A Bike, a Backpack, and an Accelerating Track

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Dr. Brinkman trying out the energy bike Dr. Brinkman rides the Energy Bike

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) booths at the Science and Engineering Festival received many enthusiastic visitors. Children, parents, teachers, and science professionals all found something to learn from our exhibits. Dr. Brinkman, director of our Office of Science, stopped by our booths with a few of his own comments about our role at the event: “I was delighted to see the innovative work of DOE and our National Laboratories on display at the Festival. And I was excited to see so many future scientists being inspired by our exhibits and others around the Mall. I’m proud that our Office of Science played a part in developing their potential.”

Another attraction for the children was Argonne National Laboratory’s energy bike. The back wheel of this stationary bicycle propelled a motor, which was connected to a board of light bulbs. When riders pedaled the bike, they could feel themselves becoming energy-producing machines as more and more bulbs lit up. The Office of Science, in partnership with the labs, is interested in finding more ways to help educate the public about energy efficiency and how each individual can contribute.

Many children enjoyed racing a ball as it rolled down the track of our gravity-operated accelerator. Children learned how gravity causes acceleration as they had to run faster and faster to keep up with the ball. The track also demonstrated the space-efficiency of circular or spiral accelerators. A linear track of the same length would be more difficult to store in a laboratory.

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A child races around the accelerator, attempting to beat the ball which is accelerating down the track.A child races around the accelerator, attempting to beat the ball which is accelerating down the track.

For our adult audiences, the MagLev posters at Brookhaven National Laboratory's booth provided plenty of information about a new efficient, low cost, safe means of transportation which also relies on magnetism. Funded by DOE, their scientists are working through the logistics of operating magnetically levitated trains in the United States. These trains are already operating in Japan, China, and Germany. They can travel up to 300 miles per hour without emitting any greenhouse gases. The trains are constructed with superconducting magnets along the bottom which repel magnets on the train tracks. Maglev’s scientist explained, “The trains float on a cushion of air, which eliminates friction, allowing the trains to go very fast.”

At the Joint BioEnergy Institute’s booth, visitors learned about the research behind biofuel production. Biofuel is a renewable energy source made by decomposing certain plants. These fast-growing plants are known as “biomasses,” and they include switchgrass, poplar, and eucalyptus. Biomasses are broken down by ionic liquid, which is basically an environmentally friendly salt. The biomasses are broken down into cellulose and hemicellulose, two sugars which can be treated with microbes to convert them into fuel. Bioenergy centers funded by DOE are still studying the emissions produced by biofuel use.

The DOE-funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory presented more alternate energy sources. They discussed their developments with wind and solar energy technology. Currently, 75% of the solar energy market produces flat panels which can be used on roofs. There are also solar back-packs being constructed, allowing solar energy to be transportable.

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Biology teacher Eric Layton learns about a new solar backpackBiology teacher Eric Layton learns about a new solar backpack

For those in wonder about the construction of our universe, the demonstrations at Fermilab’s booth provided some answers. With two equally filled bins of sand, one representing matter and one representing antimatter in the early universe, only a few grains represented the extra matter that was not annihilated by antimatter. That tiny fraction of extra particles evolved into all of the matter in the universe today. The majority of that material exists in the form of invisible “dark matter.” Fermilab’s crystal and bubble chamber detectors are currently being used in an attempt to identify these invisible particles which currently make up about 95% of the matter our universe. They expect that dark matter may be related to the yet-to-be-discovered Higgs boson, a particle which is believed to account for why matter has mass at all.

The Science and Engineering Festival at large was part of a national attempt to promote science education. The efforts from over 750 science organizations who made the event possible truly paid off. Children and adults alike left with a few souvenirs, a wealth of knowledge, and a positive attitude toward science.