Massachusetts Gas Disaster
On September 18th, 2018, in the Merrimack Valley in Northeastern Massachusetts, work crews for the Columbia Gas Company were in the final stages of replacing cast iron pipes (that date back to the early 1900's) with a new set of plastic gas-distribution pipes. What those workers didn't realize was that they needed to not only switch out the pipes but to also switch the sensors. To regulate the pressure in this old school system, control system sensors were placed inside the pipes and the data was then sent back to the regulators. By cutting off the valve the control system saw pressure falling in the old pipes, so it opened up the regulator. In mere moments the natural gas supply lines pressure soared thus making pilot lights into blow torches and stove gas burners into towering infernos.
One person lost their life, dozens were injured and over a hundred structures were damaged. Through the evening emergency crews responded to approximately 80 fires. Gas services were shut off to 8,600 customers, to avoid igniting any lingering gas, which of course caused an evacuation and a state of emergency was declared.
Columbia gas took over the locally owned gas company but moved the monitoring system to Ohio. This move was probably done to save money, money which should have been spent on a corresponding control system to allow Ohio monitors to shut off regulators and valves remotely. Presumably, this company has completed this type of work before, so you would hope that the technicians and definitely the supervisor would realize that by not changing the sensors at the same time as the pipes, disaster could strike. Every technician can't know enough to design an entire system, that's what engineers are for, but techs and supervisors should know the basic technology they are working on.
Since the disaster in September, many Columbia Gas customers are still without gas. The company's deadline was in November but has recently been pushed to December 16th. It's safe to say Columbia Gas will be paying for this mistake for a very long time, unfortunately so will the residents of Northeastern Massachusetts.
Out to Sea: Wind Turbines and the Ocean Breeze
Wind energy has been used for more than two thousand years. Since its discovery, wind energy has been crucial to farmers and ranchers that use windmills for pumping water and grinding grain. Today wind energy is mostly used to generate electricity through the use of turbines. The need for environmentally safe renewable energy has led engineers to research and develop large-scale wind farms. The very first offshore wind farm was installed off the coast of Denmark in 1991. Since that time, commercial-scale offshore facilities have been operating in shallow waters around the world. Offshore winds tend to blow harder and more consistently than on land with the highest wind speeds occurring further out to sea and at greater depths. The current bottom fixed offshore turbines, with foundations in the seabed, have depth restraints and cannot harness the higher wind speeds found further out to sea.
Harnessing deep sea wind requires engineers to develop new foundations so the turbines can reach greater depths. Turbines must be able to withstand hurricane-force winds, storm waves and in some cases-ice flows. Several construction approaches have been established but there is yet to be a stand out development. To get deep sea platforms up and running quickly, one common strategy has been to build the structures at onshore shipyards. This boosts local economies as well as lowering the cost of production by using local resources. The turbines can then be towed out to deep water and once on location, can then be hooked up to pre-installed mooring chains. A single connection point and power transmission cable allows the platform to be connected and running quickly with little disruption to ocean life.
Seafloor ecosystems have been monitored closely during the whole process of introducing stationary wind turbines to each location’s environment. Current research has determined that the largest impact has been during the construction phase. Stationary turbines use pile driving to install poles into the ocean floor, which causes marine mammals to leave their habitats due to the loud sound pulses. This is remedied by conducting construction on land for the floating turbines which lower environmental effects considerably. Researchers say it’s still too early to draw conclusions but by disturbing the ocean floor less, floating wind turbines will be the go-to for future wind farms.
Creating a New Generation of Solar Cells
For the last few decades, manufacturers have used silicon solar panels for “Green” energy. These panels are relied upon because the material used was the most efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. The current goal in research has been to develop solar power capable of higher efficiency and better practical usage possibilities. To accomplish this, engineers have been researching Organic Solar Cells. While silicone panels produce typically between 5-27% converted sunlight, organics will produce between 15-18%. Here lies the problem. With the large difference in rates, what makes organic solar cells the preferred method for solar panels?
Organic solar cells are considerably more cost effective. Organic photovoltaics can cut the total solar energy system cost significantly. Organic photovoltaics at 15% efficiency over 20 years would produce electricity at 7 cents per kilowatt-hour. In 2018 the national average is 13.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. Creating the Organic solar cells is also less costly than traditional silicon panels. Silicon panels are thick, rigid panels that require extensive installation. The Carbon Organic panels can be built cheaply in rolls of material that are much more flexible.
New materials, design, and processes have a fabrication yield of 95%. That means nearly all devices are created without shorting out which cuts production costs considerably. The organic photovoltaics can be made of compounds that are dissolved in ink, this allows them to be printed on thin rolls of plastic. The Organic cells can then bend or curve around structures. Flexible, printed solar cells have a wide range of possibilities. They could work indoors and can be built into windows. They offer huge potential for many industries since they are lightweight, and can be used on the roofs of cars, in clothing, even built into the screen of your cell phone so it charges while you are out and about.
The industry hopes to develop worldwide applications within the next five years. Soon you will have solar powered camping gear, smart wearables, and even solar-powered cell phones. The future of solar power looks bright.
The Plastic Strategy
The great plastic debate - not only in politics but also in everyday conversations people are demanding we save the environment. Many argue that the world should do away with all plastic use, which unfortunately is not realistic. Plastic is necessary for highly perishable foods as well as high moisture content products. It is widely known that the plastic consumption of the world is out of control but, if we were to stop using plastics for food, the amount of food spoilage would be over 20-times the waste of the packaging. The creation of new technology is required if we want to do more than just clean up the mountains of plastic waste and hope the next generation is more considerate in their consumer-driven lives.
Despite the challenges related to plastic waste, demand continues to grow. Engineering goals have started to shift toward a new plastic strategy: bioplastics. The traditional biodegradable plastics just are not degrading fast enough to keep up with demand. To understand the difference between the two types of plastics, clarifying the terms will help:
Bio-based plastics are all about renewable raw materials. Renewable raw materials such as sugar, corn, or wheat are used to create the plastic. Polylactic acid (PLA) is a good example: it is a 100% bio-based plastic and today mostly produced from corn. In contrast, biodegradable plastics have been designed to decompose and degrade under the right conditions, for example, when in contact with soil, compost or even water.
Engineers are committed to finding renewables that are still durable, recyclable, and reusable. Already bio-based plastics are being used in car parts, packaging, even children’s toys. The next step engineers are trying to achieve on an industrial scale is using these plastics as a renewable diesel. They are taking waste plastic and turning it back into a raw material for fossil refining. To do so plastics are either chemically or mechanically recycled. Mechanical recycling reduces the plastic into granules, but it cannot be reused for food packaging as there are impurities. Chemical recycling breaks the plastic down into a liquid similar to crude oil. These plastics are free of impurities making this process the optimal choice.
Environmentalists have been raising awareness for a plastic-free future. One such movement is saving sea turtles by switching from plastic straws to paper ones. While filled with good intention this effort completely defeats the purpose. By switching to paper, it requires more trees to be cut down which results in decreased oxygen (that vital substance) needed by every living creature on the planet. The practice of conservation is a good one, and engineers have been hard at work securing a better future by creating a way to reuse the plastics we recycle.
The Future of Remote Sensing Technology
In 1972 NASA launched its first satellite into space. With more than 40 years of continuous data, many industries are jumping on board to utilize its imagery and change the way the world operates. It is estimated that more than 2,500 satellites are orbiting the earth, providing data to a variety of industries from agriculture to financial advising companies. Remote sensing imagery is booming and has developed very specific products for individual organizations. For example, during hurricane Harvey, flood models were created which then helped insurance companies, engineers and crisis management officials rebuild and prepare for the next big disaster. How many lives could be saved with this technology?
Remote sensing technology is an excellent example of the information we can gather beyond what we are capable of perceiving on our own. The ability to detect the moisture content of soil or monitor glaciers for climate change would take far longer and cost more to have an individual research when the data could be available in seconds. All possible by using satellite imagery. Can you imagine the opportunities for someone who could estimate crop productions in a region, a country or the entire world? That information would drastically affect economies, financial markets, and possibly end world hunger.
The amount of available data will increase drastically. Rapidly changing technology is making it possible to use smaller satellites which drop prices and open opportunities to smaller companies in both the commercial and private sector. It won’t be long until everyone will have access to space, which will change every aspect of our lives by using only a computer and internet access.