January 24, 2015

Two days ago I had the need to refresh my memory concerning the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Most of the work I do involves designing work cells to automate manufacturing processes but one client asked me to take a look at a problem involving thermodynamic and heat transfer processes.  The statement of the second law is as follows:

“It is impossible to extract an amount of heat “Qh” from a hot reservoir and use it all to do work “W”.  Some amount of heat “Qc” must be exhausted to a cold reservoir.”

Another way to say this is:

“It is not possible for heat to flow from a cooler body to a warmer body without any work being done to accomplish this flow.”

That refresher took about fifteen (15) minutes but it made me realize just how far we have come relative to teaching and presenting subjects involving technology; i.e. STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related information.  Theory does not change.  Those giants upon whose shoulders we stand paved the way and set the course for discovery and advancement of so many technical disciplines, but one device has revolutionized teaching methods—the modern day computer with accompanying software.

I would like to stay with thermodynamics to illustrate a point.  At the university I attended, we were required to have two semesters of heat transfer and two semesters of thermodynamics.  Both subjects were supposedly taken during the sophomore year and both offered in the department of mechanical engineering.   These courses were “busters” for many ME majors.  More than once they were the determining factors in the decision-making process as to whether or not to stay in engineering or try another field of endeavor.  The book was “Thermodynamics” by Gordon van Wylen, copyright 1959.  My sophomore year was 1962 so it was well before computers were used at the university level.  I remember pouring over the steam tables looking at saturations temperatures, saturation pressures trying to find specific volume, enthalpy, entropy and internal energy information.  It seemed as though interpolation was always necessary.  Have you ever tried negotiating a Mollier Chart to pick off needed data? WARNING: YOU CAN GO BLIND TRYING.      Psychometric charts presented the very same problem.  I remember one homework project in which we were expected to design a cooling tower for a commercial heating and air conditioning system.  All of the pertinent specifications were given as well as the cooling necessary for transmission into the facility.   It was drudgery and even though so long ago, I remember the “all-nighter” I pulled trying to get the final design on paper. Today, this information is readily available through software; obviously saving hours of time and greatly improving productivity.  I will say this; by the time these two courses were taken you did understand the basic principles and associated theory for heat systems.

Remember conversion tables?  One of the most-used programs by working engineers is found by accessing “onlineconversions.com”.  This web site provides conversions between differing measurement systems for length, temperature, weight, area, density, power and even has oddball classifications such as “fun stuff” and miscellaneous.  Fun stuff is truly interesting; the Chinese Zodiac, pig Latin, Morse code, dog years—all subheadings and many many more.  All possible without an exhaustive search through page after page of printed documentation.  All you have to do is log on.

The business courses I took, (yes, we were required to take several non-technical courses) were just as laborious.  We constructed spreadsheets and elaborate ones at that for cost accounting and finance; all accomplished today with MS Excel.  One great feature of MS Excel is the Σ or sum feature.  When you have fifty (50) or more line items and its 2:30 in the morning and all you want to do is wrap things up and go to bed, this becomes a god-send.

I cannot imagine where we will be in twenty (20) years relative to improvements in technology. I just hope I’m around to see them.


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