E&T news weekly #80 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 5 February 2016

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
EasyJet passengers to be served engine water from hydrogen planes

Interesting news. And whereas I am all in favour of alternative energy sourcing, recycling and other things ‘green’, I feel somewhat wary of being offered drinking water which, in the words of easyJet’s head of engineering is “the only waste product from the system”, even if it is entirely clean (according to the same head of engineering). Call me over-fastidious, but I would be reluctant to consume anything labelled as ‘waste’, be it water, or food even – particularly so if the latter is entirely ‘green’ (a rare case when a fairly obvious pun actually works!). Yes, my true worry is that the waste-water example proves contagious and EasyJet (or another low-cost airline) starts serving – or rather selling, for one typically has to pay for snacks on low-cost flights – other plane systems’ by-products as foods, like, say, tar crisps or oil jellies. I wonder if they would be charging passengers for such snacks and how much?

Ageing suit helps Ford engineers think differently

This reminds me of a suit I recently (and rather recklessly) acquired at the clothes section of a popular supermarket in Stevenage, UK (I know I shouldn’t have done it, but the price was irresistible). It did make me – a rather fit 60-year-old – feel like “an unfit 70-year old” indeed. I would be more than happy to advise Ford engineers on the whereabouts of that supermarket which may save them considerable R&D costs. As for me, I had to chuck that suit out and to invest in a new – more expensive – one two weeks after the acquisition. “A greedy person pays twice” runs a wise Russian proverb.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Microsoft trials deep sea data centre powered by tide

You know, I’ve just finished reading a disturbingly fun techno-thriller novel – ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ by David Shafer – in which some unscrupulous gazillionaire intends to harvest all the data from every individual around the world and then sell it back to them on a ‘data insurance’ plan, a bit like a digital Mob protection racket. Anyway, in that book, the massive data servers required to host all this information are stored out of sight underwater in deep ocean trenches. Imagine my surprise – and faint sense of unease – when I read the headline of this story!

Cuba to launch its first home broadband service

What seasoned travellers have been muttering for years, Cuba is really changing fast. Soon, the world’s abiding impressions of Cuba – gaily painted houses, impressive cigars, battered classic 1950s cars, pulled pork con arroz y frijoles, rural poverty and human rights violations – will be gone forever (not necessarily a bad thing). The country’s state-run telecoms company Etesca has announced it is launching its first broadband internet service for households in two Old Havana neighbourhoods, the colonial heart of the communist island’s tourist attractions. Currently, some Cubans only have a dial-up home service or restricted mobile phone connections that allow access only to state-run email, with broadband legal only for diplomats and employees of foreign companies. Finally, the internet proper is coming to Cuba, sort of. Viva la revolution!

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
EasyJet passengers to be served engine water from hydrogen planes

As if opening up a chain of 25p food stores wasn’t enough news coverage in one week, easyJet have also announced they plan to let customers consume engine water. The low-cost airline is set to trial a hybrid plane which will capture the energy that is typically lost while braking, and store it in a hydrogen fuel cell for use while taxiing. I know what you’re thinking, there has got to be a downside to this right? Well, apparently the hydrogen battery will create quite a lot of waste, in the form of water. It’s ok though; the thriftsters’ head office came up with the novel idea of serving the water to passengers. Do you think they’ll charge?

Oil spill clean-up solution created from paper-waste aerogel

Researchers in Singapore have developed a biodegradable cellulose-based aerogel made from paper-waste with the ability to absorb oil. Now that, my friends, is the definition of killing two birds with one stone – or, killing no birds, or seals, fish and other marine life, depending on how you look at it. This revolutionary new aerogel is coated in trimethoxy-methylsilane, causing it to repel water and only absorb oil, making it a highly effective method of cleaning up oil spills. What’s more, after the clean-up operation is complete, 99 per cent of the oil can be recovered. I know right, mind blown.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Health impact of EU car emissions laid bare by post-VWgate study

In one of these weekly news picks recently I argued that the biggest loser in the ‘VWgate’ scandal over Volkswagen’s alleged cheating in environmental emissions testing won’t be the car-buying consumer, the local government enforcing the standards or the company itself – it will be the public – especially the citizens of our cities, young and old, who will have to breathe the more polluted air. But now we know by how much their health will be affected as a university publishes a study quantifying how many ‘life years’ will be lost.

Smart keyboard start-up sold to Microsoft for £174m

Something quite different was quantified this week. Microsoft paid £174m for the startup Swiftkey which has developed AI technology for better text prediction on mobile phones. It sounds like a lot, but is it so much very much when you consider what the technology has saved? It has saved 100,000 years of typing time over 300 million device installations. That’s just 58p for each user saving nearly three hours of typing.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Ageing suit helps Ford engineers think differently

Yes, the inevitable joke that went round some members of the E&T team when we saw this story and video was that what we really wanted was an anti-ageing suit. Seriously though, you only have to suffer a twinge in your back for a few days as I do from time to time to become acutely aware of how much cars are designed by and for people who are fully fit. Let’s hope that other companies join Ford in helping their designers appreciate the problems that an increasing number of their customers are going to be facing in using their products. Just spending a couple of hours with arthritis-simulating gloves that make it difficult to manipulate elegantly styled control switches ought to give engineers an insight into how usability can be just as important as good looks.

Contact lenses become computer screens with new polymer coating

It’s early days with this sci-fi technology that will leapfrog wearable displays like Google’s ill-fated Glass and allow images to be projected direct to your eyeball via specially coated contact lenses, but I hope someone’s putting as much thought into the safety aspects as they are into the clever electronics. I assume the idea is that you’ll be able to switch whatever you’re watching on and off so it’s not visible when you’re driving or even just walking down the street. Like driverless cars, it’s a breakthrough that’s going to create just as much concern as it is excitement.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
World’s largest off-shore wind farm to be built in Yorkshire

This caught my eye because I know this part of Yorkshire as a holiday destination – if you’re interested it has some lovely clean, sandy beaches but it’s inclined to be rather chilly. More to the point, though, the news has come not long after reports that the go-ahead for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been delayed because of difficulties finalising the funding package, while the coal-fired Fiddler’s Ferry plant will see three out of four units shut down in just a few months. Britain is going to be in a very sorry position if we don’t get on and build some new capacity to replace what’s closing – and we had better hope that the next few winters are as mild as this one has been.

EasyJet passengers to be served engine water from hydrogen planes

OK, it’s not quite a ‘hydrogen plane’ – it will still fly on standard aviation fuel – but students at Cranfield University came up with this hybrid concept involving a fuel cell, energy recovery on landing and electrically powered taxiing. All credit to EasyJet for trialling the system; let’s hope the knowledge gained will lead to practical commercial applications.

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