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Stringing you along

April 24th, 2013 by Gene
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Stringing along your yard work. Maybe it’s stringing you around. We’ll see what’s going on, today on Engineering Works!

Just about everybody recognizes the sound of a weed eater. If you mow your lawn, you probably own one of the little electric- or gas-powered gadgets.

Weed eaters have been around for almost 40 years. They give us an easy way to keep our lawns neat, without crawling along with garden shears. How they came to be is an odd bit of bottom-up technology development.

Sometime in the early 1970s, a man in Houston, Texas, hired a guy to keep his big lawn neat. One day while clipping around some shrubs, the gardener stirred up a copperhead, and the snake bit him. The man who’d hired him started looking for a way to trim lawn edges without having to move your hands along the ground.

He poked through his garage and ended up with an empty coffee can, an electric lawn edger – the tool you use to make a neat edge along the sidewalk – and some string — monofilament fishing line. He bolted the can to the edger, punched a hole in the can, and threaded the fishing line through it. Voila! The first weed eater.

It was ugly and noisy and didn’t work too well. But it worked well enough that he hired an engineer to smooth out the design, and he started selling them. The rest is history.

Well, our lawn’s a-waiting. 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: Lots of the technology we use every day has interesting stories behind it; the weed eater is only one example. If you know of some interesting technology stories, let us know.

For more:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303763404576416121846117348.html

http://news.consumerreports.org/home/2011/06/remembering-george-ballas-inventor-of-the-weed-eater.html

Virtual Tech Recovery

Photo: Elizabeth Lockwood/health.mil

High-tech rehabilitation

April 17th, 2013 by Gene
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Soldiers and Marines fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are in the news almost every day. Some are wounded. Badly. We’ll look at how engineers are helping them put their lives back together. Today, on Engineering Works!

It’s one of the goofy things about modern war. Personal armor, air evacuation and better field medicine mean that many wounded who would have died in previous conflicts, live. But they live with the effects of severe burns, brain injuries, blindness, spinal damage, amputations. Since 2001, almost 700 have lost at least one limb.

This is where technology lends a hand. Meet CAREN, the computer-assisted rehabilitation environment. CAREN is a dome that helps soldiers with artificial legs or arms learn to use them in different situations. Walking down a busy street? See other pedestrians around you. See the buildings. Hear and see traffic. A walk in the woods? See the trees, hear the wind and the birds, feel the trail twist and turn under your feet.

Computers linked to sensors on the body move a treadmill to match the ground you’d be walking over and adjust video images all around to what you’d see as you walk. There’s more to CAREN than helping injured troopers learn how to deal with their wounds. Medical researchers also use the simulator to study problems like balance disorders and how stress affects people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

There’s no clever way to end this one. Hang in there, guys. 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.

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Getting a grasp on lightning

April 10th, 2013 by Gene
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getting a grasp on lightning/voice

Mark Twain said it first: thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but lightning does the work. We’ll watch. Today, on Engineering Works.

Everybody knows about lightning. Lightning is those dramatic white forks across the sky during thunderstorms. It’s what makes the thunder boom. It also strikes tall trees and people in exposed places. Lightning strikes kill between 75 and 150 people every year, and injures as many as 5,000.

We know a lot about what lightning does. But we know very little about what causes lightning in the first place. Lightning is electricity, like the electricity that powers our refrigerators and iPads. But it’s very different. Natural lightning jumps from one place to another, or arcs, much easier than less powerful electric arcs. We don’t know why. And we know hardly anything about why lightning happens at all.

A California electrical engineer has a plan to find out more. He’s building two 10-story-tall Tesla coils, powerful electrical transformers that can boost standard 120-volt household power to between a million volts and 100-million volts. That’s enough to light up a fluorescent tube 50 feet away, and make an arc almost as long as a football field. Researchers say that’s far enough that the arcs begin to act like real lightning. Right now we don’t know much about how arcs that big behave, or why. Being able to produce lightning on demand should help us learn more.

You can keep your lightning at a distance, thank you very much. 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: At first, this sounds like somebody spending a lot of money to play with lightning. But high-powered electricity and how it behaves could have an impact on how we deal with producing, storing and moving electric power. What do you think?

For more:

http://gizmodo.com/5861712/the-worlds-biggest-tesla-coil-is-about-to-have-some-competition

http://www.geek.com/articles/geek-cetera/scientist-building-worlds-largest-tesla-coils-to-research-lightning-20111128/

http://www.gizmag.com/worlds-largest-tesla-coils/20653/?utm_source=Gizmag+Subscribers&utm_campaign=d882883012-UA-2235360-4&utm_medium=email

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2065138/Engineers-seek-funds-world-s-largest-Tesla-coil.html

http://www.uic.edu/labs/lightninginjury/ltnfacts.htm

Peter Shanks

Peter Shanks

Goodbye, silicon?

March 27th, 2013 by Gene

For decades, silicon has been king of the computer. What if something better came along to push it off its throne? We’ll see what’s happening. Today, on Engineering Works!

The semiconducting mineral silicon has been at the center of computing for decades. It’s the basic material for transistors and microchips, the devices that make computers work. But now, materials researchers in Switzerland say a new material may do everything silicon does, and do it better.

It’s a mineral called molybdenite, one form of the metal molybdenum. We usually use molybdenite as a lubricant, much like graphite, and sometimes as an ingredient in steel alloys. Molybdenite also is a semiconductor much like silicon, but with some important differences.

It’s more energy efficient than silicon. This means devices built with molybdenite chips will need less power to operate than those with conventional silicon chips. And molybdenite can be formed into very thin sheets, about a third as thick as the thinnest silicon sheets. This means smaller transistors and chips.

As an added bonus, the thinner molybdenite chips are flexible. This leads to some interesting ideas, like computers built in to your clothes or other things made of fabric.

We know that molybdenite chips are more than just a good idea. They work. The Swiss researchers have tested simple microchips made from the new semiconductor, and they function just fine.

Our silicon chipped-computer seems to be working just fine, but we’re still done 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: This new material could have a big impact on the way computers are built. Is this a real new development or a differentiation without a real difference? Let us know what you think.

For more:

http://www.gizmag.com/molybdenite-microchip-prototype-testing-transistors/20754/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111205082255.htm

http://actu.epfl.ch/news/first-molybdenite-microchip/

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avhell/Flickr.com

Seeing in the dark … with your cell phone

February 27th, 2013 by Gene
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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. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

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.

Learn more:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100504113123.htm

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