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Using renewable energy to get the wheels turning

December 19, 2014

Drivers these days are essentially slaves to gas stations. Most people have to keep a close eye on their gasoline gauge to make sure the needle doesn't hover too close to empty - otherwise they risk their car breaking down and getting stranded. While, sure, that's not the case for every car, now that we live in a time of hybrids, solar-powered and electric vehicles, most people still have to fill up every few days.

Researchers looking to change engineering information are constantly working to find more renewable plans for cars. Using other, potentially cheaper and more easily renewable, resources could be cost-effective and beneficial for the environment in the long run. 

Keeping society safe
According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science conducted by a team from the University of Minnesota, it might be well worth it for engineers to continue pursuing other options when it comes to fueling cars. After all, the results revealed that electric cars may reduce deaths due to air pollution by 70 percent when compared to vehicles that run on gasoline. 

Perhaps most surprising, however, was the fact that the report noted that cars powered by corn ethanol, coal-based energy or "grid average" electricity were among the most dangerous automobiles. This is because going from a natural gas-powered car to one of these options increases air pollution deaths by up to 80 percent. 

The dangers aren't only from these types of fuels burning when the car is running and in motion, but emissions are also generated when these power sources are produced.

"These findings demonstrate the importance of clean electricity, such as from natural gas or renewables, in substantially reducing the negative health impacts of transportation," explained study co-author Chris Tessum. 

Don't fall for the hype
One other revelation that's come out recently in the realm of powering cars is that, despite the creation of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, other options might be more beneficial to consumers and the environment.

According to Technology Review, consumers are going to start seeing hydrogen-powered cars more often in the near future. These automobiles run on a chemical reaction caused by hydrogen that occurs in the car's fuel cell. The source reported that the first cars of this kind will be released in the United States in 2015. 

And while the cars are being touted as green because they emit water vapor, the news outlet noted that greenhouse gases are also released. This, then, means that hybrid cars are generally the best option for the environment now, until more engineering research can be done.

Powering up in a new way

December 19, 2014

Every year, when the holidays come around, plenty of kids and adults unwrap packs of batteries as gifts, with the knowledge that this is the only way they can power a number of electronics, toys, gadgets and other presents. While technology has certainly made a lot of headway in the past few years, there aren't a lot of options when it comes to providing juice to many items. In general, gizmos either have internal batteries that must be recharged or they take AAs, AAAs or other standard batteries.

However, in a shift that might forever change the information found in an engineering database,  a number of scientists are starting to develop plans to make more sustainable batteries that can hold a charge for longer. For instance, researchers at Kansas State University recently began crafting a new kind of battery using elements and composites.

Batteries with long lives
By developing power sources with sheets of graphene oxide as flexible paper electrodes, scientists can produce stronger batteries. They can then be adapted to fit sodium and lithium-ion batteries. These elements enhance the sodium storage capacity, which then yield batteries that survive for more than 1,000 charge cycles. 

The batteries will continue to work until the contained electrodes tear apart - though the batteries are able to sustain a lot of strain due to the new design.

"Most lithium electrode materials for sodium batteries cannot even last for more than a few tens of charge and discharge cycles because sodium is much larger than lithium and causes enormous volume changes and damage to the host material," explained Gurpreet Singh, team representative and assistant professor.

Going forward, the team of researchers plans to explore how to use different materials to make the batteries as cost-effective as possible. 

Keeping consumers safe
Elsewhere, engineers are considering other new possibilities for batteries, but this time with a bigger focus on safety.

According to CBS News, scientists are looking into tests that have shown that bulk packages of rechargeable batteries might be prone to explosion or fires when transported via plane. The issue here is that these batteries power a lot of common items, from cellphones to laptops. 

While the source noted that this might be an issue when they're moved in bulk, there are legal loopholes that would allow individuals to pack a lot of batteries, which could put transports in danger.

What technologies do engineers need to succeed?

December 18, 2014

We live in an age when there are advanced technologies available on the market to professionals, no matter their field of choice. For instance, American health care professionals have access to some of the most impressive, life-saving machines, while those who work in entertainment can use the latest cutting-edge video equipment to record their works. 

This is certainly true for individuals who have chosen to pursue a career in engineering. Engineering resources have never been more advanced and widely available than they are now, but professionals just need to know where to look.

To make sure they create the best structures, machinery and other products, engineers need to be able to use these tools to the best of their abilities. So, what is it that they require?

Computers
It's a given that the average engineer needs to be able to use a computer to complete their jobs, but more than that, that individual should be given access to the best and fastest ones on the market. Dell Precisions Executive Director Andy Rhodes told Virtual Desktop that many engineers try to stick to a budget when picking work tools, but they shouldn't skimp where computers are concerned. 

In fact, Rhodes, noted, they shouldn't be using consumer-grade PCs at all. Rather, professionals need workstations equipped with advanced software like AutoCAD, SolidWorks and Solid Edge. Loading devices with these types of programs requires computers with quick processors, high-quality graphics and a lot of memory. 

Applications
While the need for advanced computers is apparent, it might surprise some professionals to know that they should also be able to complete some of their tasks with mobile applications. After all, apps are often run on small, portable, common devices like smartphones or tablets. 

With that being said, EDN Magazine asserted that apps can help engineers be more productive and efficient when they're on the go or in the field. 

For instance, the news source reported that professionals can sign onto Apple's App Store and find something like iCircuit, which allows them to access a simulation machine to test out digital and analog circuits. Others might be more attracted to Pocket Slide Rule, which eliminates the need for engineers to carry around slide rules and digitizes them instead. They can also take it one step further and download Smart Tools HD, which includes a compass, a flashlight, a level and angle tools, among many other resources.

Where to look for skilled engineers

December 18, 2014

Becoming an engineer is an extremely successful and lucrative career choice for many people across the globe. Not only does this job path have a positive reputation, but those who hold such a position are often seen as societal leaders and make a good living. 

That being said, especially as we live in such an active information age, plenty of students are going into other fields, so the engineering field tends to be very competitive. While those interested in the industry should certainly look into all the engineering information they can find, what can be done now to fill in a potential skills gap? 

A number of experts in the United States have some interesting ideas on how to continue to bulk up the sector.

Looking overseas
A strategy many people in various fields turn to, the News-Press recently suggested that leaders in the sector may want to start looking overseas if they're searching for skilled engineers. Given developing immigration reform, big industry players may want to consider their options with regard to offering visas to experts from another nation.

The source commented on the great, "...need for foreigners to fill science and technology jobs we can't fill with homegrown talent. We desperately need more skilled workers."

This need will likely become even more crucial, the newspaper explained, as it is projected that there will be 1.8 million new jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. As such, the news outlet suggested that leaders and government representatives consider offering foreign scientists and engineers more H-1B visas, as there's enough talent out there to fill needs.

Educating the youth
Other engineering experts think that the issue could lie in the possibility that the youth of America don't really know what it means to follow this career path. Those in this school of thought think that students should be educated about job specifications and potentialities, which could yield more interest and hard results when people pick their majors.

The Boston Globe reported that a number of individuals and organizations are tackling this issue head-on. For instance, Maine-based Kepware Technologies crafted an annual program that donates $10,000 worth of new technologies to local primary schools. The corporation also heads up middle and high school-level competitions in which budding scientists and engineers can enter to win prizes and learn more about the field. 

Influencing a new industrial revolution

December 17, 2014

The number of pieces of equipment engineers use on a regular basis is extremely large, including everything from a pencil and sketch pad to high-tech, advanced machinery. This figure skyrockets when one considers the numerous concentrations within the engineering sector. 

As time passes and various technologies continue to be developed worldwide, the equipment that affect engineers are constantly evolving as well, which yields a lot of new and updated information in engineering handbooks. 

Some professionals think that this is leading to a modern-day Industrial Revolution, one which could well have fantastic implications on the industry.

GE gamifies the field, spurring collaboration
Leading the way in this push for new and improved industrial machinery is General Electric, which decided to create a "hackathon" in early 2014 to get various interested parties competing to create new equipment, Popular Science reported. Namely, mechanics, artists, engineers and IT experts, among others, participated, which yielded some interesting results.

Since the contest, the corporation has become much more interested in creating an environment of collaboration. The source noted that when new equipment ideas come from various sources, including those who go through the hackerspace, and garner a lot of interest and support, the innovators work with designers and engineers from GE to make them a reality.

The news provider suggested that strategies like this are sowing the seeds of the next Industrial Revolution, starting with the manufacturing realm. 

"They have all these people around who have formal training, like former GE engineers or GE proper. They know the ins and outs of manufacturing and they're great folks to bounce stuff off of," Chris Cprek, a founder of a hacker collective, told Popular Science.

The forte of industrial engineers
Again, because there are so many different concentrations within the field of engineering, there is innovation from all corners of the sector. That being said, oftentimes, industrial engineers seem to take the lead when developing wide-sweeping new equipment for use in the industry.

According to Live Science, this career path tends to be concerned with production, efficiency, compliance and improving product quality among other values. Generally, the news provider posited, these professionals concentrate on making things better by crafting and amending equipment.

The source also explained that industrial engineers can trace their roots back to the Industrial Revolution, so it is appropriate that they're on the front lines of these new developments.

New factors discovered about abundant mineral

December 17, 2014

Though people have inhabited the world for thousands of years, there's still a lot we don't know about the giant rock we live on. Researchers are constantly looking to add new information to engineering databases by honing in on specific elements and materials that humans can use to better build important structures and enable better ways of living.

One recent discovery might make all the difference and enhance knowledge about the planet as we know it. A highly abundant, though long-unnamed, mineral was recently given a moniker. Now that professionals can better identify this material, perhaps it will have positive effects on building in the future.

Minerologist gives composite material a name
Oliver Tschauner, a scientist from the University of Las Vegas, recently gave the Earth's most abundant material a name - Bridgmanite. Because, as the Argonne National Laboratory reported, the planet is made up of 38 percent of this material, which is actually a high-density combination of magnesium iron silicate, it might be supremely surprising that it didn't have an official moniker before now. That's not the only improvement that's been made - there are also now defined parameters regarding formation constraint ranges.

The material was just now given a name because previously, scientists had trouble bringing it to the surface. While it does make up more than a third of the planet's volume, because it couldn't hold up throughout the trip above ground, researchers couldn't actually prove it existed until only recently. 

Tschauner's team was able to use non-destructive, micro-focused X-rays to analyze the Bridgmanite present in meteorites. They found that this mineral has high amounts of ferric iron and sodium, and also presents a unique crystal chemistry that may influence studies in the future.

What can be learned
Again, technically, the Bridgmanite analyzed wasn't actually from within the Earth, but the discovery and positive identification can still have a lot of implications on a number of concentrations.

For one, Newsweek explained that geologists can easily use data collected from the findings to learn more about the various processes that occur within the planet's mantle, such as contributing to the unique and delicate crystalline makeup of such minerals.

The 7R Future Leadership Institute also pointed out that this may lead to a number of studies in the relatively near future, especially centered around deep mantle rocks

Update: Dark matter may have been found

December 16, 2014

Recently, it came to light that scientists could potentially find dark matter - the elements in the universe that haven't yet been identified in resources like engineering handbooks - using new strategies like targeting the materials with Global Positioning Systems and cosmic noise detectors. The results of these methods could have massive implications on numerous scientific fields for some time to come.

However, it was a different strategy that might have uncovered dark matter in the universe more recently. Scientists with the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne's Laboratory of Particle Physics and Cosmology, with the help of a team from Leiden University, may have identified dark matter with photon emissions from X-rays.

The space race
The researchers believe they might have received a signal from a particle of dark matter earlier in December. It was discovered when scientists were reviewing X-rays emitted by both the Perseus and Andromeda galaxy clusters. Professionals Oleg Ruchayskiy and Alexey Boyarsky identified an anomaly once they separated the known materials from the X-ray and noticed that they could not place one particle, even after factoring a possibility of instrument malfunctions or measurement errors.

"The signal's distribution within the galaxy corresponds exactly to what we were expecting with dark matter, that is, concentrated and intense in the center of objects and weaker and diffuse on the edges," noted Ruchayskiy.

What does this mean?
There's still a lot of work to be done in analyzing this particle, as well as finding other instances of dark matter, which actually makes up at least 80 percent of the universe, the release from the EPFL revealed.

"We're all looking and somewhere, maybe even now, there's a little bit of data that will cause someone to have an aha! moment," University of California professor Harry Nelson told Engineering.com. "This idea that there's something out there that we can't sense yet is one of those things that sends chills down my spine."

Ruchayskiy suggested that astronomy could be completely revolutionized, as well as other concentrations that deal in matters of materials. His teammate, Boyarsky​, was confident in the evolution of the field - after all, the team believes it now knows where to look to start identifying dark matter particles.

That being said, as Universe Today reported, the signal caught by the X-ray was significantly weak and does not meet all scientific confidence levels, so scientists will be sure to be on the lookout for more instances. 

Finding a new way to piece together materials

December 16, 2014

Luckily for engineers, architects and many others across the globe, materials are constantly being evolved and created. Professionals can even add to engineering databases by making new types of resources, which can be done through combining others, resulting in alloys or composites. 

Actually developing a new material is no easy feat, however. It requires a lot of precision and even more research and testing. For instance, a lot of examination has to be done before these materials can be used to build a structure, work their way into medical supplies and so on. 

That being said, researchers are looking into new ways to create composites that might have implications for the field in the long run.

Looking at the smaller picture
A team at University College London recently developed a way to make computer simulations of new composites using supercomputers in virtual labs. In putting together a study, they realized that testing and examining nanocomposites digitally will help researchers regard how the new materials will be put together on a molecular level.

"Developing composite materials has been a bit of a trial-and-error process until now," noted study author Dr. James Suter. "Our work means we can now predict how a new nanocomposite will perform, based only on their chemical composition and processing conditions."

Thus far, it has been too difficult to hold these types of studies even with microscopes or other methods, especially when using particular materials, such as clay, to build the composites. This advanced viewpoint will show engineers how polymers and particles react, which can lend itself to new developments in the creation of entirely new resources. Using the strategy, scientists have already been able to improve composites' constructions.

Incorporating liquids
This new method of regarding the molecular makeup of materials might come in handy when used alongside another evolving strategy. 

Engineers at Yale University recently found that they could add small drops of different types of liquids to solids to make materials stiffer. While in general, large droplets make the resource weaker, embedding the liquids create surface tension that changes the strength of whatever solid is being altered. 

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Eric Dufresne explained that this will likely allow researchers to control various properties of composites in the future. Specifically, he suggested that when the tiny droplets are embedded and then mimic the surrounding elements, it can result in increased electrical or optical functionality. 

Researchers create new metal alloy

December 15, 2014

Those unfamiliar with the engineering industry might assume that the majority of materials have been discovered. That is to say, they might believe that scientists have discovered all of the natural elements and therefore have identified all of the types of metals that exist.

That's not actually true. Researchers can always create new metal alloys, which combine a number of different elements to result in a completely revolutionary material that then needs to be entered into engineering handbooks. 

This was recently the case when teams from North Carolina State University and Qatar University worked together to develop a new "high-entropy" metal alloy.

Many ingredients creates a new material
The professionals mixed lithium, titanium, aluminum, magnesium and scandium to made this alloy, which is noted to be extremely strong but has a low density. The teams found that this material is unlike anything ever seen before.

"It has a combination of high strength and low density that is, as far as we can tell, unmatched by any other metallic material," explained NC State professor Carl Koch. "The strength-to-weight ratio is comparable to some ceramics, but we think it's tougher - less brittle - than ceramics."

While Koch stated that there's still a lot of research to be done, there are already numerous possibilities for the uses of these materials, from leveraging them in vehicles to using them within prosthetic devices. Moreover, this alloy may well become more widespread, though the cost of scandium might throw a wrench into those plans.

New 3-D printing material is making waves
New developments in creation aren't just present in traditional construction materials. According to 3DPrint.com, scientists have been trying to craft new 3-D printing materials in an effort to advance the technology.

Specifically, the news source reported that researchers from France's University of Lorraine found that they could make a new material - another metal alloy - by combining matrix composites with quasicrystals. Until now, the resources used in 3-D printing have been similar to brass and steel, along with having a lower density. With the addition of crystals, however, the density takes a further nosedive, which has attracted experts from a number of industries, from aeronautics to automobiles. 

Team representative Vincent Fournée posited that this new material might be of particular interest to those who create vehicles, 3Dprint.com reported, as the lower weight reduces fuel use, which can mean big things for the sector as a whole.

Solar power reaches new potential

December 15, 2014

In the last few years, as green living has become significantly more popular across the globe, solar panels have been cropping up everywhere from on homes' roofs to the tops of light poles in businesses' parking lots. A quick and easy way to harvest and convert natural energy from the sun, installing these panels is a beneficial strategy to invest in if someone wants to reduce his or her carbon footprint.

The technology surrounding this method is constantly evolving, which is changing engineering information. Professionals looking to make the most of solar power may soon be able to do more with less, according to new research from the California Institute of Technology. 

Making the most of the light available
Modern solar panels don't actually use all the power generated by natural sunlight - instead, a fraction of it is absorbed because of the capacity of photovoltaic cells. The team at Caltech discovered that there is a way to absorb infrared waves using plasmon resonance. These resonances, which are ripples of electrons, can be adjusted to fit different wavelengths, thus absorbing more light.

When metal nanostructures near their resonance are charged, an electrostatic potential is created, which is the first step in conversion to actual electricity. 

"If we can develop a way to produce a steady-state current, this could potentially be a power source," explained team leader Harry Atwater, noting that the aim is to eventually use visible and infrared light to create power.

Taking solar power to the next level
Solar panels can largely be seen adorning the roofs of different types of structures, then connecting to the power grid inside the building. However, immobility is no longer a strict requirement for placing these technologies.

According to Xconomy, health care company Vecna's owner Daniel Theobald has driven a solar-powered Volkswagen bus for approximately a year. He thinks that this vehicle strategy could become more widespread, and could even transfer over to other technologies as well, such as medical robotics. 

He might be on to something - the news source commented that the use of solar panels on cars is catching on, and that some of the latest Toyota Prius models are being outfitted with solar cells embedded into the roof. That energy is then used to power a cooling fan. Making panels that are leading energy source for the entire car, however, is still likely a ways away.