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How to: Anodize aluminum

I absolutely love this this new video from Engineer Guy Bill Hammack. Why? Because Hammack managed to make me intensely interested in something I'd previously never really thought twice about—the anodized aluminum coatings that cover—most famously—Apple products.

I sat down to watch this video expecting to be bored. By the end, I was captivated. What more can you ask for in an explainer?

Video Link

Why lavatory ashtrays are mandatory on nonsmoking flights

Matt Simmons, who writes the Standalone Sysadmin blog, has been wondering why there are ashtrays in airplane toilets, even though you aren't allowed to smoke anywhere on or near an airplane, and you haven't been allowed to do so for quite some time. It turns out that airplane toilet ashtrays are mandatory: "Regardless of whether smoking is allowed in any other part of the airplane, lavatories must have self-contained, removable ashtrays located conspicuously on or near the entry side of each lavatory door, except that one ashtray may serve more than one lavatory door if the ashtray can be seen readily from the cabin side of each lavatory served." (Code of Federal Regulations for airworthiness). Simmons explains why:

The plane can not leave the terminal if the bathrooms don’t have ashtrays. They’re non-optional.

That’s an awfully strange stance to take for a vehicle with such a stringent “no smoking” policy, but it really does make a lot of sense. Back in 1973, a flight crashed and killed 123 people, and the reason for the crash was attributed to a cigarette that was improperly disposed of.

The FAA has decided that some people (despite the policies against smoking, the warning placards, the smoke detector, and the flight attendants) will smoke anyway, and when they do, there had better be a good place to put that cigarette butt.

Engineering Infrastructures For Humans (via Digg)

Destroying stuff for science

How do engineers know that the pillars supporting a bridge can withstand the force of thousands of cars driving over them for decades?

Read the rest

Behind the scenes of a city: Trash in L.A.

The video, made by Mae Ryan for Los Angeles public radio KPCC, traces trash from a burger lunch to its ultimate fate in a landfill. It reminds me of those great, old Sesame Street videos where you got to see what goes on inside crayon factories and peanut butter processing plants. Which is to say that it is awesome.

The process you see here, though, is L.A.-centric, which started me wondering: How much does the trash system differ from one place to another in the United States?

Over the last couple years, as I researched my book on the electric system, I spent a lot of time learning about how different infrastructures developed in this country. If there's one thing I've picked up it's the simple lesson that these systems—which we are utterly dependent upon—were seldom designed. Instead, the infrastructures we use today are often the result of something more akin to evolution ... or to a house that's been remodeled and upgraded by five or six different owners. Watching this video it occurred to me that there's no reason to think that the trash system in place in L.A. has all that much in common with the one in Minneapolis. In fact, it could well be completely different from the trash system in San Francisco.

I'd love to see more videos showing the same story in different places. Know of any others you can point me toward?

Suggested by maeryan on Submitterator

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First human-powered ornithopter takes wing (literally), 2010

In 2010, the Snowbird, a human-powered ornithopter created by a University of Toronto team, became the first HPO to sustain flight. The HPO project at U of T has a great YouTube feed of its various flights since, though it seems largely dormant today.

HPO Team News | Human Powered Ornithopter Project (via Lifelines)

Brilliant pop. engineering book Sustainable Materials comes to the USA

The brilliant popular engineering Sustainable Materials - with Both Eyes Open: Future Buildings, Vehicles, Products and Equipment - Made Efficiently and Made with Less New Material has just been released in the USA. I reviewed this book last November, when it came out in the UK. Here's a brief excerpt from then:

We review a lot of popular science books around here, but Sustainable Materials (like Sustainable Energy) is a popular engineering text, a rare and wonderful kind of book. Sustainable Materials is an engineer's audit of the materials that our world is made of, the processes by which those materials are extracted, refined, used, recycled and disposed of, and the theoretical and practical efficiencies that we could, as a society, realize.

Allwood and Cullen write about engineering with the elegance of the best pop-science writers -- say, James Gleick or Rebecca Skloot -- but while science is never far from their work, their focus is on engineering. They render lucid and comprehensible the processes and calculations needed to make things and improve things, touching on chemistry, physics, materials science, economics and logistics without slowing down or losing the reader.

The authors quickly demonstrate that any effort to improve the sustainability of our materials usage must focus on steel and aluminum, first because of the prominence of these materials in our construction and fabrication, and second because they are characteristic microcosms of our other material usage, and what works for them will be generalizable to other materials.

From there, the book progresses to a fascinating primer on the processes associated with these metals, from ore to finished product and back through recycling, and the history of efficiency gains in these processes, and the theoretical limits on efficiency at each stage. Lavishly illustrated and superbly organized, this section and the ones that follow it are a crash course in the invisible energy embodied in the bones of our built up world.

But the primary work of the book is to look at how small (and large) changes in our society and business could make important gains in the sustainability of our material use, an important subject as developing nations start to copy the rich world's insatiable appetite for material goods and titanic cities.

Sustainable Materials - with Both Eyes Open: Future Buildings, Vehicles, Products and Equipment - Made Efficiently and Made with Less New Material

Robot band performs "Come Together"

I'm having flashbacks to childhood visits to Showbiz Pizza, but this robot band, put together by researchers at Drexel University for an Engineering Week exhibition, is a bit more impressive than the animatronic animals that entertained people over plates of bad pizza.

For one thing: These musical bots aren't just going through the motions, performing pre-programmed movements in time to a tape of music.

Produced by the Music & Entertainment Technology Laboratory, the HUBOs are operating autonomously (not human-controlled). Their movements are directed by student-developed software to perform the gestures necessary to produce the appropriate notes and beats as dictated by a musical score. Every sound in the video was performed by the robots.

MET-lab student Matthew Prockup created the musical arrangement for drum kit and three "Hubophones", novel percussion instruments designed and constructed by the lab for this performance.

Video Link

Wooden skyscrapers: efficient, fire-safe, environmentally friendly(ier)

An architect named Michael Green believes he can make wooden skyscrapers that stand 100 storeys tall, and he's prototyping the idea with a 30-storey wooden building in Vancouver. More wooden high-rises are planned in Austria and Norway. Green uses laminated strand lumber, a glue/wood composite, and has char buffers to give it good safety in fires. He claims that his buildings can be cheaper than comparable structures made from traditional steel and concrete, and will have a smaller carbon footprint.

Wood buildings lock in carbon dioxide for the life cycle of a structure, while the manufacture of steel and concrete produces large amounts of CO2 -- the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that for every 10 kilos of cement created, six to nine kilos of CO2 are produced.

Green's "Tallwood" structure is designed with large panels of laminated strand lumber -- a composite made of strands of wood glued together. Other mass timber products use layers of wood fused together at right angels that making they immensely strong and able to be used as lode bearing infrastructure, walls and floors.

Despite being made of wood any worries about towering infernos should be banished, says Green, as large timber performs well in fires with a layer of char insulating the structural wood beneath.

"It may sound counter-intuitive, but performing well in a fire is something inherent in large piece of wood, that's why in forest fires the trees that survive are the largest ones," he says.

Can wooden skyscrapers transform concrete jungles?(via Dvice)

Maggie speaking Monday afternoon at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Why does electric infrastructure affect our ability to make energy more sustainable? How is the electric grid like a lazy river at the water park? And why should you never, ever go fishing with a salesman? Learn the answers to these questions—and more—when I speak at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Monday, March 12. My presentation starts at 3:00 pm in room 355 of the Mechanical Engineering Building. It's free, and open to the public. (Can't make it to the speech? You can also find out the answers to these questions by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.) Maggie

Spare parts for humans: tissue engineers develop lab-grown lungs and limbs

[Video Link]

Above, a PBS NewsHour report by science correspondent Miles O'Brien which I helped shoot, on the subject of tissue engineering. The goal in this field: Grow tissue or even whole organs to repair damaged or diseased human bodies.

The report focuses in part on Isaias Hernandez, a 26-year old Marine whose leg was badly injured in an artillery attack on his convoy, in Iraq. "It looked like a chicken, like if you would take a bite out of it down to the bone," he tells Miles.

Dr. Steve Badylak of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh harvested material from a pig bladder to grow replacement muscle in the young Marine's leg.

Full transcript for the story is here.

Rollercoaster staircase


This awesome rollercoasteroid staircase is underway in Germany:

The walkable, large outdoor sculpture Tiger & Turtle – Magic Mountain is currently in construction on the Heinrich Hildebrand Höhe in Duisburg Wanheim (D). It overtops the plateau with the artificially heaped-up mountain by 21m | 23yd so the visitor can rise by more than 45m | 49yd above the level of the landscape and enjoy an impressive view over the Rhine.

Tiger & Turtle – Magic Mountain / Heike Mutter + Ulrich Genth (via Crib Candy)

Nanomaterial is world's lightest


A new material developed by scientists at UC Irvine is described as the "world's lightest material," so light it can perch atop a dandelion clock without disturbing the seeds. The material is documented in the Nov 18 Science.

The new material redefines the limits of lightweight materials because of its unique “micro-lattice” cellular architecture. The researchers were able to make a material that consists of 99.99 percent air by designing the 0.01 percent solid at the nanometer, micron and millimeter scales. “The trick is to fabricate a lattice of interconnected hollow tubes with a wall thickness 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” said lead author Dr. Tobias Schaedler of HRL.

The material’s architecture allows unprecedented mechanical behavior for a metal, including complete recovery from compression exceeding 50 percent strain and extraordinarily high energy absorption.

Multidisciplinary team of researchers develop world’s lightest material (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Image: Dan Little, HRL Laboratories LLC)

Sustainable Materials: indispensable, impartial popular engineering book on the future of our built and made world

Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen’s Sustainable Materials – with Both Eyes Open: Future Buildings, Vehicles, Products and Equipment – Made Efficiently and Made with Less New Material is a companion volume to Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, one of the best books on science, technology and the environment I’ve ever read.

Read the rest

Balancing 3,118 coins on a dime

TaiStar42 accomplishes a jaw-dropping feat of dexterity, balance, and impractical engineering in this clip in which he balances 3,118 coins on a single, thin dime.

balancing tower of change 3118 coins on a single dime. 600 quarters, 501 dimes, 313 nickels, 1699 pennies, 5 foreign coins, and 7 hours of building. all real time clips,

on a dime 3000 (5th attempt, edited better) (via Neatorama)

What happens when you flush a toilet in the world's tallest building

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It's located in Dubai, a city with a lot of other skyscrapers. What Dubai doesn't have: A central sewage infrastructure that can accommodate the needs of a bunch of skyscrapers.

You see the problem.

Last night, while listening to NPR's Fresh Air, I heard Kate Ascher, author of The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, explain what happens to sewage from the Burj and Dubai's other tall buildings. It's only Tuesday, and this may be the craziest fact I hear all week.

TERRY GROSS: Right. So you know, you write that in Dubai they don't have, like, a sewage infrastructure to support high-rises like this one. So what do they do with the sewage?

KATE ASCHER: A variety of buildings there, some can access a municipal system but many of them actually use trucks to take the sewage out of individual buildings and then they wait on a queue to put it into a waste water treatment plant. So it's a fairly primitive system.

GROSS: Well, these trucks can wait for hours and hours on line.

ASCHER: That's right. I'm told they can wait up to 24 hours before they get to the head of the queue. Now, there is a municipal system that is being invested in and I assume will connect all of these tall buildings in some point in the near future, but they're certainly not alone. In India many buildings are responsible for providing their own water and their own waste water removal.

So it's, it's really – we're very fortunate in this country that we assume we can plug into an urban system that can handle whatever waste the building produces. That's not the case everywhere else in the world.

GROSS: Well, it really illustrates one of the paradoxes of modern life, that we have these just incredible structures that reach, you know, that seem to reach to the sky and then in a place like Dubai you have a 24 hour long line of trucks waiting to dispose of the waste from those buildings.

ASCHER: Right. Well, you know, you have to remember that a place like Dubai really emerged in the last 50 years. It was a sleepy, you know, Bedouin town half a century ago. And what you do is when you bring in the world's, you know, most sophisticated architects and engineers, you can literally build anything, including a building of 140 or 150 stories. But designing a municipal network of sewage treatment is in some ways more complex.

It certainly requires more money and more time to make it happen, so one just seemed to jump ahead of the other.

Image: Big Rigs, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from daveseven's photostream