News

Just a small selection from this issues news section include: new hope for European car manufacturing, your chance to lick some first class engineers, GPS minus the satellites and medicines are given the ultrasound treatment. 

Carmakers plan for recovery

Manufacturers and their suppliers have used the recent International Automotive Conference in north east England to outline plans for restoring Europe as a cost-effective centre for car production.

Speakers including executives from Ford, Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover emphasised that the whole cost - including lengthy supply chains, the uncertain stability of suppliers and the link between development and production - must be considered. These factors mean that European carmaking, while experiencing tough times, can remain successful.

Simon Carter, deputy director for the automotive unit at the Department of Business, stressed that the UK government has recently made a commitment to the sector and alluded to more investment in new, 'green vehicle' technology. "We are guaranteeing £1bn to support £1.3bn of bank lending to the industry; we need to prepare for the future - but not just prop up old technology and facilities. Like the European Investment Bank, we are targeting 'low carbon' investment," he said.

There's no doubt that carmakers are under severe pressure, Nissan International's Geoff Smith said. "There are new priorities to address and speed in addressing them is of the essence. The survivors will be those who manage the cash and sweat the existing assets, and their new priorities should achieve a 'total delivered cost'.

Many speakers pointed out that recovery has to be achieved in the greenest way possible. Production, expenditure and the movement of parts and cars need to be adjusted to the market and the planet, they said, but if it is done properly it could bring savings for everyone involved.

The conference revealed that the automotive industry is now looking at the radical change in its market as an opportunity to implement new efficiencies. And, though some admitted that it is currently hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, it was Julian Hetherington of Jaguar Land Rover who summed up the challenge ahead: "It's never been truer to realise that how you manage the downward part of the cycle will determine how effectively, and indeed whether, you come out at the other end."

First class engineers

Some of the biggest names in the history of British engineering are recognised this month in a series of Royal Mail stamps celebrating the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution.

Two versions of the first class stamp feature manufacturer Matthew Boulton and his partner in steam engine design James Watt. Railway pioneer George Stephenson and machine maker Henry Maudslay come together on the 56p stamps, textile manufacturer Richard Arkwright and potter Josiah Wedgwood on the 50p, and transport pioneers James Brindley and John McAdam on the 72p.

The complete set of eight is available in a presentation pack with text written by TV science expert Adam Hart-Davis, who looks at how the Industrial Revo--lution changed the UK.

Defra backs anaerobic digestion

Organic material such as manure, slurry and food waste could be the source of enough energy to heat and power more than two million homes in the UK according to the government.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is launching a task force to help sectors such as farming and the water industry meet goals to produce energy from anaerobic digestion, which generates biogas from the breakdown of organic material by bacteria in the absence of oxygen.

According to Defra, the UK produces more than 100 million tonnes of organic material each year that could be used to produce biogas, 90 million tonnes of which comes from manure and slurry.

The National Farmers' Union has a target to have 1,000 on-farm anaerobic digestion plants by 2020, which will power farms and produce fertilisers as a by-product of the process.

"We're producing more organic waste in this country than we can handle, over 12 million tonnes of food waste a year - and farmers know too well the challenges of managing manure and slurry," said Jane Kennedy, Farming and Environment Minister. "There are alternatives to sending organic waste to landfill. Anaerobic digestion is a true solution.

"This material could produce enough heat and power to run more than two million homes - helping to prevent dangerous climate change by providing a renewable energy source as well as reducing our reliance on landfill."

Along with farming representatives, businesses and organisations from sectors including water, energy, waste, food and retail have endorsed goals for introducing anaerobic digestion to create power by 2020.

Ultrasound hope for drugs clean-up

The threat to wildlife from medicines that accumulate in water supplies could be reduced by installing piezoelectric generators in treatment plants, say Swiss researchers.

Pharmaceuticals find their way into the environment in a number of different ways, from the waste from manufacturing plants to simply being flushed down the toilet. Once in the wild they can persist and reach concentrations where there is a potential effect on plants and animals.

Researchers at the Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne, Switzerland have come up with a novel solution that they say is capable of completely removing contaminants. The technique involves subjecting water to ultrasonic waves generated by a piezoelectric device at the bottom of a reaction tank.

This leads to a reaction in which water is dissociated into highly oxidant radicals, which facilitate the breakdown of drugs into biodegradable substances that can be removed in a conventional purification plant.

Pilot studies focused on removing ibuprofen, which is one of the drugs found most often in waste water. Applying ultrasonic waves for half an hour broke down up to 98 per cent of the drug. After two hours it was eliminated completely.

Automotive

Ethanol engine approaches diesel efficiency Researchers at Ricardo's Detroit Technology Campus have pioneered the development of technology that optimises ethanol-fuelled engines to a level of performance that is said to exceed gasoline (petrol) engine efficiency and approach levels previously reached only by diesel engines.

The technology, called ethanol boosted direct injection (EBDI), takes full advantage of ethanol's best properties - higher octane and higher heat of vaporisation - to create a renewable fuel scenario that is independent of the cost of oil.

EBDI is said to solve many of the challenges faced by flex-fuel engines because it is optimised for both alternative fuels and gasoline. Current flex-fuel engines pay a fuel economy penalty of about 30 per cent compared to gasoline when operated on ethanol blends such as E85. The EBDI engine substantially improves ethanol's efficiency, and performs at a level comparable to a diesel engine.

"In real-world terms, these efficiencies mean that EBDI can reduce the actual cost of transportation when compared with fossil fuels, and it does it with a renewable resource - ethanol," said Rod Beazley, director of the Ricardo gasoline product group. "The combination of technologies we're applying to the EBDI engine make the most of ethanol's advantages over other fuels, which include a higher octane rating and a higher heat of vaporisation.

"Without getting too technical, this means we can use a high level of turbocharging to achieve the high cylinder pressures that ethanol enables. Add in some other advanced technologies such as direct injection, variable valve timing, optimised ignition and advanced exhaust gas recirculation, and we're squeezing out more power than is possible with gasoline."

The prototype EBDI is a 3.2l V6 engine that ultimately could serve as a replacement for a large gasoline or turbo-diesel engine in a large SUV (sport utility vehicle).

The first firing of the engine and initial development is currently taking place. It will be installed into a pick-up truck demonstration vehicle later this year.

Beazley emphasised that the technology is very scalable. Applications could reach far beyond the automotive and light-truck industry. "Imagine agricultural equipment that, in effect, burns what it harvests - corn, sugar cane or some other renewable substance. It could mean tremendous cost savings across many industries."

Wi-Fi aids piracy fight

By James Hayes

A naval taskforce in action off the coast of Somalia is deploying a Wi-Fi-based realtime video and data relay system in military operations against pirates.

The backpack-borne Maritime Boarding System (MBS) provides navy teams with a live video and voice feed to their mother ship when they board a suspect vessel to search for arms and other illicit cargo. Cameras and microphones are fixed to backpack straps at shoulder level.

In addition, MBS can send data, enabling biometric tasks like fingerprinting and photographing to be performed in real time. Interpreters on the bridge of the mother ship listen to verbal exchanges aboard the suspect ship and advise the boarding party of what is being said.

The personnel using the system are attached to Combined Task Force 151, an offshoot of CTF 150, the multinational coalition naval task force set up in 2002. Contributing navies include those from the UK, US, Canada, Denmark, France, Netherlands, and Pakistan.

The navy MBS has been developed by Danish software engineers Systematic, US ruggedised wireless node maker Rajant, and IT security consultancy Global Secure Systems (GSS), based in the UK. It comprises a mix of off-the-shelf products, with purpose-built applications. Specially-developed battery systems give MBS a claimed operational life of 24 hours, with a Wi-Fi range of 20km.

"A high-bandwidth data network can be established very quickly and automatically using meshing technology, between the mother ship and rigid-inflatable boats, and even helicopters," explains GSS managing director David Hobson. "Placing wireless nodes aboard suspect ships means that naval forces can investigate further inside them and stay in contact with base control on the mother ship, and with each other."

Military 'super GPS' tracks without satellites

By Dominic Lenton

A prototype positioning system for the military that uses radio, television and mobile phone signals to let GPS devices work when enemy forces are blocking satellite frequencies could help improve the accuracy of commercial satnav systems.

BAE Systems, the company behind the technology, says that because GPS signals are extremely weak by the time they reach the Earth's surface, jamming is an increasingly common battlefield problem.

"Just a small pocket-sized device can jam signals over several hundred metres," explains Dr Ramsey Faragher, a higher scientist in advanced information processing at BAE Systems, who developed the prototype solution. "What's more, anyone with a basic knowledge of electrical engineering can buy components on the high street and make a battery-powered GPS jamming device within an hour. I was at a navigation conference last week and a third of it was dedicated to the issues of jamming and spoofing."

For high-end receivers such as those in cruise missiles and fighter jets, which use phased antenna arrays to carefully track the genuine satellite signals, interference isn't such a big issue. For cheap GPS receivers with simple antennas, however, the only solution to jamming is to find and disable the source of interference or move away from it. And for ground troops, just walking into a building or under dense foliage can block the GPS signals.

Spoofing, or broadcasting fake GPS data to make a device think it is somewhere else, is another potentially serious problem both for the military and for the civil sector, where it is used in applications such as criminal curfew tags and asset tracking systems. A backup positioning device that can give an alternative location estimate and therefore flag up potential spoofing is therefore attractive.

The solution being investigated by Faragher takes advantage of the fact that radio and television signals are available in populated areas right across the globe, and are typically many times stronger than those of satellites.

The system operates on the same principle as existing GPS, but because it combines information from a number of different signal types it is claimed to be much more accurate. While BAE isn't revealing exactly how it uses data from transmitters at unknown locations, the company is optimistic about its potential.

"Our system is a dedicated positioning system and will eventually have the flexibility to use GPS, other satellite signals, all mobile phone networks, TV signals, radio signals, WiFi, dedicated beacons - anything we program it to identify basically," says Faragher.

Ability to distinguish between friend and foe - 'red and blue force tracking' in military parlance - has yet to be tested. In theory though, identifying 'friendly' sources based on frequencies, encoding type, known signatures or shared code words should be straightforward, leaving anything else to be identified as 'unknown and suspicious'.

Tracking everyday mobile phones - while possible - would require help from network operators. Every handset produces a unique electromagnetic pattern, but that pattern varies from call to call. So, although it would be possible to see, for example, how many phones are being used in a given building to determine whether it is occupied, more precise identification would need further information.

"By collaborating with the network providers you could decode the phone number of each phone during the positioning process and so uniquely identify each phone that way as you position them," says Faragher. "Without their help and consent this process would not be straightforward and may be illegal."

Faragher says that he has been able to identify and track several GSM transmitters simultaneously without any problems, and that tracking dozens is "definitely feasible". This means the system would let battlefield commanders track both their own forces and the enemy on a real-time map, based on radio transmissions. And it can scan and detect signals from the mobile phones or radios of enemy combatants hiding in buildings.

BAE's main initial focus is on unmanned ground systems, which are heavily reliant on satellite positioning. But with location-based services enjoying massive growth in the consumer sector, the company sees potential sales there.

The system is fully compatible with current systems that rely on GPS, says Faragher, who claims to have used it to run a commercial satnav device on a journey across Bristol using medium-wave radio signals rather than GPS.

"GPS will never penetrate indoors as well as these higher-powered terrestrial signals. If we develop a 'super-GPS' chip in the near future that behaves exactly like the GPS everyone is used to, but still happily works well indoors, in tunnels, under dense tree cover etc, then I'm sure they'll sell pretty well as the new industry standard 'GPS' chips in satnavs, phones, tracking systems and other commercial devices."

Eco-house borrows medieval ideas

One of the first zero-carbon houses in the UK has been unveiled near Staplehurst in Kent.

The building, Crossway, was the brainchild of architect Richard Hawkes, who will be its first occupant. Structural design was by Michael Ramage, who is based at the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture, and Philip Cooper, who teaches in the department and is a director of Scott Wilson Engineers.

The four-bedroom property uses a technique borrowed from 600-year-old medieval architecture to provide what may prove a blueprint for energy-efficient living in the future.

More than a quarter of UK carbon emissions come from households, adding considerably to global warming. At present only a handful of homes are zero-carbon, however, and many designs are too expensive to merit mass production. But with the UK government's target that all new homes will be zero-carbon by 2016 innovation in this area is vital.

While Crossway is more expensive than some conventional homes at the moment, its promoters believe that its design and technology could ultimately be a prototype for cheaper energy-efficient homes.

"The design is cost-effective in that the home is relatively simple to build and, once you know what you're doing, it's quick," said Michael Ramage. "Many of the costs come from the new technology it uses for energy storage and generation. If those become more widely available, making a similar house cheaply in much larger quantities may be possible."

The arched building is essentially one large vault spanning 20m, covered on the outside with earth and plants to help it blend in with the rural surroundings.

Its basic design is adapted from an historic Mediterranean technique called 'timbrel vaulting', which uses thin bricks to create lightweight and durable buildings. The vaulting gives the house plenty of structural strength, but obviates the need for materials with high embodied energy, such as reinforced concrete.

The bricks also provide great thermal mass, enabling the building to retain heat and absorb fluctuations in temperature, so reducing the need for central heating or cooling systems.

Any necessary heating comes from the solar energy through the UK's first example of a combination photovoltaic and thermal system, which is more efficient than other solar technology. An 11kW biomass boiler has also been installed to provide energy and electricity if the sun does not appear for days on end. The house is insulated throughout using recycled newspaper.

View from Washington:

A word to the wise

By Paul Dempsey

Barack Obama is not President of the World. He is President of the United States of America. I know this can get confusing. To many of you beyond these shores, he's somewhere between 'Leader of the Free World' and 'That-fella-who-can-screw-things-up-on-a-global-scale'. But the truth is that, while Obama shows promising signs of being an internationalist, his priorities are profoundly national.

I say that because, if you work in the sciences, you really should examine his economic stimulus programme very closely. Mainstream commentators have noted its 'Buy American' clauses with some alarm, and their concerns have merit. However, there is more of specific interest to us in the detail.

Extending and deploying broadband coverage and capabilities, $4.7bn; the National Science Foundation, $3bn; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, $1bn; the National Institute of Science and Technology, $580m; the digital TV switchover, $650m.

Those are just a few of the beneficiaries of the stimulus package, and that's all before you add in the tens of billions of dollars that are to be directed towards renewable energy. Engineering's payday there - across nuclear power stations, wind turbines and photovoltaics and beyond - is impossible to break down either specifically or generally but looks sure to be huge.

So, why worry? This is all good for science, for the pure process of discovery, isn't it? Actually, no one's disputing that. But while most European governments are focused on bailing out the banks that got us into the current mess, you cannot ignore the fact that the USA is already looking to boost its technology sector to ultimately help it trade its way out of recession, while ours are not.

Indeed, a senior Obama administration official said at a recent briefing on energy policy that the US does not feel that George W Bush's neglect of the domestic science base has left it hopelessly behind other developed nations in terms of R&D. Rather, it is confident that it can overtake those economies and assume pre-eminence in renewables as the industry of the early 21st century.

We older Brits remember that feeding public money into the 'white heat' of technology is no guarantee of economic success, more a way of setting fire to banknotes. However, a further element behind the US programme demands attention here - energy is being placed at the forefront of R&D as a national security issue, just as putting a man on the moon was largely about fighting the Cold War. If you recast government spending in that light, history suggests you can get results.

As much as we are allies of America and our economies are interlinked, we also compete. And the 'cousins' are not exactly hiding their intentions. So, our domestic and EU politicians appear to be in need of a hint. Or maybe a nudge. Or maybe, just maybe, a good solid kick.

Breakthrough in DNA analysis

By Chris Edwards

Oxford Nanopore has developed a way to detect not just the bases that make up DNA sequences but one of the key modifications that cells make to genes - a step that may streamline the treatment of diseases such as cancer.

The company uses tiny pores containing cylindrical proteins to detect the four different bases that are used in normal DNA to encode genes. The bases sit in the pore for brief periods and disrupt an ion current passing across the hole. Characteristic changes in this ion current indicate which base it is.

Publishing the results in the latest edition of Nature Nanotechnology, the company's scientists claim to have improved the accuracy of the technique and to be able to spot when one of the bases, cytosine, has been modified with an extra methyl group. Cells 'mark' cytosines in this way to control how genes are expressed and provide a second, less well understood mechanism for passing on traits from generation to generation. These epigenetic changes also play a role in ageing and cancer.

Up to now, Oxford had to use an adapter molecule to bind temporarily to the pore protein to get successful detection. Principal scientist James Clarke explained that if the adapter was not present bases would pass through undetected. By mutating the protein, the team was able to attach the adapter permanently and found that the system could distinguish methylated cytosine from normal cytosine and the chemically similar tyrosine.

"We had in the back of our minds that methyl-C would be an interesting thing to look at. One reason was that tyrosine and methyl-C are very similar," explains Clarke. The tyrosine and methyl-C show similar results in terms of how long they sit in the pore and the blockage to the ion current that they cause, which is providing clues as to how the bases and protein interact in the pore.

"There are other chemical modifications that happen to DNA, some of which are the result of oxidation damage," Clarke goes on. The pore detector may be able to pick up on those modifications as the protein is refined.

The company is pulling this work together with its other research with the aim of building a gene sequencing machine that does not rely on chemical labelling, a drawback of most other systems on the market.

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