Yet Another Engineering Marvel

I am late on the bandwagon, but I recently read in greater detail about the new Maglev train technology, and I can safely say that I am simply marvelled.

Maglev (short for magnetic levitation) trains could truly revolutionise transportation of the 21st century, using the basic principles of magnets and electromagnetic propulsion. There are three components to the system: a large electrical power source, metal coils lining a track/guideway, and large guidance magnets attached to the underside of the train. The magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the walls and the track combine to propel the train. (Side note: Japanese engineers are actually developing a technology called an electrodynamic suspension system, which is based on the repelling force of superconducting magnets, therefore eliminating the need for a power supply. It remains expensive as of now, but looks promising.)

A huge advantage of these trains (apart from higher speeds and low maintenance costs)? The positive environmental impact. Indeed, they lack engines, thus eliminate the need/use of fossil fuels.

The first commercial maglev train made its test debut in Shanghai, China, in 2002. The Shanghai Transrapid line currently runs to and from the Longyang Road station at the city’s center and the Pudong airport. Traveling at an average speed of 430 km per hour, the 30 km journey takes less than 10 minutes on the train (as opposed to an hour-long taxi ride!).

Right now, the best maglev train reaches speeds exceeding 400 kilometres per hour. But Deng Zigang, a professor at Southwest Jiaotong University in China believes that these trains can go even faster (as if that wasn’t fast enough already!). Indeed, much of the energy used to propel the train is wasted battling air resistance. Thus, by placing a maglev train inside a vacuum tube, we could virtually eliminate speed’s worst enemy and allow the train to rocket along guideways at 3,000 km per hour.

Just when we feel like we’ve seen/invented it all, new engineering marvels arise. I am exited to see what the future holds for this train technology.

(Source: IEEE Spectrum July 2014 issue)

Saving Electricity at McGill – Saving the Planet?

In 1850, William Gladstone asked the scientist Michael Faraday why electricity was valuable. Faraday answered, “One day, sir, you may tax it.”

Indeed, electricity has become such a fundamental part of modern society. We use it for almost everything we do: from lighting up this classroom, to charging our phones, to sharing this powerpoint presentation with you.

But what many fail to see is that the generation of electricity has become so widespread that its environmental impact is simply not negligible anymore. Most electricity today is generated at power plants that convert some other kind of energy into electrical power. Each system has advantages and disadvantages, but ultimately, many of them pose environmental concerns.

Indeed, the majority of our electricity production is based on burning fossil fuels to produce steam, which is then used to drive a turbine that, in turn, drives an electrical generator.  In addition to being harmful to the environment, these are non-renewable and limited sources of energy on earth, so we must consume electricity in a conscientious and sustainable way in order to ensure our energy supply in the long term – for ourselves but also for future generations. Additionally, as Faraday predicted, electricity, and most importantly energy, is not free. The electricity bills add up, and the longer we leave our lights turned on for nothing, the more money we waste.

Hence, even a small amount of saved electricity can have a large positive impact on our environment, and at McGill in particular.

So what’s the solution? Taking it one step at a time. Starting small. The goal is to promote sustainability at McGill, and we can do so by installing automatic, motion sensor lighting in as many campus buildings as possible. The Schulich Library has already jumped onto the energy-saving bandwagon by installing such automatic lighting, but many buildings have yet to catch up, such as the Birks building.

McGill’s Birks building comprises four floors and is mostly used by the facilities staff and students of McGill University. It consists of classrooms, offices, hallways, staircases, a library and washrooms, as well as a chapel. The lights in the building are kept on for around 10 to 12 hours per day, 5 days a week.

Ultimately, these lights do not need to be turned on consistently for that entire period of time whilst a classroom is not in use, or whilst a staff member is not in his/her office. Similarly, lights in the staircases need not to be switched on when not in use. We have consulted with students and staff of the building and they informed us that the lights remain turned on in between classes, and are only rarely switched off if someone walks by and notices. Likewise, lights in the washrooms are kept on for a stretch of 10 to 12 hours per day even when they are not in use, ultimately resulting in an evident loss of energy.

Moreover, even smaller instances that we look over also have an impact on the consumption of energy. For instance, staff working in their offices may forget to turn off their lights before leaving for lunch. Furthermore, a massive amount is spent on lighting up the library and the staircases alone due to their sheer size.

Therefore, I believe that the installation of motion sensor lighting is the solution to all the problems mentioned above. After using the equation E = P*t, one can calculate that motion sensor automatic lighting can save an estimated 23,351 kWh of electrical energy per year – about 50% of its total energy consumption – as well as over $1,400 per year, assuming that electricity costs 6 cents per kWh.

Perhaps it is worth looking into… saving the planet is ultimately done one step at a time!

Women in Engineering – Inspiring the Next Generation

Close your eyes and picture an engineer. What do you see? A man in a suit? A young lad in a hoodie? A train driver?

Or do you picture a woman?

When a female such as myself enrols in college and selects a major such as engineering, the reactions she hears range from “Really? I would never have thought so” to “Wow, you must be REALLY smart!”

Indeed, the persistent bias towards women in male dominated fields can be damaging to one’s self-confidence, and self-confidence is something that one needs in order to tackle the growing responsibility as we advance in our careers. Maintaining confidence is crucial to success. However, finding this inner strength becomes a challenge when anatomy determines whether you are taken seriously. Because I am female, I know that I automatically have to prove my worth in such a field. And this is the core of the problem that we face today.

There is no easy way to explain why more women are not encouraged to follow these career paths. I took physics on a whim in high school out of simple curiosity, but had the sheer luck of falling in love with the subject. The difficulty but ability of physics to explain so many things around me – yet with so much left to discover – left me thirsty for more. However, I was perplexed as to why I had never even considered a career in engineering until then; was it because I had never heard of a female engineer on the news? Was it because there was a total of around 7 girls out of 30 in my physics class?

This feeling of perplexity never left me, but I brushed it off. It was not until an exchange I had during a college interview that this nagging feeling came back in full-force. The alumna (who was a successful businesswoman) hit me with the hardest question I’ve ever had to answer in my entire life: “Why do you suppose there are more men than women in the domains of economics, engineering, and math?” I was left speechless.

So I did some research and I began self-reflecting. I read up on the (lack of) women who had received Nobel Prizes throughout history – how in 2012, apart from the European Union, all of the Nobel laureates were men. How, to date, only 43 women have been awarded a Nobel Prize out of 862 people and organisations who have been named laureates. Why? Because three of the prizes are for science. Women faced endless barriers to entering higher education, with no access to labs, no connections, and few opportunities. That was my first clue – opportunity. So my quest to answering my interviewer’s question continued. Books such as “Who Succeeds In Science? The Gender Dimension” by Gerhard Sonnert have furthered my research, categorising the answer to such a question into two models: the deficit model (women are treated differently in science), and the difference model (women act differently in science).

It wasn’t until I saw this advertisement that I began to connect the dots:

The concept of selling engineering/building toys to girls (with the purpose of increasing their confidence in problem-solving and introducing them to engineering) made it so clear to me that the problem lay in social norms and in a culture that has been created over time. And one way to progress is to educate our daughters differently. When one walks through a girls’ toy aisle, it is pink and full of barbies, princesses and dolls. The legos sold to girls are a feminized spin-off, featuring pink and purple blocks, and characters that do things like sit at home or run a bakery. We are taught implicitly from a very young age that our goal is to become princesses and/or mothers. I myself loved playing with barbies and other typically girly toys, but I equally loved playing with my brother’s train tracks and legos. It was thanks to him that I was exposed to such toys (that were not gifted to me because I was a girl). And the contrary holds true too – he often came to play barbies with me. With the nature vs. nurture debate aside, there is no doubt that advertisers have capitalised on gender preferences, steering each gender to their specified section and ultimately broadcasting a more general message regarding gender roles and expectations in society. Identity becomes ideology.

So maybe there are millions of girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet. Is it time to “disrupt the pink aisle”?

Progress is being made and times are changing – as my grandmother says, “you don’t give us enough credit, we couldn’t even vote a few years ago!” I therefore try to avoid thinking negatively about the male-female ratio, because ultimately, I believe that it’s all about doing what you love.

So if finding what you love depends on the opportunities presented to you, would you buy your daughter legos?