Category Archives: Engineering

How Captain America inspired new fuel efficient cars

Materials scientist Suveen Mathaudhu shows us how both our favorite superheroes and real-world scientists create materials to save the world every day.

Some of Mathaudhu’s own research at UC Riverside has been inspired by Captain America’s shield: is it possible to make a material that is both incredibly strong and super lightweight?

Advances in this area have already made a real impact, particularly in transportation. Lighter vehicles mean better fuel efficiency, making cars cheaper to run and better for the environment.

The Ford F-150, the top-selling pickup truck in the US, shifted from a steel frame to an aluminum frame, increasing the fuel economy of the vehicle by taking over seven hundred pounds out of the frame of the vehicle.

Making the frame weigh less is a big start, but there’s another less obvious source of weight: wiring. The average automobile has between 45 – 110 pounds (20 -50 kg) of electrical cabling.

“Most of it is thick copper cable, and copper cable is heavy – and now copper is very expensive,” said Mathaudhu. “If we could get a fraction of that conductivity in aluminum, it would not only be cheaper to implement, it would be lighter weight even though it will never have the conductivity that copper will inherently have.”

Mathaudhu’s research has shown how you can use nanostructured features in aluminum to maintain its conductivity, while simultaneously boosting the strength of the aluminum. Aluminum is both cheaper and lighter, so by moving toward aluminum cabling, car manufacturers can solve two problems at once.

Could Poop Power Our Cars?

Is brown the new green? UCLA researchers are using waste matter (yes, including poop) to make a new generation of advanced biofuels.

The U.S. alone annually produces over 1 billion tons of manure from agriculture, which produces nitrous oxide methane emissions, greenhouse gases 325 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But what if all this poop could have another use – one that could stimulate a sustainable biofuel movement?

Graduate researcher David Wernick talks about ongoing work at UCLA to turn manure, sewage, plant waste and even carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere into feed stocks for producing biofuels, and for making the process of manufacturing biofuels clean and sustainable.

Learn more about David Wernick’s work to turn poop (and other waste streams) into sustainable fuel sources:  Will Cars Of The Future Run On Poop?

The research highlighted in this video was supported in part by the UCLA-DOE Institute of Genomics and Proteomics and a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Chemists fabricate novel rewritable paper

According to some surveys, 90 percent of all information in businesses today is retained on paper, even though the bulk of this printed paper is discarded after just one use.

First developed in China in about the year A.D. 150, paper has many uses, the most common being for writing and printing upon. Indeed, the development and spread of civilization owe much to paper’s use as writing material.

Such waste of paper (and ink cartridges) — not to mention the accompanying environmental problems such as deforestation and chemical pollution to air, water and land — could be curtailed if the paper were “rewritable,” that is, capable of being written on and erased multiple times.

Chemists at the University of California, Riverside have now fabricated in the lab just such a rewritable paper, one that is based on the color switching property of commercial chemicals called redox dyes. The dye forms the imaging layer of the paper.  Printing is achieved by using ultraviolet light to photobleach the dye, except the portions that constitute the text on the paper.  The new rewritable paper can be erased and written on more than 20 times with no significant loss in contrast or resolution.

Read more about it here →

Developing the world’s first neural device to restore memory

The Neural Technology group at Lawrence Livermore National Lab will seek to develop a neuromodulation system — a sophisticated electronics system to modulate neurons — that will investigate areas of the brain associated with memory to understand how new memories are formed.

The research builds on the understanding that memory is a process in which neurons in certain regions of the brain encode information, store it and retrieve it. Certain types of illnesses and injuries, including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy, disrupt this process and cause memory loss. TBI, in particular, has affected 270,000 military service members since 2000.

The goal of LLNL’s work — driven by LLNL’s Neural Technology group and undertaken in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Medtronic — is to develop a device that uses real-time recording and closed-loop stimulation of neural tissues to bridge gaps in the injured brain and restore individuals’ ability to form new memories and access previously formed ones.

Science Today recently spoke with Livermore Lab research engineer, Angela Tooker about the project:

 

Making Huge Strides for Mobility

This exoskeleton, developed by UC Berkeley professor Homayoon Kazerooni and his team, helps people suffering from spinal cord injuries to walk again.

“Many paraplegics are not in a situation to afford a $100,000 device, and insurance companies don’t pay for these devices,” Kazerooni said. “Our job as engineers is to make something people can use.”

To make his exoskeleton affordable, he used the simplest possible technology: a computer and batteries in a backpack, actuators at the hips, and a pair of crutches with buttons that activate an exoskeleton that fits around the legs. The crutches provide stability, an important consideration for paraplegics navigating streets and sidewalks.

“The key is independence for these people,” he said. “I want them to get up in the morning and go to work, go to the bathroom, stand at a bar and have a beer.”

Read more

The robot spider that shrieks as it walks

While this eight legged creature is still a prototype, UC Santa Barbara alum Matthew Garten hopes to debut the finished robot for this year’s Bay Area Maker Faire.  Currently the wooden joints in the legs let out a loud squeal that he’s hoping won’t be in the final version (but definitely give off a creepy vibe in his test video).

The technology he’s using is known as the Klann linkage and essentially was developed in the mid-1990s to replace a robot’s wheels by simulating an animal’s walk.

Matthew, seeing himself as both an engineer and inventor, says that robots roam his home.  He’s worked on a wide range of projects from MEMS stem cell sorting to rocket-propelled grenade defense. Also you may have seen Matthew’s open source steampunk Arduino watch on Instructables a few years ago.

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What engineers can learn from animals

The mantis shrimp

Genghis Khan bathed in sherbet ice cream.

This is how The Oatmeal described the violent AND beautiful mantis shrimp in their comic: “Why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal.

These little guys, along with 20 other animals, will serve as inspiration for a team of engineers and researchers –– led by UC Riverside’s David Kisailus.  Of particular interest is the mantis shrimp’s clubs (or “murder sticks” as they’re referred to in the comic), which it uses to kill prey and break apart oysters, crabs, and mollusks.

Working with biologists and chemists, these engineers will study their biological systems and cellular structures to see if they can use those insights to develop stronger, tougher materials. Natural structures like shells, beaks and antlers are particularly interesting because they are composed of relatively simple materials (aka not industrial strength), yet display incredible strength and mechanical performance.

This multidisciplinary research will highlight the value in biologically-inspired materials allowing the next generation of materials development to take advantage of what nature has known for millennia.