Opinion - Your letters

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The grid's not a given

Engineering & Technology's 'nuclear issue' (Vol 3 #2) did what we so often do as engineers: pander to our natural desire to find difficult problems and solve them.

The sarcophagus for Chernobyl - whatever the politics - is certainly an interesting problem. And how timely to be reminded of the dangers of nuclear power at a time when the British government has decided on new power stations. I can also see that a quick review of nuclear station development is interesting - but here we go again, assuming the national grid is a 'given'.

The article in the previous issue on Mike Strizki's attempt to power his home by combining solar power with hydrogen storage ('Do it yourself heating', Vol 3, #1) was more encouraging. At least one man has put his efforts into trying to combat climate change, and push the domestic heat and electricity issues.

Stritzki is quoted as correctly asserting that hydrogen is safer than all the fossil fuels we know - but very sad that we are not told about any details of the fuel cell (presumably polymer based) nor of the possible combined-heat-and-power benefits from converting hydrogen to electricity domestically. Surely the box 'fixtures & fittings' should have highlighted this, rather than concentrating on an engineering side-issue, interesting though it may be?

I truly believe that hydrogen is the way forward. And this means serious change for our power industry. Domestic power should indeed be produced using hydrogen, in a distributed manner, to allow 'proper' combined heat and power. This way, the heat generated during fuel to electricity conversion is heating something we want to heat, rather than just the atmosphere.

Please, fellow engineers, whether you are power engineers or not, be honest. Our national grid and its power stations (whether nuclear, coal or gas) are heating up the planet, and are incredibly inefficient when you measure efficiency correctly (comparing originating fuel kJ with kJ produced at our 240V wall socket).

Campaign for hydrogen to be the common energy carrier - which can be produced from solar, wind, wave (where there are the obvious storage problems) biomass (entire plant with chemical process) or gas, coal or even nuclear or hydro. We not only need to wean ourselves off our dependency on fossil fuels, but also our irrational love of centralised electricity production and distribution.

The fact is that most of us don't need it, and we'd save the planet a lot faster if we agreed on this as engineers, without any prejudice. This is hard for us, because we have an interest in power engineering.

Is our industry as rotten as the car industry, which could have been producing hydrogen powered cars for the last 20 years if it had wanted to and didn't fear change. Are we up to the challenge?

Dr Will Powell, by email

100mpg car's not so green

'How to get 100mpg from your car' (Vol 3, #2) describes how Jim Fell improved the performance of his Toyota Prius by adding an extra Li-ion battery. However, because the battery characteristics do not match those of the original NiMH, he used the power from the Li-ion only to charge the NiMH when it was running low.

The power to charge the Li-ion came from the power grid, not from the engine. This is a cheat, pure and simple, because Fell counts only the energy he uses in the fuel to get his 100 miles per gallon.

His battery required about 12kWh to charge, requiring typically about 40kWh of fuel at the power station.

This is equivalent to about 4 litres of petrol. He doesn't say what his actual performance improvement is, in real figures. However, he does say the NiMH would take the car one mile at 31mph, with a capacity of 1Ah. The battery he used was 50Ah at 200V, which he had to step up to 240V, giving an effective 40Ah at 95 per cent converter efficiency, so he could get an extra 40 miles per charge or roughly 40mpg-equivalent, which is worse than using the Prius normally. Assuming the power station was powered with fossil fuels, there would be a net loss in terms of emissions (and pollution).

Because UK petrol is heavily taxed and electricity isn't, Fell would save a mite in running costs. I suggest that all he can really gain is the satisfaction of seeing 99.9mpg on his display on relatively short runs, while defeating the purpose of buying a Prius in the first place.

Brian Ellis, MIET, Cyprus

What's the point?

As someone involved in technical documentation, I believe the Nokia Point&Find technology mentioned in 'Future phones' (Vol 3, #3) could also reinvent the user manual as we know it today. I can see a time when you would open the bonnet of your car, point your handset at the engine to (a) identify which part is which and (b) call up instructions on how to remove and replace a particular part.

Ellis Pratt, Ashford, Middlesex

Politics and business

'Northern Lights', your article regarding the strong thread of engineering excellence running through Sweden (Vol 3, #3), was courageous enough to illuminate the darker thread of corruption and murder weaving between industry and state.

Fortified by such a forthright article, I skipped ahead to the issue's main feature on doing business with China. Descriptions of commercial successes and plenty of encouraging statistics, yes. Reminders of the Chinese political heritage, not many. None, actually.

Tianenmen Square, 1989? No mention. Well, the Chinese goverment itself has finally been able to mention the event, but calls it "the accident". Never mind, 1989 was so long ago! At least your contributor mentioned Mao's 'Great Leap Forward', but skipped the tiny statistic of the 20 million people who died trying to make it work. Never mind, even I can keep quiet until after the Olympics, just like everyone else.

Trevor Byrne MIET, Stevenage, Herts

Language Leaders

With reference to your article on Mandarin as an international business language ('Should you know this language?', Vol 3, #3), the Germans are ahead on this.

At a hotel in Beijing I was speaking to a German engineer whose English was excellent. His mobile phone rang and he spoke in German then returned to me in English. Again his phone rang and he spoke in Mandarin then reverted to English to talk to me again.

How do the British compete with people like that? They don't have North Sea oil or a major financial centre in Berlin, so engineering and science are the lifeblood of the German economy. It is their only way to earn a living and is reflected in their enormous export earnings.

Peter Sutton, Enfield, Middlesex

Socket and see

I wholeheartedly agree with DJ Seal (Letters, Vol 3 #3) that a lower voltage at the mains socket outlet is generally welcome. Having spent five years caring for automatic voltage control on the London distribution network, I can confirm that 95 per cent of the complaints we received related to high volts and not low volts.

The legal standard is 230V +10 per cent/-6 per cent, to be widened to +/-10 per cent this year. Most people experience a supply towards the top end of that band as opposed to the bottom. I have measured 258V from a mains socket in the West End of London.

The main problem is that operators like to see the 11kV system running at 11-11.2kV and this has a direct effect on the mains voltage. The high voltage standard range is +/- 6 per cent so we should be bold enough to run the 11kV system at 10.8kV. This proposal will no doubt horrify those operators of rural networks who have historically been obsessed with voltage boosting at the main substation to avoid low volts at the end of the line. I say to them that low volts at the end of the line is not a bad thing. All appliances would work adequately at 207V (the new lower legal limit) and resistive components such as lamps and kettles would last much longer. Operators should take the plunge and drop their voltages.

James Watson CEng MIET, Engineer - National Grid

DJ Seal must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he suggested that the standard UK mains voltage be reduced from 240V to 220V. For were the voltage so reduced, the I2R losses in the cables supplying our homes, and indeed those buried in our walls and hidden behind our skirting boards, would all rise to achieve the same wattage delivered to the loads. Unless, of course, we changed all the cables.

Do we really want, involuntarily, to further heat the environment? Far better that the rest of Europe come in line with us. Perhaps they could arrange to do so the same year that they start to drive on the left hand side of the road...

Tom Jacobs, Twickenham

Warning signs

I liked Dickon Ross's editorial column in the issue Vol 3 #2 about warning signs and had a go at creating a synthetic biology symbol, as he suggested.

The inspiration came from the idea that animals can be designed on computers nowadays, so I drew a computer designed animal.

Sterren Latsky, University of Bath

The obvious image to suggest synthetic biology is either the gryphon or chimera, and I lean toward the latter.

Using Google Images yields many results, and I quite like this one from the Chimera Operating System at www.cs.cmu.edu [new window]. The Wikipedia description seems relevant as well - a monstrous creature made of the parts of many animals.

Martin Robinson, by email

Here is my contribution for synthetic biology warning icon, a mixture of the current bio-hazard warning plus the potential result of playing with the building blocks of life!

Chris Shire MIET, by email

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