Thoughts on the Engineering Industry

A blog covering engineering, technology and business topics

Archive for the month “August, 2014”

5 Critical Assessment Questions for Design Safety

Hello, I hope everyone is doing well.  Work has slowed down for me a bit, but I did go on a site visit recently where our firm inspected a floor structure collapse.  The collapse reminded me of the responsibility engineers have in regards to occupant/pedestrian safety and I would like to discuss some of my thoughts about that.  In this post, I will share the 5 questions that addressed to ensure a safe design.

  

1) Would you would feel safe?
The floor collapse first reminded me of a quote (written by Michael Armstrong) that I read a long time ago.  “The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”  When you design something, the safety of the occupants and other pedestrians is critical; if you don’t believe that you did everything possible to safely design the structure, then it shouldn’t be considered safe for other people to use either.
 
2) Are you qualified to make the decision?
In designing a structure, it is critical to have the necessary qualifications.  This ensures that you have practiced enough engineering and gotten enough experience in the design process.  Knowledge is important; however, just knowing how to do something does not mean you can adequately design the structure and all the parties involved can stand behind your decision from a legal perspective.  The best engineers have extensive practice and repeatedly executed the design process so that they know how to analyze the design instinctively. 
 
3) Do you have enough knowledge to make the decision?

This is similar to the previous point, but this gap in knowledge can also happen to an experienced engineer.  A design can start out being in one area of focus, but shift to another very quickly.  Or the scope of the design could not be very focused at all, and as time goes on the focus gets far more detailed which requires special education.  When this happens, it is critical that you as engineer obtain this knowledge and/or get some consultation from some one who as this knowledge.  If you don’t, it leaves doubts as to whether the design will perform as desired.
 
4) Are there unique circumstances that might make this situation different?
A design could also fail due to unique circumstances that were overlooked.  For example, you may be designing a structure that has been done a million times before but is constructed differently.  Or the structure and/or area around it could be different.  Whatever it is, these unique circumstances could change what is required for a safe design.  If these unique circumstances are overlooked, a critical check in the design process could be missed.
 
5) What is at stake if you are wrong?
Different buildings are used for different purposes.  Depending on the purpose, the cost of failure could change drastically; either in terms of pedestrian safety or the usage of the building.  To ensure that the design is safe and the community is not drastically impacted by it’s failure, the consequences of being wrong needs to be considered.
 
In my opinion, these are the 5 critical questions that need to be addressed for design safety.  What questions do you think are important for design safety?  Are there any critical questions I missed?  Thanks for your time and have a good week!
 
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Growth of the “Forgotten” Renewable Energy

Hello, I hope everyone is doing well.  Today, I would like to discuss a recent growth in geothermal energy.  Geothermal energy uses the power of water heated to steam temperatures to spin turbines that produce electricity.  Geothermal energy is sometimes described as the “forgotten” renewable because it is by far the least popular and well known renewable energy compared to wind and solar.  Furthermore, geothermal energy only produces 1% percent of electrical power worldwide according to the World Energy Outlook.  However, geothermal energy is growing as drilling for oil  and natural gas increases.  The Geothermal Energy Association reports that geothermal resources grew by about 4% to 5% recently.

Interest in the geothermal industry is growing internationally as well as domestically and international development banks are helping to finance these projects.  According to Maria Richards at SMU, “If you’re  wildcatting for geothermal, Africa is really of those parts of the world where we seem to be going…”  Large projects are also planned for Indonesia and some Central/South American countries as well as East Africa.  In addition, the Ring of Fire is a current hot spot for new production because it has high temperatures relatively close to the earth’s surfaces.

There are several benefits to the use of geothermal energy.  Compared to other electric power production methods, geothermal energy can heat and cool homes at lower temperatures.  This source can also be used to produce energy consistently 24 hours day, unlike the other renewables which are intermittent in nature.  This could also be a good alternative source of energy for countries, like Kenya and El Salvador, that rely heavily on hydroelectric energy.

However, there are disadvantages to geothermal energy as well.  Research has found that 50% to 60% of a typical geothermal drilling project is up front with a 10% to 30% chance that the drilling will be unsuccessful.  Richards sums it up best with this observation: “You can put out a meter and measure easily how much wind and solar is at a site.  You can get real data.”  But it is “much harder to understand” how much geothermal hot water is available in a certain area.

The recent developments of oil and gas have allowed for increased research in this field though.  The drilling has allowed researchers to improve data on temperature, water availability and seismic data.  Furthermore, the researchers at SMU hope to incorporate previously drilled oil and gas wells, like the Huabei oil field near Beijing, to produce small scale geothermal power.  Countries that are trying to reduce their reliance on traditional fuels are the ones pursuing this research most actively.  China is trying to increase their geothermal production to reduce their smog and ease reliance on traditional fuels for their growing population.  Munich, Germany is hoping to obtain all its heating from renewables by 2025 and plans on most of it being geothermal. It is also predicted that many more places around the Ring of Fire will develop geothermal energy faster than other locations as research continues.

I am interested to see how this industry grows with the development of this research.  It is my opinion that this energy has the potential to fill the gap that other renewables have in regards to consistent energy production.  Furthermore, the knowledge gained from oil and gas drilling, as well as the previously drilled wells, could greatly reduce the up front costs.  What is your opinion on this renewable resource? What are your predictions for the future of this industry?  Be sure to follow me and share this article if you enjoyed it.  Thanks for your time and have a good week!

Reference:

Galbraith, Kate, “Geothermal Industry Grows, With Help From Oil and Gas Drilling”, New York Times Online, July 23, 2014, http://goo.gl/ixL318 

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