TWIE 159: Drilling on Mars

This Week in Engineering - Fusion net energy; drilling on Mars; nanotube speakers; ballistic missile disaster aid; Venetian flood barriers; and pillow building.

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Fusion net energy
During a recent fusion energy experiment at Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility in California, the total energy released through fusion exceeded the energy absorbed by the fuel, achieving the milestone of positive net energy.  The facility uses 192 beams from the most powerful laser in the world to heat and compress a fuel pellet called a hohlraum, to the point the fuel turns to plasma and fusion takes place.  Early calculations indicate the reaction of hot plasma started to self-heat the core, enhancing the yield nearly fifty percent.  The lab’s stated goal is “ignition”, whereby the fusion generates more energy than the lasers supply, even after loss due to known inefficiencies.

Drilling on Mars
A collaboration between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, is undergoing field tests for a mission to send a drilling rig to Mars.  “ExoMars”, short for “Exobiology on Mars”, is slightly smaller than NASA’s Curiosity, but can extract samples 2m deep in the Martian soil.  The rig will be on a rover equipped with autonomous driving and navigation, allowing it to drive up to 100m without commands from mission control, which take a long time.  Oh, man, if it strikes oil, we are so going to war with Mars.

Nanotube speakers
Traditional speakers use magnetic fields to produce mechanical oscillations that turn into sound waves.  Now, a team from Tsinghua University in Beijing has created thermoacoustic ear buds -- which use heat variations to create sound with no moving parts -- from carbon nanotubes.  Thermoacoustics has been known for over thirty years, but has not been widely adopted because heat dissipation problems cause devices to break down.  Nanotubes, with their conductive properties, make the earbuds possible, which the Tsinghua team put on a photolithography-manufactured silicon wafer, which worked stably for about a year.  Sound from heat?  If earbuds are scalding hota that’s why iTunes shadow ads moved like this.  They’re being tortured!

Ballistic missile disaster aid
In the event of a catastrophic natural disaster that takes out roads and other forms of transportation, it may be very difficult to send relief supplies.  Now, Huai-Chien Chang, a doctoral student at the University of Tokyo, has proposed using mothballed American and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles to send supplies through suborbital spaceflight.  The scenario warranting such a mission would be very rare, but the cost of using ICBMs, which were made but are not being used, would be low.

Venetian flood barriers
The city of Venice, Italy, suffers from flooding regularly, due to high tides during autumn and winter.  Now, the Moses project -- a system of flood barriers rising from the seabed to protect the city -- has passed its first major test.  When finished, the $7 billion system will extend more than a mile, blocking the three inlets to the lagoon.  Construction began ten years ago, but was delayed by the country’s financial crisis.  The government claims it will be completed by 2016.  I say, if anyone knows flood prep, it’s Venice.  Hurricanes just aren’t as scary in a town where people commute by gondola.

Pillow building
Architecture firm 3GATTI has proposed a plan to add a thin white inflatable membrane of nylon sheets over the face of an office building in central Shanghai, creating what looks like a giant pillow fort.  The sheets would move with the wind, and would also help insulate the building for better heating and cooling efficiency.  Between the windows and the sheets, plants would grow, allowing for some pleasant