I recently wrote on the mechatronic challenge of wind power. Converting wind into mechanical power that can be harnessed for man’s use has been going on since the 9th Century according to Persian historians. Certainly wind powered grinding of grains has been around in Europe for several centuries and, lest we forget, wind power pumping of water in the United States. So there is some irony to the cultural “buzz” about wind power at home and abroad, as if the technology were entirely new. There’s a lot of history, we’re just updating the technology to produce energy in the age of electricity.
Water has been used for power generation as well. Following a similar path, we learned during the early part of the industrial revolution how to locate manufacturing plants near waterways so we could convert water flow into mechanical power using the water wheel. This is, in fact the root of all modern motion control. All the belts and pulleys, cams, gear reduction systems follow from the work done in mechanical engineering from this period of time. All of the electronic analogs of the mechanical behaviors found in mechanical systems are the functions which we refer to in mechatronics today.
Wind power and water power gave way in the 1800’s to steam power as the improved steam engine of Watt became the standard of energy efficiency, or should I say “cost effectiveness”. Because the absolute value of technology is in its cost effectiveness.
Still, wind energy poses a huge technology challenge, as witnessed by the number of vairations that exist and new versions that are emerging. And hopefully improvements will continue to come from the creativity and imagination of engineers and inventors all over the world.
But what are the other big mechatronic challenges that come to mind?
Transportation certainly ranks in the top 10. We have seen hydraulic, pneumatic and electric vehicle solutions touted for a variety of uses, personal transport, delivery vehicles etc. Ballard Energy and General Motors have both been building hybrid and pure electric buses for city transportation systems for several years with some success. Interestingly, the electric bus is easier to engineer, which seems unreasonable, but the bus has more interior space to put things like batteries and a methanol converter for generating hydrogen for fuel cells.
But there is a great lesson in what appears to be an almost chaotic string of choices in the transportation arena. One solution will not work for all requirements. There are many people for whom a 40 mile per day drive cycle is perfect. The NEV, Neighborhhod Electric Vehicle, is a golf cart type solution that is rated for street usage, and because of its relatively simple performance requirements, is relatively easy to achieve and lowe cost. As we categorize cars with greater range, the problems get more difficult, and because of the storage limitations of batteries, have only been achievable as hybrids. But with some hybrid designs reaching 50 and 60 mpg (estimated), these vehicles may be great solutions for other users. Although, we must consider their cost effectiveness. If they cannot be introduced at prices well below $50,000 the absolute value of the technology is not very good.
So forget the 15 second soundbyte that will solve the world’s problems. It doesn’t presently exist.
I would like to hear from any readers about their picks for the Top Ten Mechatronic Challenge.