Stories tagged Motion

Aug
10
2007

A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them!  (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them! (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
Techno-magician Louis Michaud believes that he can summon a tornado, “tame” it, and use the entity to generate electricity. And he intends not to simply summon a miniature steam vortex, such as can be seen in the Science Museum of Magisota’s Experiment Gallery, but a full-sized wind monster, as featured in the documentary “Twister.”

As bizarre as the idea might seem, councils of air and wind magicians at learning institutions across the country say the theory is sound. It would simply require a sorcerer of the most audacious kind. Perhaps the wizard Michaud is just that person.

The idea is based on the simple and well-known principle that tornado beasts feed and grow off of warm air. Michaud proposes summoning the tornado into a “vortex engine” using a source of hot air such as the waste heat from a nearby nuclear generator (or even, depending on geography, heat from warm tropical water). The hot air would be directed up from the vortex engine’s base in a spinning motion, and would gather momentum as it rose, eventually becoming a tornado several kilometers high. The air sucked into the tornado would spin turbines and generate electricity. The normally chaotic and destructive tornado beast would be content to stay above the vortex engine, feeding off the hot air provided. The wizard Michaud also claims that the stationary, summoned tornados could have the added benefit of combating, in some small way, the powers of That-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named (Global Warming, as it likes to be called). The vortex engines would propel hot air high into the atmosphere, where it could more easily radiate energy back into space – an interesting idea, although it seems like there would have to be countless such tornado summoning stations to have any measurable effect. Who’s to say?

However, there is a price to pay for all this, as is always the case with magic. While universities have been experimenting with the summoning spell on a small scale – luring tornados not larger that a meter or two into this realm – the facilities for commercial-scale summoning would cost somewhere on the order of $60 million. This price would be offset somewhat if the generator were built in conjunction with a nuclear power station, as the station would no longer need a $20 million cooling tower. Michaud has formed the corporation AVEtec to seek investor funding. High wizards from Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT have joined AVEtec’s advisory board.

Those of you less experienced in the magical arts might be well served by this article, or this one, both of which offer a more scientific perspective.

Aug
10
2007

Nice hovercraft, dork: Get a flying saucer, then we'll talk.    (photo by Mark Bridge on Flicker.com)
Nice hovercraft, dork: Get a flying saucer, then we'll talk. (photo by Mark Bridge on Flicker.com)
Moller International has finished development on a flying saucer-like hovercraft, called the M200G.

The M200G is held aloft by eight small rotary engines, and is capable of carrying a payload of about 250 pounds. The craft is stabilized by an on-board computer system, and is piloted using a joystick. Although the vehicle could potentially fly much higher, its computer system limits the maximum altitude to 10 feet. This way, anyone who has $90,000, but no pilot’s license can still legally fly the M200G.

The M200G conveniently burns either gasoline or a mixture of ethanol and water, although it isn’t frighteningly fuel-efficient – it can travel at 50mph for about an hour, and during that time it will use 40 gallons of fuel (that’s 1.25 mpg). Also, the hovercraft emits approximately 85 decibels of sound while operating, which is about the same as a freight train running at high speed.

When asked who would likely purchase such a vehicle, a Moller spokesman gave the peculiar answer, “I don’t know,” but added the probably people who are unable to access and use land they already own - where the terrain would be prohibitive to conventional hovercrafts - might be interested.

Moller’s imagination for potential markets is woefully limited. I think the true future of the M200G lies with socialites, pro athletes, and pop stars. They certainly can afford their own flying saucers, and it seems like the sort of thing a lot of celebrities would be in to. Some of your pro football players might be slightly out of the weight range, but I for one love the idea of, say, Lindsay Lohan hovering down Hollywood Boulevard at about shoulder height in her own M200G. She could call it “Mean Girl,” or “The Decapitator.” I’m just throwing ideas out, but I can see potential there. And if there are any DUI loopholes for flying saucers, I’m sure it could be a hot seller in that crowd.

Man, why didn’t I invent this thing?

An article on the M200G.

Aug
06
2007

Here are some of the most interesting perspectives on the 35W bridge collapse that I have run across in the last few days:

Cell phone network sends ominous signals - Engineers at T-Mobile were alerted that something had gone wrong right after the bridge collapse. They hadn't heard the new yet but saw a sharp change in cell phone activity on their network.

Government spending collapsed as well - A graph of US government spending on infrastructure over the last 55 years.

Historians and engineers have a thing or two to learn from each other - An editorial from 2006 of the history of engineering disasters.

Bridges made from glass - A prescient report from the National Science Foundation on poor infrastructure and the future of bridge technology.

Jul
10
2007

Danger seat: Are there steps that can be taken to help lower higher-than-average rates of teen driving accidents and fatalities? It's a good question in Minnesota, where there's been a spike in the number of teen road fatalities this summer.
Danger seat: Are there steps that can be taken to help lower higher-than-average rates of teen driving accidents and fatalities? It's a good question in Minnesota, where there's been a spike in the number of teen road fatalities this summer.
It hasn’t been a very good summer in Minnesota for teen driving fatalities. Seven young drivers or passengers in cars driven by teens have died since June 23.

And while we take a lot of pride in Minnesota about being a national leader in rankings for education, health and voting participation, we’re actually one of the national leaders in the percentage of teens who die in traffic accidents. To top that all off, Minnesota is just one of five states in the country that doesn’t have a teen driving curfew and/or restrictions on the number of passengers outside of family members a teen driver can have in a vehicle.

Here are some quick stats that the Star-Tribune reported over the weekend.

• In 2006, the age group of drivers with the most deaths in Minnesota was 15-19, with 70 people killed. No age group 30 or older had more than 40 deaths.
• Teens make up only seven percent of Minnesota’s drivers but are involved in 14 percent of the crashes.
• Overall traffic accident statistics show that one in eight teen drivers are involved in an accident each year in the state.

Past action by the legislature has put on some restrictions on teen drivers. For several years now Minnesota has had a graduated driving license law that includes these provisions:
• New drivers can’t use a cell phone while on the road.
• All passengers in a car driven by a teen need to be seat-belted.
• Must complete one full year of driving without an alcohol or crash-related violation before they can get a standard driving license.

So what, if anything more, should be done?

Would a curfew curtail a lot of teen driving problems? Most the fatalities listed above happened at late-night or early-morning hours of the day. Or would many teens thumb their nose such rules?

The other common method that states use to deal with the situation is to restrict the number of non-family members in the car while a teen is driving. The thinking is, fewer friends in the car will make for fewer distractions to the driver and more attentive driving. Others say that kind of rule will simply divide up teen drivers between more cars.

What do you think? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Jun
06
2007

Sign of the times: More stores, malls and public places are posting signs banning the use of "heeling' shoes, shoes that have a wheel built into the heel to allow them to be used like a roller skate. (Photo by voteprime)
Sign of the times: More stores, malls and public places are posting signs banning the use of "heeling' shoes, shoes that have a wheel built into the heel to allow them to be used like a roller skate. (Photo by voteprime)
In my job on working on the floor of the Science Museum of Minnesota, I see more and more young visitors rolling their way along with the new “heeling” shoes. They have a roller wheel equipped in the heel that allows the wear to scoot around like on roller skates.

Some of the floor staff can’t stand the shoes and quickly ask visitors to stop using them. If it’s not busy, I’m a little more forgiving, but when the museum is crowded, it’s a problem just waiting to happen.

Now a group on international doctors are chiming in…they don’t like Heelys (the brand name of the shoes). The list of injuries incurred from heeling incidents around the world includes broken wrists, arms and ankles; dislocated elbows and even a few cracked skulls.

A hospital in Ireland recorded 67 treated injuries to children over a 10-week period last summer. In the U.S., there were roughly 1,600 emergency room visits last year caused by “heeling” shoes, reports the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Crash landing: National statistics show that there were at least 1,600 emergency room visits last year in the U.S. due to the use of "heeling" shoes. (photo by stevejlovegrove)
Crash landing: National statistics show that there were at least 1,600 emergency room visits last year in the U.S. due to the use of "heeling" shoes. (photo by stevejlovegrove)
All of those incidents have led the American Academy of Orthopeadic Surgeons to put out recommendations that heelers wear helmets, wrist protectors and knee and elbow pads while their zigging around.

Further investigation by the medial organizations has found that many of the “heeling” injuries happen to kids new to the using shoe. Still, many schools and shopping malls have banned use of the shoes for safety concerns.

Overall, since being introduced to the market in 2000, more than 10 million pairs of “heeling” shoes have been sold, making it one of the hottest new segments of the footware business. And officials from Heelys this spring addressed the issue by noting that their shoes are statistically safer than skateboarding, inline skating and swimming. Safety instructions are included with each new pair of “heeling” shoes that are sold.

What do you think? Are these new shoes a problem? Should they be banned? What could be done to make them safer? Is it no big deal? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

May
31
2007

To good to be true? Maybe not. India’s largest car company is planning to start production on a car that runs on compressed air. An on-board tank would store over 3,000 cubic feet of compressed air. Released in small, controlled bursts, the air would push pistons to make the car go. Nothing burns, so there is no pollution, no greenhouse gas emissions, no use of gasoline.

The car has a range of 120-180 miles, about double what the best electrics now offer. Drivers will fill up at special compressors installed at filling stations. (The car also comes equipped with a compressor that can refill the tank if plugged in overnight.) Thus, “fuel” costs will come down to about 2.2 cents per mile.

The car saves energy in other ways:

  • Because there is no internal combustion – no gasoline burns in the engine, and it stays relatively cool -- you only need to change the oil every 31,000 miles or so. (In fact, you can use vegetable oil.)
  • As air expands, its temperature drops – in this case, to somewhere between 0 and 15 below. This cool air could be recaptured for the air conditioning system, saving even more energy.

The car does have some drawbacks. The top speed is 68 mph -- fine for tooling around town, but pretty weak for the highway. Also, to save weight, the car is made entirely of fiberglass and is glued together, rather than bolted. This kind of construction is not considered safe enough in the US. But if the air car is successful, it’s a good bet that car companies will look for ways to adapt this technology to the American market.

Apr
18
2007

Solar cells reduce your electric bill, but they are also very expensive to buy and install.  Are they worth it?: Photo by clownfish from www.flickr.com
Solar cells reduce your electric bill, but they are also very expensive to buy and install. Are they worth it?: Photo by clownfish from www.flickr.com

Some people are installing solar panels on their homes. These panels generate electricity from sunlight. Using the panels will lower your electric bill, and reduce demand from power plants (which often burn coal).
But, are they worth it?

On April 15, the San Francisco Chronicle said yes. They looked at the costs of buying and installing the panels, and weighed it against the benefits (which include getting a tax rebate). They found that, over 25 to 30 years, the average home would save about $33,000.

So, solar panels are a good idea, right? Not so fast! On April 14, the NY Times reported that solar panels never pay for themselves. Even accounting for electrical savings and tax rebates, they are so expensive that you never make your money back.

Well, the two articles can’t both be right. Right? Well, actually, they both seem correct -- but they are based on two very different scenarios:

  1. Different tax rebates in the two states.
  2. More sunshine in California, making the panels more useful.
  3. The panels are almost twice as expensive in NY than in SF.
  4. The NY Times assumed that, if you didn’t spend the money on panels, you’d put it in the bank or otherwise invest it, where it can earn money for you. The SF Chronicle did not take this into account.

So, whether or not solar panels are a good financial investment depends on a lot of factors. Whether they are good for the environment is much easier to answer – they produce electricity without pollution.

In the future, the debate may be moot – scientists are working on new types of solar cells that use nanotechnology, which may bring the costs way down.

Sep
27
2006


Aboard the vomit comet: This is the same type of plane that Sanchot was operated aboard.
Courtesy NASA

I don't know about you but I think I would be pretty much last on the list to volunteer for surgery on a plane. Especially if that that plane is flying up and down, up and down, thousands of feet each minute to simulate zero gravity.

But that's just what Philippe Sanchot signed up for. Doctors removed a benign tumor from his arm as part of an experiment to see how surgery in space might work. They flew aboard the specially designed plane, Zero-G, which climbs very high and then dives quickly to simulate weightlessness.

The main surgeon on the team said:

"Now we know that a human being can be operated on in space without too many difficulties."

These techniques might be used in the future to remotely preform surgery abroad the space station or other futuristic space craft.

Aug
08
2006

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