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.
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 “Big Data” Engineers
Data scientists have been the statistical wizards in the software world for years. They are the ones working with data sets, doing feature engaging and building features. These high demand professionals are what companies need to get into the world of “Big Data”. Recently companies have added data engineers to the ranks as their skills are necessary to complete the chain of work for data scientists. Data engineers manipulate, transform and clean the raw data so that the data scientists can use it. The demand for professionals with these skills is astronomical and there just isn’t enough supply to meet the demand. Companies are having to get creative and re-imagine job objectives and requirements.
For many companies, the ideal ratio is 2 data engineers for every 1 data scientist, which is nearly impossible to achieve in the current job market. The supply does not fulfill the demand which means those that have the skill set are making big bucks with starting salaries in the $100,000 and above range. Companies are realizing they are not just paying to save time, but also paying for expert assurance that there isn’t anything wrong that could go unnoticed. If the company doesn’t have the engineers they need and only have data scientists, they are not going to have full usage of the data they collect. The typical issue is that a data scientist might build an algorithm in a development environment, but they’re not able to run it on a cluster in a large data set. Therefore, someone else needs to create the tools that don’t already exist, which is why the role of a data engineer is essential.
Organizations often assume they will pick up data engineering experience as they work their way through a project, but they’re usually wrong. In response to the shortage, companies started looking for a completely new type of engineer. Enter machine learning engineers, a cross between a data engineer and data scientist. Companies that are looking for machine learning engineers want someone who is not only good at the data science aspects of machine learning but also good at building and running systems. They will need specific hard-earned, on-the-ground experience with building a data pipeline, data management systems, data analytics, and all of the intermediate code to make the data available and accessible. They must also assure that the data is correct. Desperate companies hope that combining the two specialties will solve the shortage problem and streamline the work to be done. Only time will tell.
Scientists Find New Behavior of Water
The current state of the art theoretical models and computer simulations have predicted a fundamental asymmetry in the mechanisms by which water transports the protons from H2O, (H+) and (OH-). For nearly a century, it was thought that the mechanisms were mirror images of each other. Identical in all ways except the direction the bonds move. New research has discovered that this line of thinking is not true.
This asymmetrical movement has been extremely difficult to capture because scientists only get a glimpse of the predicted asymmetry. However, a team of researchers from New York University has devised a novel experiment for nailing down this movement. The experiment involves cooling down water to the maximum density temperature of 39 degrees. This is the temperature that asymmetry is expected to be the strongest. Using nuclear magnetic resonance to show the difference in the lifetimes of the two ions, the asymmetry became glaringly clear.
“The study of water’s molecular properties is of intense interest due to its central role in enabling physiological processes and its ubiquitous nature,” says Jerschow, the corresponding author of this study. “The new finding is quite surprising and may enable a deeper understanding of water’s properties as well as its role as a fluid in many of nature’s phenomena.”
With the theory now proven scientists can use this information to design new materials for clean energy applications. Further research will also be done using this new information to discover enzyme function in the body and to better understand how living organisms can thrive in harsh conditions, including sub-freezing temperatures. This remarkable property of water makes it a critical component of life, without this characteristic life itself would not be possible.
A Web of Possibilities
For decades, scientists have fantasized about creating lab-grown spider silk, which is supposedly stronger than steel and softer than a cloud, but the reality hasn’t lived up to the hype. Spider silk is among the strongest and toughest materials in the natural world, as strong as some steel alloys with a toughness even greater than bulletproof Kevlar. Scientists have been able to create some forms of synthetic spider silk but have been unable to engineer a material that includes all of natural silk’s traits. Unfortunately, spiders are territorial and cannibalistic by nature, so their silk has been impossible to mass produce.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have engineered bacteria that produce a biosynthetic spider silk with performance on par with its natural counterparts in all of the important measures. And they’ve discovered something exciting about the possibilities ahead. New research shows that the tensile strength and toughness of spider silk depends entirely on its molecular weight. The bigger the molecule, the stronger the silk, even in synthetic silk. The largest challenge creating a biosynthetic spider silk has been creating a large enough protein.
To get around this long-standing obstacle, researchers added a short genetic sequence to silk DNA to create a chemical reaction between the resulting proteins, fusing them together to form an even bigger protein, bigger than has ever been created before. Scientists then spun their silk proteins into fibers about a tenth the diameter of a human hair and tested their mechanical properties. This biosynthetic silk is the first to replicate natural spider silk in terms of tensile strength (the maximum stress needed to break the fiber) and toughness (the total energy absorbed by the fiber before breaking).
Spider silk’s unmatched combination of strength and toughness have made this protein-based material desirable for many applications ranging from super thin surgical sutures to projectile resistant clothing. Two decades ago, a Canadian firm developed a herd of spider silk-producing goats, but it failed to bring its “biosteel” to market before going out of business in 2009. In 2015, Japan’s Spiber partnered with The North Face on a “moon parka” made of its spider silk, but it was more art piece than a consumer product. Germany’s AMSilk created a biodegradable shoe with Adidas in 2016, but that company’s focus today is on selling its biosilk to cosmetics companies, which use silk additives to give skin products their glow and shampoo its shine. With these new breakthroughs scientists, military officials, even clothing designers are looking to create the next generation of textiles.