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Articles from 2008 In December


Top Ten Green Engineering Trends, Stories for 2008

Top Ten Green Engineering Trends, Stories for 2008

No doubt, 2008 was a tumultuous year. GM and Chrysler nearly went under. Banks and brokerage house screwed everyone, but we bailed them out anyway. And we saw our 401ks get sawed nearly in half. But it was great year for green engineering which has become a household term if not a common practice in design circles.

Here’s a review of the year’s top 10 year green engineering events, products and stories. The first five fall into the category of macro trends while the second five examine   specific Design News stories. Comments, opinions and brickbats are welcome…especially if I missed something which I am sure I did. Happy 2009!

Green Engineering Macro view of 2008

1) The election of Barack Obama is the best thing that happened to green engineering and the environment in 2008 after eight long years of systematic neglect. Obama actually likes the environment and will back up those views with a sound strategy to combat climate change, protect the environment and secure renewable sources of energy. Let’s hope he does not get so bogged down in crisis after crisis so as to derail his strategic agenda.

2) In 2008, the nation after three decades of fiddling and diddling got serious about renewable energy. Wind, solar, tidal, wave and even algae are on the table despite the temporary reprieve in oil prices. Most Americans finally seem to realize we need to get serious about moving off fossil fuels even if we are enjoying a temporary price reprieve. And don’t be scammed by clean coal myth. Regretfully, it’s too late for many living near the Kingston coal-fired plant in Tennessee. Renewables are our future and 2008 was the year we woke up to that realization.

3) Green buildings employ just about every technology Design News covers. Colleges and companies everywhere are putting them up, some greener than others. A good place to research green buildings is the Rock Mountain Institute founded and run by energy expert Amory Lovins. Among others, he advised Texas Instruments on its newest semiconductor fab which is located in Richardson, Texas. The fab gave rise to the term “negawatts” which is power not generated.

4) Embarrassingly, hybrid autos FINALLY caught on with U.S. auto makers even though the leader Toyota has been at it for almost a decade. Did they know something we didn’t? Apparently. Let’s look at this a different way. This year, automakers realized that gasoline-powered engines are NOT the future. Electric cars regardless of what creates the electricity to power them are the future. The most formidable green engineering challenge remains creating long-life batteries that stand up to the elements, repeated cycles and charges.

5) Plastics, once an environmental scourge, are cleaning up their act with advent of bio-plastics and materials that can be recycled. What’s more, they contain fewer harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol-A and can be found in everything from clothes to water bottles.  There’s even wood composites for cars should petroleum-based resins run out! No one is more on top these materials and trends than our own contributing editor Doug Smock, who has his own materials top 10 for 2008.

Green Engineering micro view of 2008  

6) LEDs run cooler and more efficiently than other lighting technologies. What’s more, they do not contain heavy metals like mercury found in compact fluorescents, which are today’s most popular and efficient replacement for incandescent lighting. LEDs widened their market swath this year and could be found in street lights, projectors, TVs, consumer-recessed lighting and in bicycle lights.

7) The engineering behind the new MacBook introduced in October is as green as it exquisite. The enclosure and display contain no mercury or brominated fire retardants and the unit is ENERGY STAR compliant. It’s another tour de force from Apple. But just because it is a better notebook computer doesn’t mean H-P, Dell and Lenovo aren’t on the green engineering bandwagon. They are.

8) Office furniture maker Herman Miller is getting the health hazard antimony oxide out the materials it uses in its products. That’s a good thing. It wants Pepsi and Coke to do the same with its bottles.

9) A solar-powered trash compactor could save a lot expensive trips to dump, landfill or incinerator. BigBelly Solar just might have the answer.

10) Lastly, I want to commend National Instruments for its green engineering “Measure it, Fix It” campaign. It’s a painfully obvious idea - you can’t really fix what you can’t measure. But it’s sooo stunningly true! Its Green Engineering Technical Library provides an excellent overview on green engineering and where it applies.

Embedded O-Ring Self-Sealing Fasteners vs. the Old Standbys

When gas or liquid are under pressure, system fasteners should be sealed to prevent leakage. This is true even for fasteners that are not under pressure, but where hostile environments such as water, gas, dust, lubricants, cleaning solvents, etc. are present and could penetrate past threads and leak onto the internal mechanism/operating area creating havoc. Fastener users have a number of sealing options to effectively block these contaminants and to contain fluids under pressure (internal/external). Once a fastening assessment has been made, one can easily review these options against the following criteria:

  • Will the fastening be done as part of a high-speed automated assembly operation, or will manual fastening be the rule?
  • Is the main sealing concern limited to initial installation, with little or no concern about warranty, or are there longer range potential maintenance considerations?
  • What psi/vacuum rating (internal/external) is considered operational, and what will be the temperature conditions?
  • What chemicals (including cleaning agents), gas or other liquids will the fastener be exposed to?
  • Will there be concern about field servicing, especially spare parts availability?
  • Will there be any preference for either a liquid or dry mechanical sealing method during production and post- field servicing?
  • Will vibration be a consideration - therefore requiring additional  threadlocking? If so, which method (liquid or dry) best addresses installation time, future maintenance and economic considerations?
  • Will there be any security consideration that might require choosing a self-sealing fastener (screw or bolt) with a tamper-resistant head?
  • Are there any other considerations unique to the specific application?

The liquid method (generally best suited for large automated production applications) - typically anaerobic adhesives/sealants and other pre-applied chemicals - are manufactured by a number of well known suppliers. Many of these suppliers offer products that are application specific, i.e. aerospace, electronics, transportation, durable and consumer goods. Some are designed for two-step operations involving prep/curing. If not properly selected, some may present difficulty in removing during service.

The dry mechanical method is an ideal alternative for many sealing applications where fluid is under pressure or seepage protection against the elements are prime considerations. Efficacy, ease of installation and field maintenance are the driving forces for deciding which of these traditional methods are best to use with screws, bolts, nuts and rivets. There's the O-Ring or flat-washer (deforming) technique, mounted under the

fastener head method. Both are two step processes, using a crush and fill approach to achieve fastener sealing. Both require that replacement parts be handy when re-installing, as neither will survive in good condition to be re-installed. And, because neither methods are precise, there's some question about their sealing integrity. The "dry" with operating one-step Embedded O-Ring Fastener (originally patented by APM) seals to 20,000 psig/vacuum with operating temperatures from -160 to 500F. Upon torquing, it becomes fully clamped with a 360 degree (metal-to-metal) seal, and can be easily re-installed successfully many times. The stainless-steel screw and bolt versions can even be used for a bleeding function. The reason the Embedded design works so well is that its' silicone O-Ring is embedded in a circular groove, strategically located under the head and next to the shank. The asymmetrical shaped groove controls the degree of O-Ring compression into a countersunk-threaded area for minimum wear - while still providing maximum sealing - enabling many service reinstallations without concern about potential sealing failure.

When needed, this class of self-sealing fasteners accommodates a variety of threadlocking techniques such as; adjustable polymer (normally Nylon) pellets embedded into the lower thread section; a polymer vertical strip, also embedded into the thread section; or a pre-applied dry coating process which becomes fused to the thread surface. They are delivered ready for installation without the need for curing or any other special preparation. Several versions of the dry-coating method are available, including one that will maintain torque values through extreme temperatures from -70 to 500F. A self-sealing stainless-steel nut is also offered by APM that incorporates a molded silicone rubber insert. The insert features continuous threads to lock in its' sealing capability, an important consideration that isn't present in other sealing nut designs that just incorporates an O-Ring. There are self-sealing rivets with embedded O-Rings to choose from that provide high-pressure sealing; but like all rivets, will be damaged upon removal, and therefore they are not reusable.    

A high-pressure air and water-tight, self-sealing washer version is also available from APM.  This special washer assembly consists of a silicone disc bonded to a 300 series stainless steel contoured washer. It can be used with standard screws, bolts or studs in a wide variety of mechanical, electrical and electronics equipment sealing applications. All APM self-sealing fasteners are UL Recognized, and are IP66/68 water ingress rated.

Throughout industry, APM self-sealing are used extensively in challenging fastener applications found on equipment in laboratory and scientific instruments, manufacturing and process, material handling and packaging,  motion control, network and communications, test and measurement, boat and other marine/off-shore, construction and off-road/recreational, powder and liquid handling, medical, military and security - and any other kind of equipment that requires wash-downs or exposure to the elements and extreme temperatures.
About the Author:

Ken Schwinn is the vice president of engineering for APM Corp.'s Fastener Division.

Top Ten Materials and Fastening Stories in 2008

Top Ten Materials and Fastening Stories in 2008

1.    Oil soared to $147 a barrel in July and then plunged to less than $40 at the end of the year, affecting prices of plastics and other hydrocarbon-based chemicals.
2.    The financial crisis coupled with declining sales walloped materials and assembly companies across the board, with the automotive supply chain particularly affected.
3.    Fastener problems continued to plague the Dreamliner. Poorly worded engineering specifications forced Boeing to replace as many as 8,000 fasteners on 12 Dreamliners being assembled.
4.    American companies continued to divest plastics and chemical assets due to poor profitability. One of the biggest deals, a partnership between Dow and Kuwait, unwound at the end of 2008.
5.    Growth (albeit slow) of green materials design. A handful of American engineers embraced green materials, led by an aggressive Herman Miller program. Notably absent from the green engineering revolution have been the Big Three.
6.    Strong demand from China put pressure on stainless and other metals prices. In the second half, of 2008, metals’ prices crashed.
7.    Carbon fiber emerged as a more serious engineering material, driven in part by a military requirement for lighter weight and greater strength,
8.    Crash-resistant, structural adhesives emerged as an important tool for automotive weight reduction.
9.    Innovative materials solutions made possible one of America’s more successful science explorations in space.
10.    American manufacturers continued to adapt with innovative new designs.

Renewable Energy Kits Instructional

Renewable Energy Kits Instructional

If you’re interested in renewable energy, but are a neophyte on the topic, check out Thames & Kosmos, LLC’s web page in renewable energy kits. These enable you to conduct anywhere from 20-70 experiments across the four kits, two on fuel cells and one each on wind power and sustainable buildings.

They’re not cheap: $50 for the wind power kit to $150 for each of the fuel cell kits at list. They’re discounted somewhat on Amazon, though. Either way, they’re no where near as costly or risky as attempting the real thing if you’re a neophyte.

Rejuvenated Nuclear Industry Needs Repopulation by Energy Professionals

Rejuvenated Nuclear Industry Needs Repopulation by Energy Professionals

Nuclear power is back… well, it never really left. Today, 104 commercial power plants harness nuclear fission to generate 20 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. However, not since the late 1970’s has a new commercial US nuclear power plant been ordered. As a result, the number of nuclear energy professionals has dwindled, and many nuclear training programs offered by academia have shut their doors.

 

Now, for the first time in almost 30 years, energy companies are testing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing process in an effort to obtain approval for new nuclear plants. According to “Licensing Renewed,” an article appearing in Mechanical Engineering Magazine, in 1992 the NRC established new plant licensing processes to replace the cumbersome 1956 statues. The old process stagnated the nuclear industry. The hallmark of the new process is standardization. A plant design is approved once and is then reused. Additional scrutiny is applied only to the proposed location but not the plant design itself.

 

An article in The Washington Times entitled, “Nuclear needs energize schools” says that the NRC has received 17 license applications since 2007, and five reactor design proposals have either been certified or are in the certification process. With the NRC licensing process seemingly back on track, the question arises: who will design, build, and operate nuclear plants of the future?

 

The Washington Times says that the median employee age in nuclear energy is 48, and up to 35 percent of the industry’s workers may be eligible to retire between now and 2013. To replace the aging workforce, nuclear energy companies are working aggressively with universities to churn out new nuclear-trained graduates. For example, Dominion has engaged Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Purdue, and Penn State, according to The Washington Times. At the University of North Texas, where I am a faculty member, our Nuclear Engineering Technology program has had a long standing relationship with TXU to train nuclear energy professionals for the Comanche Peak power station.

 

Minting more domestically trained nuclear industry professionals is a goal held at the highest levels within the US Federal government. In an October, 2008 speech entitled “Renewing America’s Nuclear Power Partnership for Energy Security and Economic Growth,” U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman noted the need to train and retain qualified people in the nuclear industry.

 

“Our future success will depend heavily on our ability to recruit, educate, and train highly technical personnel to work in the nuclear industry – from nuclear scientists and engineers to skilled craftspeople, construction managers, plant operators and maintenance personnel.”

 

The rejuvenation of our domestic nuclear energy industry coupled with support from government, industry, and academia makes nuclear engineering and related disciplines promising career choices for the first time in a generation.

Wave and Wind Hybrid Projects Taking Root

Wave and Wind Hybrid Projects Taking Root

While still largely experimental, wave energy is gathering momentum with this morning’s Boston Globe reporting that a large wave and wind project a dozen miles south off Massachusetts’ well-heeled Nantucket Island.

Wind and wave hybrids deploy a combination of wind and wave turbines on fixed platforms similar to oil rigs. Projected output is 100 megawatts, the company said in its preliminary application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) dated Dec. 3.

The tidal part of technology employs an Oscillating Water Column with waves passing through a perforated shaft to drive air upward through wind turbines atop the platforms. However, the article cites experts expressing doubt that waves on the East Coast could generate much power given that the wind tends to counteract waves whereas Pacific Coast waves enjoy a prevailing wind. So it’s estimated that 90% of the energy would come from wind turbines.

The project is the undertaking of Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company based in Seattle and calls for 100 platforms with wind and wave-driven turbines. It has also identified six others areas in the U.S. for similar projects. They include Hawaii, south of Block Island in Rhode Island, off the Hamptons in New York’s Long Island, near Atlantic City and near San Francisco and Ventura, California.

Grays Harbor’s technology embraces fixed platforms similar to oil rigs as opposed to floating platforms. It claims to have secured $256.95 million in funding. The company filed preliminary FERC applications Nov. 12 for these six projects. They too are projected to produce 100 megawatts of output.

Grays Harbors’ Nantucket project differs from the ambitious Cape Wind offshore project which has been wracked by delays over challenges to its Nantucket Sound site for 130 wind turbines. Residents of Cape Cod and Nantucket, many of them wealthy and including Sen. Ted Kennedy, object to the environmental impact, namely what they claim is a spoiled view. Gray Harbors’ says its Nantucket platforms could only be send on “exceptionally” clear days and from fewer vantage points.

The sensitivity of the complex permitting process is evident in a letter of apology to state and local officials in how quickly FERC opened up the Grays Harbor applications for comment. Rather than December, Grays Harbor Co-founder and President Burton Hamner recommended that comment start in January. State and local officials, the letter suggests, were apparently caught off-guard by FERC’s rapid response.

Matter / Antimatter Mass-to-Energy Conversion, a Future Power Source?

Matter / Antimatter Mass-to-Energy Conversion, a Future Power Source?

Matter / antimatter mass-to-energy conversion probably rates above cold fusion on the totem pole of energy pariahs. At the heart of any viable engine must be a method for combining matter and antimatter to induce mutual annihilation, leading to direct conversion of matter to energy. The first obstacle is that we are surrounded by matter, and antimatter is difficult to come by. The second obstacle is that even if antimatter were available, it would need to be brought into contact with matter in a controlled manner to produce capturable energy. Antimatter improperly stored would simply destroy the first piece of random matter it encountered.

The Internet is replete with sites making unsubstantiated claims about how both problems of antimatter availability and storage can be solved. For instance, www.antimatterenergy.com claims that comets within our solar system are sources of antimatter and that NASA is preparing to capture comet effluent to make rocket fuel. This site misattributes “Astronomers link gamma-ray bursts to supernovas,” an article by Dennis Overbye of the New York Times. Overbye’s article only states that antimatter comets are an “exotic” explanation on par with “alien space wars” to explain high-energy radiation gamma-ray bursts observed by astronomers. As another example, a brilliantly idiotic article posted at www.nextbigfuture.com claims that molecular nanotechnology (whatever that is) will enable feasible antimatter capture and storage. The article also claims that molecular nanotechnology will produce extremely efficient solar panels, which we will most certainly need to solve our energy problems, even after matter / antimatter energy creation becomes commonplace. Do these people even read what they write before they post it?

Back in the real world, there are, in fact, active programs to search space for natural antimatter sources. For example, the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics (PAMELA) mission is looking for the telltale signs of antimatter concentrations (so-called antimatter fountains) within our galaxy. Moreover, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts funded a study called “Antimatter Harvesting in Space” to determine feasibility of collecting wisps of antimatter possibly present in our own solar system to power future deep-space missions.

On Earth, antimatter is routinely created and stored at CERN, a European research center straddling the bounder between France and Switzerland, in its Antiproton Decelerator (AD). CERN’s antimatter supply was used to construct an antimatter weapon in the fictional novel Angles and Demons from Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame. However in reality, the CERN AD is a research instrument, and could never make enough antimatter for either weapons or energy generation. In fact, CERN has posted a humorous Q&A in response to the public’s questions about antimatter bombs and power generation. CERN states, “antimatter does not occur in nature; we first have to make every single antiparticle, and we have to invest (much) more energy than we get back during annihilation.”

That critical point deserves repeating. Just like hydrogen, batteries, and capacitors, antimatter is not a source of energy but instead an energy storage medium. As there are no natural terrestrial sources of antimatter, its utility for energy applications is inexorably linked to how efficiently it is produced and how easily it is stored. According to CERN, only one tenth of a billion of the energy invested to make antimatter is released via mutual annihilation with matter. They put it bluntly: “if we could assemble all the antimatter we’ve ever made at CERN and annihilate it with matter, we would have enough energy to light a single electric light bulb for a few minutes.” According to a NASA feature entitled, “What’s the Matter with Antimatter?” the worldwide production rate of antimatter is on the order of 1 to 10 nanograms per year.

Despite challenges, researchers and companies are pursuing generation and storage of antimatter for commercial ventures, most notably medical applications. For example, Hbar Technologies in Illinois is developing new means of producing antimatter that will be much more efficient and economical than the CERN Antiproton Decelerator. Also, as reported in “Novel solution to antimatter storage” at www.labnews.co.uk, Dr Masaki Hori, a EURYI Award winner, is developing technology to store antimatter with radiofrequencies instead of conventional electromagnetic fields to reduce storage container size.

So, will matter / antimatter energy creation be a viable power source in the future? For space applications, perhaps it will; if there is enough antimatter within our solar system to make collection viable, as it hoped by NASA. However for terrestrial applications, antimatter is only a storage medium, not an energy source. Thus, to be economically viable, antimatter must prove more efficient to generate than store than existing energy media like hydrogen, electrochemical potential in batteries, kinetic energy in flywheels, or even potential energy of water sitting behind damns. Given antimatter’s inherent inefficiencies, mutual annihilation has no chance of beating out more conventional energy technologies for terrestrial energy storage applications.

Rockwell's MEMS Sensors Meet Special Needs

Rockwell's MEMS Sensors Meet Special Needs

Why make a sensor when you can buy one? It's a question researchers at Rockwell Automation's Advanced Technology Lab grapple with all the time. And all too often, the answer is they simply can't buy what they really need.

So they make their own. Over the years, they've developed a sophisticated collection of custom sensors for tasks as varied as torque sensing and the characterization of lubricating fluids.

"Our sensors aren't products," says Fred Discenzo, a Ph.D engineer who manages diagnostics and sensing for the Advanced Technology Lab. "We develop them in response to specific research needs or customer requests."

And those research needs and requests have resulted in some out-of-the-box thinking about sensor design. One of the Lab's sensors, for example, shows how multiple MEMS sensing elements can be greater than the sum of their parts. Other sensors leverage well-understood physical effects - such as Faraday rotation or birefringence - to yield diagnostic information about motors and gearboxes. What's more, the Lab's homegrown sensors often have other advantages over commercial models, such as high sampling frequencies or low-cost design.

Multi-Element Fluid Sensor

The Lab's standout sensor isn't really just one sensor at all but a multi-element fluid sensor that brings together five different MEMS sensing devices in one package. "It's the most interesting sensor we've developed," Discenzo says.

Its usual sensing lineup consists of a viscosity sensor, a temperature sensor, a conductivity sensor that can perform impedance spectroscopy, an electrochemical sensor that measures redox potentials and an open-circuit potential sensor that helps determine the pH of aqueous fluids or the acid number of non-aqueous fluids. Discenzo says a multi-element sensor is "active" in that one or more of the sensing elements require stimulation by an electrical signal.

Rockwell first developed the sensor as a way to understand the degradation of lubricating fluids in gearboxes and other industrial power transmission components. Discenzo and his team worked with customers and wear researchers to identify 20 different parameters that would indicate a breakdown of the fluids. These include water content, viscosity and oxidation. "The goal is to pick up the signs of fluid degradation before metal starts tearing up metal," Discenzo says.

While it got its start in oil, the multi-element sensor can be applied to seemingly unrelated fluid-sensing tasks with a few changes - to the coatings that make up the electrochemical sensors, to stimulus patterns and to the algorithms that integrate the data from the five sensing elements. "We really think of this sensor as more of a platform technology," Discenzo says.

For example, this sensor platform has been used to analyze engine oil in a Pratt & Whitney jet engine as well as frying oil in a commercial food plant. "Both applications had roughly the same temperature and were looking at for soluble metals and oxidation products in hot oil," he says. The sensor has likewise been used to analyze hydraulic fluids, industrial greases and jet fuels.

Much of the recent interest has come from the food and beverage industry, which want to use the sensor to look for contaminants, the presence of bacteria and much more. The sensor can also be configured to monitor the progress of fermentation processes. Another emerging application is in the analysis of groundwater, where the sensor looks for contaminants.

Click here for technology overview

Optical Torque Sensor

The Lab has also developed its own optical torque sensor that measures gearbox or gearmotor torque at high frequencies. Rather than trying to directly measure the torque by putting a strain gauge on a shaft, Rockwell's sensor instead looks at torsional strain through the lens of the photoelastic effect-in which certain materials exhibit birefringence under an applied stress, in this case a torsional stress.

The sensor consists of a "sleeve" made from a photoelastic material, such as polycarbonate or acrylic. When slipped over the gearmotor shaft and viewed under a polarizing light, this sleeve exhibits a fringe pattern that corresponds to changes in the torsional strain of the shaft. The sensing system captures images of this fringe pattern with a linear CCD array. Discenzo and his colleagues created neural network software that maps fringe patterns associated with a given amount of torsional strain to actual shaft torque.

Rockwell initially developed the sensor for use in a torque-sensing motor coupling. "The motor had to be closely coupled to a gearbox, so there wasn't any room for a shaft mounted sensor," Discenzo says.

But even when there is room, it turns out the optical torque method has some advantages over conventional shaft-mounted torque sensors. One is speed. "Commercial torque sensors are rated at 500 hertz, and you're lucky to get 250 hertz out of them," says Discenzo. "We're getting tens of kilohertz." Another is resolution with Discenzo reporting that optical sensor can pick up microstrain-level shaft deformations.

The other advantages have to do with cost, installation and longevity. Discenzo notes that the optical torque sensor was assembled from components that cost under $100. "We've paid $10,000 for lab-grade commercial torque sensors," he says.

As for installation, "we don't have to bring power and signal wires on and off," says Discenzo. Finally, the optical sensor may last longer than strain gauges. "Mechanical torque sensors tend to fail because they're subject to high loads and over-torque conditions," says Discenzo.

Instead of using the sensor for torque feedback control, which is a common use for off-the-shelf torque sensors, Rockwell uses its optical sensor for power transmission diagnostics. "A lot of the work we've done with the sensor is proprietary," Discenzo says. He did add, however, that the sensor has been used to analyze not only industrial gearboxes but gearboxes for military helicopter tail rotors and wind turbines.

Click here for technology overview

Embedded Motor Current Sensor

Rockwell researchers likewise turned to optical technologies to create a compact, high-frequency current sensor that can be embedded in motors, starters or related electric devices.

This sensor consists of a fiber optic waveguide coiled around one of the motor's electrical conductors-usually a power supply wire-and a light source that sends a beam of polarized light through the waveguide. Working at megahertz frequencies, the sensor measures the difference in polarization angles at the beginning and the end of the waveguide. As Discenzo points out, the change in polarization angle corresponds to the electromagnetic force generated by the conductor, thereby providing insight into current. "We're just making use of the Faraday Effect," he says.

Rockwell researchers developed the sensor because it wanted something fast and compact enough to embed in motor housings. "The commercial current sensors we looked at were much larger," Discenzo says. For example, a comparable 2,000 amp commercial current sensors that occupy about ten cubic inches for one phase. Rockwell's electro-optical sensor fits all three phases in a package that's "about the size of computer mouse," says Discenzo.

Microchip Rolls out Development Tool

Microchip Rolls out Development Tool

Microchip Technology Inc. has made it faster and easier for development engineers to use its 8-, 16-, and 32-bit microcontrollers (MCUs) by rolling out a development tool that supports in-circuit programming and debugging across its entire product portfolio.

Known as MPLAB ICD 3, the new tool is said to make flash MCU programming 15 times faster than previous generations of the product. Microchip engineers say that in rolling out the new tool, they targeted the design process.

"It's important to be able to insert a tool like this, not only in the debugging pipeline, but in the design pipeline," says Derek Carlson, vice president of Microchip Development Systems. "Today, people are expecting tools to be able to assist them with a lot of their basic program development, whereas they might have previously developed from scratch."

The new tool connects to a host PC via a USB 2.0 interface and offers full compatibility to the company's MPLAB Integrated Development Environment (IDE). It also allows developers to debug in C-source code or in assembly programming language.

Microchip says that one of its goals for the product was to make the design/debug process simpler and faster, no matter the previous experience of the developer. "They're asking us to do more and more for them," Carlson says. "We're seeing engineers who have varying levels of experience and knowledge in embedded design, and our goal is to make the process more seamless for all of them."

Watch a video of MPLAB ICD 3.

Wave Energy Enjoys Breeze at its Back

Wave Energy Enjoys Breeze at its Back

Wave energy holds enormous potential, but is far less further along in its development than other renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels. But some projects are emerging that tackle many of the daunting challenges engineers face such as wave variability, corrosiveness of seawater and environmental concerns.

The potential is huge: in wave rich areas, 100-200 megawatts of power in theory could be generated for every kilometer of coastline. But even if that happens, such potential won’t be achieved for years if not decades. Indeed, wave energy projects are starting out much, much smaller.

For example, a wave pilot project on the Douro River in Portugal will generate about 750 kilowatts promising enough power for about 750 homes. That’s comparable to the optimal output of a wind turbine with a rotor sweep of about 140 feet. And the Norwegians have one third scale model of a system that could generate 2.5 megawatts, comparable to largest wind turbines with about an 80 meter rotor sweep, according to MIT professor Chiang Mei, who has studied ocean wave energy since the seventies. Mei is working with Portuguese academics and scientists on the Douro project by performing numerical simulations that predict wave forces and behaviors.

“Our objective is not to come up with one design of our own. We try to analyze many designs and ask what is the size, shape and energy extraction rate, how do you space them and what is the power takeoff system. We develop methods to simulate designs,” Mei said in a phone interview.

According to a MIT press release, the Douro River project is described as follows:

“They plan a pilot-scale version of a facility called an oscillating water column, or OWC. Situated on or near the shore, an OWC consists of a chamber with a subsurface opening. As waves come in and out, the water level inside the chamber goes up and down. The moving surface of the water forces air trapped above it to flow into and out of an opening that leads to an electricity-generating turbine. The turbine is a design by A.A.Wells in which the blades always rotate in the same direction, despite the changing direction of the air stream as the waves come in and out.”

The major technical hurdle is to overcome the variability of the waves, according to Mei.

“Ocean waves come in at different frequencies…which depends on the wind. Either you [must] have [a machine with] many different frequencies or you use a control system to adjust your power takeoff system. That’s the challenge,” he said. “Also, when waves are too strong, you have to shut off the engine to protect the machine. Wave amplitude changes at night.”

Wave frequency isn’t the only challenge, either. There are environmental concerns, lack of government support and the absence of standards which are essential to commercialization of any complex technology.

“There are no standards even though wave energy has been studied for years. There has been no national effort on this so far,” says Mei, who says the two basic wave energy machines include the floating body type or the buoy and snake which run parallel to the coastline (while he does not know Steven Chu, he is optimistic the science background of the energy secretary-elect could provide a federal boost for wave energy).

“The buoy and snake can block navigation,” he says. However, the Norwegians have developed arrays that have a 10-meter radius and are spaced 50 meters apart. “At least fishing boats can go through and an array is more likely to be environmentally acceptable,” says Mei.

While wave energy faces many technical and economic challenges, there is one overriding force working in its favor.

“Sooner or later, petroleum will become less available. Waves have so much energy. Letting them sit there without using it is does not make sense.”