Top 5 Programs Finding New Uses for Old Technologies

By: Patrick J. Kiger

Just because it's old technology doesn't mean its useless junk. See more pictures of TV evolution.
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In modern civilization, we're enthralled by the promise of shiny new technologies -- whether it's stuff that's already available, like a mobile phone with more capabilities than a 1980s desktop computer, or just-over-the-horizon wonders, like solar-powered aircraft and moveable buildings constructed of super-lightweight, super-strong carbon nanotubes.

But let's not forget that tomorrow's obsolescent junk is yesterday's amazing new innovation, and that we have a lot of formerly cutting-edge gadgets, equipment, medicines and chemicals lying around. We could just consign them to the recycling plant or the landfill. But since our planet's finite quantities of raw materials are rapidly being used up, wouldn't it make more sense for us to find new uses for old technologies?


Fortunately, some people and organizations, in both the public and private sectors, are doing just that. Here are five examples of programs that are making productive use of our civilization's discards.

5: Tesla Magnetic Wave Generator Communicates with Trapped Miners

In the 1890s, inventor and radio and electricity pioneer Nicola Tesla experimented with using a magnetic wave radio transmitter -- that is, an electromagnet whose strength is modulated to alter the frequency of signals -- as an alternative to Marconi's wireless telegraph. The magnetic wave transmitter turned out to be impractical for regular above-ground communication, because it had a short range and produced a noisier signal. But electrical engineers revived Tesla's concept for another use, for which it turns out to be well-suited -- blasting signals through solid rock and earth to communicate with trapped miners.

In 2006, after rescuers struggled for two days to locate trapped miners in Sago, W.V., Lockheed Martin engineers dreamed up a device, the MagneLink Magnetic Communication System, a refrigerator-sized magnetic generator that can send a signal just like a cell tower would, except it can transmit it a third of a mile underground [source: Berardelli]. In June 2010, Lockheed conducted a successful demonstration of the device at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health's test mine in Bruceton, Pa. Subjects were able to send and receive both voice and text messages from 1,550 feet (472.4 meters) underground [source: PR Newswire].


4: Redesigning the Flywheel to Conserve Energy

The flywheel was incorporated into the steam engine in the 1770s, and it's still in use today.
The flywheel was incorporated into the steam engine in the 1770s, and it's still in use today.

A flywheel essentially is a disk attached to a shaft, which resists changes in rotational speed caused by fluctuations of the shaft's power source. That, in turn, keeps the shaft rotating at a consistent speed. This is hardly a new idea -- the same basic principle was used in the potter's wheel, which dates back at least 8,000 years. In the 1770s, James Watt incorporated the flywheel into his steam engine. But Beacon Power, a Massachusetts-based company, has found a new use for the concept -- storing energy and smoothing out the electrical flow in power plants.

Beacon takes 200-pound (90.7-kilogram) disks made of lightweight carbon fiber, seals them in vacuum tanks and suspends them with powerful magnets, creating flywheels that can spin faster than the top speed of a fighter jet. In conventional power plants, the high-tech flywheels are capable of storing excess energy that otherwise would be wasted, so that it can be pumped out into the grid when demand is highest. It also promises to help improve wind and solar energy-producing plants, which are vulnerable to fluctuations when the sun goes behind a cloud or the wind stops blowing [source: Bazile].


3: Repurposing the Diagnostic Port on Your Car

If you own a car that was built after 1996, it has a something under the hood called a diagnostic port. Your auto mechanic plugs his computer into the port so he can test the various systems in your car and determine why your "check engine" light is on. Diagnostic ports haven't been much use to car owners themselves, unless they own the same sort of elaborate equipment that garages own. Recently, however, a Canadian company called Lemur Monitors began marketing several data port devices that drivers can plug in for entirely different uses.

One device, the SafeDriver module, monitors the highest speed that the car has been driven and how often it has come to a sudden stop -- a great way for parents to see how their teenagers behave behind the wheel when they're driving by themselves. Another product, the AlertDriver, can be set to sound warnings whenever the car is being driven above 35 miles per hour (56.3 kilometers per hour) in the city or 70 miles per hour (112.6 kilometers per hour) on the highways. A third device, the EconoDriver, enables you to analyze your gasoline consumption and see whether you're driving as efficiently as you should [source: Taub].


2: Using Composting to Save Forests and Wetlands

Composting is an old method that works, so why change it?
Composting is an old method that works, so why change it?

If you're an organic gardener, you've probably dabbled in composting -- that is, piling up table scraps, fallen leaves, grass clippings and other stuff into a heap outdoors and allowing worms and microorganisms to turn it into fertilizer. It's a venerable practice that dates back at least as far as the farmers of ancient Rome.

In recent years, government environmental scientists have started doing what you do to make fertilizer for your tomatoes and zucchini plot -- but for a different purpose. America's wetlands have been so depleted by human activities that they contain only about half of the organic matter they had in the 1600s. That shortage of fertilizer is causing a decrease in plant life that stabilizes soil against erosion and provides food and habitat for animals. Similarly, the natural restorative cycle of forests has been disrupted by logging, with the damage multiplied by natural erosion and flooding. Massive composting projects, however, can help restore the soil and preserve these wild places. Instead of relying on kitchen garbage, the environmental scientists turn to other waste materials: grass and tree trimmings from public parks, leftover tree material from logging, and sludge from wastewater treatment, which, believe it or not, contains valuable nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and zinc [source: Henry and Bergeron].


1: Using Old Computer Technology to Run Spacecraft

Remember the dinky, painfully slow processors and teeny amounts of memory of the 1980s and early 1990s computers -- the ones that ran your favorite video games like molasses? You probably assume that by now these puny computers are being used as doorstops. Well, guess again.

The computer hardware that controls the vital functions of both manned and unmanned U.S. and European spacecraft tends to be ancient, low-power stuff that's nowhere near as powerful as the gadgets you have in your pocket or on your desk, let alone the talking supercomputer HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey." But space agencies aren't keeping otherwise obsolete computer technology alive out of nostalgia. Any computer chips taken into space have to be hardened to protect them against the high-radiation environment there, and then tested exhaustively to guarantee their reliability. It's safer to use the old and slow but proven designs than something more up-to-date that may fail [source: Heath]. Besides, it doesn't necessarily take a super-fast computer to run even a massive orbital satellite. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, operated for close to two decades with a main computer powered by an Intel 486 processor, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, launched in 1999, made important scientific discoveries with the help of an on-board electronic brain powered by the equivalent of a 386 [source: Moseman].


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More Great Links

  • Bazile, Dan. “Finding new uses for the centuries-old flywheel.” Aug. 30, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)
  • Berardelli, Phil. “Tapping Tesla to Save Trapped Miners.” Science. Aug. 20, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)
  • Heath, Nick. “Space Exploration: The computers that power man’s quest for the stars.” Sept. 25, 2010. (Dec. 7 2010)
  • Henry, Chuck and Bergeron, Karen. “Compost Use in Forest Land Restoration.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. July 2005. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • “Innovative Uses of Compost.” Environmental Protection Agency. October 1997. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Moseman, Andrew. “Scientists Fixing Hubble Contend With Antiquated Computers.” Popular Mechanics. Oct. 24, 2008. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • PR Newswire. “Lockheed Martin Conducts Successful MagneLink In-Mine Test.” July 21, 2010. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Taub, Eric. “New Uses for an Old Plug.” The New York Times. Aug. 30, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)
  • “The Basics of Composting.” (Dec. 7, 2010)