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Future Combat Systems Changes the Face of Battle

The U.S. military’s Future Combat Systems links soldiers and robots in a vast wireless network

Porous Copper Structures Developed ata Micro Scale

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed a method for creating uniform porous copper structures at the micron and nanometer scale. These tiny structures are being developed for the Indian Head Division of Naval Surface Warfare Center to be combined with integrated circuits and chemically changed into tiny MEMS detonators.

“We are creating the porous metallic precursor, which is the main source of the detonation; the actual detonator is the MEMS device, which is a little bigger, maybe less than a square centimeter,” says Jason Nadler, a research scientist with the Georgia Tech Research Institute. “I am basically setting up architectures, basically trying to customize or tailor the porous architecture.”

Using templates including woven fabrics and microspheres, Nadler creates predictable and replicable structures with a copper oxide paste. He then removes the template through a thermochemical process and after this process he converts the paste, which has a viscosity controlled through the introduction of polymers, into a solid copper structure.

“Basically you define the structure of the pores before you make the material and you use those as a kind of sacrificial scaffolding,” says Nadler.

Through this process, Nadler can tailor the copper structures to the exact requirements of Indian Head for implementation into the MEMS detonators and then repeat the process. “The precise porous structure is basically part of a larger design process to facilitate the best chemical reaction,” he says. “You need a tailored structure to optimize the conversion, so you have to know a lot about what the stuff is turning into and how it’s changing to accommodate the actual previous structure.”

Nadler says the process will be suitable for various applications. “Any time you need to control some sort of two-phase structure (in this case it’s porous, so there’s air and solid) with inorganic materials,” he says, “and you want to do it on a mezzo scale, a micro scale, and potentially a nano scale, now you can actually tailor it and control exactly what that negative structure is going to look like.”

Safety Over Ethernet Options Increasing

Safety Over Ethernet Options Increasing

With the idea of using a shared real-time Ethernet network for machine control and safety quickly gaining acceptance, suppliers and technology organizations are scrambling to make this integrated safety strategy easier to implement. The latest development on that score comes from SERCOS International and Germany’s IXXAT Automation GmbH.

IXXAT will this year develop a new software stack for the “CIP Safety on SERCOS” protocol. Consisting of a CIP Safety layer and a CIP Safety on SERCOS adaptation layer, the new software stack will be designed for both SERCOS master and slave implementations.

CIP Safety On Sercos isn’t a brand new concept, but IXXAT’s involvement will help standardize it. According to Ron Larsen, managing director of SERCOS North America,  CIP Safety on SERCOS previously required individual implementations by the various drive and control vendors. “The whole idea with IXXAT is to have a standardized solution that keeps everyone from having to reinvent the wheel,”  Larsen says.

He adds that software will be pre-certified to IEC 61508 SIL 3 by TÜV and BGIA, two key European safety agencies.

In a related move, IXXAT will also develop a SERCOS III interface module based on its Universal Industrial Ethernet Module.  By putting the full SERCOS III real-time Ethernet functionality onto an Altera FPGA, IXXAT’s module allows a wide variety of slave devices to connect to a host system via a universal interface. Similar modules for other varieties of real-time Ethernet have already been developed.

IXXAT, a specialist in data communications technologies for automotive and industrial automation, is no newcomer to the safety arena. The company has already helped develop similar safety software for Ethernet Powerlink. “We already have the certified safety engineers on staff to develop safety applications,” say Bill Seitz, president of IXXAT North America.

On the hardware side, IXXAT will make good use of its experience developing Ethernet technologies on FPGAs. These include not only the industrial Ethernet modules for slave devices–such as the forthcoming module for SERCOS III–but also FPGA-based controllers for safety. “Developing safety solutions on FPGAs gives us the flexibility we need to adapt to all the different kinds of industrial Ethernet,” says Seitz.

Mercedes Rust Bucket

Mercedes Rust Bucket

If you pay a $50,000 car, you would not expect to have rust problems. But if it’s a 1999 Mercedes E320, think again. Before you say I’m paid too much, I was working two jobs in 1999 and splurged for a fancy schmancy car.


My Mercedes has a bad rust problem. More than 15 sizeable rust spots have sprung up, mostly around the trim in the two rear passenger doors and some on the front quarter panels (see photos). This infuriates me when I look at other nine-year old cars costing half a much that are rust free here in the Boston area. When the problem started, I e-mailed Mercedes via that little comments box company’s have on their web sites. They told me how much they loved me as a customer, but would take no responsibility for the rust problem. You know, conditions vary. 


I called my local dealer who would not even look at the car until I squawked very loudly in the comments box and said I would write about the problem. It’s my guess if you really push them and threaten to make trouble for Mercedes, it’ll eventually do something (too late for me).


So after gouging me $155 for a new ignition key that I needed, I got my local dealer’s service manager to inspect the rust problem. He admitted much of the rust was the result of a Mercedes design flaw where moisture finds it way in behind the trim. Then he said Mercedes wouldn’t help out with the repairs because the car is more than eight years old. Mine is eight and a half. He estimated the cost of the repairs to be about $6,000 I had heard when someone screamed loud enough, Mercedes on occasion has paid half the cost for repairs. A local body shop estimated about the repairs at $1,800 a year ago, but the problem has worsened. That said, a Mercedes dealer is as expensive as it gets. The service manager explained that Mercedes rationalizes that I have already gotten “value received” out of the car and that they are obligated to do nothing. And this is a premium auto maker that prizes itself on reliability, status and precision engineering!!!?? And customer (Can’t Get No….) satisfaction!!!?? It’s hogwash just like Dr. Z in those once inane Daimler Chrysler commercials. I also called a Mercedes PR person given I am in the media. That person never returned my call.


It’s my contention Mercedes should pay ALL the cost given this is a problem its own making. That much rust never should have happened. Sure, there’s salt on the road in New England, but like I said, other cars do just fine here. What happened to my car seems to be a trend in German auto making. For reliability, they have ranked far behind their American and Asian competitors especially in the upscale and luxury categories, according to the ranking in Consumer Reports.  


To be fair, my E320 is a joy to drive and has suffered few mechanical problems in the 184,000 miles I have put on it. Just the usual maintenance stuff – brakes, ball joints and changing the synthetic oil (a must) every 7,000 miles. Two cooling fans went under warranty and I had to replace two front end springs about 40K miles ago. I can’t think of much else. Even the exhaust system is the original!! The 221 hp V-6 still has good power and gets upward of 30 MGP on the highway. As a rear wheel drive car, it’s terrible in the snow, though.


No doubt, hitting 200,000 miles will be easy given its sound mechanical condition. But it’ll look even more like a rust bucket than it does today – hardly a good advertisement for a premium car brand. I plan on going to auto show in Detroit the week after next. Maybe I’ll have a word with Dr. Z then.

Left front quarter panel
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Virtual Cable System Displays Cable Rendering for Auto Navigation

Navigation visualization company Making Virtual Solid, LLC recently announced its Virtual Cable navigation system, based on Heads Up Display (HUD) technology at the Navigation & Location 2007 conference in San Jose, CA. The Virtual Cable system displays a rendering of a cable that looks like it is suspended in front of and outside the car but is in fact just a small projection on the inside of the windshield.

“Imagine that you paint a vector graphic with a laser beam on a flat surface,” says Tom Zamojdo, COO of Making Virtual Solid. “If you start moving the surface at the same time as you are moving the laser point, then you can paint a line in 3-D.”

The virtual cable is made up of a volumetric display that consists of a laser and a series of optics. The laser draws the image of the virtual cable at 60 times/sec in order for it to appear as though there is a solid image. The image is projected onto a small screen made of a modified acoustic speaker, which moves in and out to create the illusion of 3-D. The optics magnify and project the adjusting image of the cable on the windshield of the car.

“Basically the core components are what we call primary volumetric display, which is the unit that builds a very small three dimensional image; the image is only 70mm wide and 2mm deep,” says Zamojdo.

The Virtual Cable relies on the use of GPS. “We need GPS in our units to ascertain the exact position of the car at a given time. We also have some inertial sensors that augment that GPS, but we get map data from the outside,” says Zamojdo, who also indicates the Virtual Cable can interface with any device capable of providing GPS data, through various wireless methods including Bluetooth.

“The root planning is going to be third party; what we provide is just a monitor,” he says. “Using a PC monitor analogy, we basically just provide a monitor with a standard interface and we would expect to receive map data to tell us where that line should be displayed.”

In regard to bandwidth, one advantage of the Virtual Cable over more traditional GPS units is it doesn’t require all the mapping data associated with the other devices. “All we need is a simple mathematical equation for the line that needs to be drawn. We don’t need streets, names, nothing, just the mathematical equation for a line at a given moment,” says Myra Schullman, CEO of Making Virtual Solid, LLC.

Clippard Releases New Aluminum In-Line Manifold

Clippard recently released an aluminum in-line manifold for fluid or air applications. This is a new product for Clippard with the closest existing product targeting a smaller scale. This new in-line manifold features a center passageway that can be supplied at either end or supplied at one end and plugged at the other. It also features an inlet size of 1/4 inch NPT or 3/8 inch NPT.

The manifolds feature 4, 6, 8 or 10 stations for grouping valves, fittings or other pneumatics and range in size from 1/8-inch NPT to 1/4-inch NPT and have a T-slot for mounting and fastening. Pricing for these in-line manifolds have not yet been determined.

New in-line manifold from Clippard features 4, 6, 8 or 10 stations

Virtual Cable System Displays Cable Rendering for Auto Navigation

Southern Pacific Number 771: A Unique Locomotive Experience in Grapevine, TX

Southern Pacific Number 771: A Unique Locomotive Experience in Grapevine, TX

To an energy engineer, there is nothing more awesome than live steam locomotives because that is where our discipline began. Drawn by the allure of steam, I took a day trip over the holiday to visit Grapevine, TX, home to the Grapevine Vintage Railroad, a working railroad museum featuring 21-mile rides from Grapevine down to Ft. Worth. The museum’s attractions include “Puffy”, a restored 1896 live steam locomotive, which is the oldest continuously operating steam engine in the South.


Despite the fanfare over Puffy, I was drawn to a distant corner of the museum’s property to peek at the remains of the Southern Pacific 2-8-2 Number 771 sitting out of sight on the far end of the overflow parking lot. Although the rest of the museum was very well annotated, Number 771 just seemed to be rusting away in the elements with no explanation as to what it was doing there.

I love steam engines, but every locomotive I have ever seen is either bellowing smoke, ashes, and steam, or it is fenced into a static museum display well out of reach. Either way, it is always tough to safely get close enough to any restored stream engine to examine its finer details.


Not so with SP 771. This engine was not fenced off in any way, and thus I took the rare opportunity to peruse the suspension in its undercarriage, closely inspect the rivets in its massive steam cylinders, and even jump into the cab and fiddle with the controls (to the curator’s dismay). It was an overwhelming experience to interact so intimately with such a marvelous piece of engineering history.


A little Internet searching revealed the history of SP 771 in “Lineside Legacy” at It turns out that this historical gem of 1912 vintage was once owned by the city of Victoria, TX, which sold the locomotive to the Grapevine Vintage Railroad in 2001 for $10.00. Grapevine is now raising funds to restore SP 771 to working condition to reduce some of Puffy’s workload.


Given this engineer’s awesome experience of intimacy with a real steam engine, I would like to make a suggestion to my friends in Grapevine. Once this locomotive is restored, there will be two stream engines at the railroad museum: Puffy and SP 771. While one engine is hauling tourists, I recommend leaving the second engine out in an unrestricted display similar to the current arrangement with SP 771.


Let the public get close enough to touch this piece of energy engineering history. I can now say from personal knowledge that the beauty and majesty of our steam power legacy is best experienced up close and personal.

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January 2, 2008
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Is Coal the Feedstock of the Future?

Is Coal the Feedstock of the Future?

The future stability of materials costs will be a key issue facing design engineers in the next two to three years. No one is expecting an end to the roller coaster turbulence in pricing of plastics or metals. A key factor for plastics will be feedstock costs. Renewable resources have little opportunity in the short-term to stabilize costs—they remain much more expensive than hydrocarbons.


China has been moving quickly in a different direction: they’re building plants that convert cheap and abundant coal to a gas feedstock that can make plastics such as polypropylene and polyethylene. According to the Gasification Technologies Council, China has built 20 of these plants in the past two years. Now Dow Chemical is partnering with Shenhua Group to develop coal-to-gas-to-plastics plants. Celanese is also interested.  The idea isn’t new. The Germans used “syngas” to make fuel for planes during World War II. It was a hot button idea in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, but work collapsed as the Mideast oil powers reined in the price of hydrocarbons.


The idea probably won’t take off in the USA soon because coal gasification generates carbon dioxide. However, a new plant is being built in North Dakota to convert lignite to pipeline-quality natural gas.  Carbon dioxide will be captured and stored in depleted oil fields. According to James Childress, executive director of the GTC, there is a growing consensus that carbon dioxide controls are on the horizon. Carbon dioxide concerns, however, are not slowing the Chinese, who have 29 gasification plants in the pipeline through 2010.


The economics of the process make sense for the Chinese because environmental requirements are limited. In the United States, the high capital costs of the process are still tough to justify, particularly considering that Mideastern countries may drop oil prices as soon as they see real alternatives develop.


For the short-term, at least, the move to coal gasification will give Chinese chemicals and plastics producers a cost advantage. What else is new?