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Spinning a new story in the realm of strong materials

January 29, 2015

There are plenty of means of creating new materials these days. While in various concentrations, such as construction or equipment manufacturing, professionals might rely on tried and true materials like wood, metals or glass, others like to take a new route.

Industry experts might be interested in crafting new alloys, tweaking already tested materials and taking a number of other steps to make waves in the sector. If professionals don't take some chances, big payouts are likely impossible.

Perhaps it was with this in mind that researchers have been testing out new ways to create extremely strong, but small, fibers. A team at the University of Oxford may have accomplished this, and with the help of a very small, exceedingly common, resource.

The creepy crawlies have it
The group has been looking into how common British spiders weave their webs, which, when taken in context, are both thin and extremely strong. In finding out exactly how the small creatures form these structures, the experts hope to develop new, similar technologies.

The professionals, in their tests, determined that spiders likely don't use an adhesive to capture prey on webs, but instead essentially electrically charge the structures, which makes each fiber a fluffy rope that errant bugs stick to. This was the general focus of the research - the team was quick to find that the spiders use specific - rare, in this breed - organs to spin the silk-like material, which is formed immediately before emerging from the critters.

Webs then become "charged" when spiders violently tug the silk they spin when weaving. This results in electrostatic structures that are puffy like wool but extremely sticky. 

The goal is to eventually use these findings and further research to allow for technology that would commercially produce nano-filaments of this type.

"If we could reproduce its neat trick of electro-spinning nano-fibers​, we could pave the way for a highly versatile and efficient new kind of polymer-processing technology," Professor Fritz Vollrath stated.

Synthetic production on the horizon
The Oxford team isn't the only group working on using spiders' silk weaving processes to benefit society. According to Chemical and Engineering News, industry experts posited in March 2013 that synthetic spider silk was close to being released on the commercial market.

The source indicated that the strength of the fibers is likely one of the biggest draws, as, by weight, this material is five times stronger than silk and three times more durable than Kevlar. Then, there's the fact that the silk is rarely rejected by the human body, which could indicate new advances in the health care field.

The possibilities are endless, should it be confirmed that synthetic spider silk can be produced cheaply and efficiently. Many experts believe that the silk is going to be particularly useful in creating ultra-strong cables, bulletproof vests, wound patches and synthetic tendons. Thus far, the news provider detailed, the material is being used by some corporations in cosmetics.

Oil and gas engineers can speak to wastewater spills

January 29, 2015

While no one, from professional engineers to regular citizens, truly wants to think about local water supplies becoming contaminated with chemicals, the fact of the matter is that, from time to time, it does happen. Despite the fact that there are innumerable volumes of engineering research out there or that these professionals are experts in their field, mistakes can occur, even sometimes those that aren't the workers' fault. 

The key to making sure everyone, including engineering working on rigs and locals using the water supply, remains safe is to stay transparent and inform interested parties about spills. There's no one better or more qualified to do this than engineers. 

If people have questions, the professionals have answers.

Plenty of information to go around
A recent article in Fire Engineering highlighted some of the inquiries people might have when they're trying to learn more about wastewater spills. This may be particularly interesting, given that there was a spill not long ago in North Dakota, resulting in 3 million gallons of materials being released into two creeks because of a leak in a crude oil pipeline.

For instance, the first question was what, exactly, the liquid is. While this will vary from case to case, the answer was general - it's wastewater, which can also be called brine or formation water. This is made up of naturally occurring water caught beneath underground rocks in pores, which tend to also hold oil and gas deposits, the source specified. 

The news provider also detailed that about 800 billion gallons of wastewater are generated by the oil and gas engineering sector each year. While this massive volume of liquid is generally not considered hazardous waste, it can be dangerous and contain things like arsenic, lead, radiation and mercury, among other elements.

According to Fire Engineering, the spills occur for a number of reasons, including equipment errors, pipeline ruptures and even malicious activities. 

Concern grows due to fracking
While many people think that fracking is useful and can help society tap into new repositories of natural resources, others believe that these types of spills will occur with more frequency should this activity continue.

As Yale Environment 360 reported, it is hard to determine exactly how much pollution occurs as a direct result of fracking, though experts in the field are striving to figure that out. Thus far, they've determined that oil and gas companies and engineers use a vast amount of clean water for every production process, something with which many eco-advocates take umbrage. Research has also revealed that a lot of the wastewater that is created ends up in surface waters, where it could potentially be most harmful to surrounding communities. 

"I am more worried about wastewater management - handling, storing it, driving across the countryside with it," Monika Freyman, nonprofit organization Ceres' senior manager of the water program, told the source. "It's complicated. There are a lot of different pathways wastewater can go."

As new engineering information arises, those involved in the oil and gas concentrations may want to pay attention to them and act accordingly to keep the environment and nearby people safe.

Acid-powered motors may revolutionize health care

January 28, 2015

One of the many jobs of engineers is to uncover new ways to fuel machines of all kinds. Whether this means drilling for oil in an innovative and eco-friendly manner or even crafting entirely new pieces of equipment that run on more common and renewable materials, there are plenty of opportunities for advances in the field.

While this tends to be a task given to professionals involved in the oil and gas concentrations, sometimes this sort of engineering research is completed by others who focus on different fields. For instance, professionals within the medical sector are increasingly uncovering new, potentially life-saving, gadgets that need to run on some power source that doesn't harm the body and can be recharged.

Thanks to new research coming out of the University of California, San Diego, this might be easier than ever in the near future. A team at the college may have found a new power source for implants.

Making mini motors matter
The professionals at the school recently developed a tiny micromotor that is fueled by nothing other than the stomach acid of the patients in whom they're implanted. The zinc the motors are made of reacts with the acid, producing hydrogen-based micro-bubbles that essentially jet the mini machines forward. Eventually, the motors dissolve.

But initially, they can be attached to microscopic sensors that can help health care professionals administer medicine and even locate tumors. And these tiny power sources have already proven themselves successful. After their creation, they were tested by the team in the stomachs of mice. 

The testing proved that this manner of disseminating treatments is likely going to be much more effective than simply taking a prescription orally - more medicine can be dissolved into the body.

Professor Joseph Wang indicated that he believes that it might be possible in the future to control the navigation of the micromotors, as well as add other functions or increase their capabilities, such as enabling them to fuel biopsies and nanosurgery. 

More machines materialize
This type of power source may become popular quickly, due to the fact that medical professionals are exploring alternative printing processes that could make micro-machines more common.

According to Medical Daily, researchers at Tel Aviv University found a new way to print micro-machine components that could even make them more productive.

"The printing process may deliver the biggest jolt to the field of medicine," the team's report read, as quoted by the source.

This might allow for the fast production of rubbery, organic polymer-based membranes, which are known to be more adaptable within the human body than the more common silicon parts. The more compatible devices of this nature are, the less likely they will be rejected or cause toxic changes in the patient. Moreover, the news outlet suggested that mini-machines with these types of membranes could yield more effective results when they deliver stimuli to bionic and prosthetic limbs.

New battery barriers could have positive safety implications

January 28, 2015

Batteries are extremely common these days. It seems like everywhere we turn, people are fuddling around with some type of gadget that is powered by these often small objects, whether they're the traditional AA or C options or are rechargeable, unseen power sources like those in cell phones or laptops.

As such, batteries are very important to professionals in many concentrations, including those in the engineering industry. For instance, when those who concentrated on the civil discipline develop massive buildings, there are going to be countless batteries installed with close proximity to the infrastructure, like those that keep power grids up or those that fuel various alarms or monitors.

It might shock some people to know that batteries aren't always as safe as many people would like to believe. It's not uncommon for acid to leak out of old power sources, and sometimes, with larger options, fires or other defects can occur and put people in danger. However, a University of Maryland team recently discovered a means of making them safer and more secure.

When bulletproof vests meet batteries
The group found a way to craft a barrier within batteries that can separate electrodes. This wall is made of something known to be impenetrable - Kevlar, which is what bulletproof vests are made out of. Kevlar nanofibers are placed within batteries and halt the expansion of metal tendrils, elements that can end up shorting out and holding an electric current.

Should this happen, it could easily result in sparks and fires, which is what occurred within a number of Boeing 787 Dreamliners in 2013. However, not only is Kevlar extremely difficult to penetrate, but it also stands up well in heat, so this shouldn't be much of an issue going forward.

"The special feature of this material is we can make it very thin, so we can get more energy into the same battery cell size, or we can shrink the cell size," stated engineer Dan VanderLey. "We've seen a lot of interest from people looking to make thinner products."

The college's research group's idea was so revolutionary and successful that batteries are going to start being mass produced with this wall present in them in 2016.

Other battery options being developed
Elsewhere in the world of battery engineering, other researchers are looking into how the life of rechargeable power sources can be extended. Engineers at Stanford University have recently spearheaded this movement, exploring both rapid charging and draining.

The experts took a look at how micro-particles in lithium ion batteries act during both processes. They discovered that rapid iterations of both actions doesn't damage the objects as much as some people might have thought. This was revealed after noting that most or all of the nanoparticles in the tested batteries absorbed or released ions smoothly and uniformly, and it was determined that the small elements didn't crack, which would indicate a decrease in performance.

This might mean that supercharging machines that do a lot of work could be both useful and safe. The implications of this research may have a significant effect on the commercial market.

The lighter side of unmanned drone use

January 28, 2015

Unmanned drones are slowly becoming synonymous with armed conflict, so says those who believe deeply in the impact this technology can bring off the battlefield. Tom McCauley from the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College pointed out in his late 2013 study of American drone strikes that despite an overwhelming amount of support for UAV use among U.S. citizens prevailing, "there is a small but increasing minority that disapproves."

Politics abroad could potentially mar the reputation of drones indelibly, even though the technology is capable of so much more, but what can nonmilitary unmanned aircrafts do to help improve the quality of life at home?

Agriculture
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the size of American cropland can range from as low as 1,100 acres to upwards of 11,000. For a targeted approach to everything from maintained irrigation to herbicide administration, a wide array of technologies are required to provide farmers with the control necessary to guarantee the highest and healthiest yield possible.

Associate Professor Brien Henry from Mississippi State University's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences worked alongside the school's Geosystems Research Institute to utilize UAV technology to better understand large fields of corn by their individual seedlings. Unlike tradition manned aircrafts, drones are capable of flying 20 to 30 times lower. Information gleaned from this reconnaissance could provide farms with a precise and up-to-the-minute picture of their crops, saving the farmer product and money. For instance, a UAV might spot a small section of wheat that requires replanting far easier than a plane flying at 20,000 feet.

The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to establish regulations on commercial drone use, but will do so by September this year.

Contagion control
Is a drone's camera strong enough to catch microscopic diseases before they spread? In a way yes, according to a study published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine late last year. The research monitored a form of malaria transferable to humans by monkeys and mosquitoes in Malaysia using unmanned drones to focus on particular environmental variables.

Noticeable changes in habitats possibly containing infected animals and insects - such as deforestation, as the team observed - could be coupled with hospital records and maps made from collected drone data to predict areas with a high probability of malaria transmission to humans.

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.