Archive for February, 2013


Seeing in the dark … with your cell phone

February 27th, 2013 by Gene

It seems like nifty new apps for your smart phone appear every day. How about one that helps you see in the dark? Today, on Engineering Works!

If you like war movies or just keep track of the news from Iraq and Afghanistan, you know something about night vision devices. They’re goggles, mated to a set of lenses and electronic gear that allow soldiers to see in the dark. They work pretty well, but they’re bulky, heavy and expensive.

Now, materials engineers have come up with something that could replace current night vision technology. And it’s everything the current technology isn’t. Small, light and cheap.

Most standard night vision devices work by converting photons, the subatomic particles that make up light, into electrons that hit a phosphorous screen and produce an image you can see. Making this work requires lots of electric power and heavy glass components.

The new idea uses a detector made up of layers of an organic semiconductor connected to an LED array. The LED gives you an image you can see.

The best part is that the device is about the size of a nickel. And it can be made of plastic instead of glass. The researchers say adding it to a cell phone should be really inexpensive. It also could be added to eyeglasses or automobile windshields.

We can’t see in the dark yet, so we’re going to leave for home before the sun goes down. 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.

Start the discussion: This seems like a nifty idea. How would you use a cell phone app that lets you see in the dark? Let us know.

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Greening the bicycle

February 20th, 2013 by Gene

It sounds like the opposite of high-tech engineering, but it’s not. High-end racing bikes built of bamboo. Today, on Engineering Works!

If you’re a serious cyclist or know someone who is, you probably know that over the years, the stuff really good bikes are made of has changed. From steel and aluminum to exotic alloys and carbon fiber. Some engineers are taking the search for the best bicycle material the other way. All the way back to bamboo.

This sounds like green technology gone crazy. Except for one thing. It works. If you’ve ever watched a construction worker in Shanghai swing a bamboo-handled sledge hammer, you know. Bamboo is tough. And it’s light. Bamboo bike frames weigh about four-pounds. Features you need in a bike built for serious riding or racing. Bamboo frames also absorb vibration better than carbon fiber, absorb impacts better, and are less likely to break.

Like many other good things, good bamboo bike frames don’t come cheap. Some cost more than $2,500. Which, compared to top carbon fiber frames, isn’t bad.

Not all bamboo bikes are expensive or aimed at riding the Tour de France. One engineer has come up with a bamboo bike that people can build at home with basic tools. It’s intended for folks in Africa and other developing areas who need cheap, durable transportation.

Our bike isn’t made of bamboo, but we’re still going to ride it 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.

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Move over, C3PO

February 13th, 2013 by Gene


Engineering is catching up to science fiction. Robots like people. Today, on Engineering Works!

Just about everybody remembers C3PO, one of Luke Skywalker’s robot sidekicks in Star Wars. Well, guess what? NASA is catching up, with a robot the space agency has dubbed R2, short for Robonaut 2. R2 doesn’t talk too well, but it looks a lot like the prissy movie robot. From the waist up, anyway. And it can use its hands to do almost anything a human astronaut can do. Far more than earlier humanoid robots.

R2 is the second generation of human-like robots NASA and General Motors have been working on for almost 10-years. So far, it’s just the top half of a human like figure, complete with a shiny helmet-head. With arms and five-fingered hands, just like humans. It’s not that strong: 20 pounds in each hand is about all it can handle, but it can move and manipulate that weight almost as well as you or I. The robot uses advanced control, sensor and vision technology. And it’s designed to use the same hand tools humans do.

NASA is working with GM to design and build the human-like robot. It’s aimed at duplicating the same dexterity astronauts have in their EVA suits. GM isn’t that interested in what R2 can do in space, but they would like to have robots that can work safely and efficiently around humans in manufacturing plants.

R2 is waving good-bye and we’re gone.

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.

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Staying on time

February 6th, 2013 by Gene

We’re going to do this one on time. Come along with us as we figure out how. Atomic clocks, today on Engineering Works!

Time never stops. We’ve been keeping track of it for a long time, and we’ve done it a lot of different ways – sundials, dripping water, candles with marks on them, springs and gears and pendulums, quartz crystals and electricity.

All of these timekeepers have one thing in common. They keep track of the interval between one tick and the next. And they all have a problem — the same problem. The intervals they measure aren’t always the same. They’re probably not that different, but they vary – a little or a lot. If you need to measure time exactly – to navigate a space probe or use a global positioning system – they’re not good enough.

This is where special clocks called atomic clocks come in. Instead of pendulums and gears or even quartz crystals, atomic clocks use the vibration between the nucleus and electrons of atoms – usually cesium atoms – to set the interval we use to measure time passing. Even this interval varies a little. But not much. The atomic clock at the Naval Observatory near Washington, D.C., is accurate to within about one second in 20 million years.

If you think this is accurate, clocks based on hydrogen atoms do even better over the short term. But over longer periods of time, cesium is better.

Time’s up. We’ve got to go now.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. EngineeringWorks! is on the World Wide Web, too. Visit our web site.