The “caterpillar drive” in The Hunt for Red October allowed the sub to travel virtually undetected through the ocean, but real examples of magnetohydrodynamic drives (MHDs) are rare. The US Navy’s recently announced Principles of Undersea Magnetohydrodynamic Pumps (PUMP) intends to jump-start the technology for a new era.
Dating back to the 1960s, research on MHDs has been stymied by lower efficiencies when compared with driving a propeller from the same power source. In 1992 the Japanese Yamato-1 prototype, pictured at the top of the page, was able to hit a blistering 6.6 knots (that’s 12 kph or 7.4 mph for you landlubbers) with a 4 Tesla liquid helium-cooled MHD. Recent advances courtesy of fusion research have resulted in magnets capable of generating fields up to 20 Telsa, which should provide a considerable performance boost.
The new PUMP program will endeavor to find solutions for more robust electrode materials that can survive the high currents, magnetic fields, and seawater in a marine environment. If successful, ships using the technology would be both sneakier and more environmentally friendly. While you just missed the Proposers Day, there is more information about getting involved in the project here.
OK, you’re going to have to engage your safety squints and sit back to enjoy this one: a classic bit of safety propaganda from US heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar from 1980 entitled “Shake Hands with Danger.”
Actually, you’ll probably need to engage your schlock filters for this 23-minute film too, as both the writing and the theme song are pretty hard to take. The film is one of those “Scared Straight” attempts to show just how horrifically wrong things can go both in the field and in the shop when working on anything made of stuff stronger than human flesh and bone. And in that regard, the film is highly effective — we found ourselves getting a bit queasy at a few points, with the poor dude who got his hand sucked into a bench grinder being both terrifying and relatable. [Three-Finger Joe] indeed.
Now, you might take exception with the acting, but as you watch all these vignettes, keep in mind that these are all old-school stunts — that’s actually a gigantic D9 bulldozer they crashed, and that brake chamber explosion really blew out that truck’s windows. They did a great job making the potential consequences of a moment’s thoughtlessness sickeningly vivid. Especially that arm-in-the-linkages scene. Ugh.
Whatever way you practice the hacking arts, stay safe out there. And don’t “Shake Hands with Danger.”
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Shake Hands With Danger”
[Tom Clancy]’s The Hunt For Red October is a riveting tale of a high-level Soviet defector, a cunning young intelligence analyst, a chase across the North Atlantic, and a new submarine powered by a secret stealth ‘caterpillar’ drive. Of course there weren’t a whole lot of technical details in the book, but the basic idea of this propulsion system was a magnetohydrodynamic drive. Put salt water in a tube, wrap a coil of wire around the tube, run some current through the wire, and the water spits out the back. Yes, this is a real propulsion system, and there was a prototype ferry in Japan that used the technology, but really the whole idea of a caterpillar drive is just a weird footnote in the history of propulsion.
This project for the Hackaday Prize is probably the closest we’re going to see to a caterpillar drive, and it can do it on a small remote-controlled boat. Instead of forcing water out of the back of a tube with the help of magic pixies, it’s doing it with a piston. It’s a drive for a solar boat race, and if you look at the cutaway view, it does, indeed, look like a caterpillar.
Instead of pushing water through a tube by pushing water through a magnetic field, this drive system is something like a linear motor, moving a piston back and forth. The piston contains a valve, and when the piston moves one way, it sucks water in. When the piston moves in the opposite direction, it pushes water out.
The goal of this project is to compete against other solar powered remote-controlled boats. Of course, most of the other boats are using a DC motor and a propeller. This is a weird one, though, and we’re very interested in seeing how the production version will work.
Outlawed now in some places, or only available to tote your purchases at a ridiculous premium, the billions of “T-shirt” bags used every year present a serious waste management problem. Whether blowing across the landscape like synthetic tumbleweeds, floating in the ocean as ersatz jellyfish, or clogging up municipal waste streams, finding a way to deal with them could really make a difference. And finding a bug that eats polyethylene and poops antifreeze might be a great first step in bioremediating the mess.
As with many scientific discoveries, learning about the useful and unexpected eating habits of the larval stage of the Greater Wax Moth Galleria mellonella can be chalked up to serendipity. It began when biochemist [Federica Bertocchini] cleaned a wax moth infestation from her beehive. She put the beeswax-loving pests in a plastic bag, later finding they had chewed their way out. Intrigued, she and [Paolo Bombelli] ran some experiments using the bugs. They showed the mechanism wasn’t just mechanical and that the worms were digesting the polyethylene, to the tune of 92 mg consumed for 100 worms in 12 hours. That’s about 1,000 times faster than bioremediation with bacteria.
Furthermore, the bugs excrete ethylene glycol, a useful industrial chemical, in the process. Finally, to see if the process can scale, the researchers showed that a homogenate of wax moth larvae could digest PE sheets. This could lead to an industrial process if the enzymes involved can be isolated and engineered. The letter describing the process is a fascinating read.
While this one may not a classically hackish way to deal with plastic recycling, the potential for this method is huge. We look forward to seeing where this goes.
[Images: César Hernández/CSIC]