Six-Pack o’ Tech Snacks—10.24.2011 Edition
By Mark Devlin
October 24, 2011
1. Tanks Fueling Up at Your Local Mickey D’s? Don’t Worry.
No, we’re not talking veggie-diesel. BUT, the U.S. Air Force is looking to fuel 40+ aircraft models from waste oils and plants by 2013—three years ahead of the original target. The Army wants 25% of its energy coming from renewable sources by 2025. Why? Supply volatility, of course. Tough to fight a war when you might be bombing the regions producing your fuel—or dealing with a country snubbing its collective nose at the U.S.
Here’s a clip from a Bloomberg article (via Slashdot)…
“The first few widgets are always more expensive than the billionth,” said James Rekoske, vice president of renewable energy at Honeywell’s UOP unit. “That’s where we’re at.” Honeywell expects to have delivered about 800,000 gallons of biojet fuel from 2009 through early 2012.
Rekoske said prices need to dive to $3 to $4 a gallon from more than $10 now. Refineries, costing about $300 million each, are “mission critical” and a giant customer like the U.S. government is necessary to carry production to the next level.
It’s actually not a new thing, except in terms of quantity. The Air Force Thunderbirds team has already used biofuels in at least one of their F-16s, and the Navy has flown its ‘Green Hornet’ fighter at 1.7X the speed of sound with the stuff.
I still can’t get the heavily armed “Can we have your waste frying oil, please?” image out of my head. Tanks in the streets.
2. Finally: A Nuke-Powered Wheeled Vehicle
I’ve been saying it forever. We’re American, we love big SUVs and other large vehicles. Heck, we don’t think twice about taking a 12”-lifted, 6-mpg Suburban out for errands to the Piggly Wiggly. We don’t love their fuel economy, however. Years ago, I said “Fine. Gimme a 4WD, 1,000 hp, full-size van powered by a nuclear-fueled engine getting 100 years per uranium nugget.”
Seems that NASA’s gone and done it. Sort of.
Compared to NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, the new Curiosity is twice the size, five times heavier, and carries 15X more scientific equipment by weight—and it’s got to run for two years without an Exxon station. Solar panels have proven problematic, especially with dust issues. Not only does Curiosity need motive power, but also a ton of energy to power all the instrumentation.
Solution? Nuke it. Enter the MMRTG, for Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. (Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? ‘Nuke Rover’ would’ve been better.) Variations of the MMRTG have been used in other space missions, including those involving U.S. Moon missions.
Fast-forward to about 1:10 for MMRTG specifics…
Fuel is a “specially produced form of plutonium dioxide.” Heat plus thermocouples equals about 100W of power to continually charge Curiosity’s battery.
(Source: NASA via Gizmodo.)
Dear Sears Craftsman: Please produce DIY MMRTG home version. I’ll even pre-order.
3. Something Old, Something New…
…something borrowed, but it’s not blue.
Thanks to Gizmodo, again (via DARPA and DVICE), DARPA seeks innovators for their “Satellite Servicing Technology Program.”)
Yeah, we’ve already (briefly) covered the possibility of bus-sized satellites falling on our heads (See #2 here.)
But (There’s always a ‘but.’), there’s $300B (Yes, billion.) dollars worth of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (That’s 22,000 miles.) above the earth as we speak. So, one satellite potentially falling on your head is an odd event but, over time, it’s not going to be all that rare.
In the spirit of recycling, sustainability, and all that, DARPA has determined that even old (meaning obsolete, failed, etc.) satellites can be useful—for their antennas, as an example.
Our space ‘graveyard’ (DARPA’s term.)…
…potentially holds tens to more than a hundred retired satellites that have components that could be repurposed – with the willing knowledge and sanction of the satellite’s owner.
Here’s a vid presenting how DARPA’s ‘Phoenix’ program could add useful life to washed-up satellites while they’re still in space—at a considerable cost savings…
Government. Recycling. Saving money. Now there’s a concept.
4. Don’t Text and Drive
…or, don’t do other things while you’re driving. We’re all pretty much in agreement regarding the prospective dangers, and now we at least have some sort of data to support that position.
It seems that the recent Blackberry outage, covered here by Mike, has revealed a connection (A loose one, granted.) between phone usage, texting, and checking emails while driving: accident rates ‘plummeted’ in Abu Dubai and Dubai during that outage. Here’s a clip from Slashdot (via NakedSecurity)…
"Absolutely nothing has happened in the past week in terms of killings on the road and we're really glad about that," Brig Gen Al Harethi told the newspaper. "People are slowly starting to realise the dangers of using their phone while driving. The roads became much safer when BlackBerry stopped working."
It’s neither confirmed nor scientific, but consistent with what thinking people have logically known all along.
Thank you, UAE.
5. Tim Allen: If It’s Not Working Properly, Rewire It!
According to this article at PopSci, Tim Allen and nanotech might have something in common. Here’s a clip (with links intact)…
Northwestern University researchers--the same ones that brought us self-erasing documents a couple of years ago--are envisioning a day when computers and other gadgets can rewire themselves automatically to better suit the user’s needs at a given moment. As a step in that direction, they have today published a paper in Nature Nanotechnology describing tiny circuits they’ve created from nano-scale materials that can be resistors, diodes, transistors, or other components depending on what the computer needs them to be at a given time.
Are the nanoparticles going in, desoldering, moving, and resoldering connections? Obviously not. They do, however, change the way that they steer ‘the flow of electrons through a material,’ thus optimizing the device for the ‘task at hand.’
Maybe there is something to this nanotech stuff.
6. The Amazing Sounds of Engineering
The stick-and-ball guys sometimes don’t get the allure of auto racing. I’ve talked way too much about cars and drivers lately, and a proper answer would span at least a 6-part series. My quick answer, re: the allure? Part of it involves the results of engineering with abyss-deep pockets. Sure: chassis, suspension, and aerodynamics are critical, but the engines. Wow, those engines.
Jalopnik recently published a video feature called The Ten Most Awesome Engine Sounds. They are awesome, but, beyond the thunder, it’s the engineering behind those powerful, competitive, sometimes race-winning powerplants that I hear. Sure, they’re all great engines. All engines (Okay, most. Alright, maybe many.) are great in their own right whether for grocery-getting or wicked high-rpm endurance racing. One of the things that amazes me most? The engineers for most of the engines shown in that feature were given carte blanche. Sure, they have to make their creations fit various rule sets. But few engineers can actually get the unobtanium parts they request. These folks have.
Jalopnik usually does a great job. My favorites are the flat-12 Porsche 917 at #9, and the Brutus at #2. (Here’s some fascinating background on that one.) There’s at least one glaring omission: the following video of testing an F1 engine. This is a must-watch if you like electric-motor rpm levels, internally-combusted flames going external, and engine components that are supposed to glow like that…
I can give Jalopnik a break on that one though, since, technically, the engine was already running at the start of the vid.
Again, as I often do when it comes to writing about cars, I have to go back to being a kid. Another one of my heroes? Jim Hall—racer, Texas oil magnate, and builder of Chaparral racecars. Think Dodge’s and Plymouth’s quickly-banned NASCAR superstar cars—the Daytona and Superbird, respectively—were the first popular racecars to use highly-engineered aerodynamics? They were close, but remember for instance the Chapparal 2F. Check out the wing on this monster…
(I’ve been one of the biggest fans of the Big-Block Chevy since I saw my first one in the form of a brand-new, white ’67 Impala SS—427 with a 4-speed—at the back of a dealer’s shop before they were officially allowed to go on the showroom floor. (Mom got the 327 4-bbl, Power-Slide fastback. Damn.) But ANYway, why is it that the Chapparal cars in contemporary videos are so mildly cammed? Hopefully, an astute reader can lend some insight. Sure, compared even to cars of their day, the Chapparal cars weren’t about high rpm; rather, they harnessed tug boat-style torque in a racecar, with appropriate gearing for high speeds—and you don’t need a lot of cam for that. The answer can’t be that simple, can it?)
Then, of course, there was the Chapparal 2J—aka the ‘sucker car,’ ‘vacuum cleaner,’ and ‘fan car’. This one inverted the ‘hover’ idea and used fans (and skirts all around) to pull the car toward the ground while racing—no wings required. This one qualifies as an engine start-up vid, but keep watching ‘til about 0.37 when the (demonic) vacuum fan engine is also started…
Amazing stuff. Thank God for engineers.