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New developments in oil and gas processing on the horizon

January 28, 2015

There are various types of goods and services that are viewed across the globe as virtually universally expensive. For instance, many individuals see health care and higher education as endeavors that tend to take a big hit on one's wallet. As the old adage goes, you pay for what you get.

The oil and gas engineering fields aren't generally known for their cost savings. These fields provide the fuel that keeps various types of vehicles, from cars to construction crews' excavators to airplanes, in motion. High demand and the fact that these natural resources will someday be depleted keep this particular concentration expensive. 

This, then, means that individuals expect the products created through these processes to be of the highest quality. However, even with all of the engineering information out there, mistakes do happen. And when these errors occur, this often prompts new advances and developments. 

As a team at Duke University recently found that oil and gas production contributed to contaminants in wastewater in Pennsylvania, this might mean changes are necessary in the industry.

New chemicals make their way into the water system
The researchers revealed that two potentially dangerous elements - ammonium and iodide - are now present in the wastewater that flows into streams and rivers in Pennsylvania. Discovering where the contamination stemmed from yielded an interesting source - oil and gas engineering processes that take place in both that state and West Virginia.

Not only could this be harmful to human life in the area, but the Duke group found that aquatic life tends to be killed off by ammonia, which forms when ammonium dissolves in water. As it stands currently, the wastewater contains up to 100 milligrams per liter, which is more than 50 times the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This discovery raises new concerns about the environmental and human health impacts of oil and gas wastewater in areas where it is discharged or leaked directly into the environment," noted professor Avner Vengosh.

The future of petroleum engineering uncertain
Potential developments and innovations that emerge in an effort to keep the environment safer from what could be harmful oil and gas engineering processes might draw interested professionals to the concentration. And, if experts are correct, those in the field really need to focus on making the process more effective and cost efficient so those individuals will be able to seek out open positions.

Due, in part, to the expensive drilling strategies and the continuously falling prices of oil, a number of engineering outfits are cutting jobs where possible. That being said, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the gas drilling field is on the lookout for very highly skilled engineers because of growth in the industry and stagnation in the hiring pool. 

The newspaper explained that industry-leading corporations are offering things like stock awards, bonuses, vacation days and other perks to attract the top brass. This could be a very lucrative situation for those with the correct skill sets. 

Securing the future through competition

January 27, 2015

It can be hard to get children interested in certain subjects, particularly when they revolve around academics. Parents and educators have a number of tricks up their sleeves, from using a rewards system to inspiring youngsters to take a stronger grasp on their own futures.

And while the adults in their lives can ply students with all the engineering information they could ever want, some have found that there's an easier way to get them interested. Competition can stir feelings about any given subject, because it gives those involved a personal stake in uncovering new ideas and strategies.

Competition has been a particularly lucrative means of attracting students of all ages to the engineering industry. This can help ensure that the sector itself has a future - unless there are new professionals entering the field and replacing the positions of those who are retiring, the industry will essentially be dead in the water. Engineers across the world are striving to make sure this doesn't happen by setting up innovative competitions.

Mississippi students do the robot
According to Mississippi News Now, the recent VEX Robotics Competition, which involved high school, middle school and elementary school students, was very successful. 

The news outlet reported that the children built working robots prior to the event, then brought the machines to a middle school in Madison County to showcase their abilities. The robots were given simple tasks, such as picking up cubes and stacking objects. Depending on how they perform, some teams might have a shot at a place in the world competition.

Olde Towne Middle School robotics teacher Bill Richardson told the source that this event tends to highlight promising students' engineering and computer skills.

Targeting a young crowd
That isn't the only competition centered around paving the way for young, interested students who want to consider a future in engineering. The North California Regional State Finals Future City Competition recently took place, and allowed students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades to build sound cities of the future, the Turlock Journal reported. 

Scale models created by the teams are judged on a number of areas, such as planning out residential zones, managing water resources and crafting a communications system, the source detailed. The winning team will compete at the National Finals next month.

Putting engineers in the spotlight
Elsewhere in the United States, older students already dedicated to engineering are showcasing the field in a much different way. On Feb. 9, Penn State students will hold the "Mr. Engineer" mock beauty pageant, hosted by the Society of Women Engineers.

While the winner of this competition is set to bring home a prize and have a sizeable donation given to his represented fraternity, this event will likely shed some light on the field for the whole campus community. Male engineering majors can participate in the pageant's events, which present sector stereotypes, show off their ability to answer a variety of questions in front of a crowd and reveal a talent.

Plus, this will give respected engineering faculty members a chance to shine - they'll act as the judges for the event.

Shining a light on solar cells

January 26, 2015

Discovering alternative methods for fueling the world's power grids will cut mankind's reliance on environmentally unfriendly energy standards. On paper, solar power sounds like a sure bet. After all, what could be better than harvesting viable electricity from sunbeams?

However, the reality of solar power is sadly sobering. Solar cells are not yet efficient enough to compete in energy markets, and the high cost of producing them simply outweighs the commercial benefit. Fortunately, two different research studies released last week - both on the same day, no less - might help bring the idealism of this energy collection technique into the real world.

How do solar cells work?
To put it basically, researchers from North Carolina State University outlined four steps between a beam of light hitting a solar cell and the cell converting this act into power. First, electrons in the solar cell activate when they are exposed to light. When an electron begins to move, it creates an absence in the solar cell. The combination of an electron and its absence is referred to as an "exciton." Second, the full exciton jitters around in the solar cell until it comes in contact with other organic material. At this point, step three - or "dissociation" - occurs where the two components of the exciton split. Finally, the electron is absorbed into the cell, producing a grain of solar power.

Make solar cells more efficient
Through careful observation of organic solar cells, NCSU engineers were able to pinpoint the precise area where solar power stops being economical. What they found was something that went against all previous knowledge about solar energy collection.

Those last two steps in solar energy intake previously mentioned - disassociation and collection - were the bone of contention for the NCSU team. Inability to accurately differentiate from those last two steps made it difficult to improve the retention process. To do so would require targeting the most energy-inefficient part of the process, which, at the time, remained a mystery.

Dr. Brendan O'Connor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the university, and his colleagues attempted to develop a functional method for differentiating between dissociation and collection, by organizing the solar cell with nanostructures capable of guiding molecules in a direction that would optimize electron collection. O'Connor discovered that organized solar cells and solar cells that let excitons roam freely will ultimately dissociate the molecules at the same rate, laying the onus for inefficient electron absorption strictly on the solar cell material.

Make cells cheaper
The process for utilizing photovoltaic material is a costly one, both in material and in finding or forging the necessary vacuum-sealed production environment. To address these concerns, scientists at the University of Exeter have discovered a new means for harvesting power from light through an inorganic material known as perovskite. Not only does perovskite circumnavigate the aforementioned financial and manufacturing issues, but a study of this mineral conducted at several sites across the globe confirmed its ability to absorb energy despite cloud coverage or other low-light weather conditions.

"Given concern on large-scale solar farms across the country, such techniques will be key to understand how the perovskite technology integrates within our building envelope," said team member Tapas Mallick, a professor at the University of Exeter.

But this might not necessarily be news. Two days before the publication of Exeter's announcement, the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland manufactured - printed, really - functional perovskite solar cells. VTT stated its trendy leaf-shaped perovskite cells yield almost five times as as much energy than conventional organic solar cell methods at a tenth of the production cost.

Process, chemical engineering are the top disciplines attracting women

January 26, 2015

In plenty of industries there is a real gender gap, for one reason or another. It might seem like women are better suited to have careers in certain fields and vice versa. However, we live in a time of equality, and it's no longer appropriate to hear phrases like "That's a man's job."

That being said, this schism in engineering persists. The sheer number of men working in this sector eclipses that of women. However, in order to have a balanced industry and ensure that individuals with varied viewpoints and backgrounds are making advances and contributing to engineering research, this canyon needs to shrink.

Professionals across the globe are increasingly trying to bring women into the fold by marketing to female students who might want to learn more about the field or speaking to businesswomen who could be thinking about a career change. Thus far, two concentrations of engineering have had a leg up over the others, but that might not be the case for long. 

The concentrations attracting women
According to The Chemical Engineer magazine, the U.K.'s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service revealed that both chemical and process engineering are the major concentrations attracting the largest number of females.

Overall, in 2014, the chemical sector experienced a 28 percent increase in the total number of students who declared that as their major when compared to 2013, the magazine detailed. Between 2012 and 2014, the volume of students in chemical and process engineering rose by 62 percent.

"The recent major growth in chemical engineering undergraduates reflects the commitment of the profession, the global economic success of the chemical and process industries and investment by universities in their courses and academic teams," explained IChemE Director of Policy and Communications Andy Furlong, as quoted by the magazine.

Attracting women might not be the issue
While a number of people might attribute the gender gap to a lack of women coming into the field, that might not be the biggest issue at play. The challenge could actually be keeping females in the field after they've made the decision to pursue the career path.

Research presented at the 2014 American Psychological Association's Annual Convention revealed that engineering has the highest turnover when compared to other "skilled professions." Of the female engineers surveyed for the presentation, only 62 percent remained in the field after pursuing a degree.

"It's the climate, stupid," explained presenter Nadya Fouad, according to NPR.

Fouad found that many workplaces seem to cater to men, making the culture unfriendly and potentially hostile to women. Moreover, the source noted that many women surveyed indicated that they didn't feel as if they had a lot of opportunities for advancement. An overarching trend reported on at the event was that many women believed that their organizations didn't make it simple to have a work-life balance, so a lot of female engineers couldn't take on multiple roles easily.

While professionals in the sector need to make sure they're educating women on what a lucrative field engineering can be in order to bulk up the ranks, they also need to concentrate on keeping the employees they have happy.

Falling oil prices worry engineers

January 26, 2015

The fact that oil prices keep falling across the United State is seemingly making consumers in the nation exceedingly happy. They're not only seeing lower prices at the gas pump, but also at the grocery store, in utilities bills and plenty of other places. As these costs slowly decline, the quality of life of many individuals across the nation rises in tandem.

However, as the price of oil barrels fall, not everyone is happy about it. This scenario might have a number of positive attributes, but some engineers are a little wary about the decreasing prices. Professionals with a concentration in the petroleum, chemical and mechanical fields may be looking at this situation with some worry, for a number of reasons. 

The changing costs might signal where the future of the industry as a whole is headed, and it could spell trouble for some promising engineering research.

Why the worry?
According to State Impact, engineering students at the University of Oklahoma, in particular, are increasingly concerned about the falling oil prices because they think the downward trend might adversely affect their propensity to secure jobs down the line

If gas and oil providers can fill their supplies with cheap crude oil from overseas, it might follow that domestic drillers could start lessening their numbers, because their services won't be as in demand. This, then, means less open positions for petroleum and oil engineers, for obvious reasons, and those who have chosen to focus on the mechanical concentration could be affected as well because equipment won't be used as often.

However, the effects of the currently plummeting oil prices, especially if this situation continues, aren't yet known. But, The Midland Reporter-Telegram reported, some energy companies aren't taking any chances and are already considering job cuts if this goes on. 

The newspaper said that some experts believe these falling prices will undoubtedly cause job reductions, but acknowledge that midlevel administrators will probably be affected before engineers. 

Looking on the bright side
Not all professionals are so nervous about what the crude oil price plummet means, however. For instance, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Dean of Engineering Mark Zappi told The Advertiser that this hasn't really affected the rate of hiring at the college. He claimed that the College of Engineering still boasts an 85 percent job rate at graduation.

"There are cutbacks but when it comes to the engineering area, we're not seeing those cutbacks," Zappi noted, as quoted by the news source. "If you have a 2.5 or 2.6 (grade point average) or better, all engineers or technical graduates are getting offers."

The reason for this, the newspaper explained, is because of the natural turnover that occurs when the oldest members of the field retire. The average age of engineers is currently approximately 60 or 61, so there continue to be plenty of openings available to those who are graduating soon. 

Engineers develop eco-friendly flame retardant

January 26, 2015

When engineers build structures and make machinery, they have to be intimately familiar with the materials they're using. While this is made easy thanks to the use of advanced engineering handbooks, the professionals have to take special care to follow all specifications for the best results. If not, they could create unsound products that don't hold up well in the elements or work with other materials they're paired with.

Again, due to the presence of technology and engineering research, this is easy to avoid. However, mistakes and the influence of outside forces aren't rare. As such, plenty of professionals take extra precautions, such as making their work flame retardant, when possible.

That being said, a lot of methods that allow a material to be fireproofed aren't environmentally friendly. That could all change in the near future, as some scientists at Stony Brook University uncovered a new, natural solution.

Shoring up buildings against flames
The team, which was partially made up of high schoolers in a pre-college program, found a way to protect wood used in construction against flames in a way that doesn't harm the environment, something that can help preserve the soundness of the wood itself.

The phosphor-based flame retardant essentially impregnates the wood's structure, rather than simply coating it. The result is a wood-plastic composite which can be easily used at construction sites. One of the main elements in the solution is resorcinol bis(diphenyl phosphate), which the Environmental Protection Agency declared a preferred substitute to some more commonly used retardants. 

When this substance, RDP, reacts with cellulose, which is present in different types of clays, the result is safe and remains environmentally friendly, which is not the case when many other materials burn after they've been treated with other chemicals.

"What interested me the most was that it could be used to safeguard homes and buildings. The idea that the world can really benefit from flame retardant wood was my greatest motivation for this project," Daniel Kim, a senior at Smithtown High School West who was a member of the pre-college contingent, detailed.

Others don't measure up
This might be a worthy solution, as many flame retardants continue to be found dangerous. While the students were working primarily with construction materials, namely wood, perhaps this new breakthrough will yield fireproof solutions that can be applied to other types of materials.

For instance, the Chicago Tribune recently reported that some upholstered furniture has been treated with toxic chemicals in an attempt to render them flame proof. While a number of brands claim that they no longer use these solutions, the source pointed out that others are less clear about their practices, so it's hard to tell which pieces are treated and which aren't.

Moreover, the news outlet detailed that these types of flame retardants are sometimes linked to claims that they cause cancer, developmental issues, IQ challenges and fertility problems. While there are some ways to potentially verify whether a piece of furniture has been treated with toxic chemicals, it may simply be easier if an eco-friendly version hit the mass market.

New keyboard uses human touch as a battery while stopping cybercrime

January 23, 2015

With the proliferation of touch screens across mobile devices, tablets and even laptops, the traditional computer keyboard as we know it could phase out of the physical plane entirely, leaving nothing but a computer-generated touch-screen clone with haptic feedback to remember it by.

However, this is also why keyboards - these "un-typed" heroes - could never ride off into the sunset for good. They're far too important; keyboards are the interpreters between humanity and the machines that define it. Improving upon the computer keyboard has thus far been like building a better mousetrap. No matter how you dress it up, nothing could beat the original.

That is, until an engineering research team from the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Materials Science revealed a deceptively ordinary keyboard with a number of interesting features.

Customary keyboards respond to the stimuli of force; press the "a" key and the keyboard tells the computer to record "a." GIT's model, on the other hand, doesn't wait for a key to be depressed, but instead begins recording information as the user's fingers graze the keys. Not only that, but the device tabulates time between keystrokes and the amount of administered force. In the end, this data collection assembles a profile of its owner, ultimately utilizing his or her typing idiosyncrasies as a first line of defense against misuse.

Imagine someone trying to extort personal information from your personal computer. As soon as the thief places his or her hands on the keys, this "intelligent keyboard" - or as the study refers to it, the "IKB" - will recognize the dissonant typing profile, raise a silent alarm over a wireless connection and record everything the thief types including his or her typing profile. The latter could aid in the conviction of a criminal by identifying the perpetrator through his or her typing patterns.

Power generation
Through a form of frictive electricity creation, the IKB can also power itself, a wireless adapter, and possibly much more. The faces of the plastic IKB keys possess thin layers of material capable of drawing triboelectricity as each key is pressed, which then feeds the keyboard.

"Our skin is dielectric and we have electrostatic charges in our fingers," says Professor Zhong Lin Wang, who worked on the research team. "Anything we touch can become charged."

Each key contains a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate sandwiched between two indium tin oxide squares. These components convert the harvested electricity into power. This stack is coated in a fluorinated ethylene propylene layer, which creates a positive charge when it comes in contact with the human body.

The handful of electrons pulled from a person's fingertips are amplified by the electric field generated by a steady typing rhythm. Typing more than 100 words per minute at an even pace could reliably produce enough electricity to charge additional electronics hooked up to the keyboard's adapters.

Grime resistance
While chunky corporeal keyboards may be ideal for the pickiest computer users, there's no denying the difficulty of keeping one clean. A host of antibacterial products and miniature dusters can only do so much. The makers of the intelligent keyboard attempted to push their invention to the limits by subjecting it to grit and a variety of liquids. The results were impressive but not surprising to Wang and his colleagues; because of the IKB's nearly complete plastic composition, it can withstand anything spilled or dropped onto it, even running tap water over the device to wash off the mess.

"You could pour coffee on the keyboard, and it would not be damaged," said Wang.

Engineers continue to develop flexible touch screens

January 23, 2015

Because we've reached such a technologically advanced age, it seems like the majority of interactive devices have touch screen options available now. For instance, this technology is available in tablets, smartphones, laptops, GPS systems and even kitchen appliances. However, it's still relatively easy to break these screens because they're largely unyielding.

They can be broken in a variety of ways, due to their inflexibility, such as if users sit down with their cell phones in their back pockets, if they pick laptops up by their screens and put pressure on the pixels and if the tools are simply dropped.

However, that hopefully won't be the case any longer if technology aficionados have anything to say about it. Experts are continuously conducting engineering research to create more flexible displays without sacrificing any of the advances of these types of gadgets.

The proof is in the coating
Industry veterans at INM - Leibniz Institute for New Materials have been hard at work enabling these sorts of devices, looking to make new developments in the realm of the coating used on the screens. While the bulk of their research will be presented at the upcoming Nano Tech 2015 event in Japan, experts have revealed some of their findings - namely that a lot of headway has been made regarding transparent conducing oxides.

TCO nanoparticles are meant to adhere to the screen's film, and after TCO ink is applied and cured under 150-degree Celsius UV light the screen is made more flexible. There is no quality sacrificed even when the gadgets are bent.

"We use the TCOs to produce nanoparticles with special properties," explained the organization's Head of the Optical Materials Program Divison , Peter de Oliveira. "The TCO ink is then created by adding a solvent and a special binder to these TCO particles."

Enabling different touch screen uses
Engineers aren't just looking to make changes to touch screens for convenience's sake, they're also doing so to make some individuals' lives easier. For instance, Engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered a way to make these devices simpler to use by people with multiple sclerosis.

Using a combination of engineering, machining and neurology skills, Christopher Luzzio found a way to help a local MS patient use her e-reader in a more innovative way. Specifically, the engineer created a device that lets Phyllis Reinen read her Nook seamlessly, thanks to only small movements from her fingers. 

"The UW-CREATe mission is to identify individuals with disabilities for whom we can improve quality of life, with help from engineering students and faculty," noted Luzzio. 

This tool is actually a sensor that connects to the user's finger. The person's movements are analyzed by the connected modular control system and influence's small "arms" to touch the e-reader's screen and the appropriate buttons. Reinen can then determine what the device does - turning the pages in either direction at a self-controlled speed.

Crafting robotic hands that work almost like the real thing

January 23, 2015

When people think about robotic limbs, they tend to have a very clear picture in mind. Chances are good that this is represented by a shiny, sleek machine that sort of resembles a skeleton - the infrastructure mirrors what one would expect the bones themselves to look like. As such, these types of machines are fairly limited in their dexterity, hence where the dance "the robot" comes into play. However, this is the stuff of science fiction.

Thanks to hard work from engineers across the globe, actual robotic limbs being developed are much cooler.

These professionals, constantly working to improve and advance engineering resources, are crafting robotic limbs that are as flexible and useful as natural body parts. They're not only creating these machines, they're also figuring out new ways to connect them to the body so that they can be controlled by the brain and made to move as easily and mindlessly as the real thing. 

Learning to tie
Skilled professionals at the German Primate Center have, with the help of rhesus monkeys, learned which part of the brain controls the grasping movements hands make. The engineers then took it a step further - they were able to view electrophysiological measurements in the cerebral cortex, which indicate the planning and execution of specific hand movements.

This means that scientists can predict what the hand is going to do, which can greatly influence the success of robotic hands. The hope is that one day, these tools can easily help those who have lost their limbs retain dexterity and re-learn how to tie their shoes, play the piano and prepare food and drink.

Multi electrode arrays recorded the neuron activity in the brains of rhesus monkeys as they were grasping 50 objects of varying shapes and sizes. They were also sporting electromagnetic gloves during the experiment to track grip types and match them to the signals. 

"Prior to the start of a grasping movement, we have illuminated all the objects so that the monkeys could see them and recognize their shape," noted neuroscientist Stefan Schaffelhofer. "The subsequent grasping movement then took place in the dark with a short delay. We were then able to separate the responses of the neurons to the visual stimuli in motor signals as well as examine the phase of motion planning."

Other robotic limbs
Robotic hands aren't the only advances being made in this field - engineers are trying to develop the latest technology to enhance robotic legs as well. For instance, a team at the University of Texas at Dallas has put in a lot of work in an effort to make it easier for those who have lost legs to walk again.

The professionals have created powered prosthetics that can dynamically change depending on the environment being walked in. This, when matched with the wearer's gait, can result in a much more stable and controlled situation. The team set out to create powerful robotic legs that can mimic the abilities of an actual, muscular limb, and was successful in making a prosthesis that responded to outside stimuli. 

Laser etching technique gives metal superpowers

January 21, 2015

A cadre of scientists have managed to give superpowers to ordinary industrial metals by blasting them with laser bursts lasting one quadrillionth of a second.

As if from the pages of a comic book, University of Rochester scientists published research this week touting a new process for endowing metals like titanium, platinum and brass with incredible hydrophobic - or water-resistant - characteristics through nanoscopic laser imprinting. The technique is an amalgam of previous experiments, including one for changing a metal's color to black in order to encourage heat absorption.

How the lasers do their work
Lasers carve complex spherical nests into the metals' surfaces in femtosecond bursts - lasting one millionth of a billionth of a second. This range of bulbous ziggurats incite near-frictionless water droplet movement. Team leader and Professor of Optics Chunlei Guo clarifies this technique is not simple inscription, but rather irrevocably altering the fundamental properties of the test metals, permanently enhancing them without threat of wear.

Although a relatively nascent advancement, the slow production rate might be the only downside to the entire process. Currently, Guo's team can only turn out one square inch of material every hour.

Hydrophobic and loving it
How does someone measure hydrophobia in metal? The shorter the angle at which a stagnant water droplet rolls off is directly proportional to a material's superior hydrophobicity.

Teflon, known for its non-stick qualities in the kitchen, requires about 70 degrees of tilt to move water. Before Guo's laser-etched metals reached five degrees of tilt, the droplet had already scattered.

"The material is so strongly water-repellent, the water actually gets bounced off. Then it lands on the surface again, gets bounced off again, and then it will just roll off from the surface," said Guo.

Years earlier, Guo and his peers applied a similar method to reach an opposite ends. The result of those earlier experiments was a sheet of silicon so hydrophilic - or water-attracting - it was capable of drawing water droplets upward against gravitational forces at 3.5 centimeters per second.

That clean feeling
The commercial application of the University of Rochester's goes beyond keeping surfaces dry. When a super-hydrophobic surface becomes dusty or dirty, any water moving across it can drag the grime along too. A small splash of water is enough to make super-hydrophobic material shine like new while conventional metals would require much more.

Moreover, traditional hydrophobic coatings already used on industrial metals can do their best to replicate the scientists' findings, but their chemical bases would struggle to compete with the University of Rochester's comparably negligible impact on the environment. As previously stated, super-hydrophobic metals - unlike metals primed with hydrophobic coating chemicals - are not susceptible to weathering over time or even biofouling.

But the practicality doesn't end there. Apart from the United States Air Force throwing their hat into the ring, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also financially backed Guo's team to test how these findings can aid in the collection of rainwater and the improved bathroom sanitation.