January/February 2011

Automation by the Numbers


Members of the engineering faculty at Oregon State University invented a new type of radiation detection and measurement device that will be useful for cleanup of sites with radioactive contamination.

"Unlike other detectors, this spectrometer is more efficient, and able to measure and quantify both gamma and beta radiation at the same time," said David Hamby, an OSU professor of health physics. "Before this, two different types of detectors and other chemical tests were needed in a time-consuming process."

"This system will be able to provide accurate results in 15 minutes that previously might have taken half a day," Hamby said. The spectrometer can quickly tell the type and amount of radionuclides present in something like a soil sample that were produced from reactor operations. A patent has been granted on this radiation spectrometer, and the first production of devices will begin soon.


As of 2011, TVs will be outfitted with Energy Guide stickers much like those on household appliances such as refrigerators or washers and dryers, allowing consumers to make energy efficient choices more easily. The Federal Trade Commission is requiring all TVs to have the stickers, which will feature the estimated annual energy cost of the TV, with a scale comparing it to other TVs in the same size range. Figures are based on a cost of 11 cents per kWh and five hours use per day. The new requirement applies to all TVs sold in stores as of January, but websites have until July to add the labels.


Researchers at Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the University of Georgia have produced hydrogen gas pure enough to power a fuel cell by mixing 14 enzymes, one coenzyme, cellulosic materials from nonfood sources, and water heated to about 90°F (32°C). Three advances from their process are: a novel combination of enzymes; an increased hydrogen generation rate-to as fast as natural hydrogen fermentation; and a chemical energy output greater than the chemical energy stored in sugars.

According to ScienceDaily, in addition to converting the chemical energy from the sugar, the process also converts the low-temperature thermal energy into high-quality hydrogen energy.

"It is exciting because using cellulose instead of starch expands the renewable resource for producing hydrogen to include biomass," said Jonathan Mielenz, leader of the Bioconversion Science and Technology Group at ORNL.


Christmas trees could be put to better use: a special roasting process could make it economically viable for power stations to burn large quantities of biomass, such as pine and spruce trees, instead of coal. Compared with fossil fuels, biomass can provide a carbon-neutral form of energy, according to New Scientist. Many coal-fired power stations already burn biomass, but only small amounts can be used because of the difficulty and expense of pulverising wood to a powder that can be burned alongside processed coal dust.

To overcome this, Jenny Jones at the University of Leeds, U.K., and colleagues have been experimenting with "torrefaction," a roasting process where plant matter is heated in an air-free container. Working with willow and also with Miscanthus grass, the team found both types of plant matter had to be heated to around 300°C, though the cooking time depended on the diameter of the branches. During this process, the plant material lost a small fraction of their mass but retained almost all of their capacity to generate heat when burned-their energy yield was about 75% that of coal. Furthermore, roasting made the plant matter more brittle, so that it could be ground into a fine powder just as easily as good-quality coal.