Electrifying Match-Ups

I just finished reading The Last Day of Night by Graham Moore and thought it would be fun to look at photographs of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, who, more than a century ago, engaged in a nasty battle over alternating and direct current, known as the “War of Currents.”

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla Credit: Library of Congress

Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879. Supported by his own direct current electrical system, the rush to build hydroelectric plants to generate DC power in cities across the United States practically guaranteed Edison a fortune in patent royalties.

But there were limitations with DC power so Edison brought Nikola Tesla on to design a more practical form of power transmission. Tesla was a 28 years old mathematician and engineer from Serbia. Tesla told Edison the future was in AC (alternating current). When Edison dismissed his idea Tesla left Edison in 1885 and set out to raise money for his own company.

Enter industrialist George Westinghouse at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company Westinghouse who made his fortune on an air braking system, which revolutionized rail safety. Westinghouse was a believer in AC power. He bought some of Tesla’s patents and set about commercializing the system to make electric lighting more than an urban luxury service. While Tesla’s ideas and ambitions might be brushed aside, Westinghouse had both ambition and capital, and Edison immediately recognized the threat to his business.

George Westinghouse

Edison and Westinghouse knew there was room for but one American electricity system, and Edison set out to ruin Westinghouse and Tesla in a great political, legal and marketing game. Their battle played out on the front pages of newspapers and in the Supreme Court. Edison’s attempt to smear Westinghouse with the dangers of AC has precisely the opposite effect.

Despite all of Edison’s efforts, and despite his attempts to persuade General Electric otherwise, the superiority of the AC current was too much for Edison and his DC system to overcome.  For his part, Edison later admitted that he regretted not taking Tesla’s advice.

In 1893, Westinghouse was awarded the contract to light the Chicago’s World Fair bringing all the positive publicity he would need to make alternating current the industry standard.

Postcard World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893
Spectators viewing the Columbian Exposition Fair
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago lit by Westinghouse
Electrical Building at the fair exhibiting both Westinghouse Electric as well as Edison’s General Electric Company

Seeking to make long distance electric power transmission a reality, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla combined their skills and their belief in the new AC technology to build the first hydro-electric power plant in 1895 in Niagara Falls. This achievement was regarded as the unofficial end to the War of the Currents, and AC became dominant in the electric power industry.

Interior of Edward Dean Adams power station at Niagara with ten 5,000-horsepower Tesla/Westinghouse AC generators. Photo credit: The Everett Collection

In 1899 Tesla opened the Experimental Station in Colorado Springs to study the use of high-voltage, high frequency electricity in wireless power transmission. One of Tesla’s goals was to produce artificial lightning.

Tesla shown here with the Tesla spiral coil high voltage transformer, 1896.
Famous photograph of Serbian-American inventor Nicola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs around 1899. Tesla is supposedly sitting reading next to his giant high voltage generator while the machine produced huge bolts of electricity. The photo was a promotional stunt by photographer Dickenson V. Alley – a double exposure. First the machine’s huge sparks were photographed in the darkened room, then the photographic plate was exposed again with the machine off and Tesla sitting in the chair. In his Colorado Springs Notes Tesla admitted that the photo is false.

Marine Hydroids

The hydroid Ectopleura larynx is a fouling organism usually found attached to sunken ropes, floating buoys, piers, mussel shells, rocks, seaweed and the undersides of boats in the seas surrounding Great Britain and the Americas.  This organism grows in colonies that can tolerate exposed habitats and strong water currents. Sometimes called Common Flowerheads in the fish farming industry this hydroid can cause problems by reducing water flow and quality.

Hydroid Ectopleura larynx Alexander Semenov/Flickr.com

Ectopleura larynx has two distinct rings of tentacles, one around its mouth and the other at the base of the head. In between these two rings, are the gonophores, or the sexual buds.

Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the hydroid Ectopleura larynx Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library
SEM of sexual buds of hydroid Ectopleura larynx Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library
Ectopleura larynx has tentacles for defense and feeding. The chemically challenged hydroid in this image is using its tentacles to protect the sexual buds, from an external threat.  Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library

The hydroid Tubularia indivisa is also called oaten pipes. This large hydroid is also native to northeastern Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, Norwegian Sea and the English Channel.

Hydroid Tubularia indivisa Photo credit: Derek Haslam/Flickr.com
Hydroid Tubularia indivisa Credit: Buiten-Beeld/Alamy Stock Photo

The solitary polps of Hydroid Tubularia indivisa are found on dull yellow unbranched stems that reach a height of 4-6”.   The pinkish to red polps resemble flowers, having two concentric rings of tentacles, with the outer rings being paler and longer than the inner ring.

Hydroid Tubularia indivisa are preyed upon by nudibranch, another marine animal that looks like a snail without a shell.

Nudibranch feeding on Hydroid Tubularia indivisa Credit: Alexander Semenov/Flickr.com

These flower like hydroids are often considered delicate and soft. But beware. Their delicate looks belie their potent nature. They possess an armament of stinging cells equipped in their tentacles to capture and subdue prey.

(SEM) The harpoon-like nematocyst, darting from hydroid Ectopleura larynx, punctures through the hydroid wall, into the prey and releases a toxin that helps immobilize its prey..
Photo Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library



Did You Miss It?

At opposition the planet Uranus is opposite the sun and at its most visible from Earth. This year October 19th was the night to see Uranus make its debut.

Uranus at Opposition October 19, 2017 viewed from Brazil
Uranus position inside the constellation Pisces

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. Uranus’s atmosphere is similar to Jupiter’s and Saturn’s in its primary composition of hydrogen and helium, but it contains more “ices” such as water, ammonia, and methane, along with traces of other hydrocarbons. It is the coldest planetary atmosphere in the Solar System, with a minimum temperature of 49 K (−224 °C; −371 °F), and has a complex, layered cloud structure with water thought to make up the lowest clouds and methane the uppermost layer of clouds. The interior of Uranus is mainly composed of ices and rock.

Planet Uranus with its major moons, photo taken from Al Sadeem Observatory by Aldrin Gabuya.
NASA Hubble photo from 2005 showing rings around Uranus

Uranus will remain close by, those with a telescope will be able to see it throughout the entire month of October.

30th Anniversary of Bridgestone World Solar Challenge

The world’s largest solar car race began Sunday October 8th with dozens of vehicles traveling some 1,800 miles from Australia’s north coast to south coast.

2017 starting line-up

Starting in Darwin and ending in the southern city of Adelaide teams from over 30 countries take on the challenge of traversing the outback in a vehicle powered only by the power of the sun. These are arguably the most efficient electric vehicles in the world. Some teams expected to record an average speed of 90 to 100 km per hour throughout the challenge.

Students from leading international universities and technical institutes have to engineer and build a vehicle with their own hands using no more than four square meters of solar panels.  With a standard entry fee of AU $13,000 they need sponsors to back up their design. The main action will be the streamlined Challenger class — slick, single seat aerodynamic vehicles built for sustained endurance and total energy efficiency. There is also a Cruiser class, which aims to showcase solar technology for mainstream vehicles that are more practical for day-to-day use.

Once the teams have left Darwin they must travel as far as they can until 5 pm in the afternoon where they make camp in the desert where ever they happen to be. All teams must be fully self-sufficient and for all concerned it is a great adventure – many say the adventure of a lifetime.

Tokai Challenger from Japan
Solar Car Naledi from South Africa North West University

During the journey there are 7 mandatory checkpoints where observers are changed and team managers may update themselves with the latest information on the weather, and their position in the field. At checkpoints, teams can perform the most basic of maintenance only – checking and maintenance of tire pressure and cleaning of debris from the vehicle.

Huawei Sonnenwagen from Sonnenwagen Aachen E.V. in Germany

Nearly 40 teams left Darwin on Sunday but a number succumbed to issues before they left the city limits.  The race takes one week to complete.

NITech Solar Racing vehicle Horizon 17 from Japan catching afternoon sun in Daly Waters after racing on Day One (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Top three competitors at Barrow Creek left to right: Unlimited 2.0 from Western Sydney University in Australia, Tokai Challenger from Tokai University in Japan and Nuna9 from Stichting Zenith Innovations in Netherlands.

Hans Tholstrup, the founder of the 1982 World Solar Challenge, comments, “We can take a human being across a continent on just sunshine, and that is pure magic.” The technology or design used to achieve this efficiency could be further developed to be used in high performance race cars..

2017 Event Director Chris Selwood said a variety of practical uses come out of engineering these cars. One example is a Dutch team that developed a coating to make their car more aerodynamic and had the side effect that dirt won’t stick to it.

“If you applied that to a conventional car, you’d probably never have to wash it,” Selwood said. How cool would that be!




Female Polar Explorers

As I prepare for a summer vacation in Alaska, I thought it would be fun to look back at all female Arctic and Antarctic explorers.

Five women: Ann Daniels, Caroline Hamilton, Zoe Hudson, Pom Oliver, and Rosie Stancer reached the South Pole.  They planned it. organized it, trained for it, raised the funds and in November 1999 walked over 700 miles across the most inhospitable continent in the world to reach the South Pole on foot.  The first all British women’s team to do so.

South Pole team

Ann Daniels (a mother with triplets) had a dream of putting together the first women’s team to ski from land to the North geographic pole. Apart from her previous experience in a relay, Ann’s first expedition, where fresh team members were brought in on each leg, no all women’s team had completed the entire journey. In fact due to the extreme difficulty of the terrain and climate, very few expeditions had ever walked the complete distance to the pole. She asked Caroline Hamilton and Pom Oliver to join her and together they put together the M&G North Pole Expedition, spending over a year planning and training for the arduous and extreme challenge.

Caroline Hamilton, Pom Oliver and Ann Daniels in Resolute Bay, NU. Canada. Photo by Jonathan Hayward

As they set off from Ward Hunt Island their sledges weighed almost 300  pounds. Temperatures as low as –50º for the first 26 days severely hampered the expedition’s progress and success looked doubtful. The team of three girls were hit by storms so severe that they were unable to put their tent up and had to huddle under tent material for 3 days, with little food or water. On day 37 they had completed just 69 miles of the 500 mile journey.

A journey across the Arctic Ocean is fraught with difficulties. Not least the extreme temperatures in a marine environment but the very ice they skied across moved and changed constantly as the enormous power of arctic currents and wind drove the ice together and at other times cracked it wide open. They encountered huge ridges, at times 30 to 40 feet in height, thin ice, open water, rubble fields and of course the constant threat of a polar bear encounter.

They suffered from severe frostbite, back problems and carbon monoxide poisoning from contaminated fuel. After 47 hazard filled days Pom Oliver had to leave the expedition as a result of frostbite and wet gangrene, leaving Ann and Caroline over 300 miles to cover in 30 days. Although the pole looked impossible neither were willing to give up and skied for over 15 hours each day, with little sleep in between. Both fell into the ocean and had to swim across open expanses of water but their determination to succeed prevailed.

Ann Daniels (c) Martin R. Hartley
Caroline Hamilton Photo (c) North Pole 2002 Ltd.
Crossing open water in a dry suit

After 80 days on the ice, they reached the North Pole, exhausted but triumphant and planted the union jack.  They sang the national anthem terribly and celebrated with whiskey saved for the occasion.

June 2, 2002 finally there. Photo (c) North Pole 2002 Ltd.

Against all odds they had become the first all women’s team in the world to ski to both poles. A feat that has never been repeated.





The Marriage of Biology and Engineering

Bioengineering’s most visible branch is the development of medical innovations such as prosthetics and high-tech implants, but genetic, stem cell and tissue engineering are all set to become key fields in the medicine of the future.

For example, to help prep a surgeon who needed to close the hole in an infant’s heart, a biomedical robotic expert at the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington, DC created a model heart with a 3D printer. He used a mix of hard and soft plastics to replica the feel of a real heart.

A model heart created by 3D printer Photo: Carolyn Cochenour/Washington Post

In China medical doctors at the Orthopedic Hospital in Zhengzhou City created a 3D model of a dislocated spine. This allowed them to practice a complicated surgical procedure ahead of time…isolating and opening the problem area, resetting the dislocation and then screwing everything back together without damaging the patient’s actual spinal cord.

Model of a spine with a 3D-printed vertebra devise in Beijing Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

To rescue babies born with congenital breathing condition which caused their airways to collapse, the University of Michigan has customized tracheal splints made from biocompatible material.   The splints support the collapsed trachea and then get reabsorbed within two years.

Trachea splints Photo courtesy of Leisa Thompson, Photography/UNHA

Using bioengineering to create organ structures that function and restore the health of that tissue for that person, is the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine.

Scientists at Northwestern University created prosthetic ovaries for mice. The prosthetic ovaries were printed using liquid gelatin made from broken-down collagen, a natural material, which is found in ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones and skin.

A scaffold for a bioprosthetic mouse ovary 3D-printed with gelatin Photo by Kristin Samuelson

The research team built the ovaries by printing various patterns of overlapping gelatin filaments on glass slides—like building with Lincoln Logs, but on a miniature scale: Each scaffold measured just 15 by 15 millimeters. They then carefully inserted mouse follicles—spherical structures containing a growing egg surrounded by hormone-producing cells—into these “scaffolds.”

After punching out 2-millimeter circles through the scaffolds and implanting 40–50 follicles into each one, they created a “bioprosthetic” ovary. The team showed that blood vessels from each mouse infiltrated the scaffolds. This process is critical because it provides oxygen and nutrients to the follicles and allows hormones produced by the follicles to circulate in the blood stream. The result was a fully functional bio-prosthetic ovary that not only restored hormone function, but also allowed the mice to get pregnant, deliver pups and lactate after birth.

In the future ready-to-implant organs should be possible in humans with 3D bioprinting. Scientists are excited that this technique could restore function in cancer patients who have lost their fertility.

Bioengineering is also being used to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications.

Illustration of synthetic biology by Eric Proctor and Autumn Kulaga

Synthetic biology gives scientists unprecedented control of living cells at the genetic level. This field encompasses both plant and mammalian cells.

MIT biological engineers have created a programming language that allows them to rapidly design complex, DNA-encoded circuits to give new functions to living cells. The circuit runs inside a bacteria cell.   It’s like they are hacking living cells to program a new language.

Illustration of programing bacteria Image by Janet Iwasa

The MIT team plans to work on several different applications using this approach: bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in digestion of lactose; bacteria that can live on plant roots and produce insecticide if they sense the plant is under attack; and yeast that can be engineered to shut off when they are producing too many toxic byproducts in a fermentation reactor. In the future the bacteria could be programmed to release cancer drugs when encountering a tumor.

Biomedical engineering and biological programming are exciting, expanding new field of research with unlimited possibilities.




Cute but Deadly

Head-on view of caterpillar Credit: Melvyn Yeo/Science Photo Library

Most caterpillars have long hair called setae covering their bodies.  This hair act as a  defense mechanism.  The hairs often have detachable tips that will irritate would-be predators by lodging in the skin or mucous membranes.

Here are a trio to avoid: the puss caterpillar, the hickory tussock caterpillar and the io moth caterpillar.

The most venomous caterpillar in the United States, the puss caterpillar, got its name because it resembles a cuddly house cat. Small, extremely toxic spines stick in your skin releasing venom. At first the sting feels like a bee sting, only worse. The pain rapidly gets worse and can even make your bones hurt. People who have been stung on the hand say the pain can radiate up to their shoulder and last for up to 12 hours.

Furry puss caterpillar feeding. Photo by Caterpillar hunter/Flickr

One dapper critter called the hickory tussock caterpillar has a velvety back and sweeping bristles.  It looks more like a vintage feather boa than a caterpillar and is widely distributed in the eastern half of North America.

Hickory tussock caterpillar Photo by Greg Dwyer/Wikipeida Commons.

Some people have little to no reaction to the hickory tussock’s sting, but others have a reaction that ranges from a mild to severe rash comparable to poison ivy.   It’s microscopic barbs may cause serious medial complications if they are transferred from the hands to the eyes.   The adult moth flies away in May and June.

Caterpillars have to eat a lot. Within a few weeks of devouring as much greenery as physically possible, an io caterpillar can go from being a half-inch-long worm to a nearly three-inch-long monstrosity, brilliant green with red and white racing stripes  like the Io mother caterpillar:

Io moth caterpillar. Photo by Tim Lethbridge

Io caterpillars are indeed capable, and more than willing, to deliver a painful sting. If you brush up against these spines, the tips will break off and start to inject venom.

So what do you do if you get stung by any of these toxic caterpillars? Place Scotch tape over the affected area and strip off repeatedly to remove spines. Apply ice packs to reduce the stinging sensation, and follow with a paste of baking soda and water. If you have a history of hay fever, asthma or allergy, or if allergic reactions develop, contact a physician immediately.