Feedback: your letters

Knotty questions considered this time: food vs fuel, how technology is ruining sport, building a better rat trap and more.

Food or fuel?

I found the article 'Feeding the Power' in the 26 July 2008 issue of E&T disturbing. There is no doubt that food grain production should never be sacrificed for power production; there is already considerable malnutrition - in some cases almost nearing starvation - in developing countries. However there are also vast tracts of arid land in several regions, including appreciable areas in my own country, Pakistan, which cannot be used for any kind of food grain cultivation.

It is in such areas where attempts are being made to grow shrubs and other vegetation that could be used for bio-diesel production. These attempts, if they prove successful, would provide at least some little relief to countries such as Pakistan where phenomenal increases in oil prices have resulted in nearly intolerable burdens on our economy.

It is not only agricultural research for cultivation of such plants that is necessary, but also engineering research in their conversion to bio-diesel. My own university is in a very small way working in the latter direction. Hence the surprise that E&T should emphasise the danger of converting food grains in developed countries while ignoring the urgent need for bio-diesel manufacturing from inedible vegetation.

A Kalam, Vice-chancellor, NED, University of Engineering & Technology, Karachi, Pakistan

'Feeding the power' is a worthwhile attempt to emphasise the chronic problem of waste v want, afflicting the human population all over the world, that has been created by a few 'lucky' countries, with the USA topping the list. Time and again one is reminded of the historic, golden words of Gandhiji - "there is plenty to meet everybody's need, but not enough to meet greed", or words to that effect.

If only those at the helm of affairs could be honest, serious and sincere in carrying out the jobs they are entrusted with by the millions!

Dr SC Bhargava FIEE, Secunderabad, India

Infrared lab hazard

I am writing with regard to health and safety when working with infrared systems. I am a profoundly deaf engineer who has been an IET member since 1995. Since I graduated from the University of Strathclyde in 2000 I have specialised in electronics, including optoelectronics.

There are some scientific areas at my employer's site that I have never worked in before. However, I am very enthusiastic about working in these areas, where I hope to gain new experience and knowledge in order to develop my career.

Last year I began to assist on a project working on an infrared communications link. However I am no longer working on this project, because my colleagues and I encountered a number of safety concerns. It was identified that health and safety risks would rise to an unacceptable level if I were to continue working with IR systems.

When working with IR systems it is necessary for us to work in a completely darkened optical laboratory. In this instance, health and safety requires team-based working, involving my two co-workers and myself. One problem with this is that communication often breaks down as I cannot hear.

I am very keen to find a workable solution so I may develop my skills. Currently I have not found any solutions within the UK. The main reason for this is that I have been unable to identify any deaf scientist or physicist working in such environments.

I am keen to discuss my situation with other deaf scientists and physicists who have worked in similar environments or have had a similar experience. Has any other E&T reader been in this situation, or known someone who has?

Andrew S Kay, Sevenoaks, Kent

Technology overtakes technique

I totally agree with Mark Venables in his editorial in issue 14 of E&T. It is now technical development and money that win sporting events as much as a sportsman's ability.

I have often thought that in motor rallying, which is closer to the man in the street (or perhaps really the man on the road), than Formula 1 racing, manufacturers should be required to participate in vehicles bought 'blind' from their distributors and thereafter not modified in any way and only supported by the normal services available to the ordinary motorist. The race results would then be far more relevant to the motor-buying public.

Andrew B Bryce MIET, Newton-le-Willows, Lancs

Pest power

I was a little disappointed with the 'Inventors' Inbox' discussion in the 9 August 2008 issue of E&T of the merits of a 'treadmill rat trap'. I believe Mark Sheahan and Patrick Andrews have overlooked the fact that in this day and age (in America) all new treadmills would have to be fitted with safety belts and air bags which would be designed to prevent any kind of lethal impact.

They are on the right track, however; they just did not apply enough innovation. Taken a step further it can be seen that the rat-powered treadmill could be converted into an ideal generator of electrical power. This power could be stored in a battery or capacitor until it reached a level to self-trigger a rat-lethal pulse of energy. All that is now required for the perfect 'green' rat trap is to connect the treadles of the mill to the energy supply in groups such that the rat's front and back legs are in contact with treadles of opposite polarity.

By delaying the time to trigger it may be possible to produce an energy pulse large enough to vaporise the rat, thus also making any form of plastic bag, or even disposal unnecessary.

Eric A Scotson MIET, San Francisco, USA

Here comes the sun

I was interested to read the report of recent solar power research at MIT in the 9 August 2008 issue of E&T ('Bring me sunshine', p56).

A power station using parabolic mirrors to focus sunlight on to heating coils was built in the Australian town of White Cliffs in 1979. Some 14 mirrors were used to produce steam to power a reciprocating steam engine and alternator. A diesel-fuelled flash boiler was incorporated in the steam circuit to improve the efficiency of the generation process. The mirror dishes tracked the sun to provide maximum heat to the water coils and a battery/M-G set was used when there was insufficient sunlight to power the alternator. The power output of the station was 26kW.

It was hoped to be able to build these small stations for other remote communities but evidently the government of the day lost interest and the installation was abandoned when power from the national network was extended from Broken Hill.

The venture was a collaboration between the New South Wales government and the Australian National University. There were several notable inventions as a result of the work that was done there; a high-efficiency steam engine and a rotating joint able to withstand the high temperatures and pressure of the steam. At the time the cost of the power was 20¢/kWh versus the cost of diesel generated power of $1/kWh.

Len Clarke MIET, Summerhill, NSW, Australia

Geoffrey White is correct in his assessment of the poor financial returns expected in the use of solar gain to heat domestic hot water (Letters, #11). However, with the impending introduction of the Energy Using Products Directive from Brussels and the prospect of unrealistic targets in the reduction of NOx levels for domestic heating boilers in the UK, the industry has had to invest vast sums in the development of emerging 'green technology'. The fallout from this has been huge costs carried by consumers, who at this stage, invest in renewable energy packages mainly because of a social conscience.

The answer lies with the level of funding and incentives available through central and local government and other energy schemes. These need to encourage the switch to alternative energy sources. With the funding there has to be a level playing field in the distribution of grants to eliminate the current situation where consumers can claim for a bigger share of the pot just by their geographical location.

Stuart McWhinnie, MIET, Liskeard, Cornwall

The debate over solar power talks about economics, 'feel-good factor' and other emotive issues. I never thought I would see such in IET publications. The indisputable factor is the solar constant - which nobody mentions - because it tells us that there is a limit to how much energy per second per square metre that can be provided by the Sun.

Dr Robert Jones, MIET, Balnarring, Australia

Mobile beauty contest

Writing about the market for mobile phone handset operating systems in issue 14 of E&T ('Mobile game of risk'), Chris Edwards makes some interesting points. It is clear that OS companies are now in a 'beauty contest' for developer attention, and, while some are beginning to wake up to this fact, I don't think the full extent of the problem has yet hit home.

It is perhaps easy to be complacent with an established brand and a significant database of 'registered' developers already on your books but things change in this industry; what worked as a developer network strategy yesterday may not work as well tomorrow, if at all.

I'm sure, as Edwards suggests, OS vendors are going to get more responsive to developer needs but I'd argue that if the "shake out" is going to happen, how well you've managed your developer network is going be key to survival. The players left in the game are going to be the ones that woke up to the challenge of creating a better developer business experience first; it's that important!

Harry Wilson CEng MIET, Bonneville, France

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