How Everything Works
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Page 111 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1101. Why is incandescent lighting better in residential construction than metal halide, high-pressure sodium, or mercury vapor lighting systems? — JC, Halifax, Nova Scotia
While incandescent lighting isn't nearly as energy efficient as those other light systems, it produces a more eye pleasing light than some of the alternatives. Our eyes are optimized for sunlight, so that we find the spectrum of light from hot objects particularly pleasant. The heart of an incandescent bulb is a hot tungsten filament. High-pressure arc lamps such as sodium vapor or mercury vapor lamps (metal halide lamps are just somewhat color-corrected high pressure mercury vapor lamps) produce a much less even spectrum of light. High-pressure sodium vapor lamps are wonderfully energy efficient, but their light is orange or pink. High-pressure mercury vapor lamps are also quite energy efficient, but their light is somewhat bluish. Even metal halide lamps aren't quite white. The other problem with high-pressure arc lamps is that they take time to warm up and then can't be restarted until they cool off. They're best in applications that don't require them to be turned on or off frequently.

A much better choice, both in terms of energy efficiency and light color, is a fluorescent or compact fluorescent lamp. Such lamps typically use less than 25% of the energy required for comparable incandescent lighting, provide excellent color rendering that can be chosen to match that of incandescent lighting, and they last much longer than incandescent bulbs. Even though compact fluorescent lamps are more expensive than incandescent bulbs up front, they last so much longer and save so much energy that each one typically saves you about $45 over its working life.

1102. What is the difference between crystal and glass?
The "crystal" that's used in fine glassware is actually a glass, but it is chemically different from the glass that's used in more common glassware. Both materials are formed by melting together a mixture of silicon dioxide (also called quartz or silica) and other chemicals and both are glasses, meaning that their atoms are arranged haphazardly and not in the crystalline lattices of such materials as salt or sugar. The chemicals that are added to silicon dioxide to make normal glassware—sodium oxide and calcium oxide—make the glass easier to melt and work with at the expense of strength and increased damping. That's why normal glassware is relatively soft and emits a dull sound when you rap it; it experiences lots of internal friction. The chemicals added to silicon dioxide to make "crystal" glassware include lead oxide, which makes the glass easier to melt and soft enough to cut and shape easily. However, lead "crystal" glassware has less internal damping than ordinary glassware and emits a ringing tone when you rap it because it experiences very little internal friction.

1103. What makes an airplane fly? — BO, Pemberton, MN
As an airplane's wing moves through the air, the airstream approaching the wing separates into a flow over the top of the wing and a flow under the bottom of the wing. The wing is shaped and tilted so that the flow over the wing follows a longer path to arrive at the sharp trailing edge of the wing than the flow under the wing must follow. Because it has a shorter distance to travel, the flow under the wing initially arrives at the trailing edge of the wing first and flows up and around that trailing edge to meet the flow over the wing. This type of flow has a kink in it at the wing's trail edge and is unstable. A few moments after the wing begins moving through the air, the kink at the trailing edge blows away from the wing altogether. This kink leaves as a vortex—a whirling cyclone of air—and as it does, it causes the flow over the wing to speed up so that the two airflows join together cleanly at the wing's trailing edge. To increase its speed, the flow over the wing converts some of its pressure energy into kinetic energy. Because the flow over the wing has used up some of its pressure energy, and thus experienced a drop in pressure, there is an unbalanced pressure across the wing: the pressure beneath the wing is greater than the pressure above the wing. This imbalance in pressure leads to an overall upward force on the wing and this upward force is what supports the plane's weight so that it remains suspended in the air. Overall, the airstream is deflected downward as the result of this complicated flow pattern around the wing and the air pushes the wing upward in response. A nice image of the airstream leaving a plane's wings can be seen at the Canon website,

1104. How does an air conditioner work? — RL
An air conditioner uses a condensable working fluid—a chemical that easily converts from a gas to a liquid and vice versa—to transfer heat from the air inside of a home to the outside air. This process involves three major components and at least one fan. The three major components are a compressor, a condenser, and an evaporator. The compressor and condenser are usually located on the outside air portion of the air conditioner while the evaporator is located on the inside air portion. The working fluid passes through the insides of these three components in order, over and over again, so I'll start examining what happens to the working fluid as it enters the compressor.

The working fluid arrives at the compressor as a cool, low pressure gas. The compressor squeezes this working fluid, packing its molecules more tightly together so that their density and pressure increase. The squeezing process also does work on the working fluid, increasing its energy and therefore its temperature. The working fluid leaves the compressor as a hot, high-pressure gas and flows into the condenser. The condenser has metal fins all around it that assist the working fluid in transferring heat to the surrounding outdoor air. As this transfer takes place, the closely spaced molecules of the working fluid begin to stick to one another, releasing additional thermal energy into the surrounding air and causing the working fluid to transform into a liquid. By the time the working fluid leaves the condenser, its temperature has almost dropped back down to the outdoor temperature but it is now a liquid rather than a gas.

This high pressure liquid then flows into the evaporator through a narrow orifice. This orifice allows the liquid's pressure to drop so that it begins to evaporate into a gas. As it evaporates, it extracts heat from the air around the evaporator because that heat is needed to separate the molecules of the working fluid. Like the condenser, the evaporator has metal fins to assist it in exchanging thermal energy with the surrounding air. By the time the working fluid leaves the evaporator, it is a cool, low-pressure gas. It then returns to the compressor to begin its trip all over again.

Overall, the working fluid releases heat into the outside air and absorbs heat from the inside air. The direction of heat transfer, from a cooler region to a hotter region, is the reverse of normal and requires an input of ordered energy so that it doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics (the disorder of an isolated system can never decrease). This ordered energy is used to operate the compressor and is converted into thermal energy in the process. This additional disordered thermal energy enters the outside air and makes up for the additional order that's given to the indoor air as that air is cooled.

1105. A company claims that if you place their sealed liquid-filled plastic ball into your washing machine, you can eliminate the need for caustic detergents, improving the ecology and saving the planet. The claim is that this ball changes the ionic charge of the water and "magically releases" the dirt from your clothing. Is it possible to use ions to clean as well or better than detergent? — RO, Garden City, MI
I'm afraid that this claim is nonsense and, like the stone in "stone soup," the ball does nothing at all. The old-time medicine show didn't really disappear, it just evolved into a more modern form. Since the ball doesn't add or remove chemicals from the water, it can't alter the numbers of neutral and ionic particles in the water. But ions have very little to do with how water cleans clothes anyway. Water is already a wonderful solvent for salts and sugars, so you can clean many soils from your clothes with just water alone. But water is a poor solvent for oils and fats because oil and fat molecules don't bind well to water molecules. That's where detergents come into play—they form shells called micelles around the oil and fat molecules and render those molecules soluble in water. Without detergents, you'll have trouble cleaning oils and fats from your clothes. Since oils and fats aren't affected one way or the other by ions, even the ball's claimed activity won't help them to dissolve in the water.

1106. How do the display lasers used in sporting events work? I think it has something to do with mirrors.
They do use mirrors. When you bounce a laser beam from a mirror, any small change in the mirror's orientation can cause a large change in the beam's final destination. Simple laser light shows bounce lasers from low-mass mirrors that are mounted on elastic membranes. As those membranes are driven into motion by sound waves, the mirrors tip and turn and the laser beams move around in beautiful patterns on a distant screen or wall. In laser light shows that produce specific shapes and images, the mirrors that steer the laser beams are driven by high-speed electromagnetic mechanisms that can change a mirror's angle dramatically in thousandths of a second. With several of this electromagnetically controlled mirrors working together and guided by a computer, the beam can be steered to draw complicated shapes on a screen or other surface.

1107. How does a rail gun work?
A rail gun is a device that uses an electromagnetic force to accelerate a projectile to very high speeds. This acceleration technique is based on the fact that whenever an electrically charged particle moves in the presence of a magnetic field, it experiences a force that pushes it perpendicular to both its direction of travel and the magnetic field. In a rail gun, this perpendicular magnetic force—known as the Lorentz force—pushes the projectile along two metal rails and can accelerate it to almost limitless speeds.

The rail gun's projectile must conduct electricity and it completes the electric circuit formed by two parallel metal rails and a high current power source. During the rail gun's operation, current flows out of the power source through one rail, passes through the projectile, and returns to the power source through the other rail. As it passes through the two rails, the electric current produces an intense magnetic field between the rails. The projectile is exposed to this magnetic field and as charged particles pass through the projectile, they experience a Lorentz force that pushes them and the projectile in one direction along the rails. The projectile picks up speed as it travels along the rails and doesn't stop accelerating until the current ceases or it leaves the rails. In practice, the power sources used in most rail guns is a large bank of capacitors. These devices store separated electric charge and supply enormous currents to the rails for a brief period of time.

1108. How does an electromagnetic doorbell work? — SH, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
When you press the button of an electromagnetic doorbell, you complete a circuit that includes a source of electric power (typically a low voltage transformer) and a hollow coil of wire. Once the circuit is complete, current begins to flow through it and the coil of wire becomes magnetic. Extending outward from one end of the coil of wire is an iron rod. When this the coil of wire—also called a solenoid—becomes magnetic, so does the iron rod. The iron rod becomes magnetic in such a way that it's attracted toward and into the solenoid, and it accelerates toward the solenoid. The attractive force diminishes once the rod is all the way inside the solenoid, but the rod then has momentum and it keeps on going out the other side of the solenoid. It travels so far out of the solenoid that it strikes a bell on the far side—the doorbell! The rod rebounds from the bell and reverses is motion. It has traveled so far out the other side of the solenoid that it's attracted back in the opposite direction. The rod overshoots the solenoid again and, in some doorbells, strikes a second bell having a somewhat different pitch from the first bell. After this back and forth motion, the rod usually settles down in the middle of the solenoid and doesn't move again until you stop pushing the button. Once you release the button, the current in the circuit vanishes and the solenoid and the rod stop being magnetic. A weak spring then pulls the rod back to its original position at one end of the solenoid.

1109. How are magnets made and what are they made of? — S, San Francisco, CA
The strongest modern magnets are made by assembling lots of tiny magnetic particles into a solid object. These magnetic particles are "intrinsically" magnetic, meaning that the atoms from which the particles are formed retain their magnetism in coming together as a solid. Electrons are naturally magnetic and most atoms exhibit the magnetism of their electrons. But as these atoms come together to form a solid, most of them lose their magnetism. For example, copper, aluminum, gold, and silver are all nonmagnetic solids built from magnetic atoms. There are only a few materials that don't lose their atomic magnetism and might be suitable for making permanent magnets. However, most of these magnetic materials only exhibit their magnetism when exposed to other magnets—when they're alone, their magnetism is mostly hidden. For example, iron and steel are magnetic materials but they only appear strongly magnetic when you bring a permanent magnet near them.

To make a strong permanent magnet, you must find a material that is both intrinsically magnetic and that is able to stay magnetic when it's by itself. Materials that hide their magnetism when alone do this by allowing their magnetic structure to break up into tiny pieces that all point in different directions. Each of these tiny magnetic pieces is called a magnetic domain, and iron and steel are normally composed of many magnetic domains. A good permanent magnet material is one that is intrinsically magnetic and that resists the formation of randomly oriented magnetic domains. A very effective way to make such permanent magnet materials is to assemble lots of tiny magnetic particles. Each of these particles is shaped in a way that makes one of its ends a north pole and its other end a south pole, and that makes it extremely hard for these two poles to exchange places. The particles are then aligned with one another and bonded together to form a permanent magnet. To make sure that the particles all have their north poles at one end and their south poles at the other end, the finished magnet is exposed to an extremely strong magnetic field—one so strong that it flips any misaligned magnetic particles into alignment with the others. After being magnetized in this manner, the permanent magnet is very hard to demagnetize, which is just what you want in a permanent magnet.

The most common magnet materials are Ferrite and Alnico. Ferrite magnets are made from a mixture of iron oxide and barium, strontium, or lead oxide. Alnico magnets are made from aluminum, nickel, iron, and cobalt, and consist of tiny particles of an iron-nickel-aluminum alloy inside an iron-cobalt alloy. But the strongest modern magnets are made from an iron-neodymium-boron alloy. The latter magnets are very resistant to demagnetization and the forces they exert on one another are amazingly strong.

1110. How does a video recorder work? — SH, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
A video recorder is much like a normal tape recorder, except that it records far more information each second. When you play an audiotape in a normal tape recorder, small magnetized regions of tape move past a playback head. This playback head consists of an iron ring with a narrow gap in it and there is a coil of wire wrapped around the ring. As the magnetized regions of the tape pass near the ring's gap, they magnetize the ring. The ring's magnetization changes as the tape moves and these changing magnetizations cause currents to flow in the coil of wire. These currents are amplified and used to reproduce sound. When you record the tape, the recorder sends currents through the wire coil, magnetizing the iron ring and causing it to magnetize the region of tape that's near the gap in the ring.

In a video recorder, the tape moves too slowly to produce the millions of the magnetization changes needed each second to represent a video signal. So instead of moving the tape past the playback head, the video recorder moves the playback head past the tape. As the tape travels slowly through the recorder, the playback head spins past it on a smooth cylindrical support. The tape is wrapped part way around this support and two or more playback heads take turns detecting the patches of magnetization on the tape's surface. The tape is tilted slightly with respect to the spinning heads so that the heads sweep both along the tape and across its width. That way, the entire surface of the tape is used to record the immense amount of information needed to reproduce images on a television screen. During recording, currents are sent through the heads so that they magnetize the tape rather than reading its magnetization.
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