ou’re running low, and you need to refuel. No big deal, right? You pull into the nearest gas station, stop at a pump, grab a hose and in five minutes, you’re back on your way again.
Now imagine your “gas station” is 30,000 feet up in the air –
you’re refueling on the fly (literally), traveling more than 300 miles an hour
the “gas station attendant” has to drop a 20-foot hose down to your fuel tank
pumping a thousand gallons a minute
oh, and you’re doing all this over the middle of the ocean.
That’s life for Navy fighter pilots. But now, those pilots are about to get a new gas station…
(Photo from Boeing)
…Boeing’s MQ-25, a refueling drone.
The MQ-25 will be based on the Navy’s aircraft carriers – taking off (via catapult) and landing just like the fighter planes it fuels up. Now though, the gas station “attendant” isn’t 30,000 feet up in the air – she’ll be back on ship, controlling the fuel drone remotely.
In action, it’ll look something like this…
(Photo from Boeing)
In practice, it’ll mean the Navy’s fighters get an extra three to four hundred miles in the air before they have to land. And it’ll free up fighter planes that today have been repurposed to be refueling planes. All that means more protection, for longer, in the skies – that’s a good thing.
And having fuel where you need it, when you need it – that’s a good thing too: whether you’re flying an F/A 18 at 30,000 feet, or driving across town in your F-150.
True fact. They’re in every EV – every Chevy Bolt, every Toyota Prius, every Tesla anything.
Not in the form of fuel, no. In the form of high-performance, engineered polymers (a fancy way to say “modern plastics”) made from petrochemicals, which come from oil and natural gas. (And just for the record, many of those same polymers are also in non-EV cars and trucks.)
The explainers at Visual Capitalist break it down in this infographic: How Much Oil & Natural Gas are in an Electric Vehicle?
Here are a couple highlights:
Nearly half the volume of today’s cars is made up of polymeric materials, more than a thousand parts all told – which is a good thing. Today’s engineered plastics are durable and tough (carbon fiber-reinforced composites are actually stronger than the metal they replaced), and they are easier to work with (think adhesives versus welding and riveting) and easier to produce (think molding versus stamping and bending).
Some of the engineered polymers found in EVs? Just look at the interior and you’ll see dashboard components made from acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymer, which is derived from the petrochemicals ethylene, propylene, butadiene and benzene. ABS is so tough, you’ll even find it on exterior body parts.
And the shatter-proof glass to protect the dials and indicators on your dash? Believe it or not that’s polystyrene! Not like your coffee cup, but a special high-performance polystyrene (made using ethylene and benzene) that is tough and crystal clear.
Look under the hood and you’ll see a variety of gears, bearing, bushing and cams made out of polyamide (a fancy word for a family of engineered nylons). Those polyamide components start with the building blocks butadiene and benzene. Chemists take those two petrochemicals and go through a series of reactions to make bigger, more complex molecules that can be reacted to make several different polyamides.
We could go on and on, but we think you’ve got the idea. High-performance polymers are found throughout EVs; and, this trend will only continue as more and more carbon-fiber composites are used for structural components and body parts. Even NASCAR has gone in that direction! And yes, even those carbon fibers are derived from petrochemicals, namely propylene.
High-tech plastics also weigh a lot less. So that half the car volume made up of polymers? That only represents about 10 percent of the car’s weight. Less weight means better fuel economy for any car – but that weight-loss thanks to polymers is especially important with EVs, because the battery packs in those cars often add as much as an extra thousand pounds to the car.
The full infographic from Visual Capitalist is below. To view the infographic on their website, click here.
25 million kids get to school each day (and home again) on a school bus.
And how do those school buses get to school? Almost every one of them is fueled by diesel.
Yep, without the diesel fueling these buses, a lot of parents would be scrambling to get their kids to and from school about 180 days a year (your average school year).
That’s a lot to be thankful for right there (especially for the kids that don’t really have a Plan B for getting to school otherwise).
But it turns out there’s other good news about school buses.
Like this (don’t take it personally): “Students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a school bus instead of traveling by car,”* according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
And did you know about the “school bus effect?” It turns out that school buses not only help kids get to school, they help kids STAY in school. From EdSource, “Students who ride the school bus in the critical first year — kindergarten – are absent less often and have lower odds of being chronically absent, a key indicator of future academic success…”**
Not bad for a big yellow bus.
It could be that one day, very far in the future, kids will get to skip over the bus stop by strapping on their jet packs and flying off to school. And no, they will probably never step into the transporter room at home and get beamed to school (although that would make life a lot easier when they forget their homework or their lunch. Just beam over a couple of PB&Js.)
But the future – tomorrow, and as a practical matter, for years to come– is probably going to look pretty much like today. Which is to say, if your kids ride a bus to school, chances are, it’ll be running on diesel fuel. And it’ll be yellow.
Let’s say you have to go into the hospital for surgery.
Would you rather have a doctor with experience, or would you rather be your doctor’s very first surgery? Ok, that’s easy – you’d want the veteran. But now imagine that your doctor could rehearse – say the day before you go into the operating room? Even better, yes?
Now let’s make it better still. Imagine that your doctor can rehearse on you. Well, “you” – because what your doctor would be using, is a model of your heart, say. But a model of your actual heart – not a generic heart from the supply room shelf.
That’s possible now, thanks to high-tech polymers and 3-D printing. (Petrochemicals are used to make the polymers, or plastics. The 3D printer turns those plastics into replica hearts, or other parts of our bodies.)
Here’s how it would work: “Before inserting and expanding a pen-sized stent into someone’s aorta, the hose-like artery that carries our blood away from the heart, Doctor Jason Chuen, a vascular (blood vessels) surgeon at Australia’s University of Melbourne, likes to practice on the patient first. …
“He has a 3D printer in his office and brightly colored plastic aortas line his window sill [though it’s true, it looks a bit like a squid]
“… They are all modeled from real patients and printed out from CT scans, ultrasounds, and x-rays.
“’By using the model I can more easily assess that the stent is the right size and bends in exactly the right way when I deploy it,’ says Chuen.”
Think of it as a personalized dress rehearsal for surgery, but the patient only has to show up for the actual operation.
Doctor Chuen’s routine is not routine today, but this has the look of the standard operating procedure of the future, as it were.
And maybe one day, it will not only make for better surgeries – but a great souvenir too, when you get to take home your model aorta after surgery.
That’s before surgery. But plastics (polymers) and printers are making their way into the operating room as well.
For instance, how about a high-tech plastic skull? Not a toy skull for Halloween, but a replacement for damaged human bone. Done.
Earlier this year, a New Jersey man received a 3D printed, plastic skull implant, to replace skull bone damaged by infection.
Doctor Gaurav Gupta used PEEK (polyetheretherketone, which is why it’s called “PEEK”) – to create a customized cranial implant – made specifically for that patient, based on the CT scan of that patient.
As Gupta explained, “PEEK is an inert substance that does not cause an inflammatory reaction, there are no known allergies to it, and it is not rejected by the body. The implants are also impact-resistant, fracture-resistant, and do not erode or dissolve.”
And yes, the patient’s skin goes over the implant, so as the New Jersey patient put it, “I look exactly the same and feel like myself again.”
That also is happening today, though also not routinely. Yet.
Now these medical advances depend on many things, but petrochemicals, the chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas, are an essential ingredient of the plastics and other materials that 3D printers are turning into these medical miracles of the future.
Doctor Jason Chuen summed up that future this way, “I think we are moving towards a world where if you can imagine it, you will be able to print it – so we need to start imagining.”
707 horsepower. That’s what’s under the hood of the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.
Fill ‘er up with 100 octane, and you can get 840 horsepower out of a Dodge Challenger SRT Demon.
Or (if $2.5 million is burning a hole through your pocket), you could be driving a Bugatti Chiron, with 1,479 horsepower at your fingertips.
And those are all impressive engines.
Until you see this.
That’s the look of 109,000 horsepower. The biggest engine in the world.
Now it’s true, since it weighs 2,300 tons, stands 44 feet tall and is 90 feet long – you’re not going to find the Wartsila RT-flex96C in a car, any car, ever.
But what the world’s biggest engine DOES run – are ships. Some of the world’s biggest ships, naturally. Like the Emma Maersk (which actually was the world’s biggest container ship, when it was launched.)
But big as it is, inside the RT-flex 96C has a crankshaft, pistons…
…cylinders (14 of them), a diesel engine (with some tweaks) like the diesel engine in a car or a truck, running on diesel fuel (with some nautical tweaks).
So even though you’d have to look hard to find this (the Bugatti’s W16 engine)…
…next to this (the RT-flex 96C, installed on board)…
…the principles of the internal combustion engine are at work just the same, on land and sea. And they both run on diesel fuels, produced from petroleum.
Now if you’d like to see the Bugatti, or the Dodge, or the Jeep, head down to your nearest dealership. And if you can see what the Emma Maersk is up to, right now, or anytime, try VesselFinder.
(Sorry though, if you’d like to get the feel of 109,000 horsepower, you’ll have to start by applying to the Merchant Marine Academy. The Emma Maersk, unlike the cars, is not for sale.)
Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.
There are a lot of things you can do with concrete. But we’re going to guess that no matter how long your list is – cleaning the air isn’t on it.
You can add that to the list now though.
Here’s the (brief) background: Concrete is made up of three things: water, rock (or crushed rock, aka sand or gravel) and cement. And cement, it turns out, all by itself, accounts for 5 to 7 percent of CO2 (carbon dioxide). Worldwide. Every year.
So since the world uses a LOT of concrete every year (it’s the second-most used substance on the planet*) – that’s a lot of cement, a lot of CO2, and since more carbon dioxide in the air – that’s a lot of problem.
Here’s the (new) solution: a different way to make cement and concrete, that altogether reduces its “carbon footprint” by as much as 70 PERCENT.
An American company, Solidia Technologies figured out how to do it. A fuels and petrochemical company, BP, is investing in the project to bring this new technology into the real world.
The trick (well, two tricks, really) is first: making the cement at a lower temperature (and with less limestone) – which cuts greenhouse gas emissions; and second: making a concrete from that cement, which actually (and permanently) absorbs CO2 as it is hardening.
Not only is this new process a lot more friendly to the environment – this concrete is stronger and more durable. It uses a lot less water to make. And it looks pretty good too…
(Photo from BP)
…well, as concrete blocks go.
And if you figure that each year, we use enough concrete to build about 1500 of these…
(that’s Hoover Dam)…that’s not just another chip off the old (concrete) block.
*And in case you were wondering, the most-used substance is water.
Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.
On a farm, for example. “High tunnel” farming, in fact, is a new, but good thing. Think of it as a tunnel-shaped greenhouse.
(Photo of Millsap Farms, by Nate Luke Photography for Farm Talk)
So what’s the big deal about that? In a high tunnel, you can grow crops in a place, or at a time of year, when those crops don’t normally grow. So folks in Missouri, for instance, can get fresh spinach and lettuce, carrots or kale all the way up to winter time – and no, you won’t see those plants outdoors in a Midwestern winter. As one farmer put it, in some areas a high tunnel means you can be a “four-season farmer.”
This story is one of our ongoing series on The Future of Farming…
…looking at the essential part petrochemicals play in how we grow enough food for a growing world population. You can read the introduction to that series here.
Now in case you’re wondering about this story, these tunnels are also described as “hoophouses”.
That’s because these tunnel farms are made up of big plastic (PVC from ethylene) or metal hoops – with enormous plastic sheets stretched over them. Underneath, there are rows and rows of plants growing under the “sheet.”
But while the hoops are important (they hold the whole thing up), if there wasn’t something to put over them (that clear plastic sheeting), there wouldn’t be anything growing underneath. That makes those polyethylene and polycarbonate plastics (used to make the sheets) mighty important. And in turn, the building blocks of those plastics – the petrochemicals ethylene and benzene (long transformed by chemical reactions in the lab, of course, by the time they cover over a high tunnel) – that makes those petrochemicals mighty important too.
In this thriving industry, hard hats don’t just come in men’s sizes. A perpetual need for skilled workers in the fuels and petrochemical industries long ago nixed the notion that these jobs are traditionally for men. But even today, as men and women work side by side to produce the energy and products that power our world, our nation’s “better half” might not fully realize these high-paying careers are awaiting them.
One way to spread the word? Share their stories. As part of an ongoing series, join us for a look at some of the women working in today’s fuels and petrochemical plants.
Meet Dollnila Slater. First one in her family to go college. NASCAR fan (still missing Jeff Gordon). One of three African American women in her graduating class. Game of Thrones fan (missing that too). Chemical engineer, heading up one of the business teams at Motiva’s Port Arthur refinery.
Every day on her watch, Port Arthur can turn up to 630,000 barrels of crude oil — into the gasoline we use every day, along with diesel for trucks, lubricating base oils (think motor oil and lubricants for just about everything with a moving part) , and jet fuel for — well, airplanes. (And that work goes on every night too. The refinery is in production around the clock.)
So her day starts with a look at what happened during the last shift — then she plans for the new shift and their work (they are regularly called on to change the mix of what they make — a little less diesel, a little more gasoline, and so on). When that’s done, and the current shift is well underway — she moves on to a little longer-term planning (like a “turnaround” which is preparing to work around a piece of equipment that will need to go off-line for repairs or routine maintenance). And the next day, she starts that all over again.
When she began her career (she started on the production side herself, as a process engineer) — her grandfather, who worked in the steel and shipping industries, told her, “Baby, you go show them what you can do.”
And she came in knowing that she faced a challenge: she had to show the guys (because it was mostly guys) that, without being one of the guys, she could do the job. And the guys learned, yes, yes, she could.
She also learned from the guys, starting with her high school calculus teacher (she was his best student) who told her not to hold back, to go and use her abilities. During high school, she landed an internship in her senior year at a refinery and found a chemical engineer there who was her first mentor in the profession.
These days, she’s the one doing the mentoring — women on her team, women starting out in engineering and women who don’t have advanced degrees. She does a little mentoring of a different sort outside of work too — spending time with her new grandson. And that’s a plus part of her job too — work is intense, busy and some serious responsibility on her shoulders — but work doesn’t take over, and so there is time for NASCAR, for GoT, for travel — and time for family.
Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.
You won’t be alone. AAA figures that about half of us who hit the road this year for a vacation, will be traveling ON a road, somewhere in the U.S. (which adds up to more than 50 millions of us).
If you’re one of them, we’ve got a few summer driving tips for you — to get you ready, and keep you going.
BEFORE YOU HIT THE ROAD
Where the rubber meets the road —
Step one: Check the tread on your tires. You can use the “penny test” for this: put a penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head upside down. If you can see the top of his head, you need new tires.
Step two: Check the tire pressure. Use the recommended number from that sticker on the driver’s door frame (or in your owner’s manual). A lot of us drive on underinflated tires, which is not only bad for your gas mileage — in summer heat, that can spell b-l-o-w-o-u-t. If your car has a spare tire, check the pressure on that too.
Stay hydrated —
Check all the fluids in your car: your radiator should have a mix of water AND antifreeze (because in the heat, antifreeze works as coolant) — and that mix should be clean and full. Also check the oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, power steering and windshield washer fluid (and yes, if any of those are low, fill ‘em up).
I can see clearly now —
So you’ve made sure your windshield wiper fluid is topped up — now make sure your windshield wipers are working well. Winter can be hard on wiper blades, so test them out at home before you get into a summer thunderstorm and discover you can’t see.
Oh snap —
And just in case something DOES go wrong when you get out on the road, save a little room in the trunk for an emergency kit. Good to have items include: a charger for your phone (well, plus your phone), a flashlight, jumper cables, first aid kit, duct tape (for everything!), food and water, maps (in case the phone doesn’t work), blankets (for cold summer nights, depending on where you are).
As always, if you’re the mechanically-inclined type, you can do all this yourself. And if you are not, that’s what why we have mechanics. What matters is checking everything out, not who does the checking.
ON THE ROAD
I think I can, I think I can —
If you’re driving up a long hill and the temperature gauge is going up to — running the heater can help cool down the engine (though it will help heat up you — so open the windows wide).
(ok, maybe I can’t) —
But…if the warning light goes on and stays on, that’s the time to pull over and turn off the engine. The safest next step is calling for roadside help. If you’re a DIY’er, take a break first (30 minutes). Let the engine cool and NEVER EVER open the radiator cap if the engine is hot (because even with coolant, if your engine is hot, that fluid can be boiling).
Open the windows or turn up the AC? These days, it doesn’t actually make much difference to your car or your mileage — so do what’s most comfortable for you and your passengers (but odds are the AC makes for a happier car).
Stay hydrated, pt. 2 —
This time we’re talking about you, not the car. Bring plenty of drinks, and drink them! If it’s hot out there, it’s probably hot in where you are (ok, unless you’ve got the AC cranked). And if you and your crew are feeling hot and tired, pull over and take a break while you take a drink. You don’t want to be nodding off in the summer heat and glare.
Chill, pt. 2
If anybody stays in the car when the driver gets out — especially kids and pets — be careful! When the temperature outside is in the 80s, the temperature inside your car — even with a window down, can turn deadly in just a few minutes. Kids and pets also get hot faster than grown-ups, so your comfort level is not a guide to theirs.
Why We Like Road Trips
When you’re behind the wheel — you can stop when you want, where you want: that cool donut shop or barbeque joint a little off the highway — done. That Civil War battlefield or lake or art museum — no problem, when you’ve got wheels.
And in the car, you can pack what you want: bikes? Tennis racquets? Extra clothes? Gifts for family? Not a problem.
You can “pack” who you want to, too. It’s a lot easier to take a trip with the family dog, if you’re driving the family car. And seating for five is a lot cheaper in the car than at 30,000 feet. Not to mention, no baggage fees, security lines and everything else unpleasant about airports.
While on the road, you’re rarely far from a gas station — where a quick stop gets refueled and back on the road for new adventures. And in some cases (here and here) you might also find a very good place to grab a bite to eat.
Enjoy the ride this summer!
Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.
If you’ve heard people say that America doesn’t make anything anymore – that there are no good blue collar jobs anymore – here’s the answer to that: wrong, and wrong.
There are still American industries where those jobs never went anywhere – jobs that require serious skills and knowledge, but don’t necessarily require college degrees. Jobs where making things has never gone out of style – jobs where you don’t learn your trade straight out of a book — and you can find those jobs in America’s fuel and petrochemical industries.
Let’s look at an example. If you’ve ever driven by a refinery or a petrochemical plant, you’ve probably noticed all those glowing lights – like a small city…
…and there’s something to that. Inside are hundreds of structures, thousands of miles of pipe, all sorts of sophisticated equipment and advanced technology – all of it operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Also inside, keeping that “city” running are operators, technicians, environmental coordinators, maintenance workers, managers and inspectors – all making sure those pipes, equipment and technology are running smoothly.
Keeping an eye on everything, on that same 24/7 clock – are process operators. In this case, keeping an eye on their small city from high-tech control rooms, monitoring an array of screens and other sophisticated monitors which are feeding them streams of video and data – watching to see that everything goes as it should – and responding fast if anything doesn’t (you can read more about their work in Bill Laster’s story below).
Chad Harbin is a pressure equipment inspector at Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery (which is actually on the Mississippi River, in southern Illinois).
Chad started his working life after high school – with a six-year stint in the Navy. By the time he was done, he was running the power systems for the entire ship (a guided-missile frigate) – from the engines, the weapons, the navigation gear, even the kitchen.
He didn’t know it then, but that set him up nicely to be the guy in charge of keeping a refinery running safely – which at Wood River includes two fluid catalytic cracking units, two delayed coking units, hydrocracking, alkylation, naphtha and sulfur recovery (and yes, he has to know what all those things mean).
Outside, all around the facility, inspectors and gaugers, boiler operators and other workers are on the job. Overseeing and operating pumps and furnaces, compressors and valves, turning them on, adjusting them, turning them off – and monitoring everything. At times, they can even be 200 feet up in the air, on top of a tower to adjust a valve – or down on solid ground, tweaking the temperature and pressure inside a unit. And not everything an employee needs to know is in a book – paying attention to what they see, and smell, and hear can be just as essential to keeping a facility running safely and reliably.
Bill Laster is a refinery shift leader at Chevron’s El Segundo Refinery (in LA, just south of the airport).
Bill started as a trainee with Chevron, almost 40 years ago. Compared to the refinery though, he’s just a kid. El Segundo is 108 years old in 2019.
His job takes him inside “Mission Control” for the refinery – the place where they keep tabs on everything that’s going on. Inside that 38,000 square foot room – are 36 big-screen monitors, seven miles of fiber optic cable, 24 miles of communications cables and a staff that is on the job 24/7 – tracking reports from operators and inspectors out in the plant ,and data from automated censors. And his work takes him outside, all over the refinery – to see with his own eyes what’s going on, and to offer help wherever that might be needed – keeping refinery workers safe, as well as the facility’s LA neighbors.
And Bill’s leadership is especially important today because when El Segundo was built, it was almost on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and nothing else. But in today’s Los Angeles, residential neighborhoods now come right up to the refinery, and LA International Airport (which didn’t exist way back when), is also just next door.
What if today’s problems, are tomorrow’s solutions?
That appears to be the future of discarded plastic.
Today, companies in fields ranging from automotive to retail to healthcare and petrochemicals, are finding new, innovative ways to recover, recycle and reuse plastic. And for good reason.
From food storage to sports equipment to life-saving medical devices and even home energy efficiency, vast innovations in plastic made from petrochemicals are helping us live better and longer.
Emboldened by 3D printing technology, they are being used to create affordable, customized prosthetics that improve mobility for the disabled. They are printing crucial medical equipment needed in underserved areas of the world. In fact, you may soon be printing car parts using recycled plastic, in the comfort of your own garage. After all, about half of today’s cars are made from high-tech plastic (seats and seat cushions, hoods and bumpers, even drive shafts and tanks).
One day, you could be driving a freshly-printed car, on roads that came from the same plastic bottles that were broken down to make those printed parts.
Reusing today’s plastic as tomorrow’s raw material? Imagine That.
Rideshare rockets servicing near-earth resorts. Orbiting farms producing food for a growing gravity-optional population. Moon and Mars colonies. Now that so many space-based “what ifs” are poised to become “what is” there’s no better time to imagine what it all be like. And what else will come along for the ride.
Making Space for Humanity
With the first “hotel in space” slated to launch by 2021, it seems certain that travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere will become increasingly accessible. People being people that means you can also expect to see new forms of fun floating around the great beyond. Games specifically designed for no- or low-gravity? Space playgrounds for the whole family? Zero-G sports teams and leagues? Why not? After all, as they might say by 2050, “all work and no play, makes Jill a dull astronaut.”
Gravity Defying Fuels
Of course, while many of the innovations that will make this great leap possible have yet to be invented, some of the more essential keys have been with us all along. Take kerosene, for example, a rocket fuel staple from John Glenn’s pioneering flight in 1962 to the reusable boosters Space X uses today. Petrochemicals play an essential role in everything from on-board computers to space suits to, well, that far, far, away galaxy and last Jedi’s light saber.
Benefits That Return to Earth
Repurposed space technology has already made a huge difference in fields ranging from energy efficient lighting, to water purification, to, now, plastics recycling and re-use, courtesy of NASA’s “refabricator” system on board the International Space Station. What’s next? Picture commercial innovation labs built to take advantage of unique science conditions to speed the development of new medicines, technologies, and agricultural advances.
More to Explore
You see, while it might sound a bit cliché, the sky really is no longer a limit. Especially when you consider how soon human imagination, together with the right materials, will take us where no one, truly, has gone before. Imagine that.
Angels in the outfield? Not quite. On September 16 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, all eyes were on the infield – the pitcher’s mound, to be exact.
There, 8-year-old Hailey Dawson threw her final first pitch of the Major League Baseball season and completed her goal to throw the first pitch at all 30 MLB ballparks.
A personal victory, indeed, but it’s also one with a global impact. Hailey has been artfully pitching with a 3D-printed hand — made with plastics made possible by petrochemicals. Born without a right pectoral muscle, which also affects the growth of her right hand, Hailey has Poland Syndrome. She has been successfully using MLB pitching mounds across the U.S. and Canada as a platform to raise awareness about the rare birth defect.
Even more, Hailey has been giving wings to a game-changing 3D printed technology that is making prosthetics more affordable to more people worldwide.
Her “Journey to 30” began March 31 at Petco Park in San Diego, but really this story began several years ago, when Hailey’s mom, Yong Dawson, started researching prosthetics for her daughter. She wanted Hailey to be able to hold a bike’s handlebar more easily, and Hailey wanted to play baseball. Traditional prosthetics, however, cost $20,000 or more, an amount far from feasible for kids who tend outgrow the device.
Yong turned to another groundbreaking technology: the internet. There, she discovered a South African organization called Robohand, which uses 3D printing technology, along with wires, nuts, bolts and hinges, to create more affordable prosthetic hands. Robohand shares its models online so that anyone in the world can create their own prosthetics. It asks only that the models aren’t sold for a profit.
Yong, of Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, then emailed the University of Nevada Las Vegas’s (UNLV) Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering asking for assistance.
The school’s faculty leaped at the chance to help, with Brendan O’Toole, chair of the mechanical engineering department, and Mohamed Trabia, associate dean for research, graduate studies, and computing taking on the project alongside UNLV students, according to the university.
While O’Toole had previously worked with foot and ankle prosthetics, they didn’t involve 3-D printing.
“We liked the idea of a community-based design where we’re using our research and resources to help someone,” O’Toole said in a university report.
Interestingly, none of the roughly 100 Robohand concepts were a perfect fit for Hailey, so the team started from scratch and created a customized hand, “blending design ideas and materials found around the world through internet research,” the university said.
Using a Stratasys Fortus 250MC 3-D printer, the team benefited from precision printing of parts.
As UNLV’s staff described it: “In the machine, a yarn-like spool of plastic filament connects to a print head, which sprays layers of plastic just 0.007-inches thick until eventually smooth, very real-looking hand shapes form. The team chose ABS* plastic for all-weather use.”
After much refining, workable prosthetics were created for Hailey. According to an article by UNLV last year about Maria Gerardi, the UNLV graduate student credited with that refinement, each Robohand takes about a week to make – a relatively gracious timeline for a rapidly growing girl. And the cost is far lower than traditional prosthetics: “Each hand costs about $200 in supplies,” the school reports.
The process “requires a mix of biology and kinesiology know-how (to understand how the human body and muscles involved in various grasping motions work), along with math (to calculate part dimensions and build 3-D models) and engineering (to design components that are small yet thick enough to not break),” according to UNLV’s engineering department.
It’s an innovation that can be shared – and then applied – to people in need worldwide.
And it helped hurl Hailey into the Major Leagues.
Before this season, Hailey had thrown pitches at the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles and also in the fourth game of the 2017 World Series. Her story so inspired, she was invited to fulfill a dream to pitch at all 30 MLB stadiums. For each game, Hailey used a different hand to pitch with the respective team’s logo.
The large MLB stage has had a significant impact, inspiring not only baseball greats like Derek Jeter, but also helping to push the envelope on inspiring technology. Stratasys, a 3D-printing company that gave printing resources to UNLV, told the news publication SportTechie that Hailey’s Hand is “motivating advances in biomedical engineering and 3D printing around the U.S.”
Also, her story has inspired others. According to UNLV, a local Las Vegas family who heard about Hailey’s Hand in the news contacted the college, prompting UNLV engineering students to work with their daughter as well.
“There’s been so much publicity around it, and this is progressing at a rapid rate,” Jesse Roitenberg, an education segment sales leader at Stratasys, told SportTechie of the technology.
And so, indeed, there was one extra angel on the field at Angel Stadium on September 16.
Hailey’s Hand has done far more than just pitch in. It’s showed the world that anyone with the right combination of heart and desire along with the right technology and materials can do almost anything.
What does it take to make Hailey’s hand possible? It takes one brave little girl, Hailey – to wear that hand, and to wear that hand in front of 30,000 people while throwing out a first pitch. It takes a team of really smart engineers to make a working hand (and just think about how complicated your own hand is for a moment, to appreciate what a task that was).
And yet, that still isn’t enough. Imagine you only had wood, or stone, or even metal to work with. You might make a hand that LOOKS just like a hand – artists have done that for centuries. But to make a hand that WORKS like a hand – for that, you need the right material – and the team at UNLV found that in ABS plastic.
But you can’t find ABS plastic in a forest, or a field, or a mine. ABS plastic has to be made, and it’s made from petrochemicals – the chemicals that in turn, we make from petroleum and natural gas. A material that’s strong and durable and lightweight. A material that is affordable to produce and to shape (thanks to the 3D printing), which is especially important for a kid’s prosthetic, because as they grow, it needs to be replaced periodically. (And, it IS a little odd to think about, in the case of a hand, but ABS plastic is also easily recycled and reused – so no waste.)
So if we didn’t have petroleum. If we didn’t have natural gas. We wouldn’t have many of the things, and much of the materials for making things, that we take for granted in our world today. And one of those things we wouldn’t have, would be the miracle that we saw at ballparks around the country this summer.
*ABS stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene – which would be just what it’s made from: the polymers styrene and acrylonitrile, which are strong and stable; along with synthetic polybutadiene rubber, used for toughness (styrene makes it look good too). Put those three together in the lab, with a catalyst here, a catalyst there, and after a few chemical reactions, you’ve created ABS plastic.
(Which, as it turns out, is how the Rime of the Ancient Mariner actually puts it – though most of us have probably heard it as “and not a drop to drink”.)
In the poem, it’s the plight of sailors adrift in the ocean, literally on a sea of water, but suffering from thirst, because you can’t drink seawater.
But that was then (1797, to be exact).
Now we can (thanks to desalinization, taking the salt out of sea water). And that is a good thing, because now it isn’t just sailors at sea who need water – it’s hundreds of millions of us on land too – people who live in places where traditional sources of water are falling short.
But desalinization traditionally uses massive amounts of energy (which also makes it massively expensive). And that, is why even in cities by the sea, we don’t see much desalinization today.
Now comes a new technology, a membrane for filtering seawater that mimics the membrane of a living cell. This new filter doesn’t require forcing the water through it (which is what takes all that energy and costs all that money) – but still does the work of producing clean, drinkable water – straight out of the sea.
But this new membrane has another plus as well. It turns out that seawater has a lot of lithium in it, and this new process can filter out that lithium. That’s good because this is the same lithium that goes into lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries – the batteries that run laptops when they’re not plugged. Also cell phones, tablets, digital cameras, and cordless power tools (like sanders, drills, hedge trimmers). And yes, electric car batteries too. Which means, like clean drinking water, the demand for lithium is also putting pressure on the supply.
So you might say truly, this is a magic membrane, that might be the answer to two critical shortages at once. And the starting point for this magic – is toluene. Now, if you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone. Toluene is a petrochemical, made from petroleum, working quietly in the background. In this case, toluene is used in step one of a series of chemical reactions, which eventually gets us to a zeolitic imidazolate framework, which is the basis of the new membrane filter.
And that – could get us to a virtually inexhaustible source of fresh drinking water (and a lifetime supply of cellphone batteries). Guess it’s a good thing oil and water don’t mix.
You need a good breeze, of course – but there’s something else that’s essential, something that you might not associate with wind power. And that something, would be oil or natural gas. Yep. Wind power depends on the hydrocarbon.
That’s because inside those turbines are gears, axles, a generator – all sorts of moving, turning parts – and moving parts need lubrication – and lubrication means oil. Which shouldn’t be surprising. Petroleum products are in all sorts of other products, including other sources of energy.
And those moving parts? The windmill blades have been getting longer and longer, which is good for the work of catching the wind – but the only way to make blades like that, is through carbon-reinforced resins made from petrochemicals.
Wind power in the U.S. produces about 5.5% percent of our electricity these days, so long as you’ve also got the oil to keep those turbines lubricated and running (and to make those wind-catching blades).
It started with the story of a baby girl who was born with a hip problem (“hip dysplasia,”). Her “treatment,” which began at three months, involved being hung upside down so that her leg would pull out of its wrong position – something so painful, she had to be given morphine.
Next in this six month regimen, her legs were put into plaster casts, with a wooden bar from left foot to right foot, to keep her from moving. As she grew, every six weeks she went back into the hospital to have the old casts cut off, and to have new casts and a bar put on.
In the end, the outcome was successful. But not surprisingly, her dad wondered if there was something better.
Now, Ron Taylor and his colleagues at Torc2 (Coventry, England) have come up with that something better: a novel blend of petroleum-based wax and thermoplastic for casts, splints, even the connectors for prosthetic limbs.
They started with thermoplastic, because it softens when heated, but becomes solid when cool. This particular thermoplastic blend can be warmed on a person’s body, in just the spot where a cast is needed, for example. Then while it is soft, the doctor can shape it to a perfect fit. And when it cools down, that plastic cast is solid and sturdy and ready to protect that broken arm or leg.
And why the wax? Because heating thermoplastic on a person’s arm or leg might burn the skin. Blending in that wax, means the plastic can be warmed and softened at a lower temperature that is safe for patients, while still allowing it to be molded precisely to where it is needed.
These high-tech thermoplastic blends can be heated, shaped and cooled to solid, over and over again – so adjustments as a baby girl grows, for example, don’t require returning over and over again to an operating room. And reshaping, instead of replacing casts, will not only be simpler to do, it will be much less expensive for patients as well.
Thermoplastic blends make the new treatments possible, and what makes thermoplastic blends possible, are petroleum and natural.
“Ford has filed for a patent that features a motorcycle integrated into what looks like a Focus or Escort wagon. … Ford’s bike emerges from the front of the car, a la the Batmobile, to ride to whatever location comes next.”
But even if you are not a caped crusader, there are some practical benefits to the idea.
Those of us who are city-dwellers, for instance, know how hard it can be to find parking sometimes. There’s a space, at Point A – but where you want to go, is over there at Point B. No problem. Park the car at Point A – break out the motorcycle, and ride over to Point B (you can always find a place to park a bike).
And practicality aside, there’s no doubt that parking your car, “ejecting” your motorcycle and riding off (even if it’s just up the driveway) – that’s a cool way to make an entrance anywhere.
Now, there is a looooooong distance between patent and product, so who knows when, or even if, you’ll find this in your next Ford. We can hope though. (Ford calls the idea a “multimodal transportation apparatus”, by the way, so when the time comes, you’ll know what to ask for.) And it is a reminder that for all those years the car has been with us – there is still plenty of new on four wheels.
We should say though, that if your driving companion is Robin, he may be out of luck. There’s no sidecar with this bike. Well, not yet anyhow.
RoboCop. Terminator. Yeah, they’ve heard all that before.
And in fact, if you saw someone stand up, wearing one of these, heading your way, your first instinct might be to look for the nearest exit…
…but in fact, what you’d be seeing, is one of the closest things to a miracle on this earth.*
Because Paul Meyer, Dan Rose, Maria Rea or any of the other men and women who strap themselves into one of those exoskeletons, get up and walk across a room – are men and women who were told they’d never walk again.
Army Sergeant Dan Rose was on a mine-sweeping operation in Afghanistan, when a mine exploded. When he came to, he was upside down and his legs didn’t move.
When her car went off the road in rural Georgia, teacher Maria Rea was thrown seventy-five feet away, into a field, her hip and pelvis shattered, unable to walk.
Police Officer Paul Meyer was on a training exercise, when a 110-foot tree fell over on him, paralyzing him from the waist down.
And yet, now, they walk.
Once upon a time though, that would not have been possible. The severity of their injuries would probably have meant, that the only way of getting around would have been in a wheelchair. What’s changed that, is the exoskeleton – which is, in fact, a little like a skeleton you wear on the outside.
Technically, it’s a wearable “device”. It can be strapped onto, over legs, hips, torso, arms, all of the above. It isn’t like armor, because it doesn’t just sit there. But it isn’t robotic either, because it doesn’t do all the work for you. These exoskeletons have sensors and power – but they also require your “sensors” and your “power”.
There’s plenty that goes into the making of an exoskeleton. One important part are the materials made possible by petrochemicals. Petrochemicals like ethylene and butadiene.
Now if you don’t spend 9 to 5 in a lab, those names might set your head spinning a bit. So here’s how that works. From crude oil or natural gas, we can make various chemicals (“petrochemicals” like ethylene and butadiene) – from those chemicals, we can make various materials (like the ABS and polycarbonate in exoskeletons) – and from those plastics we can make, almost anything, it turns out. Like exoskeletons.
Christy Smitheran, a physical therapist who teaches people how to use the exoskeleton device, has more than one story about someone who got up and walked across a room for the first time after their accident. After they’d been told they’d never walk again. Maybe after they believed they’d never walk again. And they just cry.
That isn’t to say it’s easy. Fifteen minutes in the exoskeleton and, as Smitheran says, you’re “sweating buckets.” It’s a workout. A hard workout. But for someone who’s been told they’ll never walk again, that workout is an unimaginable gift.
But these exoskeletons are not workout machines. You put one on, so that you can walk across the room. So you can walk up, and down the stairs in your house. So you can walk outside. So you can walk in the park, on the grass. So you can walk with your kids, your sweetheart, your friends.
So that Paul Meyer could stand, raise his right hand and take the oath to receive his promotion to police sergeant, Portland Bureau of Police.
So that Dan Rose could stand for the playing of the National Anthem at the Indianapolis 500.
So that Rylie, Maria Rea’s seven-year-old daughter, could see for the first time in her young life, her mom walking.
So. Even though the word “petrochemical” sounds pretty down to earth — and certainly not the stuff dreams are made of — there are dreams in those ethylenes and butadienes. Like this one.
A wounded vet comes home from war, paralyzed, in a wheelchair – and his young niece imagines someday, taking a walk with her uncle. Now, she can.
*That particular miracle, is an exoskeleton made by ReWalk.
There has been a concerted effort across the U.S. to train young students in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which are crucial in preparing them for success and the jobs of the future.
But companies like Chevron, which provides millions of dollars annually into STEM education programs – from installing interactive STEM Zones at professional stadiums to driving a Mobile Fab Lab to elementary school campuses and community fairs — isn’t just focusing on kids, but also teachers.
As part of a broader STEM strategy, Chevron supports a program called 100Kin10, which aims to train 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years – a goal set by President Obama that was once thought impossible. However, under Harvard law graduate Talia Milgrom-Elcott, the program has raised more than $100 million and trained 40,000 STEM teachers in the last five years, according to a report in Inc.com.
Milgrom-Elcott has achieved this by creating a deep network that connects education professionals and organizations that once operated as “islands unto themselves,” Inc.com reported.
“Today, 100Kin10 has become a massive platform for collaboration that connects and empowers nearly 300 partner organizations,” according to the article. “What started out as a simple idea, is now becoming a full-fledged movement.”