TWIE 120: LEGO Supercomputer

This Week in Engineering - Chem-free oil cleanup; droplet levitation; refrigerator recycler; Gaza electric car; robot tentacle; and LEGO supercomputer.

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Chem-free Oil cleanup
Cleaning up oil spills like the one from the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico usually includes using chemical surfactants which, while better than oil, are still dangerous for sea life. Now, materials scientists Anish Tujeta and Arun Kota from the University of Michigan have developed a filter that repels oil while attracting water, which is the opposite of most materials since water has the higher surface tension. The filter is made of a common polymer that is hydrophilic (attracts water), and an interesting nanoparticle called fluoroPOSS that is oleophobic (or repels oil). The result is a filter that can remove oil from water powered by gravity with 99.9% efficiency.

Droplet levitation
Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago have used sound waves to levitate droplets of drugs. Sometimes, when a drug is touching a container, it becomes crystalline, which is harder for the body to absorb and requires bigger doses and more side effects. But by levitating drug droplets, the team hopes to efficiently evaporate solvents while keeping the drug amorphous, instead of forming crystals. The acoustic levitator emits sound from two speakers, one above and one below, at about twenty-two kilohertz -- just above the range of human hearing. Levitation with sound? Impressive! The only downside I see is when every dog in the neighborhood starts howling like the Mystics in the Dark Crystal.

Refrigerator Recycler
A very old refrigerator isn¦t worth the extra energy it uses, but getting rid of one often means tossing fifty pounds of it into a landfill. Now, GE and Appliance Recycling Centers of America have built a 40-ft refrigerator shredding machine, which can shred a two-door refrigerator-freezer every fifty seconds, recovering ninety-five percent of its insulation and the potent greenhouse gases inside. So far, the shredder has recycled over a hundred thousand fridges. I think it¦s a great machine for helping the planet, but don¦t ever agree to meet a mob boss there. (No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!÷ Crunch.

Gaza electric car
Gaza City is in its worst fuel crisis in history -- people needing gas have to wait in line for hours, or resort to the black market. So, taxi driver Munther al-Qassas built Gaza City¦s first electric car with a wood frame, electronics he collects, and tires from wheelbarrows. The small white and blue vehicle has no doors but can carry two passengers, and can drive up to twelve miles per hour, and up to four hours on a single charge. Al-Qassas built the car over several months, costing him about a thousand dollars -- a huge investment for a taxi driver in the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Robot Tentacle
Robot hands are often hard and unforgiving, which is fine for manufacturing cars, but not so good for handling delicate materials. Now, engineers from Harvard, working with DARPA and the Department of Energy, have developed robotic grippers made out of a flexible plastic tube lined with several channels that can be individually pumped full of air, applying specific pressure to an object, or causing it to curl in a specific direction. The tentacle could provide pressure gentle enough to lift a flower without damaging it. You know, a robot apocalypse doesn¦t sound so intimidating, if the robots are gentle balloon animals.

LEGO supercomputer
Engineers from the University of Southampton in Britain have developed a supercomputer made of sixty-four Raspberry Pi computers held together with legos. The team, led by Professor Simon Cox, built (Iridis-Pi÷ for only about four thousand dollars, thanks to the low thirty-five dollar Raspberry Pi price, and using free open-source tools such as a Debian Linux image, and programming languages Python and Scratch. Mechanical support an