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Predictions for
21st century engineering

Satellites will improve agriculture,
resource management

You can think of it as micromanagement from the heavens. Global positioning systems, says Bernie Engel, a Purdue professor in agricultural and biological engineering, use satellite signals to help determine where we're at on the ground. When used with geographical information systems, these systems can provide a tremendous amount of detail about soil, air and other spatially varying parameters.

Engel says site-specific agriculture is already heading in that direction. So rather than viewing a 40-acre field as a whole, it can be examined on a scale of acres or even square feet. By combining various data about soils, for example, farmers can predict where they may need to apply fertilizer or pesticide or where they're likely to have an erosion problem. Computers will also suggest specific, appropriate action. "There are lots of implications in agriculture and natural resources management," Engel says. "Forests, grasslands and ranges can be monitored this way, too."

CONTACT: Bernie Engel, (765) 494-1198,

Boutique materials will become available
in lot sizes of one

The era of "boutique materials" is nearly upon us, says Arden Bement, a distinguished professor of materials engineering and the head of Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering. These specialty materials -- having unique combinations of components, arbitrary shapes, and singular sets of properties -- will become economically feasible in a lot size of a single part as deposition processes and computer modeling continue to advance, making possible the rapid prototyping of new materials.

"These advances not only will open up new markets for exotic materials," says Bement, "but will also facilitate cloning or replacing existing parts made of mundane engineering materials." Many of these new materials would combine silicon, ceramic and metals. And advances in new patterning techniques will reduce the scale of structural engineering to nanometers. "Applied mechanics will merge with materials science and engineering to design new ways of combining -- on the scale of viruses and bacteria -- materials that are normally incompatible," says Bement. As a result, materials that have in the past only had to support a load or fill a space will do double duty as micromechanical devices that will provide refrigeration, generate power, and control and regulate processes. Other possible applications are artificial eyes, ears and smelling organs and self-regulating prosthetic devices that can monitor the condition of a patient.

CONTACT: Arden Bement, (765) 494-5742,

Water will replace transmission oil

Its abundance, environmental friendliness and economic soundness make water a sure-fire bet to be a driving source of 21st century transmissions, says Gary Krutz, a Purdue professor in agricultural and biological engineering. Certainly news reports of "water spills" on freeways or at sea would cause no alarm.

Krutz, director of Purdue's Electrohydraulics Center, looks at the H2O practices of the food and beverage industry -- already in place -- to learn how we can make "smart parts" for vehicle transmissions that run on a combination of water and alcohol. Replacing oil with water offers a real energy and financial savings, he says.

Krutz says he believes that lightweight, high-density polymers in plastics and ceramics will continue to evolve, opening the floodgates for the days of water-hydraulic-driven power. Traditional parts suffer from rust and freezing conditions when working with water, so the advances depend on those material changes. European companies are already addressing these challenges. "Another major push might come from the shipping industry," Krutz says. "Water hydraulic systems instead of oil hydraulic systems would eliminate the need for carrying oil out to sea, thus reducing shipboard mechanical oil spills at sea. And there are applications that could allow a ship to utilize the sea water that surrounds it."

CONTACT: Gary Krutz, (765) 494-1179,

Ethics will play greater roles
in engineering education, energy use

"From the Industrial Revolution until the middle of this century, technology was viewed positively and equated with progress," says Normand Laurendeau, Purdue's Reilly Professor of Combustion Engineering. "Since the 1960s, technology has often been viewed negatively, especially with respect to its effects on the environment. In addition, technology has often been viewed as an autonomous force." He says people are now abandoning this "naive" point of view and demanding that technology be brought under control. From a market perspective, public demand will drive industry to design and manufacture products with more than profit in mind. In turn, industry will look for engineers who think in terms of ethics: technology's impact on its users.

Laurendeau also expects ethical questions about energy to gain urgency in the future. "As we develop new sources of energy to replace fossil fuels, and as the costs of these new energy sources increase," he says, "questions will arise: How can we prevent energy costs from further dividing the poor and the rich in our society? What political and tax structures will be needed to ensure access to energy from all sectors of our society? Will engineers be working only for the wealthy, or can they continue to provide leverage so as to maintain the great middle class that has been so characteristic of U.S. socioeconomics?"

CONTACT: Normand Laurendeau, (765) 494-2713,

U.S. will build 'intelligent highway network'
to separate trucks and cars

Kumares Sinha, Purdue's Olson Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, says "intelligent highways" will be necessary "to relieve the untenable situation in many corridors" -- such as the Borman Expressway in northern Indiana, the focus of much of his recent research. "On some routes, trucks account for 30 percent to 40 percent of the traffic," says Sinha, director of the university's Joint Transportation Research Program. "Sometimes it seems like wall-to-wall trucks." And a single heavy truck can require as much road space as six cars and cause 1,000 times as much wear and tear as a car.

Sinha envisions an exclusive truckway network with built-in computer-based intelligence that will increase the efficiency of the trucking industry. "It will be controlled by all the elements of intelligent transportation systems that are being developed today," he says. "It will include sensors, satellite connections and automated billing." Such a system would have the capability to monitor traffic, reroute vehicles to avoid congestion and improve on-time delivery, or instantaneously locate products during shipping. Best of all, it would free up "regular" roads for automobiles and would thus improve road safety and reduce congestion. And it might not require construction from the ground up. "In many cases we will be able to use existing rights-of-way or medians," Sinha notes. "So it might not be as costly as it sounds."

CONTACT: Kumares Sinha, (765) 494-2211,

Rainwater and snow melt will be managed
to protect water quality

For most of this century, a substantial investment was made to treat and control waste water generated by cities and industry, which are called "point sources" of pollution. But Ronald Wukasch, a Purdue professor of civil engineering, believes this is not enough to protect water quality. "Most of today's pollutants discharged into the streams, rivers and lakes come from non-point sources," Wukasch says, "or the runoff from the land during a rainfall or snow melting."

Wukasch says urban runoff from storm sewers contains fertilizers, pesticides, car crud, animal wastes, viral and bacterial pathogens, burning fuel byproducts, and almost anything else you can imagine soiling a city's floor. Many cities still have combined sewers that drain both the sewage and the storm water runoff. During storms, the discharge becomes a potent mix of water and raw sewage. Agricultural runoff can also be highly contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides and animal wastes containing pathogens.

Wukasch says the next century's management techniques will include separating and storing combined sewer overflows, constructing wetlands for runoff purification, and using vegetated buffer strips around all drainage ditches, creeks, streams, rivers and lakes.

CONTACT: Ronald Wukasch, (765) 494-2201,

Future vehicles will 'understand' their role
in transportation

Matthew Franchek, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering, says he believes that engines in the future will be able to continuously monitor their own health. Within 10 years, he predicts, an automobile will communicate with its driver and with service personnel to request maintenance. Furthermore, relying on global positioning satellites, individual cars will be able to communicate on-the-road emergency needs during vehicle failures. Emergency road crews will be able to pinpoint the stalled vehicle and know precisely what parts are needed to repair it.

CONTACT: Matthew Franchek, (765) 494-5714,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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