Reflecting on the Engineering Issues at Chernobyl 34 Years Later

By: Marie McCarthy

2020 marks 34 years since the horrific nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 1984. That day, an inexperienced night shift crew was supervising a safety test that was meant to simulate an electric power outage. During the test, power levels dipped dangerously low and the crew tried to restore it, but their efforts destabilized the reactor. The reactor’s instability coupled with its flawed design caused an explosive reaction. The result was the release of superheated cooling water and nuclear, radioactive materials that descended, by some accounts, throughout all of continental Europe.

Dozens were killed from the initial explosion and some researchers say thousands died of complications indirectly linked to the release of radioactive materials. The incident is considered one of the worst of its kind in history. As engineers look back upon the tragedy, they hope to learn lessons to prevent future disasters.

Australia’s Engineering Institute of Technology says there were a few things that “went wrong” that day: they say there was a “deficit when it came to process control” and the Soviet Union’s prevailing societal belief to put faith in the worker came at a costly extent because a less-experienced team was overseeing the safety of the test.

They also point out that the crew did not follow safety procedures, specifically running the plant at dangerously low power. In a July 2009 article titled “Chernobyl Did Not Need to Occur,” Bela Liptak says properly designed process controls could have averted the disaster.

“The accident occurred while the reactor was being tested at low loading…During the test…a runaway condition developed during which the power generation reached over 100 times the design capacity … As a result of the explosion and fire, 20 million curies of radioactivity were released, an amount which is 30 times the nuclear fallout that occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Since the tragedy, the International Atomic Energy Agency formed a nuclear safety group to advise on safety approaches and policies.


3D Printing Revolutionizing Variety of Industries

By: Marie McCarthy

If you Google “3D printing”, a slew of news articles will appear with the latest headlines announcing which gadgets have been created using this revolutionary new technology. 3D printing allows novice users, designers, and engineers to prototype, design and build their ideas directly.

From dental aligners to entire houses, many industries are cutting out the middle man and creating real products from 3D printers.

Vancouver based Casca makes shoes, and they’re developing technology that can print customized insoles on the spot. Currently, the brand asks customers to use their phone app to scan their foot. The app analyzes 20,000 data points and converts that information into a perfectly fitted insole. Someday, their CEO hopes to have a brick and mortar store that will be a one stop shop where users can have their foot scanned and the shoe printed instantly. Right now, it takes 4 hours to print.

In Denmark, one company wants to be a zero-waste fashion house by relying on 3D printing technology. Their goal is to print parkas upon each order, so they keep no inventory and have no waste, either.

3D printing also has incredible application potential in the healthcare sector. It is being tested to print organs, medical parts, and even dental ware. Scans from someone’s mouth can be used to formulate a retainer that can re-align and straighten their teeth.

Whatever the application, today’s engineers need to have a grasp and understanding of 3D printing as it becomes more prevalent and useful in society. With their technical perspective, engineers will be able to best manipulate and mold the future of the tool.

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Analysis of Candidate Waveforms for 5G Cellular Systems

By: Sara Chauvette

This paper is available for 1 PDH credit towards your PE license

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Massachusetts Gas Disaster

By: Kaylee Verhoeven

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.

DO YOU NEED ENGINEERING PDHs? offers online PDH credits based on modern articles written by professional engineers.

Creating a New Generation of Solar Cells

By: Kaylee Verhoeven

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.

DO YOU NEED ENGINEERING PDHs? offers online PDH credits based on modern articles written by professional engineers.

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