ASEE Prism Magazine - September 2003
The Winning Edge
The Phoenix Man
Clean Machines
On Campus
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Professional Opportunities - Classifieds
Last Word
Back Issues


Taller Than Tall - Making Hay - laughing matter


Plucking Profits From Chicken Feathers

chicken is a healthy alternative to red meat, and certainly global consumption of the ubiquitous bird is growing faster than you can say Colonel Sanders. But all that processing creates an awful lot of chicken feathers, and the disposing of them is difficult and expensive. Now from that huge pile of unwanted feathers, a University of Delaware chemical engineering professor may have come up with a golden egg of an idea. Richard Wool and his team have developed low-weight composite materials made from chicken feathers and a soy resin that potentially have myriad uses, from computer circuit boards to automobile and airplane parts to home-building materials. "The cutting edge is chicken feathers right now," Wool says. Moreover, the manufacturing process is "damn cheap," and the biodegradable products are environmentally friendly, he adds. The most obvious use for the feather-weight composites is electronic circuit boards, the yellow epoxy boards etched with circuits. As electrons race along the circuits, they sometimes interact with the epoxy and slow down, an effect known as "rubbernecking." Wool's materials are comprised of nano-size hollow tubes and contain more air, which reduces the rubbernecking effect and speeds connections. The Delaware materials were recently included in the library of the Materials ConneXion, located in New York and Milan, which is a storehouse of more than 1,400 new and innovative materials being used by leading architects, manufacturers, retailers, and designers. Clients include BMW, Nike, Samsung, Steelcase, and Victoria's Secret. Who knows? Perhaps it won't be long before Victoria's Secret is that some of its fancy undies are made from materials that come straight from the hen house.


jacket with a jolt

A pair of designers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a new jacket that should cause some sparks—if not in haute couture salons, then on the streets. They've devised an electronic, defensive jacket that jolts anyone who grabs the wearer with 80,000 volts. The No-Contact Jacket looks like a normal parka with an outside layer of waterproof material. A rubber lining protects the wearer from the electricity, and a middle layer is made from Aracon, a conductive material. Industrial designer Adam Whiton, who worked with Yolita Nugent on the project, says getting hit with that much juice "is very unpleasant." A bear hug would leave an assailant "numbed, dazed, and confused." But, he quickly adds, it's not nearly a lethal dose of electricity. A sleeve key activates the system, but wearers control it with an instant-on/instant-off arming button they can hold in their hand. That way, it's not constantly armed while it's worn. That could cause problems not only for some innocent who accidentally bumped into it, but also for the wearer herself if she were to touch the outside of the garment. Whiton says a small number will be available this fall. But he admits to some problems. For starters, at $950 each, "they're kind of expensive." That's caused, in part, by the limited production run. Moreover, while they can be sponge cleaned, they can't be laundered, nor dry cleaned. Also, some police officials have warned Whiton that, like stun guns, the jackets may be illegal, because they could conceivably be used offensively. But the biggest hurdle facing the No-Contact Jacket may come from the fashionistas. They could declare it passe before Whiton can expand production. A jacket remaining in style for more than a year? Now, that would be shocking.


State of Siege?

Niels Provos doubts that the police will come knocking on his door anytime soon. If at all. Still, the University of Michigan computer science graduate student moved his research from the school's Web server to one in Holland. Just as a precaution. Provos, who is from Germany, is an expert in the burgeoning field of steganograpHy: the art of secreting messages online, as well as detecting hidden data and ferreting out possible hackers. But Michigan lawmakers recently enacted a copyright protection act that Provos thinks is worded so vaguely it could make him liable to prosecution. The law was initially aimed at stopping cable-service theft, but—at the insistence of the Motion Picture Association of America—was broadened to help fight video and film piracy. What bothers Provos is language that prohibits the developing of devices that "conceal the existence or place of origin or destination of any telecommunications service." That, he says, limits his research. It's a "badly drafted law," he adds, because it doesn't address intent. State legislators say the law wasn't meant to chill research, and there is talk of revising the act to make it clear that steganographic and other computer science research can continue unimpeded.

Provos understands the need for copyright protections, but thinks this law is unnecessary. "It (copyright theft) is already illegal." The school's lawyers have told him not to panic, and he admits it's unlikely he would be charged with a crime. But he worries how law enforcement officials in the future might use such a law if it's left on the books as is. And just to be on the safe side, he's not giving up the Dutch Web servers any time soon.


How High can we go?

The skyline over the shimmering sands of the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai is going to have a towering new addition: Burj Dubai, which will be the world's tallest building, housing commercial, residential, hotel, shopping, and entertainment outlets. The building is being designed and engineered by the Chicago architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). The company knows tall. It has designed two of the world's three tallest buildings, including the tallest American building, the Sears Tower (1,450 feet). How tall will Burj Dubai be? SOM Structural Engineer William Baker says that tidbit is still confidential. Baker also recently served as part of the forensics team that investigated the collapse of the World Trade Center towers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The twin towers crumbled after being struck by commercial jetliners, but Baker says that the 1960s structural system used in the towers is far different from the ones employed in today's mammoth skyscrapers. Engineering refinements since 9/11, he says, tend to focus on exiting systems and fire protection. Certainly the attack hasn't stopped plans for supersized buildings. SOM has also designed the planned 1,025-foot Trump Tower in Chicago; and it was recently announced that a 1,614-foot World Financial Center will be built in Shanghai. A major structural challenge in building the Dubai tower includes controlling motion. And given its height, and the hot, dry climate, there are logistical problems, too, including getting concrete and building material to the higher floors. Baker says there may be an absolute maximum when it comes to erecting towering buildings, but no one has hit it yet. Engineers can certainly design even taller buildings than what's planned for Dubai, he says, but the biggest constraints are economic. Moreover, there are also elevator system limitations. Then there's the human factor. A building that's too tall could exceed the comfort level of most occupants.


Dropping in on dropouts

AUSTRALIA—What's a school to do about first-year students who suddenly stop showing up for class? Australia's Deakin University has come up with a way to keep them from dropping out. The program involves more than 500 volunteers wearing "ask me" buttons wandering about the campus available to answer questions. These volunteers, who include both teachers and students, might suggest a switch in courses or tell students where to get the information they need. The idea is to make new students feel welcome and get them connected to the campus, a difficult job at a school with over 26,000 students.

Program coordinator Marie Emmit says, "You look at research about students dropping out and find the problem is they haven't felt they belonged on campus." The program focuses on the enrollment process, making it more welcoming and efficient, and includes spending more time advising new students. These efforts are followed by a six-week e-mail program to provide new students with useful material about courses and extra-curricular activities.

Students who drop out usually do so in their first year. The highest first-year drop-out rate at Deakin is in arts (7.7 percent) and the lowest (4.4 percent) is in education. Science and technology, which includes engineering, has a drop-out rate of just over 5 percent. Officials there speculate that the lower rates in education, science, and technology are because the courses are more structured and that students are more committed to specific careers.

Mass producing one of a kinds

Allan Shiers is a craftsman of a rare sort. At his studio in Llandysul, Wales, he hand makes Celtic and concert harps. So slow and intricate are the traditional woodworking techniques he employs—he makes each piece by hand—Shiers can produce only one of each type of harp a year. Now the Manufacturing Engineering Centre at Cardiff University is helping him revolutionize his craft by ushering in mass production. The result is a new company, Telynau Teifi, which can churn out 125 Celtic harps and 15 concert harps a year, at reduced cost, and without losing the precision quality that comes from handcrafting. According to MEC, senior research associate Andrew Thomas, Celtic harps are smaller and lighter than concert harps and are composed of just 250 parts. Concert harps, which are about 5 feet tall, have more strings, require foot pedals connected to a series of levers to control string pitch, and have about 2,000 parts. The MEC engineers devised computer-controlled routers and lathes that can accurately and quickly manufacture intricately shaped parts. Moreover, they changed some of the woods used and redesigned some structural elements so that they are thinner and less bulky. "This means that we have a clearer, more responsive sound since many of the sound-deadening issues have been removed," Thomas says. "We did not want to change the traditional feel of the harp. We just wanted to re-engineer it to make it lighter and more responsive." Shiers's handmade Celtic harps retailed for around $5,000, his concert harps, for around $20,000. The new versions will sell for around $2,800 and $14,000, respectively. And Thomas says ongoing manufacturing refinements will bring those costs down even further. That should strike a heavenly chord with the world's harpists.


Catching up in English

TOKYO—When Japanese baseball star Shigetoshi Hasegawa, now with the Seattle Mariners, handled his first press conference in English without an interpreter his countrymen were stunned. Most Japanese, no matter how famous or highborn—from presidents of corporations to heads of universities to powerful politicians—wouldn't be able to pull off the same feat.

" Only about 100" Japanese in leadership positions can use English effectively in the international arena, reckoned Koichi Kato, an English-fluent ex-member of Japan's ruling party. The handicap has created a thriving translation and interpretation industry, but stymies Japan in just about every realm of global endeavor, from speaking at international conferences, to writing patents, to publishing data in foreign technical journals.

But now government officials have proposed abandoning the current rote-memory system, often centered on arcane grammatical points aimed at enabling students to pass written English-language exams for university admittance. Instead, the new system would emphasize listening and speaking. Another measure calls for sending 10,000 high school students overseas each year to study. That may be the best solution, since most English teachers in this country themselves can't speak the language. Heedful of this fact, officials propose sending teachers back to school for additional training, too.


Better Way to Make Hay

Farming in the remote rural regions of northwest Romania has changed little since medieval times. Haymakers still pursue their work entirely by hand. Now a group called the Working Horse Association of Romania, run by a former British engineer who moved to the country after marrying a local woman, is working to improve the farmers' working conditions without upsetting the local eco-structure. Toward that goal, it contacted Developing Technologies, a nonprofit organization based at London's Imperial College that's devoted to developing consumer-driven, sustainable technologies. It gave a group of eight mechanical engineering undergraduates at Imperial the task of designing a horse-drawn hayrake and tedder that's suitable for the region's landscape and skills base. The equipment should help improve the yield and quality of the local hay crop. The horse-drawn tedder turns the hay so it dries more quickly and loses fewer nutrients. The hayrake more efficiently collects the hay in rows, making it easier for stacking. The gear was designed to be easily built by Romanian blacksmiths. Two of the Imperial students spent part of the summer in Romania field-testing the prototypes of the implements. Fiona Pullen, manager of Developing Technologies, says the local economy is horse-driven, and introducing fully mechanical equipment at this point would have been counterproductive. For one thing, most farms are too small to handle tractors. So it was decided to rely instead on old-fashioned horsepower—fueled, of course, by hay.


Look Who's Making Us Laugh

Good evening, ladies and germs. I just flew in from Detroit and, boy, are my arms tired. No, but seriously folks, stop me if you've heard this one before . . . about the engineer who tossed away his slide rule for a successful career in comedy. Ha, ha. . . Well, obviously, the art of telling funny jokes is a talent bestowed on few of us. And luckily for fans of comedy, back in 1987, Jeff Caldwell realized that when it came to engineering, he was a pretty good comic. But it took him a few years and several degrees before he figured that out. The San Jose native got his undergraduate and master's in civil engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and then headed to Carlsbad, Calif., where he worked for a very small engineering firm "ostensibly sizing sewage pumps and designing water systems for subdivisions but mostly staring out of the window." So Caldwell returned to Hopkins and entered a Ph.D. program in environmental engineering. During his pre-thesis coursework, he began performing standup comedy at open-mike nights, and before long was getting paid for it. That's when he realized that he had more of an aptitude for making people laugh than designing drainage systems. Since then, Caldwell, 40, has not only worked the clubs but appeared frequently on TV, including A&E's "Evening at the Improv," MSNBC's "Internight," and ESPN's "Lighter Side of Sports." He's lately been working with a couple of networks to develop a sitcom pilot.

Most of his comedy is observational: "I've always been pretty detail oriented." But a small part of his live act refers to his being "a crummy engineer," and he also pokes fun at various technological advances. Says he wryly of that techie material: "Smart crowds love it, others are less enthused."

Contact Prism