Modern engineering has moved on from the stage where hardware was always used for manufacturing, and computer software was necessary for programming. Today, we are close to being able to use purely biological approaches to produce drugs, food, clothing and even industrial goods. This discipline is called biological engineering, and progress has accelerated in the last ten years thanks to massive drops in the price of both DNA production and characterisation. However, the complexity of biology and the long time it takes to prototype proteins is still a major roadblock to progress.
At the end of last year, creative images and video spanning tissue engineering, aircraft engines and nanotechnology won prizes in the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering 2017 ZEISS Photography Competition. Here are some of the incredible visuals that took the top prizes.
Khainza Energy produces clean, affordable, long lasting cooking gas and packages it in cylinders for sale to low income households in Uganda. The gas is produced entirely from organic waste through biochemical processes. Our gas burns with no smoke, no smell and yet costs less than charcoal!
The idea was inspired by a woman living in Eastern Uganda. She gave birth to her first child when she was barely 16 years old. She now has 6 children, whom she has been providing for almost single handedly. Every morning at 4am, the children awake to the loud sound of an axe splitting firewood. They can hear their mother wheezing and coughing in the small kitchen as she prepares their breakfast. Three years ago, this brave woman was diagnosed with an acute respiratory infection. She had spent a large part of her life effectively “smoking”.
Why on earth would anyone use 2 weeks of annual leave to build a model railway? As STEM Ambassadors, we often joke that championing Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths is a full-time job. Problem is, we already have day jobs, as engineers. That’s why we spent our summer holiday being filmed by Love Productions for a Channel 4 show, surviving clouds of midges and rain.
You are probably questioning our sanity now, but when you’re as acutely aware of the need for more engineers in your industry then it’s hard not to seize every opportunity to promote the industry in a more positive light. Oh, and it sounded like a great challenge to take on an engineering project of such a grand scale, in a really tight time limit. Still not convinced you that it was a good idea? Well, we’ve interviewed each other to see if we can explain a bit more behind our reasons.
At over 80 metres in length, a single blade from a wind turbine is an impressive feat of engineering. Modern offshore wind turbine blades are now the largest fibreglass components ever cast in a single piece. This has been made possible through continuous improvement in materials development. The layering and structuring of fibreglass was originally a craft used for building the hulls of boats. Now, the design of composite materials – a group of materials which includes fibreglass – is done by international teams of engineers working together to create these record-breaking components.
Materials engineering is uniquely important to the design of wind turbines, particularly because there is so much of it! As the industry has grown, so has the size of our machines, with the largest now gathering wind from an area greater than three football pitches put together. The area that the blades sweep through is an important factor in turbine performance. At a given wind speed, the amount of power which can be extracted from the wind increases by the square of the blade length – 3 times longer blades, 9 times more available power. However, if things are simply scaled up, the mass or weight of the blade increases by the cube of the length – 3 times the length, 27 times the mass!
As chemical engineers and chemists, we often don’t get to see what we create – molecules are too small to see and chemical processes often happen in closed systems. As such, when we do get to see the fruits of our labor, the result can be incredibly exciting and motivating.
This was the case in the founding of my company, Sironix Renewables. During my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with a team of scientists to develop new, eco-friendly replacements to existing chemicals and fuels. The process involved making renewably-sourced products, like fuels, detergents, and plastics. Finding a suitable replacement to an existing product is great, but for us the ‘holy grail’ was finding something that worked better than what existed.
One of these ‘holy grail’ moments struck us when we were looking at a set of vials – all but one was filled with a cloudy, white liquid. We were looking at the hard water stability of new detergent molecules for things like spray cleaners and laundry detergents, and the cloudy, white liquid meant it didn’t work well. The one clear vial, however, was our new detergent molecule and it performed flawlessly. This was one of the few moments where we got to see the result of our work.
Imagine that instead of switching on a lamp when it gets dark, you could read by the light of a glowing plant on your desk.
MIT engineers have taken a critical first step toward making that vision a reality. By embedding specialized nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, they induced the plants to give off dim light for nearly four hours. They believe that, with further optimization, such plants will one day be bright enough to illuminate a workspace.
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.
Sample photo taken with the Quanta Image Sensor. It is a binary single-photon image, so if the pixel was hit by one or more photons, it is white; if not, it is black.
QEPrize winner Eric Fossum, together with engineers from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, has produced a new imaging technology that may revolutionise medical and life sciences research, security, photography and cinematography.
The new technology is called the Quanta Image Sensor, or QIS. It will enable highly sensitive, more easily manipulated and higher quality digital imaging than is currently available. The sensor can reliably capture and count single photons, generating a resolution as high as one megapixel, as fast as thousands of frames per second. Plus, the QIS can accomplish this in low light, at room temperature, using mainstream image sensor technology. Previous technology required large pixels, low temperatures or both.