Archive for January, 2013

Hidden power hogs

January 30th, 2013 by Gene
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Most of us use quite a bit of electricity. Probably more than you think. We’ll count it up. Today, on Engineering Works.

It’s easy to think of big ways to keep down how much electricity we use. Compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of regular ones. Energy Star washers, driers and refrigerators. Programmable thermostats to use your heating and air conditioning efficiently. It all helps and more of us are using them.

But we’ll bet you’re wasting a lot of electricity, too. Little things. Laptops. Cell phone chargers. iPods. Game consoles. Power engineers estimate that these little power hogs make up 15-percent of household electric demand. And that’s expected to double in the next 20-years. Worldwide, it’ll take the equivalent of five-hundred-60 coal-fired power plants or two-hundred-30 nuclear plants, just to keep up with it.

Try this some time. Wait ’til it’s dark and turn out all the lights. Then start counting how many little green lights you find. You know, the little green LED that shows your computer or TV is on standby. The average American household has about 25. Each one of them is slurping up electricity.

You can cut some of this energy hogging by unplugging them when you’re not using them, or using smart power strips. Some of them just use a lot of electricity, like the cool new plasma and LCD TV sets. Some use more power than your refrigerator.

We’re unplugging our little green light and we’re gone. 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

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Brookhaven National Laboratory

The technology nobody sees

January 23rd, 2013 by Gene
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What happens to technology after it’s had its 15-minutes of fame? We’ll take a look. Nanotechnology. Today, on Engineering Works!

Not that long ago, nanotechnology was the hottest thing around. It was going to help us do miraculous things. Medical robots that would slide inside our bodies to fix what’s wrong. Ultra-tiny electronics. It’s a long list. But these days it’s hard to find nanotechnology at all.

Or is it? Engineers say nanotechnology is right where it needs to be: hard at work in research and development labs and high-tech factories. Its image problem comes from the fact that very little nano stuff is consumer products. You’ll probably never go the mall to buy a nanoparticle. But you already may be buying products made possible by nanotechnology. And some of the products nanotechnology is making possible are really cool.

Take, for example, the diagnostic system engineers at a Massachusetts company are developing. This device, about the size of a laptop, will let doctors run diagnostic screens on blood and urine samples right in their offices. Almost instantly, without sending them out to a lab. Experts suggest it could cut the costs of such tests by a third. Sexy? No. Important? You bet. Or how about the next generation of computer chips? Look to nano to make them real. Or cancer drugs that will target and attack tumors more precisely. Nanotech again.

Nano or not, this is it 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

Learn more:

http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2010/03

/29/nanotechnologys_small_wonders_opening_new_frontiers/?page=full

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

http://www.nano.gov/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/topic.cfm?id=nanotechnology

Dealing with the drought – or not

January 16th, 2013 by Gene
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Some problems engineers may not be able to solve. Dealing with the drought. Today, on Engineering Works!

If you’re anywhere near the United States, you know the weather’s been goofy. Storms and floods in the Northeast. Heat and drought in Texas. Since we live in Texas, we’re interested in the drought and ideas people have come up with to deal with it.

One of the most enduring drought solutions is to bring water from somewhere it’s wet to the dry places. It’s an idea that’s been around for awhile, and not just in Texas. Visionaries in Nevada have dreamed about a pipeline network that would stage water from the Mississippi River to Las Vegas. Engineers in France have calculated simulations of towing icebergs to dry areas of Africa.

Moving water seems reasonable. There’s enough water. 2011’s tropical storm Lee carried enough excess rain on the Gulf Coast, Mid-Atlantic and northeast to spread almost 10-inches of rain across every county in Texas if we could get it there. One problem: none of them will work.

Moving enough water to make a difference is complicated and expensive. Building the structures and equipment to move it is incredibly expensive and takes a long time. Long enough that by the time you’re done, you may not need the extra water. We’d do better to concentrate on conserving the water we have and developing new sources.

Talking about water is thirsty work and it’s time for a drink. 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 may not be able to move enough water from wet places to dry places, but they are working on innovative ways to conserve water and get more from unconventional sources. Tell us what new stuff you know about.

For more:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/industries/could-water-be-moved-from-drenched-east-to-drought-stricken-texas-fantastical-ideas-abound/2011/09/09/gIQAAPAaFK_story.html

http://www.pacinst.org/about_us/staff_board/gleick/

http://rglennon.com/books/unquenchable/

http://www.snwa.com/

http://www.waterbag.com/

Jesse Reynolds/flickr.com

The sweet smell of new fuels

January 9th, 2013 by Gene
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Making effective new technologies sometimes means taking another look at old ways of doing things. New, old ways of producing fuel. Today, on Engineering Works!

A lot of the effort going into producing new fuels that pollute less is focused on new technology. And a lot of it looks like it might work. But some researchers are taking the opposite approach. They’re looking into new ways of using old technology. Engineers in California are rejuvenating a nearly hundred-year-old chemical process developed by chemist Chaim Weitzmann in the early years of the 20th century. You probably remember Weitzman for being the first president of Israel.

The process he developed used bacteria to ferment common starches and sugars to produce useful chemicals. Especially acetone and butanol. Acetone was used during World War 1 to produce a gunpowder-like explosive called cordite.

Now, engineers are taking another look at Weitzmann’s fermentation process. They’re tweaking it so the acetone and butanol can be transformed into a range of biofuels a lot like diesel oil and gasoline. The new fuels burn just like their petroleum-based cousins. Right now, they’re more expensive than conventional petroleum-based fuel, but not by much. And they have more energy than ethanol fuel.

Looks like it’s true. Something old is new again. New or old, we’re through 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: Sometimes we seem to think that only new things help us solve our problems. Taking another look at old things can work, too. What old ideas might help us solve new problems? Let us know.

For more:

http://www.gizmag.com/converting-sugar-into-diesel/24962/

http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/11/07/discovery-resurrects-process-to-convert-sugar-directly-to-diesel/

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v491/n7423/full/nature11594.html

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

Jim Howard/flickr.com

Untangling airplanes and wind turbines

January 2nd, 2013 by Gene
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New technology is a good thing. Usually. Sometimes things get confusing, like when wind turbines look like airplanes. We’ll check it out. Today, on Engineering Works!

Wind power seems to be a good thing. Propeller-driven generators at the top of tall towers produce electricity without carbon-carrying emissions. At last count, more than 40,000 wind turbines are spinning out electricity in almost 40 states.

A few of these wind turbines are causing a problem nobody expected. These turbines are within range of airport air traffic control radar systems. And to the radar, the turbines’ spinning blades look just like airplanes. Telling the blips caused by wind turbines from the blips caused by airplanes is nearly impossible.

There’s an obvious solution: don’t build wind turbines near airports. That’s easy to say now, but in the future, as we depend more and more on wind for electric power, we’re going to have to. There’s a solution. A new kind of radar, called holographic radar.

The new holographic radar uses a textbook physics phenomenon called the Doppler shift to sort the wind turbines from the airplanes. You already know about the Doppler shift. It’s what makes the sound of a train whistle change pitch as the train comes toward you and then goes away.

Adding holographic radar to conventional air traffic control radar should allow the system to sort out turbines from airplanes and then ignore the turbines.

We’re shutting down our radar now and 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: Wind turbines seem to us to be a good thing, a workable alternative to electrical generation using fossil fuels. Who knew that they could interfere with air traffic control radar? What other problems might make wind turbines harder to use? Let us know.

For more:

http://www.gizmag.com/aveillant-holographic-radar-wind-turbines/25256/

http://www.aveillant.com/