Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bolt from the blue in the plasma lab

A mod on the underwater plasma jet experiment turned up some unexpected chemistry.

Photo by James Rotz, Michigan Engineering
It grew invisibly in the darkened laboratory, lit only by the thimbleful of plasma that glowed purple in a beaker of water. Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS) graduate student Ben Yee had turned out the lights, shaded the windows, turned off the computer monitors so that the detector would only pick up the light from the plasma. After half an hour of taking data, he turned off the plasma and turned on the lights to find that a mysterious blue jelly had taken up residence in the bottom of the beaker.

It sounds like an alternate beginning for the 1950s horror flick The Blob, but Yee isn’t worried. “I haven’t heard of any unusual deaths or missing persons in the past few days,” he said. Lifting a beaker from another trial of the experiment, he studied the algae-like green jelly at the bottom. “It seems peaceful. Family-friendly,” he added. So, Flubber’s lazy cousin?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Senior citizens behind the wheel

Older drivers get hurt worse in crashes. A Michigan Engineering professor thinks their posture and body shape may play a role. We visit the U-Mich crash lab to learn more about the study. E9XPTV3FVPB7

Crash test dummy
A mid-sized male crash test dummy prepares for a test in the
University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's sled lab.
Photo by Laura Rudich

There’s something curiously morbid about crash test dummies. They have an unnerving combination of lifeless and life-like features.

They even wear shoes in the sled lab at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute—brown oxfords for the mid-sized male model on deck for a head-on collision at 30-mph.

“We want the tests to be as realistic as possible,” explains Matt Reed, research associate professor at UMTRI and in industrial and operations engineering.

But there’s only so much Reed and his colleagues in the field can do right now. The federal government tests crash protection for adults with just two dummy sizes, an average man and a small woman. Many people don’t fall into one of these categories. So Reed is working to get a more accurate picture of American drivers and passengers.

Right now, he’s studying older drivers. He has found that they tend to fare worse than younger people in crashes of the same severity. A lot of factors are likely to blame, Reed acknowledges, but he’s zooming in on a couple that might be easier to affect—seatbelt fit and driver posture. His team is also measuring body shape with a special 3D scanner. Reed says there’s never been a systematic study like this. All summer he and his team, which includes eight engineering undergrads, are measuring people.

Friday, June 8, 2012

U-M engineers visit Japan, offer aid

From the left, Yutaka Watanabe, Ron Gilgenbach, Zhong He, and Akira Hasegawa. Watanabe and Hasegawa are professors at Tohoku University. Hasegawa explains the devastation of the tsunami in Yamamoto city.  (Photo courtesy of Yugo Ashida)

Just over a year after Japan raised the Fukushima accident to the highest rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale, three members of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS) faculty travelled to Japan to forge new relationships with some of the country’s leading engineers and energy policy-makers.

Professor Ron Gilgenbach, NERS chair, returned optimistic about recovery around Fukushima and the possibility that Michigan Engineering expertise could be of some service. He told LabLog about some of the highlights from Tokyo, the Miyagi Prefecture, and Fukushima City.

Monday, June 4, 2012

U-M radiation detectors go the distance

A contingent of the Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation Group travelled to Italy to test their detectors for catching bomb-makers.

Angera Castle of Ispra, Italy, is alright, but you should see the local nuclear laboratory. (Photo courtesy of Eric Miller)

When Professor Sara Pozzi of the U-M Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences and her team visit the idyllic town of Ispra, Italy, just south of the Alps on the shore of Lake Maggiore, they don’t come for the food or the scenery. They come for the plutonium.

Along with certain types of uranium, the US government designates plutonium as a “Special Nuclear Material” because in great enough quantities, it could be used to make a nuclear bomb. These materials are carefully controlled, and Pozzi’s Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation Group (DNNG) is trying to keep it that way. They develop detectors to spot these materials. “You would put them in airports and commercial ports of entry, where ships come in. You can imagine the difficulty of having to scan big cargo containers,” Pozzi explained.

Universities aren’t high-security sites that can keep uranium and plutonium on hand for testing detectors, so in April, Pozzi and two of her graduate students, Jennifer Dolan and Eric Miller, tested detectors at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, of the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, in Ispra.