FIRST: How the Inventor of the Segway Found a Way to Create Engineers Using Robots

You’re probably familiar with the Segway, but do you know who invented it?  Or how about clean water? No, I’m not asking if you know who invented clean water. I am asking if you know who invented the water filtration system which allows you to drink that clean water?

Let me ask some different questions.

Did you ever want to be a famous athlete? Or a rock-star? What about a well-known engineer?

I might have lost you with that last one. And that’s alright. Try and stay with me. Your next thought should be something like, “What well-known engineers are there?” Emphasis on the “well-known” because there are plenty of engineers, but what engineers are recognized as celebrities? If you can’t name any, that’s ok. I couldn’t at first either.

But then the question becomes why aren’t engineers celebrated the way rock-stars are? And that’s a good one. It’s exactly the question that inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamen asked himself.

Dean Kamen
Dean Kamen speaking at the Robotics Competition at Kettering University. Photo credit: Pardeep Tour

While it’s true that most kids know that Selena Gomez is a rock-star or that Michael Jordan is one of the most famous athletes of all time, not many kids (or even adults) know Dean Kamen has been called the Thomas Edison of our time.

Kamen owns over 440 patents to inventions he has created some of which include: as mentioned, the Segway, the wearable insulin pump, a portable dialysis machine, the Luke Skywalker prosthetic arm, and so much more. Without Kamen, and an immeasurable amount of other brilliant engineers, our lives (as we know it) would be flipped upside down.

So, why aren’t there famous scientists and engineers?

Kamen wanted to change this. The challenge arose when he couldn’t find enough engineers for his company. He knew that most students weren’t breaking down any doors to major in engineering. He also knew most kids dreamt of being the famous athlete or the rock-star because our society chooses to focus on and celebrate those things. So, he set out to construct a way to make engineering and science just as cool and exciting as athletes or celebrities. That’s when FIRST was born.

. . .

What is FIRST?

Maybe you’re like me and you don’t know much about engineering. Well, grab your snacks because there’s a lot I learned and can’t wait to share with you.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Marie Hopper, President of FIRST North Carolina, to find out more about this organization.

Marie Hopper announcing at the Asheville tournament. Photo credit: Danny Levenson

First, I should tell you that Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace, defense, security, and advanced technologies company, estimates it will retire 650,000 engineers in the next 5-10 years. Colleges don’t graduate that many engineers in any given year, introducing a real demand for engineers in the near future (I wasn’t aware of that.). Hopper commented on this need stating, “There is a critical gap [between engineers retiring and the need for new engineers] and our program is helping to fill that pipeline.”

Just from listening to Hopper for a few minutes, I knew this was a program worth learning about because of the way Hopper talked about FIRST. There was an excitement in her eyes, voice, and body language that you just can’t fake. So, let me fill you in on some of the basics.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by the aforementioned Dean Kamen. It is an international, non-profit organization that has programs from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. The original FIRST started in New Hampshire, but many states have their own “sectors” of FIRST (like FIRST North Carolina, which is based in Greensboro) that work closely with the “parent” organization.

If you came here just for a one-sentence summary, that’s not really my style. However, I did think of you when I had my interview. I asked Hopper to tell me, in one sentence, the purpose of FIRST. Her response was simple enough, “FIRST is about engaging and inspiring the next generation of engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.” Now, if you’re interested in more than just that one-sentence summary, keep reading.

When Kamen established FIRST, he wanted to mix the excitement of sports, features of being a rock-star, and combine them with science and engineering. Insert robot competitions.

However, it didn’t just stop at robot competitions, since being founded, FIRST has become the 3rd largest scholarship provider in the country (Isn’t that insane? I had no idea!). Hopper was right, FIRST isn’t just an organization; Kamen has turned it into a movement.

Now that you have a general overview of the organization, let’s talk about their individual programs and what they have to offer.

The Programs (All About the Robots)

  • FIRST Lego League Jr.

This first-level program is for kids ages 6-10 (or grades K-4th). In groups of up to six kids, they begin learning about technology through building models out of Legos. These models must have, at least, one moving part. “For [FIRST], we believe education is hands-on. It has to be project-based [or game-based] learning…something that [will] engage students.” Since the programs are set up this way, it gets the kids excited about their projects (and their learning, even if they don’t realize it).

A “show-me” poster is required at the end of the program to illustrate what they’ve learned about teamwork and the topic of the year (Each year, the theme changes. For example, this year’s topic is “Creature Craze ®”. They will learn about the honey-bee’s habitat and animals that share that habitat.). They will present this poster at a “non-competitive expo” (think, science fair). In this presentation, students gain experience practicing their public speaking skills. (I don’t know about you, but I definitely could have benefitted from this when I was a kid.)

Hopper emphasized that teaching team work, respect, and a lot of those “soft skills” plays a major role in FIRST. Take the program they do with a school in Guilford County, in the 2nd grade, for example. Every year, after FIRST completes their course, teachers report the positive effects the program has had on the children. The most positive result? Teachers watch fights between kids on the playgrounds disappear. And it’s because they are learning about teamwork, respecting one another, and how to get along, even if you have a different opinion than someone. (Sounds to me like some adults could profit from these programs.)

  • FIRST Lego League

This next program is for kids ages 9-14 (or 4th-8th grade). These teams are of up to 10 kids and their season is between 8-12 weeks long. The robots they build are from Legos Mindstorm kits.

These robots are fully autonomous, as Hopper puts it. Game-play takes place on a 4×8 foot sheet of plywood which has a “pre-printed map rolled out onto it”. This mat adds another degree of difficulty. There are obstacles (made out of Legos) that the robot has to interact with during the tournament. So, the robots will have “missions” they must complete (all based around a yearly theme). Their robots will have to “trip mechanisms, deliver/pick up items, bring those items back to base,” etc. In addition, the teams’ robots are built before they come to a tournament.

The soft skills that participants of FIRST began learning in FIRST Lego League Jr. are implemented even more in this program. Each group goes through a “teamwork interview”. In this interview, students have the opportunity to explain what it means to work in a group. Hopper disclosed how much she loves the teamwork aspect of FIRST. There is a motto they train the kids to live and work by; it’s something they like to call “gracious professionalism”. They even give awards out for it. I’ll quote their website because they sum it quite nice. “It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of other, and respects individuals and the community.” (Talk about something we should be teaching to everybody, huh?)

In this league, there is also a research element. Students receive a “current scientific question or problem” and are asked to invent a solution that they can allocate with the public. It is estimated anywhere between 50-100 teams, at this level, are filing for patents on the inventions they create. (Are you kidding me? When I was this age, the most I was focused on was who’s house I was having a sleepover at the next weekend.)

Hopper explained that FIRST isn’t so much about technology, but it’s more about a way of thinking (critical thinking to be exact). When given a problem, they want the kids’ minds to start churning on the most essential question: How can I solve this problem? They want to teach kids failure isn’t a bad thing; it just means you’re one step closer to finding a solution.

In joint with that, FIRST wants to show kids that technology is not just a toy or a game, but that it is a tool. A tool they can use to untangle and fix life’s most complex problems, like world hunger or global warming. They want kids to realize it isn’t just adults who can solve these big, scary problems, but that they, themselves, can create the solution.

For example, Hopper told me about a group of high schoolers, in Georgia, who designed a water filtration system. They were able to patent, package, and sell their product to underdeveloped countries. Meaning, now, clean water is more accessible to those who need it most. If you ask me, that’s a message kids need to hear: that they can change the world.

  • First Tech Challenge

This group includes children ages 12-18 (or 7th-12th grade) and they have teams composed of up to 15 kids. Instead of robots made out of Legos, imagine robots the size of a microwave with much more sophisticated and advanced technology (including motors, sensors, etc.).

These robots also require a higher programming language. FIRST believes if you give students a tangible challenge (like building a robot that uses coding and programming languages), they will become familiar with the technology. This is possible because they are learning in a “hands-on” environment. They will also become more “technology literate”, as Hopper put it, all around.

First Tech Challenge offers a new “challenge” that previous programs don’t. Teams will, now, be battling in a competition against other kids (as opposed to being judged against something like a perfect score).

They play on a field that is 12 feet by 12 feet with four robots on a field at a time (2 robots on a team). Each team attempts to win the game’s ultimate objective. The goal is to block the other team from their objectives in addition to helping their “partner” robot at the same time.

While there is no research component to this program, students are asked to keep an engineering notebook. This is because it is mandatory they “scrimmage and iterate” many times; they use the notebook to keep track of all their progress with building the robot, scrimmaging the robot, problems they might have with the robot, etc.

FIRST Tech Challenge’s season is one of the longest. It starts in September and the competitions are usually in February. When asked about the “seasons” (because it seemed like, to me, they were similar to sporting seasons) in FIRST, Hopper expressed, “We’re like a sporting event for the mind!”

  • FIRST Robotics Competition
A robot-in-action at a tournament! Photo credit: Danny Levenson

We’re at the main event, readers. Get ready for some action. OK, maybe there’s no literal action while reading this article, but the Robotics Competition is what draws most people’s attention.

FIRST Robotics Competition was the first program ever formed. It’s first competition was held in 1992. And now, FIRST North Carolina manages this program (along with FIRST Lego League Jr.).

These teams are larger, averaging around 35 students (In NC, the teams can be anywhere from 10-85 students). And these robots are no small endeavor. They can be up to 150 pounds and the kids design and program them with software that professional engineers use.

As a side note, maybe some of you are wondering (because I certainly did) about how many girls join FIRST. It’s no secret that the engineering (and even science) field is still a man’s world. However, I do have hopeful news for you. Hopper was elated to tell me last year, in NC, the high school program had 31% girl participants!

If that doesn’t seem high enough to you, you should realize the industry is between 12-18% girls. While colleges estimate to have somewhere in the mid 20% range of girls, so FIRST is crushing both of those statistics.

They strive to have that percentage go up each year. FIRST partners with organizations like Girl Scouts in order to encourage more girls to join. FIRST also sends out messages to teams that it is vital they represent their school’s or their community’s demographic (this is in regards to gender and race).

Ok, Ok, I could tell you a million side-notes about why FIRST is great, but let’s get back to the Robotics Competition.

Out of all the programs, the season for FIRST Robotics Competition is the most intense. They have a little over six weeks to build and test their robot. Then they won’t see their robot until it’s time for game-play. Each team battles in two competitions. (They will have the opportunity to go to the state and world competition, depending on their success.)

At the start of this season, teams have to set themselves up as a small business. They can have many departments in that “business” such as: a mechanical engineering department, an electrical engineering department, a computer programming department, and even departments like marketing and finance. FIRST wants students to create their own “brand” surrounding their robot (This teaches them work and real-life skills along the way.).

Participants of FIRST are not just learning “technology skills” or how to build and run a robot. They are learning skills that will go on to benefit them in their work and personal lives, as well. “The robot is the hook, but we are so much more than robots,” Hopper stated.

Do the Programs Work?

I would have been pretty confident that these programs worked just from the passion in Hopper’s eyes as she talked about the wonderful effect that FIRST has on kids.

I became certain this was an organization worth talking about when she told me the personal changes she sees in children that go through FIRST.

She painted a picture of students that walk in on the first day. Teenagers who don’t look you in the eye, who are lacking in self-confidence, and who are overall, disengaged.

Hopper then painted a different picture of the same kids, who, at tournaments come bounding up to her, shake her hand, and say, “I remember you!” Kids who can’t wait to tell anyone who will listen about the projects on which they have been working. Kids who are bursting full of freshly learned information and skills and who have passion in their eyes from what they are doing. Kids who are engaged, who are thrilled to be involved in engineering, and who are elated to be part of a team.

Ya’ll, I could stop there and it be enough to prove to you that this organization is altering the lives of kids in the most profound ways, but I do have more. (I told you to get your snacks, didn’t I?) Maybe you’re a scientific person yourself and you like proof. Cold, hard facts that have been taken from research and data. Well, you’re in luck because I have that too!

The following is from 10 years of evaluation data of FIRST participants. To see more of their research statistics and sources, please visit FIRST’s impact page here.


Statistics showing the impact of FIRST. Photo credit: FIRST’s website


Statistics showing the impact of FIRST (2). Photo credit: FIRST’s website


Statistics showing the impact of FIRST (3). Photo credit: FIRST’s website

And what’s not pictured here, but I feel is worth mentioning, is over 75% of Alumni are in a STEM field as a student or a professional.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: FIRST works and the benefits it can have on kids is unparalleled.

How Can You Get Involved?

Hopper stated to me towards the end of our interview, “It’s so much fun to know you get to touch the future.” Because that’s exactly what they’re doing. Changing the future by teaching kids they can change the world.

Hopefully after reading this article, you’re pretty fired up about this organization like I am. So, I’ll go ahead and answer the question I know you’re dying to ask. How can I get involved?

  • If you want to sign your kids up, you can go to FIRST’s website here or FIRST NC’s website here (if you live in NC) to find out which program will best suite your child. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to give them a call or shoot them an email!

If you don’t have a child, but still want to take part in FIRST, you can do a couple of things.

  • They always need mentors or coaches for teams. FIRST believes that right along with project-based learning, mentorship for the kids is crucial for their success. So, you can visit their website to pick an age group that you would like to help out. Then, you can email or call to find out more about becoming a mentor or a coach.
  • Don’t think you want quite that much responsibility? That’s okay! FIRST always needs volunteers for events. It takes a lot of time and effort to put on the tournaments and volunteers play a big role in making the magic come alive! If you want to be a part of that magic, you can email or call (Are you seeing a pattern here?) to find out what event(s) best fit your schedule!
  • If you don’t want to do either of these things, you can always go watch a tournament. Events are free, open to the public, and Hopper promises, “We are as exciting as the NCAA playoffs.” It’s a great place to go cheer on the kids or even take your own kids to help get them excited about science and engineering! Check out their website to find a tournament close to you.

Whether you’re looking to be a mentor, volunteer, donate, go to an event, or find something else you can help with, just (Can you guess what I’m about to suggest?) shoot FIRST an email or give them a phone call! Someone will be able to help you figure out the best way you can touch the future, too.

Alright, I could say more, but this does have to end somewhere.

So, is Dean Kamen creating engineers using robots? OK, maybe he isn’t creating engineers using robots, but he is creating a way for more kids to become engineers by using robots to pique their interests.

Like Hopper stated to me, “The robot is the hook…” The robot is the angle they use to get kids excited about science and engineering, about something that is real, about something that is crucial to solve the problems we have.

Maybe you remember this as a child because I certainly do. Getting told (a lot) that you can do anything you want to do, be anything you want to be and because of that you have the ability to change the world. But (and I still feel this way even as an adult sometimes), with so many options, it can be hard to know where to start.

And as a kid, you may not always feel that changing the world is possible when you’re just one person. Dean Kamen has made a way to bridge that gap between wanting to change the world and actually changing the world.

By being involved in FIRST, kids are finding real ways to change the world.

All of this is done by changing their perspective. By showing them it’s cool to be a scientist or an engineer.

And how does all that change happen? Robots.

Mimetic Pollyalloy: New Process Allows “Shapeshifting” Liquid Metals

The most famous shapeshifters, T-1001 Terminators, used “mimetic polyalloy” or liquid metal to “de-shape” or “de-form” themselves and take any shape desired. How many times would humans like transform their forefinger into us sharp metal dagger for protection?

With new cinematography a previously impossible act was now possible and now, in the real world, a new process is available that “shapeshifts” metals.

Liquids are versatile, flowing to areas of least resistance, finding their level. But metals have never acted like liquids because of their surface tension. Now through a new process that uses a liquid metal alloy, Eutectic Gallium Indium (EGaln), metal can be converted into a liquid using a 1 volt charge and formed into any shape.

The process works when electrochemical oxidation occurs providing a high level of control over liquid metal in aqueous solutions. Liquid metal is then poured or injected into molds and the flow of liquid metal can be controlled and directed using positive and negative charges.

The consistency of liquid metal can also be changed so that liquid metal fibers can be created. Again using positive and negative charges. This new technique can give engineers microfluidic control to configure metal into any desired shape.

A New Belle Epoque? The Third Industrial Revolution Will Deliver Billions Of New Jobs

The Belle Epoque from 1871 to the end of World War I in 1914 was a golden age of optimism and peace across Europe accompanied by the fast pace of change in technology and numerous scientific discoveries resulting in improved lives and the blooming of culture. The United States, with a similar experience, referred to this period as the “Gilded Age”.

Though the first industrial revolution, which began in the 18th century, had dramatically transformed society, there was little scientific underpinning to the technological developments that occurred. Concepts like chemistry, metallurgy, and thermodynamics were in their infancy. Engineering, medical technology and agriculture were also organized and more efficient but still without a strong foundation in the scientific method. Many people spent huge amounts of time and energy on “voodoo sciences” like alchemy, perpetual motion machines, etc. and as society took on a more rational way of examining the world, the revolution picked up steam.

Second Industrial Revolution

When the second industrial revolution began in the last quarter century of the 19th century, the world experienced decades of the most fruitful innovations the world had ever seen.The reason for this was the beginning of a continuous feedback loop between the sciences and technology, in which new ideas were communicated, assessed and, if valid, quickly improved upon and turned into products and services.

This went on for a century with living standards improving rapidly resulting in broad middle classes in industrialized countries. This age was not all rosy, as manufacturing was built upon new industries like chemicals which caused considerable angst and trepidation amongst the general population. In addition, people were forced to think on a larger scale than ever before, mostly based on the need to scale up manufacturing to provide products and services to mass populations. As a result, social relations changed radically. Steel, chemicals, electricity, transportation, production engineering, agriculture, food processing, new household technology and new medical procedures and equipment laid the foundation for a more prosperous and fast-paced world.

Infant mortality between 1870 in 1914 declined by 50% as more people could buy better food, live in heated dwellings, buy better clothes, find clean running water, use an improving medical care system and avoid diseases from waste and sewage.

The Demise Of The Second Industrial Revolution

The infrastructure built from the beginning of the second industrial revolution, throughout the 20th century, and in the decades leading up to today has been falling apart.

With the first major oil shocks of the 1970s, the rise of OPEC, the ongoing Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, and a series of wars in the Middle East over fossil fuel resources and their drag on the world economy, the last three decades of the 20th century revealed serious cracks in the foundation of modern society. Fortunately, these years also witnessed the emergence of new technologies, like computers and the Internet which have become new building blocks of the third industrial revolution.

Repairing the infrastructure of the second industrial revolution is not even a serious question today; the infrastructure will fundamentally change and look nothing like its predecessor.

The next century, already well under way, is seeing the emergence of faster trains and planes, space travel and exploration, huge breakthroughs in life sciences and medicine, all based on new ways of doing things, a new philosophical outlook.

Nations are now working together to solve huge mutual challenges. If the last century centered around competition between nations for survival and prosperity this new century is focused on cooperation and sustainability for all.

The Third Industrial Revolution: Sharing & Collaboration

The fundamental changes include: switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, creating small power plants for every building in the world and new energy storage technologies, replacing the electric grid with a new more efficient “energy Internet”, and transitioning from the internal combustion engine to electric and fuel-cell powered vehicles.

The Third Industrial Revolution, championed by Jeremy Rifkin, is being built by the first Internet generation and their offspring who are comfortable with sharing and collaboration over the Internet.

Previous generations tended to be “top-down” and hierarchical, whereas the Internet generation is more collegial and collaborative. At the same time every country in the world must become self-sufficient, especially energy wise, as an entry point into the world economy. Sustainable energy infrastructure in each country will allow it to provide basic services to its people, education through electronic devices and the Internet, decreasing health and political crises, and a “pass” to participate in a competitive, open and innovative world economy.

If all goes well the second half of the 21st century will see all humanity in a new Belle Epoque.

Bioastronautics And The New Robotic Space Gardeners

Harvesting the earth’s bounty, especially plants, goes back to the beginning of human history. The vast majority of humans that ever lived spent a significant amount of time on their hands and knees digging in the earth planting seeds, tending growing plants and harvesting them. Now robots, the new gardeners, are being trained to tend cherry tomatoes, pick oranges, and even pollinate plants.

Some of the projects to create “robotic farmers” are funded by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in an effort to determine how a system of robotic farms can help astronauts in the future, some of whom, it seems inevitable, will colonize nearby planets.

Robotic gardeners help plants in many ways from helping move or tilt them so that plants receive the best exposure to sunlight and watering plants as soon as they need it. These actions are carried out through the use of optical, acoustic and image processing algorithms.

At MIT Professor Daniela Rus of the Distributed Robotics Lab and students have created an urban indoor garden of plants that are cared for by a swarm of robots. The robots use the Roomba robotic floor cleaner as the platform for these new agricultural workers with eyes, arms and sensors attached to the top.

Industrial Automation Improving Engineering, Production, Logistics & Life Cycle Management

The Industrial Control & Automation market, also known as “smart manufacturing”, is expected to reach $300 billion globally by 2020 with a compounded annual growth rate of 8.50% from its 2013 level of $170 billion. The US will continue to lead but the greatest growth will occur in China, India and Brazil, according to the 2014 Report of “Industrial Controls and Factory Automation Market By Technology.”

Toward A Perfect Blend Of Components, Devices & Software

The Industrial Automation control systems market is generally divided into five product segments: DCS (Distributed Control Systems), SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), PLC (Programmable Logic Controllers), MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) and APC (Automation & Process Controls). These control systems are used in different processes and discrete industries to improve organizational efficiency and to ensure smooth system operations and minimal downtime.

As we have seen in this blog, industries including packaging, oil and gas, power, pharmaceutical, pulp and paper, automotive, aerospace and defense, chemical, and food and beverage all benefit from real-time information about the processes happening in the organization, as well as on the production floor with improvements in efficiency accruing to the bottom line.

Industrial Automation Solutions

Solutions involving industrial automation control include industrial robots and sensors as well as DCS, PLC, MES and SCADA.. As the industrial automation market expands companies are incorporating cyber security, compliance and change management into their industrial automation systems as well.

State of The Art Technology & Advanced Engineering

Adoption of the most advanced automation solutions helps companies compete in new and emerging markets such as LED manufacturing.

New fieldbus communication standards are improving the effectiveness of automation technology and new applications such as Heating Ventilation Air Condition (HVAC), Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) and new power distribution systems are leading to more widespread and successful adoption of industrial control and automation.


Inside Look at a New Robot Tuna That Could Be Used By The US Navy

Waltham-based tech firm, Boston Engineering recently received a $200,000 grant directed at commercializing it’s robot tuna which could have military applications, but is designed to secure ports, inspect ships, and locating contraband.

The robot tuna is called the BIOSwimmer, and technically is identified as a unmanned underwater vehicle, a product that could be extremely useful to the United States Navy for defense and homeland security initiatives.

Michael Rufo, director of Boston Engineering’s Advanced Systems Group, says, “Our UUV technology replicates the dynamics of biological fish to move more rapidly, more accurately, and in more challenging areas than other marine solutions.”

New Supercritical Steam World Record For Solar Plant Efficiency “Like Breaking The Sound Barrier”

Heliostat Test Facility Breaks World Record

Currently most of the world’s energy is generated using fossil fuels and we are looking for a “bridge” to 2050 when most energy can be produced via zero emission renewable resources such as the sun. At a solar thermal test plant in Newcastle, Australia, the day when the world can begin “dialing down” fossil fuels may come sooner due to recent breakthroughs in the use of “supercritical steam”.

The study was launched by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and consists of two test plants which concentrate sunlight from 600 mirrors onto receiver towers where water is heated to produce steam and run turbines.

The new plants have broken the world record for steam production, generating supercritical steam at a pressure of 23.5 megapascal (mpa) or (3,400 psi) and 1,058°F (570°C). This new development, with its combination of pressure and temperature on a large scale, means solar energy can now be converted to electricity more efficiently than ever at a cost rivaling fossil fuels.

Supercritical Steam To Revolutionize Solar Energy

Efficiency is the currency of a successful and profitable industrial operation. In the area of steam generation liquid water and vapor are formed inside a system. When water is converted to steam its volume expands 1,000 times its original volume traveling through steam pipes at over 62 miles an hour (100 km/h). This creates turbulence such as the formation of steam bubbles that significantly reduce efficiency.

Industrial operations around the world that rely on steam are seeking greater efficiency. For example the world is depending on desalination plants to provide fresh water for billions experiencing drought and water shortages. However, inefficiencies in the desalination process hamper attempts to deploy desalination more widely.

History Of Boiler Design

Beginning in Victorian times wrought-iron was used to build boilers and they were assembled using rivets. Copper took over and was used for decades but the high price of the metal made it uneconomical and cheaper materials such as steel Took its place.

In 1882 Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour discovered supercritical fluids while experimenting with sealed cannon barrels filled with fluids at high temperatures. In short, he found that supercritical fluid exhibits properties somewhere between those of gases and liquids and is considered the state most dense in potential energy. When supercritical fluids are used the total energy in a thermodynamic system is maximized.

Today, many manufacturing processes such as decaffeination of coffee, the creation of floral fragrances, the manufacture of food ingredients, pharmaceuticals, polymers, fossil and bio-fuels and microelectronics use supercritical processes. An example is the deposit of nano structure films and particles of metals onto surfaces.

In 1922, Mark Benson received a patent for a boiler design that converted water into steam at high pressure; this is now known as the Benson System. The Benson system has been used for more than a century in myriad ways with advances over time, such as improving thermal efficiency by increasing operating pressure, using new chrome and nickel-based alloys and more efficient turbines and piping systems.

Also over time steam production and storage and energy generation have become safer as early models buckled under high pressure, dislodging boiler tubes and spraying scalding hot steam and smoke and injuring occupants and firemen.

Also cast iron, used for decades was brittle and insufficient as designers sought higher pressure steam boilers.

Big Breakthrough For Renewable Solar Energy

Supercritical power plants use boilers and turbines operating at 1,075°F and improvement over subcritical plants that operate at 850°F.

Supercritical power plants can be built at a price that is just 2% higher than subcritical plants. Nearly all plants being built today use ultra efficient steam turbine technology. Finally supercritical plants operate at higher temperatures and pressures and thereby achieve higher efficiencies with significant reduction in CO2 output. Finally, current subcritical plants are being modified to operate on supercritical steam.

Tesla Motors To “Open Source” Superchanger Technology, Promote Faster Adoption Of EVs

Tesla Motors’ stated mission has been to “accelerate the adoption of sustainable transport by developing mass-market electric vehicles, as soon as possible.”

While successful by most measures, CEO Elon Musk raised the stakes again yesterday by declaring Tesla’s intention to “open source” its EV supercharger technology to help usher in the age of widespread electric vehicle adoption.

Giving Away Intellectual Property To Get “Buy In” From Auto Majors

Musk recently discussed how breaking down the “walled garden” around EV technology could soon lead to the widespread adoption of standard technical specifications and the use of Tesla technology by non-Tesla electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers.

Until now, auto manufacturers had a choice of developing their own technology, a very expensive proposition, not to mention the need for the rare bold and creative thinking and engineering talent that Tesla seems to possess in spades. The other option was licensing which the “majors” seem to balk at out of principle.

It has long been known that the insistence on proprietary technology can slow the speed of wider adoption and technological advancement. Musk’s move is obviously not the first; many companies have been giving away technology, mostly software, for decades. Musk is not a stranger to “bending the curve” as we saw in “Tesla’s Vision of Internet Connected and Monitored Electric Vehicles Causes Crisis for Auto Dealers” earlier this year on IndustryTap.

EV Battery Conundrum A Drag On Wider Adoption

Another “excuse” often cited by automobile industry analyst for the slow adoption of EVs is the lack of an adequate charging configuration. Now, manufacturers should be able to adopt a proven technology and more easily enter the manufacture of EVs.

Tesla’s “Gigafactory” project to scale up the production of its batteries, at a cost of $4-$5 billion, could easily be duplicated or multiplied if more manufacturers jump into the EV market; the same goes for expansion of its network of supercharger stations which could be opened up to serve multiple EV auto manufacturers. Current gas stations provide fossil fuel products to all types of vehicles and it is Musk’s vision to do the same for EVs.

Elon Musk, Tesla Motors
Elon Musk, Tesla Motors (Image Courtesy

Automated Structural Health Monitoring (SHM) To Benefit From $103 Billion Shale Oil & Gas Investments

The shale oil and gas boom is being touted as the “bridge” to a sustainable energy future in the US. To get the US close to 100% renewable energy will take at least until 2030 and burning coal in the interim, of which there is a vast supply in the US, would wreak havoc on the environment.

Cleaner burning natural gas from shale formations is now considered our best hope for getting to 2030 in the best shape possible. However, in order for this to occur, a huge infrastructure build-out is essential.

$23 Billion Investment Underway In Louisiana

South Africa’s former state energy and chemicals company, Sasol, is gearing up to build a 3,034 acre energy complex at the Lake Charles Chemical Complex in Westlake Louisiana. The project will be the largest industrial development project ever undertaken in the US.

Sasol’s aim is to process cheap “fracked” oil and natural gas and build up pipeline and shipping infrastructure along the Gulf Coast with an estimated $21 billion investment with an additional $2 billion chipped in by the state of Louisiana.

Sasol will “crack” natural gas into liquid ethylene which is used in plastics, paints and food packaging. The company will also convert natural gas into diesel and other fuels. Over the next decade some 66 industrial projects including fertilizer plants, boron manufacturing facilities, methanol terminals, polymer plants, ammonia factories and paper making facilities will be built in Louisiana alone.

An Additional $80 Billion In Projects In The Pipeline

The well-publicized shale oil and gas boom in the United States is expected to be so big that the current nationwide infrastructure of pipelines and processing facilities is not large enough to accommodate the expected increase in volume, calling for an additional $80 billion in projects, all of which are currently on the drawing board.

Aging Infrastructure Could Derail Shale Oil & Gas Boom

Currently, the US oil and gas pipeline infrastructure includes large sections that are decades old, with some infrastructure more than a century old. This has led to recent explosions in California and New York. This aging infrastructure is counterproductive in two ways: first, resources are lost into the environment with the expense passed on to consumers and, second, contribute to the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere.

Now companies that have been developing automated Structural Health Monitoring Systems (SHM), a combination of sensors, hardware and software, are being called on to help identify the most vulnerable infrastructure and monitor new infrastructure through strain gauges, transducers, amplifiers, measurement technology and more.

Automated SHM remotely and automatically measures vibration and wave propagation and uses a variety of methods to assess damage and structural health using sensors. Infrastructure is validated on a regular basis and the health of metallic, composite and new and aging infrastructure, at the micro and nano levels, are monitored.

Thus far most of the automated SHM methods have been applied to civil engineering infrastructure such as bridges, but it is now being increasingly applied to aerospace, energy, automobile, personal defense armor and now the shale oil and gas boom.

The $103 billion investment noted in this article is likely just a drop in the bucket when all is said and done, according to energy industry observers.

The New, Promising Business Of Capturing Clean Industrial Waste Heat

Waste Heat Recovery Power Genreation (WHRPG)

One of the most abundant and overlooked resources of industrial manufacturing processes is excess heat that is dissipated as it “seeps” into the environment. Industrial cogeneration and municipal solid waste facilities and industrial processes such as oil refining, steelmaking and glassmaking are all great sources of waste heat. Other major heat sources include machines and electrical generators.

Industrial Heat Recovery Systems

If these sources of heat can be harnessed they could reduce the need for fossil fuels and in turn reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A company called Alphabet Energy believes it can harness waste heat from power plants, industrial furnaces and even cars and thereby provide inexpensive electricity to the US grid on a large scale, while reducing carbon emissions by 500 million tons annually.

And according to Alberta Canada’s “Heartland Energy Mapping Study”, waste heat from Alberta’s industrial heartland may be enough to feed district heating systems, reducing or even eliminating the need for natural gas in surrounding communities. Similar tests are being conducted around the world.

Waste Heat Recovery
Waste Heat Recovery (Image Courtesy

Using Low Temperature Waste Heat

Waste heat of just 140° (60°C), using current technology, has an efficiency of about 6% when being converted to electricity. The technology can also harness heat from solar energy, be used to cool computers, be extracted from radar facilities, hot water generating plants and more. Waste heat can also be captured from refrigerators and combustion engines.

Scientists are also looking at relatively small sources of waste heat, such microchips and other electronic components.Thermoelectric materials are currently under development and some of the more effective materials convert heat into electricity very efficiently and could help with both small and large applications.

Technologies for thermal energy storage of waste heat for both short and long-term retention are also under development.

Other Breakthroughs

Engineers at Oregon State University have developed technology to use waste heat to run a cooling system and are using this technology to improve the energy efficiency of diesel engines.

At a coal power plant in Datteln, Germany, engineers are trans forming chemical energy into 36% to 48% electricity and the remaining 52% to 64% into waste heat.