Thursday, March 13, 2008


Acceleration, in the world of engineering and science, is a change in speed or direction; the rate as which change takes place. For all the sudden interest, rather belatedly one might add, in the price of oil the price is actually just following the trend of the last 7 years: it's right on track. The data for the graph is from EIA (US government), the trend line (a second order regression) is by prof pi.

The price of oil is increasing for several reasons, speculation by investors (to some extent) but most importantly, world production is flat and has been for the last three years while oil consumption by China is increasing at nearly 20% per year and India is not far behind. Very simply, more people want their part of a what is a limited supply.

Gasoline at $4 per gallon by the summer of '08 and nearly $6 by the summer of '09; unless there is a major US recession the rest of the world will buy what we don't use.

Prior to the year 2001, the price of oil had been nearly constant for almost 30 years, an entire generation.

The world has been pumping oil out of the ground for more than a century, and many of the largest, and oldest, oil fields are now in decline (as the mathematical model by M. King Hubbert would predict).

The continental US is now down to about half the rate of our best year (1970), and our production continues to decline. Cantarell in Mexico, the Alaskan North Slope, the North Sea, etc., are all in decline. For the next four years there are enough new major fields coming online to off set the decline of existing production.

After 2012, the rate at which the price of oil is increasing is going to jump dramatically. There won't be any new fields to offset the depletion of the existing fields.
The demand for oil in the years beyond 2012 will greatly exceed the supply capability of the existing oil industry, both OPEC and non-OPEC combined.

Big oil producing operations are huge engineering projects, requiring years from concept to funding and construction. Anything due to come on line in the 2013 to 2015 time frame needs to be well underway now; there simply aren't any such projects.
One of the strangest after effects of the Spitzer stupidity is that his replacement seems to be (a) aware of the peak oil problem, and (b) willing to articulate it. Difficult to imagine but some public benefit may actually arise from such folly as the last week has seen.

In the words of H. L. Mencken, "politics is the only thing that exceeds sex in which the pursuit is more costly, the pleasure is more fleeting and the position is more embarrassing." It's not clear that even one as cynical as Mencken had imagined what combining sex, politics and relentless TV coverage could wreck.

Thanks for taking a lap around the track with me, see you on the next pit stop.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Creative Failures

The world of NASCAR is an interesting sand box in which to play; it is its own little set of rules. As with most everything from the classroom world of school administrations playing in the "No Child Left Behind" sand box to auto racing playing to sponsors' marketing efforts: rules shape the entire program.

Oil Tank Box Covers
The Oil Tank in a NASCAR race vehicle is located in a fabricated metal box behind the driver's seat, as indicated in this photo taken of a model Cup car.

NASCAR appears to want a "racertainment" series based on a cult of driver fame and corporate marketing, while trying to minimize the science and engineering development of the machine, i.e., the car. "Racertainment" is a word combining "racer" and "entertainment" coined by Peter DeLorenzo, author of the most excellent website http://www.autoextremist.com/; it is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in all things about the automotive industry.

The latest NASCAR flap, oil tank box lids, typifies the result of trying to control ingenuity in a world where a better machine gathers up all of the rewards of the whole system. A faster car gets the driver to the front of the pack, more television coverage, and ultimate measure of success: more visibility for the sponsor. If there is any way to gain an advantage it will be pursued, relentlessly. Whether it is in better training and practice for pit crews, driver skills, or mechanical bits of the car itself, if there's an advantage to be gained, and the sponsor will foot the bill to pursue it, racers and engineers will work tirelessly to exploit whatever advantage is possible.
NASCAR race vehicles are strange anachronisms, the engine package used in the race cars today hasn't been used in a production car since the mid 1970's; the suspension system design largely dates back to the 1950's and the aerodynamic concept simply defies logic (any reasonably bright 12 year old could improve the under-car air flow, but improvements aren't allowed, it's the rules).

The underside of a NASCAR race vehicle is more than lumpy, it is an aerodynamic nightmare; if "aerodynamic" means making it smooth to minimize drag, the underside of a NASCAR Cup racer is a very un-aerodynamic mess.

You can approximate this by making a box with a lumpy bottom, including an indented (closed on top) pocket (the now infamous oil tank box) and holding your pretend racer out the window of your car while a friend drives along a highway.

Some considerable force is required to hold the box steady at speeds above 45 mph or so.

There's a high pressure area at the front of your wedge car, and also under the car. The pocket for the oil tank helps stall (low speed) the air under the car, creating a high pressure and diminishing the downforce on the race car.

These CFD diagrams are from the FloWorks component of SolidWorks, a software CAD program included in the FastTrack Racing Challenge kit; thanks to Marie Planchard and the SolidWorks company in supporting student design projects.

The air speed along the bottom of the car and in the Oil Tank Box is very low (this increases the local pressure, a result now commonly called the Bernoulli effect).

A simple modification, poking the indented pocket open so air can escape into the box representing the main car body, then cutting a hole in the back of your pretend racer, and surprise! it takes much less force to hold your racer steady as you're driven along the highway.

Air is vented from the high pressure area under the car to the low pressure area behind the car. This accomplishes two things, it increases the downforce on the car (giving it better traction in the corners) and secondly, it reduces the drag (air resistance) thus allowing the car to run faster with a given amount of power.

Poking the hole to open the indented cavity is the same as taking the lid off the box inside the race car which contains the oil tank.

Air is able to flow up through the Oil Tank Box into the main body of the car and out the back.
This has two effects: it reduces the drag (air resistance) of the vehicle, hence less power is required to push it through the air; and, secondly, it reduces the pressure under the car, thereby generating more downforce and improving the grip of the car on the track.

From the numbers generated here in FloWorks it sounds as if some of the numbers now circulating on various blogs and news stories about the improvement gained by the 99 car in having the lid to the Oil Tank Box "fall off" during racing are entirely credible. The 99 car may have realized as much as an additional 100 lbs of downforce (Cup cars generate about 700 lbs of downforce at race speeds), so perhaps as much as a 12% increase, with a similar reduction in drag, about 100 lbs. At the speeds of the cars in Las Vegas this would amount to a reduction of perhaps 40 hp needed to push the car, or conversely it would allow the car to run faster with the same hp.

As more than one driver has observed, very seldom do you see parts falling off of a race car where the loss of the part would diminish its performance. The loss of parts which enhance the performance of the race car is entirely a different matter.
Engineering science is now very good at analyzing parts and assemblies of parts to determine the conditions under which they will fail. Designing a couple of bolts to fail after some period of rather severe vibration (a race car going 185 mph) is not that difficult. In defense of Roush Racing the complete loss of the lid on the Oil Tank Box was most likely a real accident, it wasn't supposed to fall off entirely.
Because of the rules NASCAR has written to limit engineering creativity in large areas (changing the shape of the car, or the under-body), even more eningeering is now required to find an ever diminishing advantage in an ever smaller field of play; all of this requires still more technology and engineering dollars, not less.
Working on a race car that has hit the wall or another car during a race is an integral part of NASCAR racing.

As an engineer it would seem that one of the most fruitful areas of investigation with the new car would be to explore "creative failures:" parts of the car that can be modified under the guise of "repairs" or "fixing the car" after incidental contact with the wall or another car. The "repairs" are actually modifications, but done carefully to improve aerodynamics. Venting air from under the car is so beneficial that it's easy to suggest that this latest "lid flap" will be just the tip of the iceberg, the start of really inventive engineering: parts that bend and/or fail during racing, along with pit road "repairs," as very clever ways to improve vehicle performance.

Inspite of every effort by NASCAR to the contrary, the team with the best (and most inventive) eingeering staff will always be at the front.
Thanks for a lap around the track with me; I'll see you on the next pit stop.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Confessions of an addicted machiniac

Machiniac: one who is fascinated by the beauty of machines

and my addiction is to graphite, as it is propelled from a 0.5mm mechanical pencil

A sketch (self portrait) I did of a drawing session, sharing graphite with my youngest grandson, Cameron

As with any task, the proper tools are essential; here are a few of mine, ones that I made myself (machined on a lathe from solid pieces of aluminum bar stock).

While those pictured are my "home made" examples, my collection of mechanical pencils started with a drafting career in the late 1950's and I've been at it ever since. My collection numbers in the hundreds; many rare pencils bought on business trips to Japan and Germany, wonderful pieces of this art form that went out of production 25 years ago.

My first attempt in the art business was making hand-drawn comic books in the first grade, and selling them to my fellow students (for their lunch money); enterprise aside, my efforts were not applauded by the school, or the parents of my customers (the other 1st grade students).

My father was an engineer and when the firm he worked for bought all new drafting tables he pulled a discarded drafting table from the company dumpster and brought it home for me, so from the age of 5 on I had my own "drawing studio:" the drafting table in a corner of the basement. Math was a game I played with my dad; he gave me his old math books and a slide rule as toys. It just never dawned on me that solving square roots and Pythagorean triangles wasn't how all second graders spent Saturday afternoons with their dad.

By the sixth grade I was in serious risk of failing math; while everyone else was figuring out how to do simple division, I'd "invented" a base 36 number system (10 digits and 26 letters), made a slide rule (in my father's machine shop) that used this system and was busy doing trig problems with logarithms in my new numbering scheme. My math teacher thought I was just playing, and I most assuredly was not doing my long division homework,...let's see, 2 pages every night of problems like 18 divided by 6, etc., just wasn't holding my attention. Can't imagine why.

After a big conference at school, parents, teacher, principal, math prof from the local college, I was allowed to study math at the local college with sophomores taking trigonometry; in part because the 6th grade math teacher wouldn't allow me back in her class (I was viewed as being too disrespectful,...I suspect it was probably a fair assessment of my attitude).

Machines fascinated me; any machine, old lawnmowers, washing machines, radios, clocks, anything that had a motor of some sort and gears. My father encouraged (or indulged, depending on one's point of view) my passion by stopping along the road on the way home from work whenever he saw an old machine of any sort being discarded and would bring it home for me to "play" with it. Whatever I didn't have in reality I drew pictures of, cars especially, and cars of the 1920's and 30's seemed like the most perfect sculptures in metal, and glass that I'd ever seen.

By the 8th grade I was "fixing" lawnmower engines, "improving" them with a few modifications done in the machine shop where my dad was plant superintendent.

Mostly I "improved" them a little too much and they'd disintegrate at high speeds, running at least twice as fast as they were ever intended to operate; but the failures were spectacular: fire, and oil, and pieces of metal parts flying every where.

In retrospect, it's the stuff that makes scientists and engineers; and it's also a wonder I didn't kill either myself or any of my friends who came to watch my "experiments."

By the 10th grade I'd taught myself drafting and the rudiments of calculus because I actually wanted things to work, not just produce amusing displays when my inventions went a little off course.

Engineering was the path of least resistance for me; the math was fun, the science was fascinating. I went to what was then Carnegie Tech, in Pittsburgh, and worked in the steel mills.

There are three kinds of humans: men, women, and hot metal workers. Being around a blast furnace when it's "drilled in" is a show that overwhelms even the most eloquent and dramatic descriptions; there are few things in life that are actually beyond words, but a working blast furnace is one.

This is a small laboratory furnace, it only makes 20 tons of steel in a single heat, about 30 minutes. I'm standing on the stairs on the right side of the picture.

With insurance rules what they are now I can't take students into a steel plant and have them stand next to a blast furnace, where they suddenly realize that math and science are the ultimate pursuits of the human intellect.

But I can have them racing 1/10th scale RC cars with 90% of the thrills and excitement and very little threat of serious injury. Real problem solving holds the same enchantment no matter what the field or size of the machinery.

In the words of Richard Feynman, "it is the pleasure of finding things out."

Perhaps the greatest pleasure that life holds.

Thanks for taking a lap around the track with me; and I'll see you on the next pit stop

Why electric cars?

FastTrack Racing Challenges
and Green Volts

Producing electricity to charge a battery is the great integrating effect; there are a myriad of methods and energy sources for producing electricity. Any of them can be combined in any mix because they have a common output: DC current to charge a battery.

All bio-fuels intended for internal combustion engines (ICE’s) start with an almost insurmountable difficulty: the ICE technology developed symbiotically with the technology for refining oil. Consequently one is trying to force bio-fuels to conform to the behavior of refined crude oil (gasoline or diesel oil). Bio-fuels shoe-horned into an ICE developed for gasoline and diesel, fuels derived from crude oil, will always be at a disadvantage, they are fundamentally different compounds than gasoline and diesel fuel, and bio-fuels won’t work as well as the fuel for which the engine was designed.

A hundred years ago (1907) electric and steam cars were much preferred and outnumbered the production of gasoline powered cars. However, as roads improved and people started making longer trips the energy density of gasoline over that of batteries resulted in the first demise of the electric car. In just 30 years electric cars went from being the dominant product to non-existent.

1931 Detroit Electric

The United States and Western Europe have for a century built our entire societal structures based on the dual assumptions of individually owned vehicles run on relatively inexpensive and available gasoline or diesel fuel.
Products derived from crude oil are going to be progressively neither inexpensive nor readily available. The age of cheap oil is over.
The 2008 Detroit Car Show was a seminal event: Rick Wagoner, the chairman of General Motors acknowledged that “for some years now, the consumption of oil has outstripped supply.” Peak oil has arrived.

There are various scenarios for when “Peak Oil” arrives: the time at which we’ve extracted half of the available oil.
The Hubbert model, written in 1955 very accurately predicted the peak of oil production in the continental US (1970), predicts that world oil will peak in the 2005-2010 time frame.

The discovery of new reserves of oil, worldwide, peaked in 1960 and has declined inexorably ever since. However, explorations looking for new oil have increased every decade since 1960. Thus, the ratio of new oil discovered per exploration well drilled over the same time frame is a dramatically bleaker scenario than is shown here.

The real price (constant $) of gasoline has declined steadily from 1920 to the year 2000 (except for the Iran-Iraq war of the early 1980’s); since the year 2000 the price of gasoline has increased dramatically. At just a little over $3.00 per gallon, gasoline is now more expensive than it has ever been since the age of Model T began in 1908. This projection done in 2006 underestimated the price of gasoline in 2007 by more than 10%.

There are now two new players in the world oil drama: China and India. In 2003 China consumed one-third as much oil as the US, by 2007 it was half, at the present growth rate China will by 2012 consume as much oil as the US.
The projected price of oil based on a 30 year model (1970 to 2005) predicts an average of $90 oil by 2008, $120 by 2010 and $180 by 2015 (results in gasoline at more than $10 per gallon).

China has ten times the population of the US and they’ve just discovered that they like cars; currently less than 3% of the families in China own a car, but ownership is growing at almost 15% per year.

The demand for gasoline and diesel fuel is now growing at a rate the world has never seen before.

We cannot rebuild our cities overnight; city streets and houses on average last for more than 100 years if well maintained.
But we can change our vehicle mix; cars presently last an average about 10 years. We can start a sensible program to convert our fleet of commuter (and neighborhood errand) vehicles to smaller, more efficient, electric power.
In the US we currently average about 22 mpg for all the cars on the road (in 1925 the venerable Model T got 25 mpg); in Europe the current average is more than 35 mpg. At an average of 29 mpg the US could shut off all oil imports from OPEC countries. The most cost effective weapon we have against terrorism is to stop buying the oil that funds them.

Two technologies are now changing very rapidly; solar cells that convert sun light directly (PHV) to electricity (in terms of $/kW), and the energy density of batteries (in terms of kWhr/kg).
While utilities claim that solar power COSTS more than conventionally generated power, what matters to the consumer is the PRICE of power. Current technology solar panels installed on the roof of your home (i.e., off-grid, private, distributed power), along with a solar umbrella over your parking space at work would power a commuter car back and forth from home to work. The price would be less than half of what you’re now paying for gasoline.

A new paradigm in transportation requires marketing the concept to a new generation with a new approach: hands-on racing at the engineering model scale, so that by the time these students are adults (just 5 years) they’ll be looking for electric cars.

Thanks for taking a lap around the track with me; see you on the next pit stop.