Friday, October 29, 2010

Cleaning the Waste - Nuclear Waste

I'm a proponent of nuclear energy.  I believe that it has the potential to be one source of the solution to replace fossil fuels.  But, before that can happen, a few things need to occur:

  •  The general public needs to be educated on benefits and shortcomings of nuclear energy.
  • Politicians and policy makers also need to be educated.
  • Policy needs to be adjusted to current levels of understanding of nuclear processing, not the over constraining regulations made decades ago to safeguard the public from unknown technologies.
  • Finally, develop a way to better handle the waste.
An article back in the July issue of ASME's Mechanical Engineering Magazine has a great article about some new technologies being developed to deal with the waste.  Beyond that, reading deeper into the article and the you can see how much has changed in the processing of nuclear energy.

The Hanford Site
The Hanford Site in Washington State just ten (10) miles from the Columbia River has 149 aging radioactive waste tanks that need to be emptied and cleaned.  The U.S. Department of Energy wants these tanks cleared in 30 years.  It has been a decade, and only six (6) of the old tanks have been cleared of required amount of radioactive waste (99%).  Quick math:
10 years for 6 tanks = 1.667 years per tank * 149 tanks = 248 years >> 30  year requirement
Enter New Technology
Obviously, they need to speed up the job.  But, the problem isn't necessarily with cleaning up the tanks, but rather getting access to the sludge (the hard stuff known as heel).  The tanks are buried under ground.  They are made of single-shell construction with steel sides and floor and reinforced concrete roofs.  They leak, resulting in groundwater with excessive radioactivity (thus the reason for the cleanup).  Access to the contents of the tanks, built between 1940s - at the start of the Manhattan Project - through 1980s is via risers.  The risers vary in diameter to as little as 12 inches wide.  Not too much can go into a pipe diameter of 12 inches to clean out hard heel.

But before anyone latches on to the fact that groundwater is contaminated, remember that this is because these tanks and the storage process was developed at the same time we were just learning about nuclear energy.  Of course, in its infancy, there is bound to be some learning.  The fact that these things lasted 70 years is a testament to engineers who designed them with the working knowledge they had at the time.  What is quite intriguing is the fact that the 149 tanks are being replaced by 28 new, double-shell tanks.  Our understanding of nuclear waste as well as how we handle it has vastly improved since 1940.  There is no reason to maintain policies developed by such limited knowledge.  It is time to update them!

Going to MARS
Although some people would like to just toss our trash into someone else's backyard (not considering the opposition to nuclear powered spacecraft), I'm not referring to the planet.  MARS is the the Mobile Arm Retrieval System designed specifically to enter the old tanks, break up the heel, and vacuum out the waste material.  But MARS will not fit into a 12 inch pipe.  Therefore, engineers have devised a way to reinforce the ceiling of the old tanks and then cut a 54 inch diameter hole that MARS can fit into, while maintaining negative pressure in the tank so no contaminants can escape.  Using MARS will do in one (1) month what the old method took several. 

The Final Steps
Much work has to be done to prepare for MARS use, but the results may mean that the entire site will be cleaned by the deadline.  Of course, that means all 53,000,000 gallons of nuclear waste has to be processed and treated.  Permanent storage will be in a stable glass form - something that is safe and didn't exist in 1940.

For More Information
Washington River Protection Solutions
MARS [pdf]
The Hanford Site

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

National Building Museum

The National Buidling Museum, just one more place I need to visit whenever I find myself in DC, especially when they have cool exhibits, like one on parking garages (which ended this past summer).

Parking garages, those often forgotten or overlooked buildings that require just as much engineering and design time as the actual occupied structure.  It's a good thing we engineers and architects can see the joy and beauty in the things often overlooked by the general public.  If not, how else could our urban development continue to grow off of our automotive-obsessed cutlure if there was no place to park once we got there.

ASU's Latest Parking Garage
Parking garages have evolved since the invention of the Ford Model T.  From simple barns to ramped concrete structures - thanks to advancements in column design and concrete - to automated parking.  And the advances in parking structures has been beneficial to other areas on the construction world, including city planning and eco-friendliness. 
Chicago Corn Cob Building - the lower floors are for parking

For More Information

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Esta noche todos somos Chilenos

"Tonight, we are all Chileans!"

With the rescue complete and the live updates on CNN finally over, the entire world can breath a sigh of relief that all of the trapped miners have been successfully freed.  So why is this disaster different than the Gulf oil spill?  The following is meant to be thought provoking harangue based on the limited or biased information received from news sources.  It not meant to be religious or political, although the points of the discussion may be.  It may not be entirely accurate, and some aspects are filled with best guesses to fill-in-the-blank, as news sources tend to leave out important details.  The point is, from an engineer's perspective, determine why things are classified or qualified in the terms they are.

Why is the mine rescue considered a success while the oil spill a disaster?
Weren't both events initiated by a tragic design or process flaw?  Yet, 2 months to rescue the miners is considered successful but months of stopping the oil leak is a failure?

I think the answer comes down to social and political aspects.  When the Deep Water Horizon exploded, the US government immediately got involved and BP management immediately got involved.  The goals of each of these organizations was not to stop the oil spill, but rather to save face.  These two groups got involved and started professing solutions before they even analyzed the problem.  And then, when real solutions presented themselves, these groups closed the doors on those opportunities because it would make their initial guesses look that more ridiculous.

On the other hand, the mine rescue did have management and government involved, but the goal from the onsite was to rescue the miners.  Government and management got engineers involved from the onset and came up with three unique plans.  Then, they initiated all three plans simultaneously.  Yes, initiating three plans at the same time meant three times the cost; and the cost of two of those plans would be completely wasted.  Compare that to the BP oil spill, where only one plan was worked on at a time.  When it failed, another was started from scratch in an effort to save money.  It wasn't until late in the process, much too late, that the engineers really got involved in the oil spill capping process.  Shortly after that, the problem was solved.

Why is God the reason for the successful rescue?
Why isn't he also blamed for the original cave in?  Why didn't got help solve the oil spill problem, or preventing it from happening in the first place?

I am a religious person and am always conflicted between my science and reasoning with that of my faith.  That's why this question is so interesting to me.  Weren't both of these disasters based on a similar root cause - a corporate culture or product flaw?  Then why is God involved in the solution of one, but not the other?  Why is God involved in the solution, but not the problem?  It seems to me that an earth-moving event would be in the realm of God.  Weren't engineers involved in creating the solution to both problems?  Didn't they come up with the ideas to drill the rescue shafts or cap and seal the well?

I don't have any answers to these questions.  I don't even have any guesses or an ability to apply logical reasoning to these.  My internal conflict between science and faith remains.

Where are the scientists?
I'll tell you where the scientists are.  Scientists discovered the oil under the Gulf.   Scientists discovered the ore under the ground.  From that point on, engineers figured out how to get at those resources.  And, engineers figured out how to resolve the crises.

Dear media, please learn the difference between a scientist and an engineer and use the proper title when referring to the two disciplines.

Is industrial exemption to blame?
Both of these incidents have sparked a resurgence of debate within the engineering profession regarding industrial exemption to licensing.  For years, governments have been changing policies to remove Professional Engineers (PEs) from positions that are designed to protect the public safety.  Why? To save money, usually.  And industry is happy to oblige because then they don't have to hire licensed engineers either.  They get away with industry exemption.

Since an oil rig is only used by the company who designed and built it, a licensed engineer is not required to be in responsible charge.  No (outside) public will ever be exposed to the oil rig and therefore it is industry exempt.
Since a mine is only used by the company digging it, a licensed engineer is not required to be in responsible charge.  No (outside) public will ever be exposed to the mine and therefore it is industry exempt.

Well, obviously, the public is exposed to an oil rig or mine.

Thousands of gallons of hydrocarbons flowing into public waters deserves to have the operation overseen by someone of suitable qualifications and ethics to maintain a safe environment.  Focus has to be not only on getting to the oil as fast and cheap as possible, but to also maintain a safe work environment and public well-being. 

A mine collapse effects not just the miners inside the mine or the ore output for the company.  A mine collapse effects the friends and families of the miners, it effects the rescuers and their families.  What if a mine collapse drastically changed the surface?  Wouldn't that effect water flow (rain or runoff)? How about nearby houses or buildings?  (Not necessarily the Chile mine, but for others this would be a concern.)  There are many aspects outside of the end product - oil or ore - that the public needs a voice.  The best way is to have a licensed professional engineer in responsible charge.  Granted, a single PE is not going to take on the liability of an entire airplane, but there should be more involvement in the process of the airplane done by someone who is not industry exempt.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fighting Fires - Several Stories Up

  • We're happy that Mrs. O-Leary's cow didn't start the Great Chicago Fire.
  • We're happy that Chicago was able to rebuild using modern technologies.
  • We're even happier to know that fire fighting methods continue to improve, especially when it comes to fighting blazes in multi-story apartment and office buildings.

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has a Building and Fire Research Laboratory.  As you can imagine, this laboratory researches fires: how they start, how they propagate, how to prevent fires, how to fight fires, and most importantly fire safety.  (They have some really cool CFD tools to simulate fire.)  But, much like the Great Chicago Fire, "greatness" usually comes after a tragedy.

In December 1998, three New York City firefighters lost their lives due to thermal shock that was created when the windows of the apartment building they were securing failed and coincidentally an occupant of the apartment complex on the opposite side of the building opened a door.  The wind, from being several stories up, rushed through the open windows and carried the heat of the fire through the hallway in which the firefighters were traversing and down the open door.  The heat was so intense that the firefighters' bodies shut down; they had no time to escape.

This tragedy, like many others like it, have opened the eyes of researches in understanding more about the world around us and inspired new ways to keep people safe.  This is especially important in apartment fires.  The National Fire Protection Association stated that 7,300 high-rise fires occurred in 2002, mostly in residential buildings.  Of these, 92% of the fatalities occurred because the fire spread beyond the room of origin.  Something as simple as closing a door may have prevented those fatalities.

Developing New Methods
If a slight breeze can cause such devastation in a high-rise fire, how can it be limited?  Better yet, how can it be used to help stop the fire?

Simple, when a window is open, close it.  With a big curtain.

One of the main problems fighting a high-rise fire is getting water to the upper levels of the buildings.  Ladder trucks have nozzles, but they only reach a certain height.  Sending in firefighters is the usual option, but that exposes them to dangers that may result in the same tragedy that occurred in New York.  Therefore, a concept developed by New York and Chicago firefighters is the high-rise nozzle.
Firefighters can enter the building from a floor not exposed to fire or excessive heat and deploy a water nozzle to the floor above.

Smoke inhalation is the largest known contributor to fire deaths.  Smoke also happens to be the largest inhibitor to quick fire response due to the lack of visibility.  Chicago firefighters have begun testing large portable fans to create a positive pressure in stairwells and rooms.  This controls the smoke and heat of the fire, sometimes containing it to the room of origin.

(above images courtesy of of Governors Island Experiments)

Proving the Point
Ideas are great, but how do you prove they work?  You do so, by teaming up with NIST and the Polytechnic Institute by finding a little funding through the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, the US Fire Administration, and the Assistance to Firefighters Research and Development Grant Program.

Using NIST's fire laboratory, quantitative measurements could be taken that showed improvements in temperature, heat flux, gas velocity, pressure, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and unburned hydrocarbons.  Seeing positive results in all of the experiments using the ideas devised by New York and Chicago firefighters, the testing move out of the lab and into controlled burns.

Abandoned Military Bases
Where else better to light a building on fire than an old building owned by the government that is no longer in use?  How about Governors Island, south of Manhattan, and home of an abandoned military base containing several multi-story buildings?

These experiments verified what the lab testing had shown.  Controlling wind - either by removing it in some areas or adding it in others (positive pressure) - significantly improved fire fighting conditions and also made it easier for occupants to egress from the building.  Several fire departments from North America were present to watch the experiments and are now looking at implementing them as standard practice.

And lets not forget that great software.  With empirical data under its belt, NIST can continue to develop a theoretical model to simulate fires using a combination of Fluent and NIST's Fire Dynamics Simulator.  As more simulations are run and the effectiveness of the new tactics proven, you can bet that new construction will see implementations of these techniques built right in.  The simulations also provide a great method to train firefighters on these new tactics and show them the positive and negative effects of using them.

Of course, the part that interests me the most about WHY these tactics need to be developed goes all the way back to the Great Chicago Fire.  When Chicago rebuilt with high-rises, the technology that we have available today, like deluge sprinklers, didn't exist.  So now, all of those older buildings need new, portable, ways to control fires.  Hopefully, with these new techniques, we don't have another Great Fire in any city.

For More Information
NIST Building and Fire Research Lab
Polytech Institute

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Great Chicago Fire

The Randolf Street Bridge
I have always found the description of travesties as being "great" somewhat perplexing.  How can it be great that 300 people died, or 100,000 lost their homes?  How can a war be great?  How can something so horrible be terrific (horrible + terrific = horrific)?

While many of us this past weekend were celebrating the fact that Europe and the United States shared the same date (10/10/10), others were celebrating the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871 behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary, a small fire started in a barn or shed.  Unlike in today's litigious climate, Mrs.O'Leary and her poor cow got exonerated from starting the blaze because of evidence that clearly pointed to other problems.
  • The firemen were exhausted from fighting a planing mill fire the night before.
  • The equipment was in poor shape as well.
  • The fire department watchman called out the wrong location (firebox), sending fire crews the wrong way.
  • Upon noticing his error, the watchman called for another box (still not entirely correct), but the telegraph operator (dispatch) didn't want to sound another alarm and confuse firefighters.
  • A vigilant neighbor noticed the fire and ran to the closest fire alarm, but the owner of the alarm refused to sound it and prevented the neighbor from sounding it.
All of these systematic errors were more of a cause to the Great Chicago Fire than the original flames in the barn.

Codes and Standards
The main reason the fire spread so rapidly was because, at the time, Chicago was a city built out of wood.  Normally that would not be so bad, but due to the drought conditions at the time, the entire city was exceptionally combustible.  If the city had better building codes and standards in place at the time, there would most likely have been fire-stops in place.  We can compare that to recent tragedies: a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti and an 8.8 earthquake in Chile.

In Haiti: 230,000 died; 300,000 injured; and 1,000,000 made homeless (source).
In Chile: 521 died (source).
So how come so many more people died in the Haiti earthquake even though it was not as severe as the Chilean earthquake?  Answer: Chile buildings were designed and constructed using better codes and standards.

And Chile's could have been even less devastating but they didn't follow all the codes and standards because they recently opted to shortcut the standards in order to improve their economy using less than ideal materials and methods.  All the more reason codes and standards exist, and why licensed professionals need to be in charge of protecting the public safety.  Taking shortcuts or revising standards to make economical short-terms gains only results in long-term cost.

Beauty in the Decay
Amazing things happen in nature.  Lightening strikes sand and creates unique glass sculptures.  Fire softens glass and molds marbles together.
Glass Marbles
Or welds metals.
Metal Files

What happens after a disaster is often the determination for it becoming great.  There is nothing great about war, but what happened after the Great War is nothing short of extraordinary.  The same can also be said about the rebuilding of Chicago from its ashes.

Business started cropping up within a couple days after the fire was out.
Rubble was swept away and piled up.  Much of it pushed into the lake, creating new real estate.
"World's Busiest Intersection" Corner of State and Madison
And it figures, the first store to reopen in the Burnt District was smoke shop - Schock, Bigford & Company, selling cigars, tobacco, grapes, apples, and cider out of a wood box with a broadsign in front.

Had the fire not destroyed four square miles in the heart of Chicago, the city would have been long delayed in modernizing.  Upon rebuilding, Chicago started using better materials and new technologies which allowed them to grow up, not just out.  New safety brakes on elevators meant the first sky scrapers entered the Chicago skyline.  Numerous other advancements occurred during the rebuilding phase that could not have happened if the old buildings had to first be torn down.  Which politician is going to force people from their homes?  I know that when I play SimCity and need to revitalize some neighborhoods, it is much easier for me to decrease funding to fire departments and call forth an alien invasion than it is to bulldoze the area.  Look at the aging infrastructure of the United States and the cost to dismantle it before we can build new.  Look at updated infrastructures of war-torn areas that would otherwise not be modernized.  The disaster itself is not great, but what comes after often is.
View from Water Tower looking North

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Organic Operating System

Life imitates art - Skynet becomes closer to reality that even Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting nervous.  When it comes to developing really cool technologies the world has never seen, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the place that is making that happen.

The AFRL in Rome, New York has been developing a self-aware computer system that automatically adapts and optimizes its behavior.  Cut off it's arm, and it uses another system to hold the gun to your head.  It does this through a new "organic" operating system (OOS).

The user sets inputs by setting a goal and allotting a budget.  The self-aware OOS has five key properties to accomplish the task:
  1. Ability to observe itself and optimize its behavior.
  2. Observe application behavior and optimize the application.
  3. Self-healing.
  4. Goal-oriented while optimizing constraints.
  5. Is lazy - using just enough resources to accomplish the task.
To put these into terms we can all understand.
GOAL: The Terminator has to kill Connor.
CONSTRAINTS: The Terminator can only kill Connor using the death tools of the timeline he is transported to.
OBSERVANT: The Terminator recognizes Connor as a threat and takes a defensive posture.
SELF-AWARE: Connor removes the Terminators gun-shooting arm. The Terminator realizes he can no longer shoot Conner with that arm, so picks up the gun with his other arm
GOAL-ORIENTED: The Terminator continues towards his goal under new constraints by shooting at Conner with his other arm.
LAZINESS: The Terminator didn't waste effort running after Connor or fixing his arm, he just picked up the gun and kept shooting.

Compare that to today SCARAs or industrial robots.  If a welding robot looses the welding head, it doesn't stop welding.  NOOOO!  It keeps following it's program completely unaware that it's not actually accomplishing its goal or has an appendage dangling by its hydraulic hose.  Industrial robots are not self aware and are not hell-bent on accomplishing its goal at all costs.

But that's not all.  It gets scarier.  Imagine a Terminator made of Liquid Metal combined with the ability to self heal.  That's enough for even Robert Patrick to be concerned.

I'd pay close attention to the AFRL.  While the commercial world is oogling CPUs and GPUs and APUs as great technical advances, the military is developing an OOS capable of taking over the world via its cloud computing capabilities.

For More Information
Defense Tech BriefsSelf-Aware Computing article
Liquid Metal Technologies
The Apple iTerminator
Skynet (just kidding, here's the real link)

(Solidsmack, aka Baltar, has been warning us! Or just desensitizing us for our new masters.)
Robots Will Digest and Poo You
Design the Robot Face of Death
Robots too Small to Carry You Off, Not Your Kids
Robots Won't Eat You, Just Take Your Job

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Better Grocery Getter

I've said it before, I love collegiate design challenges, and ASME's Human Powered Vehicle Challenge is no different.  Imagine pedal-power streaking you down the roads at 45 mph (72 km/hr).  That's enough for a speeding ticket in most neighborhoods -- while riding a bike?

This years challenge was a little different, and I would say much better, thanks to probing questions from the judges and and a new contest category.

Is It Practical?
The question posed by judges in competitions from years past was "Is your vehicle practical?."  The students from the team at Rose-Hulman could not answer "yes" to that question so this year, they made the bike practical.

Examples of the impractical nature of the prior years' vehicles include: difficult to ride; uncomfortable; required a team of people to launch it; and it needed constant maintenance.  Those examples aren't something grandma is going to be able to do on her own.

The New Category
The unrestricted class not only had teams competing in speed, but also in utility endurance events: climb a ramp, go over a speed bump, pass through a simulated rain shower, stop and pick up a parcel.  That's right, they want to make sure granny can carry her groceries home in her bike.  There is still nothing to prevent her from stopping right in front of the door, parking in the handicap spot, or going the wrong way down the parking aisles, though.

Congratulation to the Rose-Hulman  team for taking 1st place the third year running.

More Information