconvenient place.

Tire manufacturers are looking into new tire designs that should get rid of flat tires. No more checking tire pressure to keep your gas mileage up either. It sounds almost too good to be true.

At least two big tire manufacturers, Bridgestone and Michelin, plan to bring out airless tires, maybe as soon as later this year. They look sort of odd. Instead of the solid rubber sidewalls we’re used to seeing, these tires are built of honeycomb-like cells between the tread and the wheel and hub. The cells are surrounded by a ring that keeps the cells in a tire shape, and the usual rubber tread rings the whole thing.

The tires look like they flex when they hit uneven pavement, just like conventional air-filled tires, and the manufacturers say they can tune the tire structure to give a better ride than possible with the tires on your car now. The only part that’s uncertain so far is that the airless tires don’t seem to give quite the gas mileage that conventional tires do, but again, the manufacturers think that’s something they’ll have worked out soon.

The tires on our truck are still filled with air and ready to roll, and we’re ready to roll. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: Sometimes you see something that makes you wonder why somebody didn’t do it before. Like a tire that doesn’t need air but still gives you a good ride. What other obvious things still need to be invented?

For more:

http://techon.nikkeibp.co.jp/english/NEWS_EN/20111130/202011

http://auto.howstuffworks.com/tweel-airless-tire.htm

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

http://onemansblog.com/2007/08/81/michelin-tweel-the-airless-tire/