E&T news weekly #91 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 22 April 2016

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Everlasting battery breakthrough with nanowire material
Chance discovery could lead to better, cheaper batteries
Electric car batteries could help power railways

It’s been a big week for battery news – again. Given the ever-increasing role of rechargeable devices in our lives – be they phones or cars – it should hardly come as a surprise that a phenomenal amount of focused research into new energy storage solutions is ongoing and being conducted in the laboratories of the world. As the fossil fuel resources of the Earth dwindle, just as energy demands surge upwards in tandem with the globe’s population growth spurt, the need to renew and recharge efficiently, cheaply and easily will become even more crucial than it is now. Good news, then, from the University of California, who announced this week that a novel material using manganese dioxide to protect golden nanowires in an electrolyte made of a Plexiglas-like gel has resulted in batteries that maintain a consistent capacity for over 200,000 recharge cycles. Meanwhile, over at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, experimentation with a zinc-manganese oxide battery – as an alternative to the more commonplace lithium-ion technology found in modern devices – has resulted in a rechargeable battery with much greater energy density than conventional car batteries but at the same cost. Seems like manganese could hold the key. Once we’re all driving electric cars, powered by these new super-powerful, long-lasting, dirt-cheap manganese batteries, the railways might like to tap into some of that power. A project from the universities of Sheffield and Southampton is looking at new energy storage options that could enable trains to run more cheaply by borrowing some of the stored electricity from cars parked at the station, instead of buying electricity expensively from the grid. It could give new meaning to the phrase “parking charges apply”.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Drones deliver packages for Australian postal service

I’m pleased to hear that postal delivery drones are being tested in Australia. I’m not sure what the state of the country’s postal services is now, but when I lived there in the early 1990s it was nothing short of appalling. In Melbourne, my morning mail deliveries would routinely arrive between 4 and 5pm, if at all. There were none on weekends and, more often than not, none on Mondays and Fridays either. So effectively, the only two morning/evening deliveries I could count on were on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The reasons? Many tended to blame the then extremely aggressive postal workers’ trade unions which introduced a number of ridiculous requirements and bans restricting postmen’s activities (one of which, as far as I can remember, concerned the state of technical readiness of postmen’s bikes, and no Melbourne postman was allowed to carry out his duties on a bike that did not correspond to the specs). Those were the times when the left-wing government of Joan Kirner, Victoria’s premier, (nicknamed ‘Mother Russia’ for her political leanings), was in power. Members of the state’s electricians’ trade union were said to have put forward a demand whereby a qualified nurse would stand next to each electrician’s ladder in case he fell down while carrying out his duties. In another much publicised case, a team of builders stopped working and went on strike on spotting a mouse on their construction site. They demanded the site’s immediate fumigation and, allegedly, free beer. As a kind of compensation, I guess. I have reason to believe that postal (and other communal) services in Victoria have improved dramatically since then. And the drones are going to make them even better. One advantage drones have over their human counterparts is that they do not form trade unions. At least not yet.

3D printing used to design and print clothes

I cannot stop being amazed at the sheer speed of 3D printing technology’s growth. Only eight years ago, in 2008, E&T’s cover story was about the attempts at food-printing by an aspiring Chicago scientist-cum-chef which sounded like a real novelty then and now – printable clothes! Another recent E&T news story reported on printable UAVs. In short, it is now hard to find anything at all that is not printable already or promises to become printable in the near future. Even humans can (theoretically at least) be now ‘printed’ to genetic specifications (read cloned). There’s one thing, or rather creature, that I find hard to imagine in a printable form. I don’t know why, but I simply cannot fathom a printable horse. Cows and sheep, I can, but not horses. What’s wrong with them, or rather, what’s wrong with me?? I think I should probably make an appointment with a shrink, just in case.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Industrial networks in ‘mess’, says Kaspersky

In the issue of E&T published this week Dr Richard Piggin, and chair of the IET’s Cyber Security Community [communities.theiet.org] looks at whether industry is ready for the increasing focus on cyber-risk in industrial control systems that’s emerging in the wake of incidents like December’s attack on the Ukrainian power grid. Eugene Kaspersky, probably one of the best known names in this area, chimed in too with a warning that the situation could be far worse than it appears because companies often don’t go public when problems arise. There’s an element of “he would say that, wouldn’t he” – Kaspersky was speaking at the launch of his eponymous company’s new product, which happens to be designed to solve exactly the problem he was highlighting. What’s worrying though is his claim that not only are firms clueless about attacks on systems for remote operation and control of equipment, but that “even the police don’t have a clue”. The Ukrainian incident, which disrupted power supplies to a wide area of the country in December, could well be part of a regional dispute whose consequences might seem as remote to the UK public as a natural disaster on the other side of the world. Consider how similar incidents have targeted hospitals in the USA, Australia and Germany, and there’s good reason to be worried. As Kaspersky put it: “My answer to this is don’t pay ransom – have better cyber security in place.”

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Scunthorpe steelworkers accept pay cut; Port Talbot buyout considered

Tata Steel has been in the news repeatedly for a number of weeks now. Possible closures of a large plant at Port Talbot and the looming possibility of thousands of job losses mean that the company is in pretty hot water right now. With competitors in China producing steel at an exceptionally low price, British steel could decline even more rapidly than it is already. Because of the bad news, workers at Tata Steel have agreed to take a three per cent pay cut to attempt to make up some of the shortfall. This is of course a temporary measure, but it makes you wonder how far workers are willing to go to keep their jobs. Would you take a three per cent pay cut? If you got a three per cent pay raise for example, you may scoff and think it’s not that much. But imagine it being taken away from your pay packet ‘for the greater good’ – how would you feel about that?

Heathrow drone strike puts regulations in the spotlight

This is not only a dangerous story, but a thought-provoking one, too. This week, a British Airways Airbus A320 was struck by a drone. It’s yet to be discovered who was controlling the drone and why it was there, but it raises questions as to what to do with rogue drone pilots keen to get a good image of a plane or just messing around. Questions about drone pilots needing licences and new regulations are being suggested, but because a pilot of a drone can control it from so far away, it wouldn’t police the problem very well. I personally think sniping them from a distance could be quite fun, and may open more jobs in the UK!

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Solar nanogrids in Kenya help power off-grid population

Solar power projects in rural Africa are nothing new. What makes this one interesting is that it uses DC technology for simplicity and ease of maintenance, avoiding the need for inverters. Local people will be trained to manage and repair the system, and the cost to households will be less than they spend now on kerosene. Small businesses will also be able to get DC-powered grinding mills instead of diesel mills that cause health problems when used indoors.

Electric car batteries could help power railways

This is one of those research projects that might not lead to real-life implementation, but it’s likely to yield useful information anyway. Teams from the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Southampton will investigate whether electric vehicles in station car parks could act as a kind of collective energy storage system to help trains accelerate and absorb their braking energy. That’s a technical challenge in itself, but another element of the project will consider what incentives commuters might need to persuade them to take part. Would free lineside parking be enough of a benefit to offset the shortened life of an expensive (and I mean really expensive) EV battery? Maybe a free season ticket on the trains would be more of an inducement.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Engineering would feel the pinch of Brexit, says IET

Would the UK be better off outside the EU or within? The engineering, research, scientific and manufacturing community seems to be quite unambiguous. No matter what flaws the European project might have, its advantages far exceed the drawbacks. The IET has joined the debate outlining why Brexit is not the best way forward for UK engineering.

Heathrow drone strike puts regulations in the spotlight

It was fortunately not a disaster but it was certainly waiting to happen. A drone operated by an unknown hobbyist who will likely never been found has hit an aircraft approaching London’s Heathrow airport. Nothing has happened. The aircraft landed safely and was cleared for its subsequent scheduled flight after examination by engineers. But what if the drone got sucked into the aircraft’s engine? We all remember the ‘miracle on the Hudson’, don’t we? We know what large birds can do inside jet engines and although there hasn’t been that much research done into what drones can do, one might expect the effects to be rather similar. The problem is that no one requires drone operators to educate themselves on these matters and virtually anyone can purchase a quadcopter from a shop or Amazon for a fairly cheap price.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Drones deliver packages for Australian postal service

The news is a little dry this week – there are barely any robots at all! I rummaged around and managed to find out that Australia Post are carrying out field trials using drones, demonstrating that the helpful little guys can be used to deliver small packages. I’m slightly jealous that no one in the UK has seriously taken up drones as a potential delivery system. I can’t even comprehend how awesome it would be to have a little flying postman deliver my Amazon packages. No doubt my bank account would suffer as a result of almost constant impulse buys, but my standard of living would be significantly improved. Think about it, you’re slightly upset because you had to spend some of your hard earned wages on something horribly boring – like a radiator key, or a new USB cable – and then a drone turns up with the delivery! What could be better? I may seem slightly more impressed-by-drones than the average bear, but it just seems like there’s no end to their usefulness. They can deliver packages, wield chainsaws, breathe fire to roast whole turkeys and spy on unsuspecting garden dwellers. Ok, so a drone was responsible for the death of an innocent horse once, but you should really blame the owner, not the breed. We actually recently got a drone – and I love it! I’d never actually seen one in the flesh before and I was absolutely delighted when the little guy flew into my life, and heart. He’s not the most sophisticated drone in the world – he’s pretty lightweight and got blown into a large tree by a fairly average strength gust of wind the other day – but a drone is a drone, and I think he’s awesome.

Industrial networks in ‘mess’, says Kaspersky

You think industrial networks are in a mess huh, Kaspersky? Is that what you think? Well let me tell you something, Kaspersky, the only ‘mess’ is around here is your beloved Kaspersky Security Endpoint for Windows. Every time I try and research anything that sucker pops up and declares ‘adult content’ this, ‘adult content’ that. I will have you know that it is within the realms of my job to research the world’s first bionic penis, and I’ve tried, goodness knows I’ve tried! But you, Kaspersky, never fail to stand in my way!

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Engineering would feel the pinch of Brexit, says IET

Following in the footsteps of other engineering institutions, the IET has set out its official position on the European Union referendum to be held in the UK in June. It comes as E&T magazine kicks off its EU referendum coverage with a feature looking at what the industry thinks are the key issues for engineering and technology [http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2016/04/brexit.cfm]: research, immigration, market access and standards. Do you agree with IET President Naomi Climer? The E&T mail bag is already filling up with reader opinions on the issue – let us know what you think at engtechletters@theiet.org.

Intel to cut 12,000 jobs worldwide due to falling PC sales

The troubles at Intel are the inevitable eventual fallout from several consecutive years of falling PC sales, as consumers upgrade their mobile phones and perhaps tablets but hang on to their old computers. Intel says it’s moving into the Internet of Things but the fact they are making so many redundancies reflects where the industry is in the cycle right now – it’s still very early days.

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