Glenn Research Center

Yesterday’s meeting of the Northeast Ohio Software Association (NEOSA) included a great tour of NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC). We saw three facilities, none of which I had toured before. First stop was the Propulsion Systems Laboratory (PSL), which is used to test jet engines. Glenn Research Center has long provided services to jet engine manufacturers in developing and testing engines for both commercial and military planes. The PSL includes two test chambers that can simulate flight at altitude conditions–low pressure and low temperature–while collecting data from inside and outside the engine. It is not an easy task simulating altitudes up to 90000 ft., mach 4 speed, and -90 degrees F inlet conditions, with a running jet engine in the chamber. One upcoming program will  examine engine icing, which is believed to have been responsible for more than 250 engine flameouts. It is believed that ice forms on aircraft parts and enters the engine, where it melts in the compressor. The liquid water extinguishes the flames in the burner, causing the engine to shut down.

The second stop on the tour was the Electric Propulsion Laboratory. Electric propulsion, or ionic propulsion, is used mainly on satellites and deep space probes. Instead of a chemical rocket propellant, ionic propulsion systems use ionized atoms–typically xenon atoms–as propellants. The ions are accelerated through an electric field and then escape from the engine. The high rate of acceleration results in strong thrust without using a lot of propellant, which allows lighter weight and/or longer missions than can be achieved with chemical fuels. The engines only work in the vacuum of space, though, so once again a large facility was needed to pump air out of the test chamber and simulate high altitudes. A cryo pump is used in order to simulate the nearly total vacuum of space. Most of the air is removed using mechanical pumps, but the remaining few particles are removed by chilling them to almost absolute zero. At such low temperatures the air atoms have almost no energy and simply collect on the liquid-helium-chilled cryo pump surface.

The final stop on the tour was the Research Analysis Center, with its 3D and virtual reality computer facilities. These systems are used by engineers to get an immersive experience visualizing images from space, flow simulations, engineering structures, and anything else where a three-dimensional display is useful, including finding new ways of presenting data. NASA engineers have worked with medical professionals also, who are excited about the possibilities for immersive visualizing of MRIs and other medical images. The lab is also a popular spot among children on school tours. Our guide admitted, though, that with falling prices for games and other entertainment, it was getting harder and harder to show the children things they had not already seen.

A reception followed the tour with delicious refreshments and a chance to meet astronaut Michael Foreman, who has flown on two Space Shuttle missions and is now chief of external programs for GRC.

Writing a press release–it's not all about you

I have bad news about press releases. If the media pick up a story about you, it is not because they are happy for you. It is because they see something in the story that they believe has value to their readers.

That means that you have to think about those readers while you are writing the release. What do people need to know about you, and what does the information mean to them? Once you have answered those questions, they will provide the content focus for your press release.

I like to picture two or three types of readers who have different interests, and make sure that the story I write has something useful for each of them.

For example, I recently wrote a story for a community newspaper about my city’s new Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Before starting to write, I imagined that three types of people might be reading the story. The first is someone wanting to know who these people are appearing at emergency sites in their reflective green and yellow vests.  The second type of reader is someone seeking assurance that the city is prepared to handle catastrophic emergencies like terrorist attacks, chemical spills, or tornadoes. The third is someone who wants to know how he or she could personally get involved in the CERT program.

Keeping these reader interests in mind not only makes the story more likely to be picked up by the media, but it also makes the story a lot easier to write.

Miniaturized sensors

Yesterday I attended a presentation at Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI). I have been to several of their presentations, and I always find them fascinating.

This one was given by Valtronic Technologies, a Swiss company with design and manufacturing facilities in Solon, OH. It was about their circuit miniaturization technologies and applications. The company specializes in fitting circuits into tight or unusually shaped spaces. Their market is especially directed at applications where high reliability is required because replacements would be expensive or risky. Products include medical implants and sensors for remote applications. One example was a sensor on the tip of an oil drill. It would cost about $6 million to remove the drill bit and replace the sensor. Another product that was discussed was an airplane tire pressure sensor that is mounted inside the tire stem.

The company has pioneered the manufacture of a number of medical implants, including cochlear implants for profound deafness, heart monitors, and new work on retinal implants. They do it by mounting silicon chips directly onto circuit boards without the usual packaging that makes integrated circuits and their connections bulkier. An innovative attachment method called Flip-Chip uses tiny gold buttons positioned on the chip. The chip is flipped over onto the circuit board, and pressure and heat are applied to flatten the buttons against it to make electrical contact.

Once contact is made, an adhesive is applied to hold the chip to the substrate. Connections are reliable because they are based only on physical contact, and there is no eutectic bond that can fail as a soldered connection can. As a result, the connections are less susceptible to failure from thermal expansion mismatches or from mechanical strain.

Valtronic also can use flexible board substrates, often with many layers, which allow the circuits to be folded to fit into even smaller spaces.

First posting

This blog is dedicated to the mission of Cliff’s Edge, L.L.C., which is to disseminate information about advanced technologies. I started to act on that idea a few years ago when I was helping the Center for Regional Economic Issues (REI), which is now I-Open. We wanted to publicize how much innovative research and development was going on in northeast Ohio, which most people rarely hear about.

Yes, the local newspapers and business press cover technology, but a lot of their technology reporting is about how such-and-such advanced technology company spent so many dollars on a new facility in the region (or more recently has filed for bankruptcy). The coverage is also mostly about the larger, established companies. Important news, certainly, but it misses out on a lot of the gee-whiz factor you see when you start to learn about all the cutting-edge ideas being tossed around in this area’s research institutes and startup companies.

Unfortunately the funding for the webzine we envisioned never materialized. We did create a sample issue, and several of the writing samples on my web site are taken from that issue.

As I learn about new technologies, I hope to report on them in this blog. I can’t give the glitzy coverage that the webzine offered, because I am much more talented as a writer than as a graphic artist. I will also favor northeast Ohio, but will not limit my coverage to that area.