Archive for September, 2012


Build Your Own Hot Rod

Post from Jeffrey Winters: 

Jeffrey Winters

From time to time I check in on what the team Open Source Ecology is up to—it’s not cutting edge engineering, but the concept of making modern agriculture and manufacturing accessible to everyone is exciting. Recently they put up an announcement that a pair of high school students from Pasadena used the open-source designs the team published to build their own tractor. It still has its rough edges, but it works. 

As a culture, we’re used to teenagers creating stuff out of information—everything from rock songs to computer programs. And certainly modifying machines used to be a common activity, back when high school boys were turning old junkers into hot rods. But with the rise of desktop-size 3-D printers and open-source hardware, it’s not hard to imagine a time in the not too distant future when teenage boys and girls will be showing off homemade machines the way they might trade, say, guitar licks or rap lyrics today. (I hope I’m not showing my age too much here.)

Any time you put powerful tools in the hands of infinitely creative minds, you can expect (some) amazing stuff to happen. Maybe the long-awaited hoverboard will be built by a teen who wanted to make something cool to ride to school.


juice from water

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

I’ve never been to Nepal, but judging from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the bars could be pretty exciting there. So it could be an interesting trip.

If I’m lucky enough, I might get to visit the factory where they’re going to build the hydropower turbines.

Nepal has its eye on developing what it sees as a vast potential for hydroelectric power. It is a mountainous country full of rivers. The Independent Power Producers’ Association, Nepal, estimates that the country has the potential for 40,000 MW of hydropower. Right now, it has developed about 600 MW.

Hydroelectricity represents about 1 percent of the country’s total energy consumption, and just about all of its electricity.

I came across all this because the Global Window department in the October issue of Mechanical Engineering includes a story about a new venture that is going to set up that turbine factory. A Nepali power company, Glow Tech Solutions, ordered some turbines designed to work in river and tidal currents from a Dutch manufacturer, Tocardo B.V International. Now they are in a partnership to make turbines in Nepal.

But later on, just a few days ago, I read about something closer to home. Another manufacturer, Verdant Power, is testing hydroturbines in the East River, near New York City’s Roosevelt Island. I knew that this kind of turbine, designed to be rotated by natural currents, has been in the river for a while. But it seems they have a history of breaking down in the river’s current.

According to a story in the last week’s New York Times, the company has tested a turbine for 10 days, and has retrieved it unscathed.

According to the newspaper, “After 10 days in the river, the blades gleamed in the September sunlight, showing no obvious signs of wear or damage. The turbine’s pristine appearance brought smiles to the faces of Mr. Corren [Dean Corren, Verdant’s director of technology] and his colleagues. Dean Whatmoor, a logistics manager, who had been monitoring the test from a converted cargo container filled with computer screens and gauges, admitted that he was a little sad to see the test end.

“In about five years, the company hopes to have 30 turbines arrayed in the river, each capable of producing 35 kilowatts of electricity. All told, the project would produce about as much power as one wind turbine, enough to power a few hundred homes.”

That comes to a little more than a megawatt, modest for a power plant in the U.S., and certainly a tiny fraction of what the region uses. But there are places in the world where a contribution like that could make a big difference for a great many people—places like Nepal, for instance.

I’m glad to see they’re working on it.


Still steamed

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

When I was in Ontario in May I did some of my favorite things: I tried some interesting local brews, of course, and also got to talk to people with a different view of the world. As it turns out, it was an interesting time to go because this year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

The U.S. and Canada are good friends now, but there are lots of historical markers and artifacts across the border that reminded me that we weren’t always so. Many Canadians, including a retired judge in Brockville, Ontario, are conversant about the occasions when my ancestors tried to invade their northern neighbor.

More recently, I was reminded of another anniversary. It has been 300 years since Thomas Newcomen gave the first public demonstration of his atmospheric steam engine. I have spoken to engineers who consider that demonstration in 1712 to be the first shot in the Industrial Revolution. Watt came later and improved steam technology, yes, but Newcomen was the first guy to put heat to work—pumping water from mines.

It was a letter to the editor from an ASME member, Stan Jakuba, that brought this to my attention. Stan’s letter appears in the October issue of Mechanical Engineering.

Bob Woods, an ASME Fellow, wrote an article about Newcomen, his engine, and its legacy that ran in the December 2003 issue.

When I was a kid in school, history books would talk about “the Age of Steam,” a phrase that conveyed a sense that steam power was not unlike the War of 1812: off in the past.

After all, vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines—airplanes too, when they aren’t propelled by turbines. They stopped making steam locomotives early in the 1940s. Diesel moves the ships.

But even so, steam is very much with us in our electrified world. Steam carries heat through the pipes of my home, and I believe, of my office building. But most important, steam still keeps most of the lights on and the devices running.

Coal is the fuel that generates 40 percent or more of the electricity consumed in the United States each year. Nuclear reactors account for another 20 percent. In either case, reaction of the fuel heats water to produce steam. Combined cycle plants capture the hot exhaust of gas turbines to generate steam to produce more electricity.

And of course, I don’t think of steam without a nod to the thousands of people over the years who have developed the codes and standards that make the technology affordable and safe.

Electricity is one of the most important commodities supporting our civilization. And most of it comes from steam-driven technology.

Thank you, Newcomen.


Actually Educational

Post from Jean Thilmany:


Jean Thilmany

Could children, if given the chance, help create suitable and amusing educational computer games? And, perhaps more important, would they maintain interest in an educational game they had input in designing? Would they want to play it more than once?

Happily, the answer to all those questions seem to be yes, according to Wolmet Barendregt, an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who conducts research on children’s game playing. She looks at how game makers can support learning and include the children in the design process.

This is a quite relief to me, as I have a child in first grade and another in preschool and sometimes (often) I fear computers and educational software and games are thrown at them willy-nilly. I’m concerned that there is a rush toward online learning without enough thought as to how young students actually learn and what they’re interested in. I’m glad researchers like Barendregt are studying that question.

Many educational games are lessons, with stuff added so that they will resemble a game. Kids can see through that, Barendregt said. She also said that the risk of so-called educational games in general is that they are either too educational and boring, or fun-filled without any learning opportunities.

She and her research team also found game design affects interaction between children and parents, especially when there is a difference in skills. She seeks a deeper understanding of how different game design affects how you play together and what mechanisms can and cannot be used for educational games.

As someone who feels, perhaps wrongly, that too many computer games—and that includes those on iPads and smartphones—are billed as educational, I salute Barendregt and her colleagues on their even-handed research into educational computer games. She’s convinced me they aren’t going away and that I need to be brought around to their necessity and use.


see it their way

Post from Alan S. Brown

Alan Brown

There is no denying the importance of visualization in engineering and science. We have all staggered our bewildered way through textbooks, presentations, and papers, only to come to that one illustration that suddenly clarifies the point for us—or not.

Most engineering communications have plenty of pictures and illustrations, but not all of them make their point in ways that create those “ah-ha” moments. In fact, argues Felice Frankel, a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering, many of those illustrations can be interpreted only by experts in the same sub-disciplines as the researchers who created them. To reach a larger audience—and produce more ah-ha moments—engineers and researchers must rethink how they communicate visually.

Frankel, who is also a photographer and designer, has created an eye-popping little book to help you do just that. It is called Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers. Her co-author is Angela DePace, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology.

Designer Steve Heller, last year noted that many scientific illustrations make basic design mistakes that make them harder to understand and actually reduce the amount of information they convey.

Frankel agreed, noting that engineers and scientists never take these type of “design” courses, and thus feel uncomfortable developing something as subjective as a visual style. This is especially true when it strays from what they see in other papers and presentations. So while an engineer might be wildly creative in thinking about a problem, he or she may stick to known recipes when it comes to representing issues visually.

One example in the book involves an explosion. These are often visualized in multiple colors. Frankel and DePace suggest eliminating the color in all but the section where it matters. The result is a graphic that shouts out what is important.

Another example involved showing how water dropped onto a gold surface pattered with hydrophobic lines did not spread across the lines. The original picture was a gold monochrome with several barely perceptible water droplets on it. The authors recreated the picture, dying the water and coloring the surface so that the droplets appeared to pop off the surface.

The authors offer some advice for researchers looking to speak to a broader audience. First, know who you are addressing and how they will use the information. Then decide on whether you want an illustration, chart, sketch, or photo. Organize the illustration to make your point, and reduce or eliminate elements that serve no purpose. Use color to highlight the important part.

The book offers 160 pages of suggestions, but its heart is page after page of original and redesigned illustrations and the rationale behind them. The book’s website also includes some visual classics. It is well worth checking out.


Satellite Era

Jean Thilmany

Post from Jean Thilmany:

I vacationed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in mid-August. The U.P. can be a place derided as full of Yoopers by Michiganers who live down below in the mitten, and I admit it can be depressing with its mostly deserted but still one-quarter-filled mining towns dotted across the landscape like so many ghost towns.

But the natural landscape is rich green and unspoiled and we rented a house right on the edge of Lake Superior; the lake stretched endless as an ocean but six times as cold not more than ten paces out the door. And overhead the sky at night exactly mirrored the lake, only dotted with bright stars ripped within the firmament. I could pick out the constellations clear as though I’d been sitting in my local college’s planetarium on a Friday night in seventh grade, first learning them.

When my son and I went out at midnight we saw, in addition to the dot-to-dot stars, two fast-moving largish starfish shapes that he took for either a UFO or shooting star and I knew couldn’t have been an airplane. We watched it for a while and even wished on it. That thing was moving across the night sky fast.

The next day my husband told us our starfish had been satellites and that he’d yelled up to one from the beach like a tormented lover, “Why can’t we get cell reception here?”

I’d never thought much about satellites. I occasionally write articles about mechanical or industrial engineers’ roles in their inception, including their launch pads. But since my vacation I’ve found them almost beautiful in an industrial art, art-meets-nature kind of way. And I have a newfound respect for them.

After all, it was with the help of a satellite that NASA reported last week that the extent of the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean has shrunk, something we likely all know but should be ultra concerned about. According to scientists from NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., the ice cover is the smallest ever observed in the three decades since consistent satellite observations of the polar cap began. You can read the report at

The extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, as measured by the Special Sensor Microwave/Imager on the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft and analyzed by NASA and NSIDC, was 1.58 million square miles, 27,000 square miles smaller than it was on Sept. 18, 2007, a day later in the melt season of a warmer year, according to the report.

Satellites are responsible for much of modern life, including the phone reception my husband sought. And I’m newly in their thrall, like a kid interested in science and first discovering their importance. I may even pin up a poster of a satellite in my home office. But I’ll refrain from the black-light version.


Out of this World

My September column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Last month I was invited to a midnight party that was out of this world.

NASA was hosting the party—a public vigil for the landing of the rover Curiosity on the surface of Mars—at the iconic Times Square site in New York City where revelers wait for the year to change every December 31.

I decided to skip the public celebration but stayed up until the wee hours, nonetheless, to watch the event live online at home. I was not the only one who tuned in, as NASA’s websites ultimately crashed due to the high volume of overnight space gawkers.

And why wouldn’t people tune in? The 10-year project, with a price tag of $2.5 billion, featured an impossibly complex rover and landing system. If you’re not familiar with it, see the video here.

Still, this project hasn’t garnered the type of buzz this year’s Olympics enjoyed. Maybe there’s no gee-whiz left in us anymore and we’ve grown used to seeing things we never thought we would see, but—putting politics and finance aside—landing a rover the size of a car on Mars is a spectacular engineering feat.

If the public interest surrounding this remarkable achievement was subdued, the mood among engineers and scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory was not. When Curiosity landed, they were whooping it up as though their own kin had won an Olympic medal.

In fact, mechanical engineer Adam Steltzner—who led the team that designed the system and has become the prominent face of the project—said he felt the project has  become like nurturing the development of a child.

Steltzner, a former rocker, has become a bit of a celebrity in his own right. He is comfortable in front of the media, sports an Elvis haircut, and has pierced ears. The Bay Area native told National Public Radio a couple of days before Curiosity landed that engineering gave him the “opportunity to be gainfully employed, really understanding my world with these laws and equations that govern it.” He’s become so popular, in some circles, that there’s an active blog discussion on whether Steltzner is truly a hipster or not—some claim his perfectly coiffed hair disqualifies him.

Supporters of planetary exploration argue strongly that Curiosity represents more than a search for any life Mars might harbor; but that it also signals to the rest of the world that U.S. engineering is thriving. As of this writing, Curiosity was successfully sending back signals from Mars.

In her thought-provoking essay in this issue on the basic human right to access technology, Jessica Wyndham, who is director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said, “Engineers often operate beyond the borders of their own communities, cultures, and languages to bring change.”

Wyndham is focused on the rights of people living in rural areas and developing countries to access state-of-the-art technology. Engineers working at the Jet Propulsion Lab will tell you that Curiosity is, in its own right, an important tool to give engineers on Earth access to insights that will lead to breakthrough technologies. Technology, they say, that will lead to a better way of life, on Earth, for all. 

The Editor

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

September 2012

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