E&T news weekly #103 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

Friday 15 July 2016

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Nuclear reactor construction falls to zero globally in 2016

It seems that nuclear power is out of fashion at the moment – perhaps partly because the Fukushima disaster dented people’s confidence in the technology, but also because nuclear plants are hugely expensive to build. On the other hand, governments around the world are committed to cutting carbon emissions, so while replacing existing fossil-fuel plants with more efficient ones may just about be acceptable, renewables are currently the only show in town when extra capacity is needed. That still leaves the question of finding the right technology for local circumstances, at sufficient scale, and making it affordable. There’s still a lot of work to do.

Carbon Trust scheme to slash cost of offshore wind power

This story highlights my previous point about choosing the right technology for the location. While countries nearer the Equator may invest heavily in solar power, Europe’s more northern coastal states are putting money into offshore wind. It’s still a relatively new technology – even inshore turbines were a research novelty when I joined E&T in its previous incarnation as IEE Review – and I recall a naval architect warning conference delegates never to underestimate the difficulties of construction in a maritime environment. That said, the industry has made huge progress, but there’s a long way to go to get generation costs down to the Carbon Trust’s target of £100/MWh.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
£4.12m space rocket test facility given the go-ahead

The interesting thing about the heavily engineering-based and peculiarly British strain of science-fiction that was popular in the 1950s was that it assumed the UK was going to be at the forefront of interplanetary exploration. From Bernard Quatermass and his British Experimental Rocket Group to the terrific 1959 radio series ‘Orbiter X’ that was rebroadcast for the first time by the BBC earlier this year, there was an expectation that UK scientists and engineers would be leading the race for space, even if it meant they’d be the first to experience any of the nasty consequences. The public didn’t know at the time, but there was plenty of effort going on at secret locations like the High Down site on the Isle of Wight (now run by the National Trust and well worth a visit if you’re there this summer) where projects with stirring names like ‘Black Arrow’ were being tested as part of the Cold War effort. Things didn’t turn out quite as those TV and radio shows expected, of course, but Britain still has a flourishing space industry and it’s one of the sectors on which government is pinning hopes of post-Brexit growth. Fittingly, the new National Space Propulsion Facility announced this week is going to be based at the same site in Buckinghamshire that was home to the top secret Rocket Propulsion Establishment set up in 1946 and is now a business park housing several space technology companies. Prospects for success are good, and maybe it’ll provide the inspiration for a new generation of sci-fi writers to pen stirring stories of British rocketeers.

IoT ‘smart desk’ ends office disputes over room temperature

Micromanagement isn’t usually considered a good thing. Arup has given it a new spin however with a sensor-fitted desk that lets workers in open-plan offices control the climate in their personal space. You only have to look around a typical workplace to see some people sitting in shirtsleeves while others a few feet away are wrapping in heavy cardigans – it’s one of those things that can cause massive disputes between colleagues who otherwise get on just fine. The bonus with the smart desk is that it also detects when no one’s sitting at it and turns off lights, monitors, heating and the rest.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
China takes on nature with weather engineering technology

“The Communist Party is in control of everything, even weather,” they used to say in the USSR. And rightly so. Everybody could see that the weather was always nice during the 7 November annual celebrations of the ‘great’ Bolshevik revolution (read coup d’etat) of 1917 (which, incidentally happened in October, not in November, but that is a different story), the Victory Day military parades and the 1 May enforced ‘demonstrations’. And of course, there was not a single cloud in the sky for the whole of three-week-long botched Moscow Olympics of 1980 (I was there and can confirm it). The rumour had it that on the eve of all those events, squadrons of light Soviet Army planes would disperse the clouds by spraying them with a cocktail of chemicals invented by heroic Soviet scientists in some top-secret laboratories. I never seriously believed in those rumours… But now, having read this story, I’m ready to admit that I was wrong. The Soviet Union must have had something similar to China’s Weather Modification Program, run by the Weather Modification Department of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences… Why not, when window dressing (or cloud dispersing, if you wish) was – and, it appears, still is – an obligatory feature of any Communist country, be it defunct, like the USSR, or alive and thriving, like modern Communist China? Why do they require window dressing on such a scale (to the point when the exemplary ‘Communist weather’ had been engineered and maintained through the duration of Beijing Olympics in 2008), when the nation seems to be prospering anyway and does not require constant reassurances of its own greatness, you may ask? Frankly, I have no idea, and the only plausible explanation I can find is in the popular English saying “old habits die hard”. They certainly do. And old Communist habits die hardest. I have little doubt therefore that ‘weather engineer’ is among modern China’s most prestigious occupations, even if they have so far failed to stop frequent flooding and no-less-frequent droughts costing the country thousands of human lives. Who cares about natural disasters as long as the Sky above the Tiananmen Square always stays cloudless and blue?

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Farnborough Airshow evacuated following heavy downpour

I don’t normally like to comment on my own stories, it feel a bit self-interested, but I have to make a comment on this story, purely for the fact that I was at Farnborough on the ill-fated opening day, and witnessed the events first hand. I’ve lived in the UK all my life, and I know we do love a good summer shower, but I would go so far as to say I have never seen rain like that which battered the Farnborough showground on Monday, it was quite literally Biblical. In fact, I saw a few other news organisations commenting on the storms, and asking people to be on the lookout for plagues of frogs and locusts. I slipped inside the Raytheon chalet for an interview at 1.30pm, leaving behind a suitable amount of sunshine for a July afternoon, and emerged outside an hour later to fast-flowing rivers were the roadways once were. I had an ankle-deep wade across the site to get to my next appointment, which was cancelled due to the power being cut. I know a lot of people were quite disgruntled by the fact that the show had to close early, “we missed out on valuable sales time” and all that jazz, but I don’t see how the organisers could have anticipated falling foul to the wrath of a fire-and-brimstone god.

IoT ‘smart desk’ ends office disputes over room temperature

Wave goodbye to your office-induced chilblains, there’s a new piece of equipment in town that is about to revolutionise your work environment. A fantastic team of engineers from Arup have developed a solution to disputes over room temperature, in the form of a ‘smart’ IoT desk which allows workers to control their very own microclimate. Truly a desk to rule them all. In my short working life I have never once been wholly satisfied by the temperature in any office I have worked in. It’s always too hot, too cold, or too comfortable. In my last job, I had a small heater hidden under my desk that I would use to toast my feet for 11 months and 3 weeks of the year, which would be swiftly replaced by a fan for the one week of British summer time. The setup worked quite well for me, but I can’t help but feel guilty when I think about all the electricity I must have consumed. This new desk presents a much more eco-friendly approach to the personal heater/fan scenario – that’s a double win if you ask me. The new sensor-fitted desk allows its users to create their own perfect working environment, in terms of temperature, and lighting, using software that takes control of central air-conditioning units and desk-fitted lighting.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Fingerprint recovery solution for plastic banknotes invented

So, the news here is that a team of British scientists has developed a technique for recovering fingerprints from plastic banknotes, such as those to be introduced by the Bank of England in September. This technique supposedly will help in investigations with fraud, stolen cash and similar crimes. With banknotes becoming more and more elaborately designed to prevent fraud, does this mean cash will be more or less popular than digital means of payment that we have today? And how effective will the technology be on a banknote that’s been in many a cash register, crumpled behind a sofa or put through the wash? I still think people prefer the novelty of contactless payment. After all, you spend money without the emotional parting of a £20 note, and you can pretend you haven’t spent anything at all. The technology on these banknotes seems promising, but whether it will withstand public handling is another matter.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Co-bots collaborate with humans on Ford Fiesta assembly line

I like this story as much for the cheery robot gesture in the accompanying image, which made me involuntarily smile, as I do for the news that industrial robots at Ford’s Cologne plant are working directly alongside their human counterparts. It’s a real partnership, man and machine, the one assisting the other, with each playing to their respective strengths in dividing up the work involved. This is the future for robots in the workplace. Far from taking away human jobs completely, robots are more likely to be used to alleviate the stress and strain that heavy lifting jobs – such as automotive assembly – can place on human beings. Thumbs up to that.

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