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.
Recent weeks have seen festive engineering in full swing as we constructed wrapping paper masterpieces, calculated how the turkey could fit in the oven and tested out our new gadgets.
The one thing that all our decorations, toys, and even the tape holding everything together, have in common is materials engineering. An often-underrated field, materials engineering brings together countless studies of the ‘stuff’ that makes up our world.
Many of the greatest challenges our world is facing are due to the limits of the materials we have available. By improving how existing materials work, and even creating new ones altogether, we can engineer our future. Throughout January, we are meeting the engineers and innovators who make it their job to get to the bottom of these problems.
I’ve been in the building services industry since I was 18, and yet it wasn’t until I started progressing within my company that I realised there was a problem.
Once I left my ‘bubble’ at the office and started to attend design meetings, I realised that I was the only female at the table. When I looked around at conferences, I was one of a handful of female visitors, and when I measured up a plant room on site, all the construction workers looked at me.
It was then it hit me; girls need to be told what a great industry and career choice engineering is. I started to look for ways that I could communicate this directly to school students, when it matters most.
Being told to do work experience at a garage would have put a lot of people off a career in engineering. People tell me that it ticks a lot of the stereotypes that come to mind when they think about what an engineer does: the grease, the overalls, the need to work with your hands, the workshop environment, and predominantly just fixing things. Not to mention that most of the people working in this environment are men.
Well, not me.
I had spent most of my childhood with limited exposure to the world of engineering, and I thought engineers were the people you called in a power cut, or when your boiler stopped working. Thankfully, at the time when I was making decisions about what to study at university, there were programmes available to me that provided a taste of what engineering is really about. I also had a thoughtful teacher who told me about engineering and suggested that it might be the right career for me.