The engineer’s view

I was catching up on the latest views from the engineering realm over the last few weeks and I thought it would be useful to reflect on some recent developments.

Perovskite Solar cells
Despite being a £120 billion worldwide business, renewables received very little coverage over the election. And what coverage it did receive involved promises from the Tories to cut subsidies…and give an even bigger subsidy to the nuclear industry! And let’s not even get started on subsidies to the fossil fuel industry which vastly exceed anything ever given to renewables.

Well one innovation getting some recent attention is that of solar cells relying on Perovskite rather than silicon, with a British firm, Oxford PV, at the forefront of developments….well until the Tories run them out of town (you know how pro-business they are!).

What is interesting about the Perovskite panels is that they offer the opportunity for significantly enhanced efficiencies, particularly if used in tandem with a layer of silicon based panels. Also they offer a much lower environmental impact. The environmental impact of solar panels is often exaggerated by critics, who often ignore the fact that far more heavy metals are emitted by fossil fuel plants. That said, there is certainly a desire to cut those numbers further, particularly if the result offers yet another opportunity for major cuts in production costs.

The downside? Most of the world’s Persoviskite is sourced from Russia!

Bladeless Wind turbines
Another innovative idea is bladeless wind turbines. These rely on the principle of resonance to keep the turbines turning, without the need for any blades. This offers the possibility of lower visual impact, greater efficiency and lower costs.

Downsides? Well the technology isn’t very mature and it may prove difficult to scale up these turbines to the levels seen with HAWT’s. But its good to see this sort of research with people thinking outside of the box. However it also shows why subsidies are necessary, at least so long as we are effectively subsidising other energy sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear.

Scrapping the bottom of the railway barrel
Recently Scotrail was rather controversially taken over by the Dutch company, Abellio,….which sounds like a type of stomach complaint you’d get after eating too many Amsterdam space cakes! 😳

Anyway, one of the things that Abellio did was to promise that they’d buy in new trains. However the IMECHE magazine has suggested, as has the Scottish Herald, that quite a few of these will be refurbished Intercity 125’s, a type of British rail era train set. So it would seem a “new” train to the Dutch is to slap a coat of paint on something you’ve pulled out of railway bone yard. Dressing up mutton as lamb doesn’t quite cut it, this is dressing up haggis and calling it caviar!

The IMECHE is of course strongly behind HS2. However in recent additions, they’ve been recognising that there is still scepticism from large sections of the public. However they do point out that the major question critics fail to answer is, if not HS2 what else? The UK has an antiquated and inefficient railway system that most Eastern European countries would be ashamed of.

Continuing the current policy of sticky plasters on a leaky dam isn’t going to cut it. New lines have to be built to ease overcrowding, as well a long delayed completion of countrywide electrification (yes less than half of the UK’s railway network is electrified!). New trains need to be bought in to increase speeds, relieve overcrowding and provide greater comfort. Stations need to be upgraded, after all we’re still using an infrastructure largely designed by the Victorians when the population was a fraction of today’s.

In short, its time for some difficult and ultimately expensive spending decisions to be made. Or we’ll be still being trucked around on creaky overcrowded railway carriages older than the majority of the people sitting in them.

Brexit may mean bis-exit
And of course the general view of the engineering community to Brexit would be something along the lines of “have the rest of you gone mad or what?”. EU membership is crucial to trade. While it is true that the head of JCB did back Brexit, this was taken by many of his colleagues as a sign that he’s slightly out of touch.

The pro-exit camp are often deluded into thinking that the UK is so important to the EU that we can drive a hard bargain and get a better deal with the EU (and other countries) outside the union, for example pointing to the large amounts of cross channel trade, about 50% of UK overseas trade is with the EU, about £11.8 bn in exports and £19.7 bn in imports.

However this has to put in the context of the EU’s total trade of 1.7 trillion euro’s and imports of 1.6 trillion. Yes UK trade with the EU might be worth 50% of our trade, but its just 1% of the EU’s total trade!

In the event of a break down in negotiations post Brexit, who do you think will blink first? the British delegation worried about losing 50% of trade, or the EU worried about losing 1%? The UK will be over a barrel in such negotiations, as they will also find themselves when negotiating with the US or China. Merkel could force Cameron to endure some sort of bush-tucker trial and he’d happily eat frogs legs or snails, perhaps get him to drink that awful Berliner Kindl beer, and yet he’d still sign anything they put in front of him. He’d have no choice.

Already there are signs that businesses are positioning themselves for Brexit. In the back pages of the engineering mag’s you’ll hear all sorts of stories, for example that Jaguar is building new factories, not in the UK (while the Castle Bromwich site is full, they’ve plenty of space at other sites) but overseas in Asia, Turkey or the EU. And this is by no means a one off, what’s left of UK automotive manufacturing would be in dire straits in the event of Brexit. Rolls Royce and Airbus, have not been quiet about their views on Brexit and its again worth noting that they seem to be either holding off on key investment decisions or have already decided to build new factories overseas. Even today’s announcements regarding HSBC had a Brexit angle.

The danger of course being, that all of these move will leave major corporations with essentially one foot already out of the UK, making it very easy for them to simply move completely out of the UK if (as predicted) there are major issues post an EU referendum.

Back to 1992
Cameron was elected Tory leader on the promise that he would stop the party “banging on about Europe”.

Well at this week’s G8…..or is it now the G7 again…. world leaders were busy discussing the crises in Ukraine, Libya and Syria, the refugee crises that has resulted, the possibility of Grexit, the great sand wall of China and climate change. Meanwhile Cameron spent much of the G7 leaving the room to argue with his own MP’s over Europe. And Farage, perhaps feeling left out, decided to have a go at the Americans (Obama has made it clear that US/UK relations will suffer if the UK leaves the EU, something Farage has more or less helped to confirm).

I recall warning anyone who voted Tory (or UKIP) that you better like Europe because you’re going to be hearing about it alot for the next five years and not a lot else. Its like 1992 all over again. If this is what the next few years are going to be like perhaps Cameron should just resign and we can have John Major back!

We of the tiny house
One environmental movement that has been growing in recent years has been the push for greener and more energy efficient homes. The UK’s building account for 42% of the country’s energy consumption, thus anything that cuts the carbon footprint of houses is going to have a dramatic impact. German or Scandinavian style “passivhaus” buildings offer dramatic energy savings, with a house that potentially needs no central heating system, yet is still comfortable and warm in winter.

And some are going further from zero carbon homes, to houses that actually generate energy or homes build from low impact recycled materials. Its a concept started off by the so-called “earthship” movement of the 1970’s, which is now starting to go mainstream.

Another more recent development is the Tiny house movement. These seek to build very small and compact homes. By building a house small you are obviously greatly reducing the home’s environmental footprint. While not everyone’s cup of tea (I won’t mind one, but I’d use it as a weekend cottage up in the Highlands), they do come with the advantage of much shorter lead times, lower costs and that they can be built on much smaller sites and literally squeezed into places you couldn’t normally fit a house. A documentary internet film discusses the movement and its ideas here.

However in the US and Canada, the authorities have taken a dim view of these environmental movements, no doubt convinced “green home” means hippies growing BC bud, while Tiny house means “trailer trash“. They’ve been cracking down on such building projects and blocking planning. Of course green buildings have been here before, the Earth ship movement faced similar difficulties in the 70’s.

But so much for the land of the free! And whatever you do, don’t park a Tesla outside that Tiny house (they’ve been banned too!), they’d probably waterboard you! Clearly this just shows that Republicans are the biggest hypocrites on the planet. Perhaps the tiny house people should just put a gun rack on the roof, mount the home on wheels and call it an SUV. They’d probably get a subsidy for that in texas!

Sodom and Houston
Speaking of which, in addition to banning Tesla’s for being too good to the environment and stopping the climate change that isn’t happening. But if it is, its caused not be greenhouse gases, but by Sodomy. A piece from Texas radio in which some bible thumping hick blames recent flooding in Houston on “sodomy”.

Seriously? I assume in this context “Sodomy” means them city folk with their fancy mobile phones, “rock and roll”, that thing called “the internet” and “DVD’s”. Careful now and down with that sort of thing!

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