ASEE PRISM - September 2000
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Tiny Town's Big Tunnel

Photo by Chris Arend The 300-person village of Whittier -once Alaska's most isolated town- is finally accessible, thanks to an $80 million, state-of-the-art civil engineering project that gave new life to an old tunnel.

Nestled on the shores of the environmentally spectacular yet fragile Prince William Sound, and hemmed in by snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and forests, Whittier began life as a World War II Army port. Because of its isolation, near-perpetual cloud cover (which dumps 57 inches of rain and 36 feet of snow on Whittier each year), and deep water, the military figured it was an ideal location, inaccessible to Japanese bombers. To reach it, Army engineers, in 1941-42, drilled a 2.5-mile-long train tunnel beneath Maynard Mountain. After the Army pulled out in the 1960s, the small town remained, connected to the outside world mainly via the tunnel.

But it was a weak link. The train, which could carry a few cars and trucks, was slow and didn't run regularly. Finally, two years ago, work began to turn the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel--named after the Army engineer who oversaw its original construction--into a single-lane, car-and-train tunnel that will be the longest highway tunnel in North America.

Now, Whittier is no one's idea of a post-card destination--most residents live in a 14-story highrise built by the Army. But the town is a gateway to some fabulously scenic areas that the state wants to open to tourism. With the tunnel open, the number of summer visitors is expected to increase from 200,000 to 1.5 million.

Photo by Chris ArendEngineering consulting firm HDR managed the design and construction. Having to keep the tunnel open to train traffic during reconstruction was the main engineering obstacle, says chief engineer Frank Frandina of Hatch Mott McDonald, a subcontractor on the project. "It would have been an easy job it we didn't have to regularly close down for four or five days at a time," he explains. To keep trains running after the old track was ripped up, workers placed 1,800 pre-cast concrete pavement slabs with rail tracks down the middle. Pre-cast concrete was used because there was not enough time to let poured concrete harden, Frandina says.

Because the tunnel has only a single lane used by cars and trains going in both directions, a "ferry system" was devised. At each end, cars wait in a staging area and don't enter the tunnel until traffic going in the other direction has cleared through. Traffic in both directions is halted to let trains pass. A computer-run traffic-control system, using radar and 49 closed-circuit TVs, ensures that cars have cleared the tunnel. A unique jet and portal-fan system is used to vent the tunnel of exhaust fumes.

Drainage was also an issue. Ten miles of pipe was laid to handle the 250 gallons per minute of water that comes in during the spring thaw. Moreover, the tunnel needed additional excavation to handle the ventilation system and a pull-off area for disabled cars. And the A-frame portals at each end were designed to withstand the not-unlikely possibility of avalanches. "The individual components of this tunnel are not new, but they've never been packaged together this way before," Frandina says.

The tunnel opened to car traffic in June. Initially, 2,000 autos a day coursed through the new route, but traffic eventually eased to about 1,000 a day. And Frandina says he's pretty certain it's running smoothly. "So far, I haven't had any calls," he notes.

Grad School? Not Right Now

Declining admissions in graduate science and engineering programs nationwide could soon mean more than just empty classrooms--they could signal a shift in the American economy, according to a new National Science Foundation study. NSF researchers warn that if the trend continues, it could lead to a shortage of skilled workers that could hurt the U.S. economy.

Enrollment in graduate-school science and engineering programs fell from 435,886 in 1993 to 407,644 in 1997, a surprising drop after a decade of annual increases. The good news is that female enrollment in science-related graduate programs is up. At the same time, enrollment of foreign students has gone down from 109,462 in 1993 to 98,809 in 1997.

A strong economy may bear much of the responsibility for the decline. Most bachelor's degree recipients have been able to get high-paying jobs, making them think twice about going on for more schooling. NSF spokesman Bill Knoxin says there is another trend that bears part of the blame. In the past, when graduate school enrollment in science-related fields went down, an influx of foreign-born students would pick up the slack. But in recent years, more foreign students have begun attending schools in their own countries.

Knoxin believes the problem will reverse itself in time. "Many of these students may come back for their graduate degrees, because they'll find they can only go so far with a bachelor's degree," he says.

Inflation That Can Save Lives

Illustration by Charles AkinsEach year, on average, 40,000 Americans lose their lives in automobile accidents. But an engineer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison thinks he's figured out a new and novel way to cut that figure by 25 percent. Airbags.

What? you insist, there's nothing new about airbags. True, airbags within car interiors have become standard-issue. But Bin Ran, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, has patented a system that would also deploy airbags on the outside of cars seconds before serious collisions. The bags would buffer a car and ease any impacts, and could reduce the force of a collision between two bag-equipped cars by two thirds, Ran estimates. Moreover, exterior bags would also likely cut deaths among pedestrians and bicyclists hit by cars.

The technology for such a system already exists, Ran says. "It's very cost-effective," he adds, because the radar detection systems needed are already in use in some luxury cars. "The major additional expense would be the bags themselves--they'd have to be bigger and tougher than those used inside cars." Ran says the detectors can be fine-tuned to differentiate between, say, a scrap of blowing paper and a tree (or another vehicle), and to know whether an impact would be more than 5 m.p.h. Ran envisions installing exterior bags on the sides, fronts, and backs of cars.

He's ready to build a prototype, but has yet to receive the $500,000 he needs to proceed (that hefty sum includes the cost of crashing the prototype car). Still, he says, automakers from around the world have expressed interest, particularly those in Europe, and he's confident he'll eventually sell the concept. But don't expect to see outside airbags any time soon. Ran estimates it would take a manufacturer about five years to bring cars with exterior airbags into production.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane . . . It's a Career!

Illustration by Lance JacksonWhen many of today's aerospace engineers--at least those of a certain age-- were growing up, few industries were more exciting than aerospace. These were the companies that sent rockets into space, and blasted man to the moon. Defense-industry firms built supersonic jet fighters and huge, ominous-looking bombers. Accordingly, the industry had little trouble signing up young talent.

But times and priorities change. Today, the "coolest" industries are in Silicon Valley, and budding engineering talents are foregoing aerospace companies for the potential riches offered by those high-tech When many of today's aerospace engineers--at least those of a certain age-- were growing up, few industries were more exciting than aerospace. These were the companies that sent rockets into space, and blasted man to the moon. Defense-industry firms built supersonic jet fighters and huge, ominous-looking bombers. Accordingly, the industry had little trouble signing up young talent.

But times and priorities change. Today, the "coolest" industries are in Silicon Valley, and budding engineering talents are foregoing aerospace companies for the potential riches offered by those high-tech firms. Moreover, the aerospace industry is hobbled by federal budget cuts in the wake of the end of the cold war and the space race. That means defense firms now offer work that is often less challenging and less cutting-edge than it used to be.

"There is a lot of concern about this," says Janet Neale, spokesperson for the Aerospace Industries Association in Washington. "People are astonished because there is so little interest in aerospace engineering." The problem is not entirely new. A decade ago the AIA published a report on the "crisis" in recruiting which found that the industry's workforce was aging, but too few young engineers were applying for jobs. F. Clifton Berry, the report's author, is updating his findings and suggests that he's hearing some of the same things. Meanwhile, consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton finds that 54 percent of the defense industry's science and engineering workforce is more than 45 years old, 33 percent will be retirement age in five years, and only 7 percent is under 30.

Alarmed, many big defense contractors have begun programs to reignite interest in aerospace engineering among young people. They are doing such things as visiting grade schools and scout troops, sending top engineers to judge high-school science fairs, and increasing their presence on college campuses. But the industry may find it hard to compete on bucks. Base aerospace engineering salaries average around $45,000, but engineers can easily earn double or triple that amount at a software or Internet company--and more than a few have become dot-com millionaires almost overnight.

When that kind of money beckons, childhood dreams of designing the next generation of spacecraft can quickly evaporate.

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