Archive for August, 2012


redirecting methane

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

I have visited Houston only once. I got to do a lot of cool stuff—particularly ride in NASA’s zero-g aircraft, the Weightless Wonder, with a team of students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But I told that story years ago, in the June 2001 issue of the magazine.

One of the indelible images that has stayed with me is the horizon of Houston at night. It was the skyline of hell, all those stacks flaring methane, the orange glow of wafting flame. It was almost scary enough to make me behave.

It also made me wonder. I don’t run an oilfield or any kind of energy company so I don’t know the reasons for doing that. But to an outsider like me, it looked like a lot of waste.

Those thoughts came back to me the other day when I read this press release from the University of California–Irvine.

Irvine, Calif. – Increased capture of natural gas from oil fields probably accounts for up to 70 percent of the dramatic leveling off seen in atmospheric methane at the end of the 20th century, according to new UC Irvine research being published Thursday, Aug. 23, in the journal Nature.

“We can now say with confidence that, based on our data, the trend is largely a result of changes in fossil fuel use,” said chemistry professor Donald Blake, senior author on the paper.

Methane has 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, although CO2 is filling the atmosphere in far larger amounts. After decades of increases due to worldwide industrial and agricultural activity, the tapering off of methane from the 1980s through 2005 was remarkable. Scientists have long wrestled with the cause.

Blake and his team, who have conducted the world’s longest continuous methane and ethane sampling, said close scrutiny of their data shows that the major factor was most likely the trapping and sale of natural gas for use as a fuel source, which sharply reduced the skyward venting and flaring of methane from oil fields. Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas.

“It used to just be burned off as a waste product,” said lead author Isobel Simpson, a UCI research associate. “The reason this is important is because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, second in importance only to carbon dioxide. We can’t make real progress on climate change without tackling carbon dioxide, but bringing methane under control would certainly help.”

Since 2007, levels have started to climb again, adding urgency to the scientific mystery. Many researchers have tried to determine what prompted the decline, including others at UCI. Last summer, a pair of papers in Nature offered different causes: less natural gas from oil fields in one case and changing fertilizer and water practices in rice paddies in the other. Blake said his group had confirmed–using comprehensive global measurements–that the former was probably the major factor.

For nearly 30 years, successive generations of UCI chemistry students and researchers have filled canisters with air samples at remote locations across the globe. The breadth and length of that sampling proved invaluable in solving the methane puzzle, said one.

“This paper speaks to the importance of scientific insight that only can be gained from decades of meticulous, sustained data recording,” said co-author Mads Sulbaek Andersen, formerly of UCI and now with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

My mind rests easier now, knowing there’s less waste in the world.


Potential of Renewables is Greater Than U.S. Power Demand

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

Jeffrey Winters

The biggest story in the U.S. power industry is the speed at which natural gas is replacing coal. Overshadowed but still critical is the rise of renewable energy: In the first half of 2012, non-hydroelectric renewable electricity accounted for 6 percent of net generation on the U.S. electric grid. Data from the Energy Information Agency shows that as recently as 2010, that figure was just 4 percent, and the amount of renewable electricity on the grid has gone up by a factor of 2.5 since 2003.

But according to a report released in July by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., we’ve only scratched the surface of the renewable electricity potential in the U.S. Based on a state-by-state assessment of the amount of technically possible renewable energy that’s available, the U.S. could generate all its electricity demand by tapping less than 1 percent of its renewable potential.

The NREL study is not a proposal, but a theoretical maximum. The team of researchers looked at the entire U.S. landmass and only excluded places that were either physically or politically unsuitable to host a renewable power facility. For instance, the potential wind power for each state was calculated based on the number of square miles that had less than a 20-degree slope and was more than two miles away from such features as cities, airports, Federal wildlife refuges, and national parks.

If you max out the solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and low-impact hydroelectricy using existing technology, the NREL study found, you could generate an astonishing 481,800 TWh per year. That compares to roughly 4,000 TWh per year of net generation in the U.S.

Although wind power is the largest renewable energy source today—and has grown by a factor of ten over the past decade—the NREL report found that solar power, both thermal and photovoltaic, has the most potential in the U.S. While wind could theoretically max out at around 50,000 TWh per year, concentrating solar power plants could generate more than twice that much and utility scale photovoltaics could make 280,600 TWh per year in a full build out. Even the relatively modest 800 TWh per year that’s the maximum allotted to rooftop-mounted PV is roughly the same as the current U.S. nuclear fleet.

To be sure, the NREL study didn’t account for such limiting factors as price. But as the U.S. electrical grid becomes increasingly decarbonized, the study may serve as a reminder that it’s possible, in theory at least, to bring down carbon emissions to zero.


move your own cheese

My August column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

The overplayed stereotype always had something to do with a socially inept engineer sporting a short-sleeve white shirt and slim black tie, big horn-rimmed glasses, and a pocket protector overstuffed with BIC pens. He always seemed to be working alone in some lab trying to figure out a way to calculate a new formula.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that guy is gone and with him the stereotype of who engineers are. If you think I’m kidding, you haven’t been paying attention. Hopefully, most of you are part of the transformation. If you’re not, look around you and see the young woman sitting a few feet away; she’s the new project manager. To her left, the guy with the tattoo is just home to Seattle from Bolivia and wants to go back to help build a new plant for a burgeoning organic coffee producer. These new engineers may or may not look like you, but they’re the ones who are driving the profession.

Feeling increasingly out of place, whether you are 61, 31, or 21 years old is not uncommon these days. But being out of place is not—and none of it has to do with how old you are. The notion of being too old to matter is as out of date as the old notions of engineers.

What matters is not your age but the wisdom to understand that the way business used to be is not the way business is today. It’s what  Fast Company magazine editor Robert Safian calls Generation Flux. Or a mindset that tolerates, if not completely embraces, instability, changing business models, and assumptions about how things work.

Few traditional career tactics, Safian says, train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills. Yet the effort and the open-mindedness can lead to great opportunity.

When I chatted with him about this a few weeks ago, Safian reiterated his belief that those who have the skills, along with the adaptability and aptitude to thrive in today’s often chaotic work environment, will be the ones who lead change and the ones who have the most satisfying careers.

Safian likes to say that Charles Darwin foreshadowed today’s era in his description of natural selection: It is not the strongest of the species that survives; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

So the takeaway is to learn from past experiences and past cultures—almost like the design anthropologists Alan Brown writes about in this month’s cover story, who can reframe the understanding of past behaviors to help shape new products.

Design anthropologists, Brown says, use the kind of lens that enables designers to see things in a new light. Much the same lens that we need to use to embrace the changing landscapes of the workplace.

If you’re a designer wearing a white short-sleeve shirt with a skinny tie and horn-rimmed glasses today, hopefully you’re making a fashion statement and you’re not still wondering who moved your cheese. Open your eyes, adapt to the chaos, embrace the ambiguous future, recalibrate your career—use your skills to help lead the technology revolution that is improving the world.



electric bullets

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

I checked up on another of my favorite teams a few days ago. They specialize in designing and building electric cars that can travel faster than 300 miles per hour. So far, they have done it three times, and now they’re going for 400 mph.

The coolest thing about it is that, although they are the most successful team in the top class for electric cars, none of them does this for a living, except for the driver.

They call themselves the Buckeye Bullet Land Speed Racing Team. They are mostly undergraduates working in the Center for Automotive Research at The Ohio State University. Their faculty advisor, Giorgio Rizzoni is director of the center and also is an ASME member.

The original Buckeye Bullet set a U.S. land speed record of about 315 mph in 2004. At the time, the driver, Roger Schroer, joined an elite list of about 60 people in the 300 MPH Chapter of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club. The magazine covered that story in the December 2004 issue.

That car is currently being restored and will be shipped to the Crawford Auto Museum in Cleveland sometime next year.

After 2004, the team worked with Ford Motor Co. and Ballard Power Systems to develop Buckeye Bullet 2, a racecar powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. When we spoke to David Cooke, the current team leader and one of four grad students on the racing team, he told us the team took a 250 kilowatt power train designed for a commercial bus and adapted it to 600 kW.

According to Cooke, everything from the elaborate electrical harness to provisions for enriched oxygen made the car exceedingly complex.

It was racing three years before it broke 300 mph. It set a record of 130 mph early on, but Cooke said that, record or no, the team wasn’t happy about being so slow.

Buckeye Bullet 2 set a new international record of just under 303 mph in 2009 to become the fastest car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

After another sponsor, a European automaker named Venturi, came in, the same car was refitted with batteries and dubbed Buckeye Bullet 2.5. It went back to Bonneville in 2010 and set another international record of about 307 mph, the average speed over a “flying mile.” The car’s top speed measured during the course was 320 mph.

There are different rules and conditions for the national and international records, so Buckeye Bullet 1’s U.S. record and BB2’s international record stand independently.

Cooke is pursuing a master’s degree under Rizzoni and his work will revolve around the design of the next vehicle, Buckeye Bullet 3. The goal is to develop a car that will exceed 400 mph. BB3 will carry lithium ion batteries from A123 Systems. The batteries, as well as other parts of the power train, will be non-production versions of cutting-edge technology, Cooke said. Wheel bearings, for instance, will need to hold up at 7,000 rpm.

The team hopes to have that car ready for next August.

Venturi has a focus on electric vehicles, and setting international speed records was among several “global challenges” that the automaker has set for itself.

Another of the challenges is my favorite because it involves a road trip and even has a reference to Czech beer. The idea was to have a team drive a Citroen truck with a Venturi all-electric drive from Shanghai to Paris. Near the end of the trip, they stop at a conference in Prague and pay their fee in cases of beer.

The fastest so far that any car has traveled on land is a record set in 1997 by an RAF pilot, Andy Green, driving Thrust SST, which was propelled by a turbofan engine. Green broke the sound barrier at 763 miles an hour.


What’s wrong with corporate hiring?

Post from Alan Brown:

Alan Brown

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen the news stories about corporations only wanting to hire people who are currently employed.

Rather than tap the vast pool of talent available in this rotten economy, many businesses limit recruitment to stealing away people doing the exact same jobs at other companies. This is a real issue for engineers, as well as anyone else looking for work.

In his new book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: Chasing After the ‘Purple Squirrel,’ Peter Cappelli, head of Wharton School of Business’s Center for Human Resources, asks why this is so. And if you never saw a purple squirrel, then you are already half way to getting the point.

Many employers complain that applicants lack the skills they need. But Cappelli argues that the problem often lies with the companies themselves. The problems, he says, range from accounting systems that favor not hiring workers, low pay and lack of training, to the gutting of human resource departments and a reliance on computerized applicant-tracking systems.

Cappelli recently gave an interview to Wharton’s Leadership Digest that is well worth reading. You can view it here. Meanwhile, here is the short-and-sweet version:

Accounting. Accounting systems are like statistics in sports—they do a good job of measuring one very tangible thing. In sports, statistics measure tangible accomplishments, like scoring, batting average or completions. Accounting systems tabulate revenue and spending. But statistics don’t tell the whole story about the character and stabilizing influence of an Eli Manning or Derek Jeter. Accounting does not measure such things as lost opportunity, reduced competitiveness, poor customer service, and lowered productivity when everyone else has to fill in when someone is not hired.

Yes, not filling that job seems to boost profitability, but only because the other costs are hidden. As Cappelli noted about business, “The way their internal accounting is designed encourages them not to hire.”

Pay. Cappelli noted a survey done by Manpower. Of employers who said they had trouble finding people to hire, 11 percent said they could not get people to accept the wages they wanted to pay.

“If 11% admit this, my guess is the real number is probably double that,” Cappelli said. “But if they’re not finding [employees], don’t call it a skills gap; don’t call it a skills mismatch—you’re just being cheap.”

Training. In 1979, young workers averaged 2.5 weeks of training per year. By 1991, only 17 percent received any training the previous year. Twenty years later, only 21 percent said they received any training during the previous five years.

Cappelli argues that business used to train employees. It could create apprenticeships, pay people less until they finished their training, or require people take a training class as a condition of employment. He noted that large hospitals, consulting firms, and accountants lose almost all their young workers over five years, but they still find it profitable to train and employ them.

Why don’t other businesses follow that model? Because their accounting systems cannot tell them what it costs to train somebody. “They have no idea whether they’re actually saving money by trying to chase these people who already have jobs and hire them,” he says.

Older workers. If you are older than 50 and especially 55, losing your job could be a disaster. Many companies are reluctant to hire older workers, perhaps because they worry their skills are not up to date or their energy and enthusiasm have flagged.

They may be missing an opportunity. Older workers, Cappelli said, “have everything that those employers say that they want in new hires—better work attitudes, experience doing the work, they don’t need ramp up time, they don’t need training—or they don’t need as much.”

Automation. “HR departments have been gutted over the past 20 years, and especially during this recession,” he explained. In the past, HR professionals could help managers create the right type of job description and push back on crazy requirements.

Now, Cappelli explains, “Those folks are gone, and basically, those wish-lists of hiring requirements get baked right into applicant tracking software. Human eyes rarely see applicants until the very end of the process. So, we’re trying to push the automation too far. Human judgment is still pretty important.”

Schools. Many companies claim high school and college graduates are less qualified than their foreign counterparts. It is a powerful argument because many people believe U.S. schools are failing. The truth is that U.S. schools have been in the middle of the competitive pack for a long time, and that a greater percentage of U.S. students go to college than anywhere else in the world.

As a result, U.S. students are, on average, better educated than other students. He notes that “employers are not complaining about a lack of academic skills among job applicants.” Instead, employers complain about lack of job-specific skills, but they don’t want train incoming workers.

“I’m not making any argument that employers ought to do something simply for the social good. But it’s just not in their interest to do what they’re doing now, which is to chase the same small group of people who already are employed someplace else. It makes sense to train people. It makes sense to give people a chance. It makes sense to be more realistic about what your job requirements are so that you can actually fill the positions.”


Do Engineering and Autistic Culture Overlap?

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Jean Thilmany

Today’s blog post has been fairly easy to come up with. I got excited after reading this news story titled “How Autism is Changing the World for Everybody” on the blog Jezebel.

I’m in no way suggesting, by including the excerpt below, that I think there’s any correlation between engineers and autism. What I’m saying is that some can identify with the obsession surrounding building things and taking them apart—which the story’s author posits is part of the culture of autism.

And, as the main focus of the story is that those with autism are bringing the “maker culture” to the forefront, I’d wager that budding mechanical engineers could be said to owe a debt of gratitude to those making this culture more accessible to all.

The maker culture and the steam punk culture is certainly a great place for one-day mechanical engineers to get their footing and find their people. And, I confess, it offers a home for some of my very favorite friends and relatives.

Whether you agree with the article excerpted below or not, it’s certainly worth a read. Tell us what you think…

One area in which autistic people are making an impact is maker culture. “Many on the spectrum love to take apart and then rebuild or change or hack mechanical devices,” said Steve Silberman, a longtime contributing editor to Wired magazine. It’s resulted in a convergence of geeks and the popularization of tech culture.

Silberman is also at work on his upcoming book, Neurotribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently.

A good example of those who rebuild mechanical devices is John Elder Robison, author of the book Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. Robison is fascinated by both computers and mechanical devices. Once a guitar technician for Kiss, he now runs a very high-end body shop for sports cars.

“What you see is that kids with autism and Aspergers love this culture,” Silberman said. “It totally plays to their strengths.”

One young man who certainly qualifies for this camp is 15 year-old Joey Hudy, a talented young man with ADD, ADHD and Asperger’s. Struggling at school and finding it hard to make friends, Hudy credits maker culture with changing his life.

And since getting involved in maker culture, Joey hasn’t done badly at all. He recently returned from the White House, where he got to show off his Marshmallow Cannon to President Obama. He also has his very own maker kit on the market. And he’s subsequently developed talents for programming, soldering, building, and designing.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

August 2012

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