September 2006 ISSUE

world watch

Natural Electrical Currents Tapped to Find Oil

Freelance Writer

Desks for the Disabled - Johns Hopkins students who designed two custom computer desks for a woman with disabilities from left are Olivia Mao of Natick, Mass.; Boyang Li of Jericho, N.Y.; and Eiline Yoon of Los Angeles.

A developing airborne technology that detects hydrocarbons deep in the Earth has the potential to speed up the time required to make new discoveries. Ed Johnson, president of eField Exploration of Orange County, Calif., says the company’s “electro-magnetotelluric” technology has been used to reveal the location of oil 6,000 or more metres below the surface.

The technology is placed on an airborne platform, and uses computer systems and analysis to reveal geophysical structures deeper than previous technologies allowed. The system differs from others because it reads patterns linked with the natural electrical currents induced by solar flares and lightning. These currents penetrate deep into the soil.

The information takes less time to interpret than that obtained by more traditional technologies, which tend to rely on magnetic or gravity measurements, or on spectral imaging.

The technology is of particular interest south of the border, where there’s a huge push to develop oil supplies in a friendly politically environment: home.

A Safer Way To Control Avalanches
Controlling avalanches has become easier and safer, thanks to Werner Greipl, a German mechanical engineer and helicopter pilot. He’s invented a 1,387-part device called Avalanche Blast.

Mechanical Engineering (New York) reports that Greipl relied heavily on computer-assisted design software to develop the device. The apparatus holds oxygen and hydrogen tanks, which inflate a weather balloon and create a volatile gas at a critical proportion. The device hangs from a helicopter and is ignited by remote control when the balloon strikes the snow.

Avalanche Blast eliminates the dangers of carrying explosives and leaving unexploded charges on the ground.

Silver Bullet Defends Against Bacteria
Talk about a silver lining. Silver and silver ions have been used throughout history for their bactericidal properties.

Chemical & Engineering News (Washington, D.C.) reports that in the latest applications, researchers are using antibacterial silver coatings for everything from wound dressings to mobile phones.

So far, no pathogens have been found that survive contact with silver, says Daniel M. Storey, the chief technical offer at Nexxion in Longmont, Colo.

Seattle Engineers Create Sculpture Park
Civil engineers in Seattle are transforming three parcels of land that have been abandoned for more than 65 years into a lush sculpture garden.

The Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park will be developed from the site of a former oil storage facility, reports Civil Engineering (Reston, Va.). Overlooking Puget Sound, it will feature not only outdoor sculptures but also salmon habitat.

Magnusson Klemencic Associates, a Seattle engineering firm, plans to place more than 153,000 cubic metres of soil on the site. The raised soil will also make it possible to erect pedestrian bridges.

Vietnam Goes Gold
Construction of the first gold mine in Vietnam has recently been completed, the Engineering & Mining Journal (Englewood, Calif.) reports. The owner of the Bong Mieu mine is Olympus Pacific Minerals Inc.

Stay Cool
Researchers in California have developed a method to deal with summer’s high energy demand from air conditioners.

The method, called “precooling,” lowered demand for electricity for cooling small office buildings by 30 per cent. It involves running air conditioners at lower temperatures in the morning and raising them during the day.

James Braun, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, says in Civil Engineering (Reston, Va.) that researchers found a control algorithm that identifies the best time to adjust the temperature for optimal savings.

Chutes Control Dust
Better designed coal chutes could improve the efficiency of coal yards. Power Engineering (Tulsa, Okla.) reports that a design that evolved in Australia takes crushed coal from the discharge belt and delivers it to the receiving belt. This eliminates the need for dust suppression equipment.

The firm, the Parramatta Group, has used the system in Ontario.

Hello, Taiwan
China has announced a 25-year plan to enlarge its freeway system. The $242-billion initiative includes a 161-km link to the island of Taiwan, reports Civil Engineering (Reston, Va.).

More on Mars
How do you design an aircraft to fly on Mars? That’s the puzzle facing NASA’s Planetary Airplane Risk Reduction project, reports Aerospace America (Reston, Va.). And the project is up against plenty of unique challenges.

Navigation by compass is impossible because of the lack of a magnetic field. There are major differences between Earth and Mars in air density and gravity. Then there’s the planet’s high terrain.
Design progress is being made, however, with tests on wing performance, lift and pull-up generating some encouraging results. The next phase, at a cost of $100 million, will test a full-scale aircraft, which will come out of the back portion of a larger aircraft shell.

NASA envisions a major unmanned Mars mission in 2011.

Toxics Down
The number of toxic chemicals released into the environment in the United States decreased slightly from 2003 to 2004, reports Chemical & Engineering News (Washington, D.C.).

The Environmental Protection Agency, in its annual Toxics Release Inventory, reported that the chemical industry accounted for 13 per cent of the total. However, release of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds declined by 14 per cent, in line with recent trends.

Laid-back Solution Helps Disabled
Thanks to three mechanical engineering students, Joy Goldberger of Baltimore is able to keep on working from home as a health-care educator.

A story in Mechanical Engineering (New York) says that the students, Boyang Li, Olivia Mao and Eiline Yoon, developed two special computer desks. Ms. Goldberger uses them to conveniently conduct seminars and workshops, and to write professionally.

The woman has a neurogenerative disease that affects her coordination, and requires that she spend time semi-reclined. The Johns Hopkins University students designed and built the low-tech desks after discovering that retail furniture could not be adapted.

One desk gives handy access to computer equipment and files from the bedside. The other is a rolling cart with a laptop computer, which allows Ms. Goldberger to work from other parts of her home.

Total cost? Under $5,000.

Design to Bank On
An unusual arrangement between a bank and a museum in Seattle is resulting in a mixed-use development that is likely one of the most complicated of its kind, Engineering-News Record (New York) reports. Washington Mutual, a leading mortgage lender, and the Seattle Art Museum will share the 42-storey office tower with a 16-storey extension housing 12 storeys of museum space.

The structure, costing $370 million US, will feature the first performance-based design attempted in the United States. This means that core reinforcement is most dense at the base, with a reinforced contract mat of nearly 4.5 metres over the foundation.

Bring On the Sun
The first solar thermal plant to be built in 20 years solely for electricity was dedicated this spring near Tucson, Ariz. Power Engineering (Tulsa, Okla.) notes that the Saguaro Solar Generating Station employs parabolic mirrors to concentrate solar radiation. Solargenix, part of Acciona Energy of Spain, built the plant.

Engineering Medical Waste Disposal
The time may finally be right for a device patented in 1993 to quickly and cleanly dispose of medical waste, Mechanical Engineering (New York) reports. Wolf von Lersner, then director of engineering at Campbell Soup Co., found little interest for the device at that time, when medical waste could simply be dumped into the ocean.

Today, stricter environmental controls and the high cost of gasoline make the autoclave system, called Ecolotec, much more attractive. The system would be used for such waste as medical syringes and surgical gloves. Now in its final stages of testing, it uses steam and blades called “knife hammers” to shred and churn the material, then quickly sterilize it.

The publication notes that Mr. von Lersner applied his knowledge of food engineering and sterilization to design the system.

Design for Older Miners
The greying of the mining industry’s labour force in most industrialized countries is driving new developments in worker safety, according to the Engineering & Mining Journal (Englewood, Calif.). Developments include eye/face washes engineered to provide water at correct temperatures even at hot, remote sites, and better tracking equipment to monitor miners working alone.

At the same time, the industry acknowledges that safer equipment hasn’t reduced worksite accidents involving mobile equipment. Industry groups such as Volvo Construction Equipment’s Safety Council recommend such basics as better planning of on-site traffic movement and other interactions between workers, equipment and materials.