In everyday life, the largest moving object most people are likely to encounter is probably a train. Watching a train rolling along a track, it’s hard not to be impressed with the vast amount of power needed to put what might be a mile-long string of hopper cars carrying megatons of freight into motion.
But it’s the other side of that coin — the engineering needed to keep that train under control and eventually get it to stop — that’s the subject of this gem from British Transport Films on “The Power to Stop.” On the face of it, stopping a train isn’t exactly high-technology; the technique of pressing cast-iron brake shoes against the wheels was largely unchanged in the 100 years prior to the making of this 1979 film. The interesting thing here is the discovery that the metallurgy of the iron used for brakes has a huge impact on braking efficiency and safety. And given that British Railways was going through about 3.5 million brake shoes a year at the time, anything that could make them last even a little longer could result in significant savings.
It was the safety of railway brakes, though, that led to research into how they can be improved. Noting that cast iron is brittle, prone to rapid wear, and liable to create showers of dangerous sparks, the research arm of British Railways undertook a study of the phosphorus content of the cast iron, to find the best mix for the job. They turned to an impressively energetic brake dynamometer for their tests, where it turned out that increasing the amount of the trace element greatly reduced wear and sparking while reducing braking times.
Although we’re all for safety, we have to admit that some of the rooster-tails of sparks thrown off by the low-phosphorus shoes were pretty spectacular. Still, it’s interesting to see just how much thought and effort went into optimizing something so seemingly simple. Think about that the next time you watch a train go by.
Were it not for the thin sheath of water and carbon-based life covering it, our home planet would perhaps be best known as the “Silicon World.” More than a quarter of the mass of the Earth’s crust is silicon, and together with oxygen, the silicate minerals form about 90% of the thin shell of rock that floats on the Earth’s mantle. Silicon is the bedrock of our world, and it’s literally as common as dirt.
But just because we have a lot of it doesn’t mean we have much of it in its pure form. And it’s only in its purest form that silicon becomes the stuff that brought our world into the Information Age. Elemental silicon is very rare, though, and so getting appreciable amounts of the metalloid that’s pure enough to be useful requires some pretty energy- and resource-intensive mining and refining operations. These operations use some pretty interesting chemistry and a few neat tricks, and when scaled up to industrial levels, they pose unique challenges that require some pretty clever engineering to deal with.
Ultrasonic soldering is a little-known technology that allows soldering together a variety of metals and ceramics that would not normally be possible. It requires a special ultrasonic soldering iron and solder that is not cheap or easy to get hold of, so [Ben Krasnow] of [Applied Science] made his own.
Ultrasonic soldering irons heat up like standard irons, but also require an ultrasonic transducer to create bonds to certain surfaces. [Ben] built one by silver soldering a piece of stainless steel rod (as a heat break) between the element of a standard iron and a transducer from an ultrasonic cleaner. He made his special active solder by melting all the ingredients in his vacuum induction furnace. It is similar to lead-free solder, but also contains titanium and small amounts of cerium and gallium. In the video below [Ben] goes into the working details of the technology and does some practical experimentation with various materials.
Ultrasonic soldering is used mainly for electrically bonding metals where clamping is not possible or convenient. The results are also not as neat and clean as with standard solder. We covered another DIY ultrasonic soldering iron before, but it doesn’t look like that one ever did any soldering.
Ultrasonic energy has several interesting mechanical applications that we’ve covered in the past, including ultrasonic cutting and ultrasonic welding.
When it comes to choice of metals that can be melted in the home foundry, it’s a little like [Henry Ford]’s famous quip: you can melt any metal you want, as long as it’s aluminum. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; there’s a lot you can accomplish by casting aluminum. But imagine what you could accomplish by recycling cast iron instead.
It looks like [luckygen1001] knows a thing or two about slinging hot metal around. The video below shows a fairly expansive shop and some pretty unique tools he uses to recycle cast iron; we were especially impressed with the rig he uses to handle the glowing crucibles from a respectful distance. The cast iron comes from a cheap and abundant source: car disc brake rotors. Usually available free for the asking at the local brake shop, he scores them with an angle grinder and busts them into manageable chunks with a hammer before committing them to the flames. The furnace itself is quite a thing, running on a mixture of diesel and waste motor oil and sounding for all the world like a jet engine starting up. [luckygen1001] had to play with the melt, adding lumps of ferrosilicon alloy to get a cast iron with better machining properties than the original rotors. It’s an interesting lesson in metallurgy, as well as a graphic example of how not to make a flask for molding cast iron.
Over the nearly a quarter century since the Web has been in existence, there have been various websites and projects in the field covered by Hackaday that have done the rounds and captured our attention for a while. Some have turned into major projects and products, others have collapsed spectacularly, while many have faded away and been forgotten.
It was one of those “I wonder what happened to… ” moments that prompted a search for just such a project that did the rounds a little at the start of this decade. Re-Engineering the Model A Engine is [Terry Burtz]’s project to take the Ford Model A engine from the 1920s and re-engineer it with the benefit of some upgrades to increase its longevity and reliability. The new engine would look identical to the original unit, but would feature modern metallurgy, a re-engineered crankshaft with up-to-date bearings, a pressurised lubrication system, and some cooling system modifications.
The web site has a fascinating technical description and history of the Model A engine, along with a detailed examination of the proposed upgrades. There is a long list of project updates, but sadly work stalled in 2015 due to difficulties finding an iron foundry that could cast the blocks at an affordable price. It’s a shame to see a promising project get so far and fall at this late hurdle, is it too much to hope that among the Hackaday readership there might be people in the foundry business who could advise? It’s quite likely that there would be a queue of Model A owners who would be extremely grateful.
One problem with engineering education today is a lack of experimental teaching. Oh sure you may have a project or two, but it’s not the focus of the program because it’s hard to standardize a test around. Typically sections of the field are taught in a highly focused theoretical course by a professor or graduate student with a specialization in that section. Because classes treat individual subject areas, it’s entirely possible to get a really good understanding of two pieces of the same puzzle, but never realize that they fit together to make a picture. It’s only when a freshly minted engineer gets out into the real world that they start to make the connections between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge.
This is why Carroll Smith’s book “Engineer to Win” is so good. He spent a lifetime as a practicing engineer in a field where a small failure could mean the death of a friend. So when he set out to write a book, he wrote a book that related everything needed to properly conceptualize and solve the mechanical engineering problems in his field.
One warning though; the book is not for the faint of heart. If you want to learn something difficult well, then this is book for you. Carroll skips the comforting analogies and gives the information exactly. It can get a little dense, but he makes the assumption that the reader is there to learn and, most importantly, understand. This takes work.
For example, you can’t really understand why a rolled bolt is stronger than a bolt cut on a screw machine until you understand how metal works on a crystalline level. The same goes for metal fatigue, brittle fractures, ductile failures, and all the maladies that metal can suffer. The difference between an engineer and a technician is this deep understanding. Otherwise the equations learned are just parts in a toolbox and not paint on an artist’s palette.
This is why the first half of the book is dominated by all things metallurgical. The book starts with the simple abstractions of the crystalline structures of metal. Unlike my materials class in university, it maintains a practical bend to the presentation of the information throughout the whole process. For example, it moves on to what all this practically means for metals undergoing stresses and failures before it launches into a (short) digression on how metals are made and their history.
This first half of the book touches on non-ferrous metals and their proper use as well. After that comes some of the best explanations of metal fatigue, fasteners, and metal bonding I’ve ever read. When the failure of a joint causes a mechanism to fail in a toaster that’s one thing, but when it fails in a racecar people get hurt. Carroll is very exacting in what constitutes a forgivable oversight in engineering, and what does not.
Once the book has finished conveying a working understanding of metals and fasteners it seems to fracture into a pot-luck of different racecar-related topics. During my first reading of the book I resisted this strange turn of events. For example, I didn’t really want to read about racecar plumbing in the eighties, or what kind of springs and aerofoils Carroll likes. However, when I reread those sections in a more focused manner, I realized that many of them were teaching the practical application of the knowledge learned in the previous chapters. How does the metal make a good spring? Why is one kind of plumbing better than another?
Importantly, the anecdotes at the end of the book impart an understanding of the importance of professionalism in engineering. What is the true responsibility of an engineer? He teaches not to take the trust others place in your skills for granted. He teaches to trust in the skills of others. The book teaches humility as an engineer. He shows the kind of person one can become after a lifetime of earnest study in their craft.
Thanks to reader, [Dielectric], for recommending the book to me. Also, from the bit of research I’ve done, the older motorworks edition is generally considered to have better quality reproductions of the diagrams than the newer printings of the book.