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Ice: Thawing the myths

November 25, 2014

Ice is something with which almost everyone across the globe is familiar, whether it's because they like to put it in their drinks on hot days or they encounter it on the ground when it's freezing out. It's frozen water - it doesn't seem all that complex for even those who wouldn't count themselves knowledgeable about various materials. 

However, thanks to the plethora of information available through engineering databases, professionals know that the subject is much more complex. There's actually a lot that can be said about the substance, whether you're talking about frozen sea water or fresh water ice. 

Moreover, as of late, there have been a number of breakthroughs in the science realm about ice lately, in the Antarctic sea and the tropics alike.

Using 3-D scanning to explore the ice
British and American scientists are using new methods of scanning to create 3-D maps of the ice in the Antarctic sea with the help of an underwater robot, called SeaBED They decided to explore this area to learn more about sea changes and climate shifts. In particular, the thickness of the ice has been an area of concern for the researchers involved with the project.

Using this robot to determine thickness is revolutionary in that before, they could only do so with the help of satellite observations, though the accuracy was questionable. 

"The full 3-D topography of the underside of the ice provides a richness of new information about the structure of sea ice and the processes that created it," explained the Institute of Antarctic and Marine Science's Dr. Guy Williams. "This is key to advancing our models particularly in showing the differences between Arctic and Antarctic sea ice."

Getting ice off planes in the tropics
Other scientists are looking to get rid of ice in particular scenarios. Specifically, professionals at Arizona State University are exploring how they can make sure ice doesn't impede travel whether individuals are going somewhere by plane or car.

They're investigating the role poison dart frogs can play in this endeavor, especially as a stand-in for superhydrophobic coating options or antifreeze, which can be expensive and take a toll on the environment. The toxins the frogs give off, however, seem like a more viable option because the animals only secrete them from their skin when needed. 

The scientists tried to replicate a surface like frogs' skin, with a porous layer on top and a secondary antifreeze-infused layer on the bottom, which seeps through when ice appears on the outside surface. The team saw a 10-time delay in ice formation when compared to just using antifreeze.

Is green cement the way of the future?

November 25, 2014

In the past few years, individuals across the globe have become more and more immersed in the green lifestyle. They want to ensure that they're leaving the Earth a healthy and beautiful place for future generations. People can accomplish this by recycling, pulling power from solar panels, driving hybrid vehicles, contributing to a compost pile and a number of other strategies. 

Many individuals are not only embracing this in their personal lives, but their corporate lives as well. Workers are referencing engineering information technology to figure out how they can incorporate green living into the job, from architects who would rather build with eco-friendly materials to engineers who are trying to save the Earth no matter their particular focus. 

One thing these professionals are increasingly looking into is green cement. This is being incorporated into new locations all over the world, changing public spaces as we know it.

New formula means new building blocks
According to the MIT News Office, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is exploring new ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when making the cement that goes into the composition of concrete, which is currently the most-used construction material. 

They're doing this by reducing the ratio of calcium to silicate when creating cement, particularly during the mixing of calcium and silica. Interestingly, the team discovered that by making this shift, the concrete that's mixed at the end of the process is actually stronger and holds up better.

The current ratio of calcium to silica holds at an average of 1.7, but MIT Senior Research Scientist Roland Pellenq said that a 1.5 ratio may be more beneficial and greener.

Finding other eco-friendly materials
Across the globe, there's a real push to become more transparent about the possibilities of finding construction materials, reported Sourceable. This is particularly important when it comes to building structures that could otherwise place the health of those therein in question.

Pipes in particular may be available in environmentally friendly materials. For instance, the source noted that there is evidence coming out of Purdue University that explained that plastic pipes are often easier to install, more cost-efficient and greener, as they contribute less carbon dioxide to the air than their metal counterparts.

This may also benefit the drinking water that travels through the pipes, the news provider explained, which could be very advantageous over time.

Researchers improve effectiveness of gasoline-producing bacteria

November 23, 2014

As of 2014, most of the fuel we consume with internal combustion engines comes from fossil fuels. This non-renewable energy source has driven industry for decades, but it has its limitations. Fossil fuels produce large amounts of carbon when burned, but they are also bound geographically to specific regions of the world. This has been the cause of dozens of wars and geopolitical strife as various countries struggle to establish their dominance over the gas and oil industry. In an effort to break the cycle and economic dominance of oil-controlling countries, scientists the world over have been working on developing new energy sources.

These efforts have led to advancements in renewable resource harvesting like solar cells, wind farms and even geothermal wells. Although solar and wind are fantastic sources of electricity, they do not synergize especially well with dominant transportation technologies. The majority of vehicles on the road are still run by internal combustion engines, and it will take years before electric cars and trucks can truly become the new standard. To bridge current transportation infrastructure from internal combustion to some form of renewable energy, other fuel sources will have to be developed that are well-suited as drop-in fuels for internal combustion engines.

Gasoline-producing bacteria
To this end, some researchers have been working on developing bacteria that can synthesize isopentenol, a compound that has enough shared similarities with gasoline that it could serve as a viable fossil fuel substitute. Recently, an international team of bioengineers combined forces to design a bacterial strain that can mass-produce industrial-level quantities of renewable bio-gasoline.

Using Escherichai coli, the metabolic engineering procedures used to create short-chain alcohol solvents have been established for some time now. However, previous models were not sustainable due to the fact that the solvent-like compounds eventually inhibited microbial growth. To overcome this hurdle, additional tolerance needed to be bred into the bacteria so it could thrive as it produced levels of isopentenol that would otherwise be deadly.

To accomplish this, the team selected 40 genes that the bacteria activate when exposed to isopentenol. In order to determine what each of these genes was meant to accomplish, the team systematically overexpressed each potential defense system and observed the results. Eventually, the scientists identified two promising genes, MetR, a biosynthesis regulator, and MdIB, a transporter. By accelerating the production of these chemicals, the researchers were able to improve production by as much as 60 percent over the original strain. 

Scientists enable super-penetrating ultrasounds

November 24, 2014

When individuals consider ultrasounds, they often think of the scanning of organic matter. This is how scientists can get a deeper understanding of various materials in engineering database platforms - they run these sorts of processes. For instance, pregnant women undergo ultrasound tests to make sure the embryo is developing properly, because there are few ways of telling otherwise.

However, thus far, ultrasounds have been fairly limited in terms of what they can scan. Scientists have recently found a way to expand the possibilities and may now be able to hold successful ultrasounds on thicker and denser materials like metals and bone. 

Should this process become successful, it may add a lot of previously unavailable information to engineering information stores.

New strategy eliminates distortion
A team at North Carolina State University recently created this method, which uses metamaterial structures that offset acoustic vibrations of aberrating layers of mater, although this once distorted the results of ultrasound imaging. This is why scans of metals and bones were largely viewed as failures, but blocking those specific sounds from ultrasound results can enable more success.

"In effect, it's as if the aberrating layer isn't even there," assistant professor Dr. Yun Jing noted.

Future possibilities
This new type of ultrasound may affect a number of industries. For instance, NC State Ph.D. student Tarry Shen explained that this could help doctors detect many afflictions, because they'll be able to monitor blood flow and tumors in areas they previously couldn't. Shen noted that doing an ultrasound scan of the brain was difficult beforehand, because of the density of the skull.

Jing also pointed out that engineers may find this beneficial as well, as this sort of ultrasound could be employed in industrial locations, and it could determine sub-surface issues in various materials.

NC State engineers look into prosthetics
According to The Stanly News and Press, engineers at the college are researching powered prosthetics and their affect on amputees, the latest move in medical developments coming out of the school.

The source reported that Dr. Helen Huang is creating decoding technology that uses electronic signals in muscles to control prosthetic limbs. Her team is taking special note of errors, both those that greatly affect movement and those that have little to no consequence on the actual use of the limb in order to become more efficient.

The ongoing hunt for dark matter might be over

November 24, 2014

These days, it's relatively easy to jump to the conclusion that scientists know everything there is to know about what the world is made up of. Consider the fact that the average engineering database is massive - there are simply innumerable types of materials, and the amount of knowledge on each and every one of these resources is exceedingly large.

Interestingly enough, even in this advanced age, this available information isn't comprehensive. Though scientists, astronauts and engineers are very educated about many materials in existence, they simply don't know everything. There is a significant portion of matter in the universe that even the most educated academics in their field cannot identify - also called dark matter.

Chris Kouvaris, an associate professor at the Centre for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology, told the University of Southern Denmark that 27 percent of the universe is made up of dark matter. However, if scientists have anything to say about it, that may not be the case for much longer. Professionals are looking at a variety of new ways to uncover mysteries about any remaining unknown materials.

Searching on the surface
The university explained that, in order to avoid cosmic noise and hopefully get a clearer reading on interactions between dark matter and known atoms, scientists have been placing detectors in underground sites. Kouvaris and colleague Ian Shoemaker don't think that this is necessarily the best method to learn more about dark matter anymore, though.

"In such a case, it would make more sense to look for dark matter signals on the surface of the Earth or in shallow sites," Kouvaris explained, because he thinks that by the time dark matter particle materials reach the underground detectors, they may have lost the majority of their energy, making them harder to recognize.

In addition to placing detectors on the surface, the professionals will be monitoring signals throughout the day, rather than just within a certain window of opportunity, the university acknowledged. They will be placing sensors in prime areas, which have been identified as in the southern hemisphere and at a latitude of 40 degrees. Countries in this zone include New Zealand, Argentine and Chile.

Flying the skies
Placing detectors on Earth isn't the only strategy scientists are considering. Professionals at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Victoria in British Columbia are trying to track down dark matter with the help of Global Positioning System-enabled satellites.

Andrei Derevianko and Maxim Pospelov have derived a plan to monitor the skies using these machines, as well as atomic clock networks, and trying to recognize discrepancies in times from the clocks.

"We propose to detect the defects, the dark matter, as they sweep through us with a network of sensitive atomic clocks. The idea is, where the clocks go out of synchronization, we would know that dark matter, the topological defect, has passed by," Derevianko explained. "In fact, we envision using the GPS constellation as the largest human-built dark-matter detector."

The two are using a fleet of 30 GPS-enabled satellites navigated by the atomic clocks. They're looking for any blip in synchronization, and hope to recognize the presence of dark matter and eventually figure out what it's made out of and where it's located.

Derevianko also noted that this team of physicists is trying to think outside the box, because old assumptions might not hold true.

University of Nevada, Reno, College of Science Dean Jeff Thompson said that this research and subsequent findings may well shift the common school of thought with regard to science and the universe. The findings could mean significant developments for scientists worldwide.

MIT researchers find new uses for nanoparticles

November 21, 2014

Engineering research is highly advanced these days - some of the best and brightest in the field work on elements of materials that cannot even be seen by the naked eye. Microscopic particles make a massive difference in things like structural engineering, as well as space exploration and particularly medicine, among many other fields.

Those with a concentration in health care find that they can detect various illnesses and even stop disorders in their tracks by paying attention to some of the smallest elements of the human body.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed new nanoparticles that may turn out to be a very significant boon to the medical field in the near future.

Revolutionizing the imaging field
Chemists at the famed school developed the tiny particles to produce better imaging results, such as those that can be seen in the magnetic resonance imaging process, or MRIs, as well as florescent imaging. This means that professionals will be able to track growth and spread of diseases and target specific molecules.

These nanoparticles work by giving off florescent signals, which can then be recorded by doctors and used to produce real results and diagnoses, depending on the signal strength. They were crafted from polymer chains carrying MRI contract agents or florescent molecules, depending on their specific use. The chains create building blocks, which are then combined, resulting in nitrogen atoms bound to oxygen atoms accompanied by an unpaired electron.

Future potential
There are a lot of possibilities for the future that have been raised, thanks to this particular development. MIT Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jeremiah Johnson indicated that this technology may be expanded to track reactive oxygen that signifies disease, as well as keep tabs on more that one molecule at once.

Technology Review also pointed to the potentiality of nanoparticles to detect cancer cells that travel through the blood stream. The source explained that a new type of nanoparticle, the nanoflare, may be conditioned to work by seeking out and attaching to cancerous cells in the blood. Once they make contact, the nanoparticles will glow, alerting doctors very early on.

Nanoflares are constructed using a chunk of gold, which is then coated with DNA snippets that correspond to RNA commonly found in cancerous cells and florescent molecules, the news provider detailed.

The future of biofuel may rely on animal fats

November 20, 2014

Biofuel has been a popular topic for a number of years now, with many innovators looking to products like corn oil for the future of fuel. However, for some people, the notion that vegetable oil or animal fats could one day be used to fuel America's motor vehicles is not only absurd, but potentially dangerous from an economic standpoint. Corn, for instance, accounts for a huge portion of the American diet. If corn crops had to be split between food and biofuel production, it is conceivable that the price of this commodity could skyrocket.

Running on gators 
In an effort to identify new sources of renewable biofuel that would not compete with food supplies, some researchers have been exploring the potential of using animal fat that would otherwise be discarded during the butchering process. Specifically, scientists have been analyzing the potential of alligator fat as a base for biofuels.

In 2008, 700 million gallons of biodiesel came from soybean oil, according to the American Chemical Society. That number included oil that was recycled from deep fryers in fast-food restaurants as well as sewage, in addition to new oil that was produced from soybeans grown for this purpose. In the same year, the meat industry disposed of 15 million pounds of alligator fat in landfills. If that fat was reallocated for biofuels, it could significantly offset the amount of soybeans used for this purpose.

Kentucky fried fuel
Still, some skeptics are not convinced of the feasibility of biofuel as a new source of energy for motor vehicles. These purists claim that it is simply not as good as fossil fuels, but one professor from Middle Tennessee State University is on a quest to prove them wrong. Cliff Ricketts,  Ph.D, recently embarked on a cross-country journey from Key West, Florida, to Seattle, Washington, and back to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in a 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit fueled solely by biodiesel. The fuel is a blend of animal fat and waste vegetable oil that was collected from the MTSU dining facilities.

It's important to note that it's not possible to simply empty a deep fryer into a diesel tank. The oil first needs to be refined by a process called transesterification, which converts fats and removes the glycerin from the oil while combining fatty acids with alcohol. The result is a combustible, drop-in fuel that can be burned in just about any diesel engine. If the journey is a success, it will demonstrate the viability of this technology.

Engineers enable printing of electronic circuits

Whether they know it or not, consumers across the globe use electronic circuits in a variety of ways many days of their lives. For instance, these small objects are present in headphones and speakers, as they play a pivotal role in turning digital information into sound, while they also help identify RFID tags, which help track goods being sold across innumerable industries.

These circuits are extremely complex, and as such are difficult to create by even the most seasoned veterans using the latest engineering information technology.

That may no longer be the case, as researchers at Nanyang Technological University Singapore recently discovered a new way to print flexible electronic circuits.

Incorporating new materials
A release from the school detailed that this was made possible by printing the complex circuits out in layers atop materials like paper, plastic and aluminum foil using nanoparticles, carbon and plastic. This strategy is "additive," meaning that it's eco-friendly and doesn't employ toxic chemicals or oxidizing agents.

The new method can enable the printing of the objects in mere minutes, and the tactic is also highly scalable in terms of the size of the circuits. 

Potentialities for the future
As NTU Singapore associate professor Joseph Chang noted in an official statement, this can have a lot of positive implications on the future of research within various industries, including potential mass production of electronic circuits.

"This means we can have smarter products, such as a carton that tells you exactly when the milk expires, a bandage that prompts you when it is time for a redressing and smart patches that can monitor life signals like your heart rate," Chang explained.

NTU as an innovator
The college has a long history of innovation in the engineering realm. More recently, according to Channel NewsAsia, the university held a public symposium to discuss attracting more women to scientific fields, including the engineering sector.

"We now have fewer women in the important fields of engineering, science and technology, and we are missing out all that potential and half of the best brains," college President Bertil Andersson noted, in a statement.

On Nov. 7, the college organized the "Women in Engineering, Science and Technology Symposium" to catch the attention of interested females from Singapore, as well as other nations. The event featured speeches from a number of bright minds in the aforementioned fields, such as Professor Ada Yonath, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and Professor Daniela Rhodes, a member of th U.K. Royal Society. A number of other educators working at NTU also gave presentations.

New method to measure stress in 3-D printed materials tested

November 20, 2014

Across the globe, 3-D printing seems to be one of the most innovate, interesting technologies being developed now. Many individuals are imagining a future in which they can, from the comfort of their own homes, print out things like food, clothing, toys, tools, spare parts and other items that they'd normally have to leave their home to obtain.

However, much more goes into this process. First, consumers need to buy the printer and the filaments that will make up the materials of the goods created, and then they have to download a blueprint to enable creation.

Interestingly, it's not strictly a consumer-focused technology. Doctors are already using these machines to print out medical necessities, such as stents, grafts and other implants, while architects are also beginning to use the printers to craft materials. This presents a new learning scenario for professionals in various industries.

For instance, some scientists and researchers are considering how 3-D printed objects will be categorized and detailed within engineering database platforms. These can be great repositories for mechanical engineers, among others, who need to know more about materials.

As the interest and use of 3-D printed parts expand, one element in particular is becoming prominent in engineering research - the residual stress that 3-D printed metal parts can endure. Professionals in the sector recently discovered a new means of measuring this metric, something that can change the face of the engineering industry in the near future.

Why is this important?
3-D printed materials are being used more and more frequently, for things like machine parts and structures. As such, professionals need to verify the durability and strength of such materials to ensure the safety of all individuals who come into contact with the objects.

Moreover, these parts aren't strictly solid metal, Science Daily pointed out. Rather, 3-D metals are printed out layer by layer, and each level's sprayed-on metal powder particles are fused to the next with the help of a high-energy laser beam within the printer. 

Researchers leverage additive manufacturing
According to the source, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made the discovery that they could measure stress on these types of parts by using a process called powder-bed fusion additive manufacturing.

Residual stress is concerning to those involved in the printing process because there are significant temperature shifts, particularly near the last melt spot. Heating and cooling causes expansion and contraction, potentially putting the strength of the final product in question, especially for thicker pieces.

The news provider also pointed out that warping, detachments and total failure might also be possible unless durability can be verified.

This is where powder-bed fusion additive manufacturing, as well as digital image correlation, comes into play, the source detailed. Using DIC, an image analysis method, researchers at the lab found that they could collect stress data by comparing readouts of what the material looks like both before and after it's on the build plate. Should there be no distortion, that means that there is no residual stress.

According to Science Daily, the lab compared its results with that of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which uses the proven method of neutron diffraction. Only three facilities have the capability to perform these tests because of the unavailability of high-energy neutron sources. The LLNL's findings matched those of LANL, proving the reliability of this new method.

The future of 3-D printing
This could have massive implications for the future of the use of 3-D printed materials used for structures. 

However, the industry continues to move to even larger, unexplored realms. Spaceflight Now explained that the first 3-D printer for use in outer space has been activated by astronauts onboard the International Space Station. This raises more questions that engineers may be interested in - durability might hold up under a lot of stress on Earth, but what about in a zero gravity situation?

"We figured out all the tricks of making a 3-D printer work in zero gravity - everything from how to make the mechanics different - each layer is fractions of a micron from one layer to the next," Jason Dunn, co-founder and chief technology officer at printer creator Made in Space, told the source. "In zero gravity, you have things floating around, and if they float within those fractions of a micron, it throws off the whole print."

Another thing that had to be considered before it could be used in space was the potential to heat up the materials enough to enable the molding and creation of objects.

The news provider noted that it's been smooth sailing thus far. The printer arrived at the space station Sept. 23 and was unpacked and set up by Butch Wilmore in the Destiny laboratory module. This particular machine doesn't enable metal objects to be created - it currently uses a special type of plastic, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is also used to make Lego bricks. 

Universities show their commitment to engineering research

November 18, 2014

Engineers across the globe have a wide breadth of resources at their fingertips when they need to reference anything from material density to the latest engineering research revelations. They can access databases, read research briefs and so on.

However, this interest in the field generally starts somewhere - professional engineers have to go through adequate schooling before they can earn that honor. Many colleges across the globe offer worthwhile engineering programs to undergraduate and graduate students so they can enrich their lives and pave a solid path to the future.

The fact that this career route is becoming more and more popular and profitable is evidenced by the numerous universities pledging their commitment to engineering.

Michigan State's facility to open in 2015
According to the Lansing State Journal, Michigan State University is among the most notable colleges leading this charge. The facility invested in a new biomedical sciences and human health research facility, called the MSU Bio Engineering Facility, which is set to open in summer 2015. Moreover, the source stated, the building itself is innovative in that it has an open-floor design to promote collaboration and boasts energy-conservation elements that should help the school save money over time.

The building is set to be the headquarters for a number of concentrations, from nanotechnology to robotics to health care.

"The student demand in engineering has really never been higher. We now have something like 6,000 students in the college. It has gone up considerably over the past five or six years," MSU College of Engineering Dean Leo Kempel told the Journal. "The college is growing and will require us to increase faculty to meet that need, and look hard at our use of space."

The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce recently honored the college for its $61 million investment, the source noted.

Cornell gets involved in big competition
Not to be outdone, Cornell University engineers have been very busy lately, according to the Cornell Chronicle. The school paper detailed that some students recently joined the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which is a multi-year competition open to the international community. 

Team ViGIR, which stands for Virginia-Germany Interdisciplinary Robotics and includes professionals from the University of Hanover and Oregon State University, hopes to take home the top prize of $2 million in June 2015. The aim is to create a robot that can help humans respond to natural or man-made disasters, the source reported. Cornell engineers have been charged with enabling either partial or full autonomy to the robotic platform, the news provider explained, thereby automating tasks and allowing for robotic decision-making.

The team named the robot Florian, and it will compete in California in 2015, though it cannot take the top spot unless it successfully completes 10 tasks in an hour.

Texas college becomes part of consortium
In an effort to open up the field for more innovation for students and faculty, the University of North Texas College of Engineers recently entered the Cold-Formed Steel Research Consortium. This way, research can be more comprehensive and students in various locations can collaborate.

"Joining the consortium gives UNT and partner institutions an opportunity to combine our expertise and research facilities to advance research and knowledge on cold-formed steel," noted associate professor Cheng Yu, as quoted by

The college joins other schools with an engineering concentration, including the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Johns Hopkins University, McGill University and Northeastern University.

Individuals will have more access to information about cold-formed steel, the source reported, which is used in the building of various types of equipment, such as bridges, car bodies and transmission towers.