About the book

This book reveals some of the stories behind how engineers use specific elements to create the material world around us. In eight chapters, the EngineerGuy team exposes the magnificence of the innovation and engineering of digital camera imagers, tiny accelerometers, atomic clocks, enriching fissile material, batteries, anodizing metals, microwave ovens, and lasers. To help readers of all backgrounds, the book also includes introductions to the scientific principles necessary for a deeper understanding of the material presented in the chapters. The reader will be delighted by primers on waves, nuclear structure, and electronic transitions. It also features “In depth” sections on entropy, semiconductors, and the mathematics of capacitors.

Watch the companion video series!

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This book forms the basis of the fourth series of EngineerGuy videos. The eight videos in the series serve as great introductions to the book. In typical EngineerGuy style they present a "snackable" distillation of the essential engineering underlying an object. The videos feature the hallmarks of an EngineerGuy video: Clear visuals, illustrative close-ups, and demonstrations - not a surprise because the same team created the succesful EngineerGuy videos that revealed how an LCD monitor worked, exposed the basics of a hard drive, and explained fiber optics.

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What's inside the book

Digital Cameras: How a CCD Works This chapter discusses how silicon-based pixels use the photoelectric effect to measure light intensity. It covers these topics:

  • How the first x-y imagers from the 1960s failed because of capacitive coupling, and how the CCD (charge coupled device) solves the problem by eliminating wires.
  • How semiconductors are used to create a trap for the electrons generated as light falls on the CCD.
  • The timing of the “clock cycle” that moves these trapped electrons to the camera’s electronics.
  • The Color Filter Array used so a single CCD can create a color image. A brief section on active pixel sensors (APS) used in modern mobile phones.
  • A section on “The CCD and the Nobel Prize," noting that the engineer who perfected the CCD as an imager did not win.

How a Smartphone Knows Up from Down Accelerometers inside many electronic devices - tablets and phones - re-orient the screen as a user moves the device. This chapter opens by using a simple ball and spring device to explain the general principle of an accelerometer. It then describes:

  • The typical accelerometer used in digital devices, focusing on how they use a differential capacitor to measure changes in gravitational pull.
  • Two simple examples of etching in silicon - creating a pyramidal hole and then a cantilever beam - show the principles underlying how silicon-based accelerometers are made.
  • An “In Depth” section on the mathematics of capacitors, which explains why a differential capacitor is linear, while a simple two-plate capacitor is non-linear.

How an Atomic Clock Works This chapter lays out the essential principles and operation of an atomic clock. Specifically, it includes:

  • A discussion of the basics of timekeeping using resonance, focusing on the pendulum of a grandfather clock at first and then the vibrations of a quartz crystal oscillator, explaining briefly the piezoelectric effect in quartz.
  • A clear description of how the “atomic” part of an atomic clock functions as a feedback loop for a quartz oscillator. It goes in detail on the workings of the first cesium-based atomic clock.
  • A short discussion of the uses of accurate time.
  • The basic details and elementary mathematics underlying the GPS (Global Positioning System).

Primer: Nuclear Structure This chapter gives a brief overview of nuclear structure. It describes:

  • How protons and neutrons make up an atom and the definition of an isotope.
  • Introduces, briefly, the nuclear strong force.
  • Describes fission, focusing on uranium.
  • Briefly describes nuclear explosions and chain reactions.

The Hardest Step in Making a Nuclear Bomb The hardest step is obtaining isotope uranium-235, which must be separated from uranium-238. The chapter includes:

  • The reaction of Werner Heisenberg and other German scientists who worked for the Nazi’s on their attempts to separate uranium to the U.S. built bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
  • A description of how the close chemical and physical identity of these isotopes makes separation extremely difficult.
  • How the uranium used in the first nuclear bomb was prepared, including a description of the immense diffusion plants used.
  • Modern methods of separating uranium isotopes using centrifuges, including pinpointing why these devices must be engineered carefully so they don’t destroy themselves as they spin.
  • A description of the “flexural critical speeds” that occur when a centrifuge operates and the magnetic bearings used to reduce the importance of these critical speeds.
  • An outline of cutting edge methods for separating uranium isotopes: Atomic vapor laser isotope separation and molecular laser isotope separation.

The Lead-Acid Battery: A Nineteenth Century Invention for the Twenty-first Century The lead-acid battery lies at the center of our technological world: The single largest use of batteries is for starting engines of cars and trucks. This chapter includes:

  • A description of the basis of all batteries: The transfer of electrons.
  • The essential engineering of a battery: Electrodes, electrolytes, and separators.
  • It reveals why an automotive lead-acid battery is a shallow charge battery and why solar energy installations need a deep discharge battery.
  • A description of a device built in Persia 2,000 years ago that might be the first battery ever built.
  • What makes the lead-acid battery unique so that it still thrives even though it is heavy and filled with environmentally unfriendly lead.
  • A description of the internal mechanism of a lithium-ion battery.
  • Why lithium ion batteries explode.
  • An “In Depth” section on entropy. It helps readers to understand and visualize the thermodynamic concept of entropy.

Anodizing, or the Beauty of Corrosion Apple’s ipod and laptops use gorgeous anodized aluminum. although it looks like a painted coating it is actually an integral layer grown into the aluminum. This chapter reveals how this process works. It includes:

  • A description of a 5th century pillar in India that has survived intact because of natural anodizing.
  • An explanation of why metals corrode.
  • A description of oxidation-reduction reactions, which are essential in anodizing.
  • How engineers control corrosion with coatings, cathodic protection and anodizing.
  • Why stainless steel doesn’t rust.
  • How aluminium is anodized.
  • Why aluminum can be colored permanently with dye.
  • How anodizing titanium creates colors.

Primer: Waves Many of the objects and processes described in the book depend on the movement of waves. This chapter covers a few basic definitions and principles of waves, including:

  • Pictorial definitions of wavelength, frequency, and their relationship to a wave's velocity.
  • The interactions of waves: How they can superimpose (combine) and how standing waves arise.
  • A brief description of electromagnetic waves, including a chart that shows the complete spectrum and how specific frequencies of waves are used technologically.

How a Microwave Oven Works Microwave ovens exist in nearly every American home, yet few realize that this modern device depends on an older technology: The vacuum tube. This chapter describes the operation of an oven, focusing on how its inner workings create microwave radiation. The chapter includes:

  • A definition and description of a vacuum tube.
  • How a microwave oven heats food, including whether it heats from the inside out.
  • A clear description of a magnetron, which is the vacuum tube that creates microwave radiation. The description starts with the basics from Faraday and Ampere and works its way step-by-step to the operation of the cavity magnetron.
  • A description of how tungsten produces the electrons needed for the magnetron to generate radiation.
  • Why we heat food with 2,450 megahertz frequency radiation.

Primer: Electrons, Energy Levels, and Light Emission The final chapter discusses the operation of a laser. This chapter gives the essential details needed to understand its operation. It includes:

  • A description of an electron cloud in a molecule or solid, including the definition of an excited state.
  • Energy levels and quantization of electron energy states in solids.
  • Why electrons give off light or heat when they fall (decay) from an excited state.

How a Laser Works This chapter reveals the essential engineering details in making a laser. It includes:

  • A description of an amazing experiment where scientists bounced laser light off the moon.
  • A description of the key characteristics of a laser beam
  • A discussion of why anything gives of light - from tungsten light bulbs to glow in the dark toys to lasers.
  • A discussion of stimulated emission, the process that lies at the heart of creating laser light.
  • An answer to why stimulated emission occurs.
  • A description of the first laser: Ted Maiman’s ruby laser.
  • A description of a helium-neon laser, including an explanation of why it uses two gases.
  • A discussion of who really invented the laser: An outline of the legal cases of Gordon Gould.
  • How the resonator cavity of a laser makes collimated light, and light of nearly a single wavelength.
  • How a semiconductor laser works.
  • How the erbium amplifier used in fiber optic cables works.
  • An “In Depth” section on semiconductors, electrons and holes. This is a brief introduction to the principles of semiconductor diodes.
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