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Engineering defined

Prompted by John Epps's letter 'Engineering misconceptions' (Vol 3 #2), I would like to add my thoughts. It may be easier to define an engineer by what he or she is not. An engineer is generally not a scientist, but takes scientific discoveries and applies them to the real world. An engineer is not a life scientist. An engineer is not a mathematician, but can do sums better than any accountant. Some engineers display excellent art capabilities - but they are not artists.

Engineers are creative, imaginative, capable and resourceful. Engineers make things work and bring ideas from the drawing board to real tangible entities. In Victorian times, engineers built big things. Now, while engineers still build big things, they also create things based on that great 20th Century discovery - electronics.

It's easy to see that engineers created the canals, roads and bridges, the boats, cars and lorries. But engineers also created and operate telephone networks. Engineers bring the TV signals to you and designed the TVs in your house. Engineers made the rockets that flew man to the Moon, launched satellites that keep the world talking, and designed and built the satnav in your car.

Engineers designed the medical equipment that allows you to see inside your body. Engineers created the radar and avionics systems that allow planes to land safely. Engineers designed the chips that are at the heart of everything 'electronic'.

Engineers can be infuriating because they have an innate intuition about all things mechanical and electrical. To quote a delightful Dilbert cartoon - we have 'the knack'. We are not without fault, though.

We never read instructions, and before spellcheck we could not spell. We don't suffer fools gladly, we may be insecure - which explains why we take the lid off just to see what's inside, we may be a bit 'nerdy' and we hate being told what to do!

When I give this message to teachers who are responsible for bringing on the next generation of engineers, I remind them what was said about Thomas Edison when he was at school. He was told that he was too stupid to learn anything, that his mind was 'addled'. His inventions are too many to mention here, but you would not be reading at night or making phone calls without his engineering discoveries.

Charles Curry FIET, Ross-on-Wye

UK nuclear debate

The UK Government's support for nuclear power is absolutely wrong, because it is a resource that will, like oil, coal and gas, run out. Renewable methods are the only proper way to proceed and I am glad that Scotland is opposing nuclear.

All energy generators using resources seem to be based on us not needing energy after a few hundred years, when humanity has existed for several thousand previously. Resources are finite and should not be frittered away. It is time that we had a reality check.

Dr Peter Foreman FIEE, Chelmsford, Essex

'Entombing the Tragedy' (Vol 3 #2) brought back memories of the Chernobyl disaster. Unfortunately, the impact of this incident has lost its ability to influence our decisions.

Chernobyl's crumbling concrete sarcophagus is precariously unstable because it is supported by the damaged remains of the reactor building. If parts of the building were to collapse a large amount of radioactive particles will be released. It is to forestall such a statistically probable threat to life that the largest moveable structure in the history of mankind will have to be urgently built to entomb the remains, and even this will only provide protection for 100 years.

Britain is about to embark on a major new programme of nuclear power station construction. Has the government considered the effect of a serious collapse of the Chernobyl structures before the sarcophagus is in place?

The public reaction to the loss of life may be so intense that the programme may have to be discontinued, with enormous financial penalties and lost time.

Professor Leon Freris, Centre for Renewable, Energy Systems Technology, Loughborough University

What disappointment to see how much the prevarication of UK Governments and the head in the sand attitude of the 'environmental' zealots has put the UK's nuclear engineering capability back by so many generations of reactor. I suppose we should be thankful that at last common sense is winning, but at what expense to the UK's scientific and manufacturing economy?

After a life in the defence industry, a more serious concern I would have is regarding the proposals for a generic design assessment by a government quango. The assumptions that design technology will be shared between major competing companies or that companies will form a partnership are fraught with risk. The concept of the GDA already shows signs of catching the defence procurement disease that has left history littered with failed projects at a huge cost to the taxpayer. On top of this, the HSE is unlikely to accept anything other than demonstrated zero risk and the Environment Agency, by definition, will have a fifth column and a plethora of Luddites on its back.

What price a reactor online by 2020? Pretty long odds, I would think, but Business and Enterprise Secretary John Hutton will not be around then.

Patrick Moore CEng FIET, Locks Heath, Hants

Is 220V better for UK?

Having lived and worked for the past 20 years close to a domestic electricity substation, I have experienced the dubious 'advantage' of a supply voltage closer to 250V rms than the nominal 240V. The resultant shortening of the operating life of tungsten and, more recently, 'low energy' fluorescent lamps, and the premature destruction of both linear and switch-mode power supplies in domestic and professional equipment eventually led me to apply voltage-reduction engineering to my internal mains supply, the distribution authority having denied the existence of a problem in spite of accurate evidence to the contrary.

As so much domestic electrical equipment has been designed for the European 220/230V standard, only fitting a fused 13A plug in an attempt to comply with UK standards, would it not make energy-saving sense to reduce the UK domestic supply voltage to the European 220V level? With an 8.3 per cent reduction in the domestic mains supply voltage, energy savings could be made in terms of reducing I2R and HV leakage losses alone, albeit offset by resistive loads for heating purposes taking longer to reach the required temperature.

DJ Seal FIET, Farnham, Surrey

Hydrogen comes home

All praise to Mike Strizki ('Do it yourself heating', Vol 3, #1) for his scheme to power a home by combining solar power with hydrogen storage, but he, or at least the article, doesn't mention the water needed to run the hydrogen plant. One might assume, since he has gone so far, that he is capturing the rainwater from his roof and perhaps filtering grey water, but it would have been nice to hear about this side of the project. With water becoming a scarce commodity this is a vital part of any such scheme.

Also, it is not very practicable other than in rural areas due to the amount of space it needs for hydrogen storage. And I would think there would be concerns over safety if it were brought into urban or even suburban areas, especially when the cowboys got into providing the hydrogen tanks!

EurIng Brian Hammond, CEng MIET, Lichfield, Staffordshire

Mark Venables quotes Mike Strizki as saying "hydrogen is... safer than all the fossil fuels we know". Really? A hydrogen-air mixture is flammable in concentrations between 4 per cent and 77 per cent, with minimum ignition energy of 0.02 mJ. Methane, the main constituent of natural gas, is flammable in concentrations between 4.4 per cent and 17 per cent, with MIE 0.29mJ.

A random leak of hydrogen is much more likely to be ignited by a random ignition source than one of methane under the same conditions. A hydrogen flame is virtually invisible in daylight and therefore much harder to detect.

Those of us who deal with electrical equipment in explosive atmospheres will be aware that the requirements for equipment to be used in hydrogen (Group IIC) are much more restrictive than those for use in natural gas, and most other hydrocarbons (Group IIA). Those who are promoting the hydrogen economy need to recognise openly that hydrogen has a number of safety issues, and deal with them, rather than pretend that they do not exist.

Bruce Durdle CEng MIET, New Plymouth, New Zealand

Not half an engineer

I see from Denis Brook's letter 'Spinners not spanners' (Vol 3 #2), protesting about the choice of picture to illustrate a story on low take-up of UK engineering apprenticeships, that we engineers should now be too dainty to dirty our delicate hands with spanners and screwdrivers.

If we are to design things to be spanned and screwdriven, we should have practical experience of them. It may be that their full-time users are mere technicians and mechanics, but we need to appreciate what we require of them. So often mechanical design is practical to operate but not to build, install or maintain. Sometimes, the operation is also compromised by blindly following theory. Similar considerations apply in the electronic and other fields.

I am glad that my training course, many years ago, included working on manufacture, installation and maintenance work. I had to work alongside the machinists, installers, fitters and maintainers, and while I was not expected to equal their efforts I was not placed with them as a mere observer. Without that I would only consider myself to be half an engineer.

JR Batts, Banbury, Oxon

Corrections

Garel Rhys, author of 'Seeking world peace' in the manufacturing section of the Vol 3 #2 issue of E&T, is emeritus professor at the Cardiff Business School and Centre for Automotive Industry Research. The article is based on his chapter in the book 'Outsourcing and Human Resource Management: An International Survey', edited by Dr Ruth Taplin and published by Routledge (ISBN 978-0-415-42891-0).

The map of UK nuclear power stations on page 53 of the same issue should have indicated that the sites included were only those that have closed since 2000 ('closed reactors' in the accompanying bar chart) or are still in operation ('new reactors'). Hunterston is mislabelled as 'Hunstanton'.

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