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.

Hidden power hogs

January 30th, 2013 by Gene

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.

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Brookhaven National Laboratory

The technology nobody sees

January 23rd, 2013 by Gene

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.

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