Celebrating the Young Woman Engineer of the Year awards; worrying about dirty phones and super bugs; forecasting to save fuel; upsetting the French and many more engineering news stories.

Celebrating the best

By Lorna Sharpe

Electrical engineer Hanna Sykulska has won the IET's Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award for 2008. The awards celebrate the best female engineering talent in the UK.

Oxford-born Sykulska is 26 years old and a postgraduate at Imperial College London. She won the IET Write around the World 2006 competition, and was chosen last year to work on NASA's Phoenix mission to Mars as an instrument downlink engineer. Away from work, she enjoys ballroom dancing at a competitive level.

Sykulska was presented with her trophy and a cheque for £1,000 at the BT Centre, London. She will now act as an ambassador for the profession, as a role model to female students.

"It's a great honour and privilege to win such a prestigious award," she said. "I look forward very much to sharing my experiences as an engineer and hope to inspire many talented young women to enter this exciting field."

Also honoured at the event was 27-year-old Bilal Thakore, currently working at LEGO Systems in Denmark as a global client development and technical consultant, who won the Women's Engineering Society (WES) Prize.

Elaine Hislop, a technical apprentice at BVT Surface Fleet, received the WES Doris Gray Award. Her colleague Laura Campbell, a mechanical engineer, was given a special prize for Merit.

Katie Lester of RWE Npower won the Mary George Memorial Prize for Apprentices.

Young Woman Engineer is an annual competition, which seeks the UK's most charismatic female engineer under 30. Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2008 was sponsored by BT, the WES and Premier Farnell.

£3,000 prize for top student engineer

Engineering students from 34 leading universities will battle it out to win the title of Engineering Undergraduate of the Year. The award, run in association with Npower, is a new category in the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards.

As well as prestige, the winner will receive £3,000 prize money and the chance to work with Npower.

The award is open to pre-final year undergraduates studying electrical engineering, control and instrumentation, material science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering or civil engineering.

Contenders will compete in a two-stage process, beginning with an online technical test developed by the IET. Entrants will be invited to answer a series of technical multiple choice questions followed by open questions looking at issues such as the future of power generation.

The best candidates will move on to stage two of the award - a structured telephone interview to assess 'softer' skills such as communications.

Finalists will be invited to attend the awards ceremony in London on 21 May, where the winner will be announced in front of an audience of 1,000.

Chris Phillips, publishing director at Group GTI, the organisers of the competition, explained: "This is an exciting new award category in the TARGETjobs Awards 2009 and is designed to find undergraduates who have that something extra - who are academically above average, natural problem-solvers and great communicators.

"The engineers of the future will be tackling some of the biggest challenges that society faces, not least that of sustainable power. The new award is designed to celebrate the talent within this field, bring recognition to the skills needed to excel within the industry and to raise the profile of engineering careers among engineering students."

Bob Athwal, head of graduate schemes at RWE Npower, said: "At Npower we are looking for the brightest engineering minds to help us meet future energy demands. This competition will allow us to help develop essential skills and competencies for the next generation of talent."

Dirty phones 'spreading superbugs'

Doctors and nurses who carry their mobile phones everywhere but don't keep them clean could be contributing to the rise in hospital-acquired infections like the MRSA 'superbug'. Researchers from the Faculty of Medicine at the Ondokuz Mayis University in Turkey found that almost 95 per cent of handsets in operating rooms and intensive care units were contaminated with bacteria responsible for infections ranging from relatively minor skin complaints to life-threatening illness.

The problem, according to a report of the work in the journal Annals of Clinical Microbiology and Antimicrobials, is that despite working in sensitive environments only one in ten medics regularly clean their phone. The suggested solution is a combination of measures for all hand-held electronic devices that includes strict infection-control procedures, environmental disinfection, hand hygiene and routine decontamination.

"Our results suggest cross-contamination of bacteria between the hands of healthcare workers and their mobile phones. These mobile phones could act as a reservoir of infection which may facilitate patient-to-patient transmission of bacteria in a hospital setting," said lead researcher Fatma Ulger.

Road forecasting saves fuel

By Lorna Sharpe

Fuel savings averaging 12 per cent have been achieved on a test track in a vehicle that predicts conditions ahead such as traffic lights or sharp bends and accelerates or brakes automatically.

The technology, known as enhanced acceleration/deceleration (EAD), was demonstrated in a Ford Escape hybrid as part of a 15-month research collaboration between Ricardo, Jaguar-Land Rover, TRL, Ordnance Survey and Orange Business Services. Part of the funding came from innovITS, which was set up by the government to foster UK expertise in intelligent transport systems.

The Sentience project was based on extending the 'electronic horizon' of the vehicle using Internet-enabled mobile communications, GPS, advanced mapping and other sophisticated real-time navigational technologies, aimed at reducing the exhaust emissions and CO2 output of future vehicles in a cost-effective manner.

Two other elements also formed part of the project. In Optimised Engine Load (OEL), the hybrid powertrain systems were managed using advanced route knowledge to plan the best places for using or recharging the battery. Enhanced Air-Conditioning (EAC) provided extra cooling before an expected stop (for example at traffic lights or a give-way line) when the engine (and hence the air conditioning) would cut out.

Project director Tom Robinson of Ricardo said: "Sentience has been a unique collaboration between three industries that would not normally work together. The results speak for themselves in demonstrating the potential synergy to be realised by connecting the existing on-board systems of vehicles with mobile communications and advanced mapping technologies."

The researchers obtained their data by comparing the Sentience vehicle with an unmodified but otherwise identical control on the same routes. Ordnance Survey supplied enhanced map data for TRL's test track in Berkshire and also for on-road test routes close to Ricardo, Orange and TRL.

Much of the project team's work focused on EAD, which they expected to be the most promising technology for cutting fuel use and hence CO2 emissions, and the results showed this to be the case - at least in UK conditions. In fact, the cool English summer made it impossible to get enough useful data on EAC. Results for the impact of OEL were also inconclusive, but Ricardo is planning further tests using
a dynamometer.

In track tests, the EAD strategy alone demonstrated fuel savings of between 5 and 24 per cent (average 12 per cent) depending upon traffic conditions and route topology. In evening tests on public roads near TRL, mean savings were better than 5 per cent.

Robinson estimates that it would take three to four years to introduce Sentience systems commercially, allowing for manufacturer's production development cycles. Suitable data sources would be required to provide high-resolution enhanced maps, "but these are being developed anyway", he commented.

Although demonstrated on a hybrid, similar technology could be incorporated into mainstream vehicles.

Barclays takes credit for payment card first

By James Hayes

Barclays has beaten its banking rivals to release a contactless payment debit card that puts RFID-based near-field communication (NFC) technology into the hands of consumers for the first time.

New Visa debit cards rolling out this month include additional functionality that enables them to make transactions of up to £10 when held close to a compatible point-of-sale reader, without
the need to insert them into a terminal or input a PIN.

The RFID functionality has been built into the cards' core silicon, and they work normally for standard chip-and-PIN transactions and cash-machine functions. Barclays developed the NFC technology with Netherlands-based digital security specialist Gemalto.

Up to three million of Barclays' debit-card customers are set to be using contactless cards by the end of this year, and most will have the new cards by 2011, the bank claims.

There is a limit on the number of contactless transactions that the card will allow before forcing a chip-and-PIN transaction to ensure that the card is in the cardholder's possession, but this limit is reset whenever the PIN is used.

"The limit is linked to a combination of value and volume of transactions, and not to time," says Barclays head of credit cards Brian Cunnington. "[In terms of security] we have added additional transaction monitoring to the chip, and increased the anti-cloning security technology."

The new cards feature the Visa payWave symbol that represents contactless payment, which will also be on display at compatible retailers. Barclays says that around 8,000 UK retailers accept contactless payment.

Barclaycard introduced contactless technology on credit (as opposed to debit) cards in September 2007 with the launch of a three-in-one Oyster, credit and contactless card. Oyster cards are used for travel on all Transport for London services.

ARM aims for low-energy business

ARM has launched a low-power processor core that it hopes licensees will use to compete with microcontrollers designed for low-standby power.

ARM's claim is that its 32-bit Cortex-M0 core can provide higher performance for the same energy as specialist low-power 8-bit and 16-bit microcontroller cores.

"The M0 is only 12,000 gates and offers very low dynamic power and leakage together with 32-bit performance," said Dominic Pajak, product manager for the processor division, adding that for arithmetic-intensive functions, the ability to handle 32-bit values involves fewer instructions than if they are split into multiple 8 or 16-bit operations.

As the company is expecting the M0 to go into wireless sensor nodes and medical devices where standby power consumption needs to be very low, it has backed up the normal on-chip registers with state-retention shadow registers. These are made using transistors that leak less than their counterparts in the main logic paths - they switch very slowly so cannot be used for regular logic.

Pajak said he expects customers making SoCs to use the M0 as a peripheral controller to save power when dealing with a growing number of sensors, such as touchscreen controllers, brightness detectors and accelerometers.

"If somebody brushes the touchscreen, for example, the M0 can determine whether it was accidental or deliberate without having to wake up the applications processor," Pajak explained.

Box-ticking entry system 'barring engineers from UK'

Exclusive By Dominic Lenton

The British government needs to reconsider its recently introduced points-based system for assessing whether well-qualified people should be allowed into the country to work, an IET-backed report has said.

'Knowledge Nomads: Why Science Needs Migration' is the final report to emerge from the five-year Atlas of Ideas project run by think-tank Demos. It warns that, in an age when top scientists and engineers are prepared to travel wherever they need to in the world to further their careers, the fact that the UK's approvals programme for highly skilled workers is based largely on income will deter or even prevent many of the best from coming to the UK.

"There's a lot of hype about this elusive bunch of people, but very little is known about them," report author Natalie Day told a meeting at the IET's London headquarters. "It is becoming increasingly clear that good science is global science. The best scientists move around."

Day argues that the old 'pipeline' model of innovation in which resources are pumped in at one end and results appear at the other has been largely replaced by a network of relationships between industry and academia. For this to work, she said, a diverse and mobile workforce is essential and organisations should be prepared "to collaborate promiscuously".

The report likens the world's best researchers to their counterparts in the world of professional football: free agents who will follow the money and quality of play. The big difference is the relative levels of pay. The report calls for the UK to place less focus on salary levels and look instead at the value of different skills to specific industry sectors.

Day warned that although the system has some strengths it relies too much on box-ticking. As a scientist or engineer, she commented, "generally, you don't earn enough to get in".

Other aspects of the programme that need changing, the authors say, are the category for entrepreneurs, and recent changes that require applicants to provide significant personal collateral.

Part of the reason for this, as was evident from the furore over Prime Minister Gordon Brown's comments on 'British jobs for British workers', is a fear that once a country lets people in, they won't leave.

"Increasing anxiety does have an impact on the UK's ability to attract knowledge nomads," said Day. "This is a particularly worrying trend that seems to be escalating in light of the recession."

Statistics, however, show that skilled migrants are unlikely to set down permanent roots, and the report recommends that the UK Border Agency should consider collecting data on immigrants' level of education and establishing an exit survey co-ordinated by the human resources departments of universities and employers.

"Too often the debate focuses on immigration, where the information is commonly over-inflated and confused," it says. "Having mechanisms in place to provide a more robust understanding of the UK's contribution to the global 'brain circulation' would enable governments, universities and other policy makers to think more strategically about how to connect better with diaspora networks." [new window]

View from Brussels: University rankings upset the French

By Pelle Neroth

What with the City's loss of reputation and whatnot, there remains one definite and fine thing the British can pride themselves on: Britain has the best universities in Europe, the second best in the world after the United States.

In the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, the best known global university index, the UK has two universities in the global top ten - guess which - and four in the top 30. (Imperial and UCL join the Oxbridge duo.) France and Germany don't have a single one.

I have been to several education conferences over the last month or so. It is a busy time for international educationists. In April, there is the two-yearly conference of education ministers meeting to discuss the progress of the so-called Bologna process. Under this process, 46 countries (the EU 27 plus 19 European countries not in the EU ranging from Norway to Russia) have pledged to align their degree structure and to introduce a transferable course credit system, the ECTS.

The alignment effectively means that all Bologna signatories have dumped their old degree structures - venerable centuries-old concepts, five-year degrees including the French maitrise and the German-speaking nations' diplom. Instead, they are all adopting the Bachelors/Masters 3+2 system that prevails in the UK and the US. They will even be using the English names.

The idea is to make it easier for students to spend terms at other universities, and have this time spent abroad recognised at home. Employers will also find the single degree structure easier to deal with. And, the French and Germans hope, a recognisable degree title rather than one with a strange foreign name will attract more high-paying, brainy Chinese students to their universities.

Having achieved this harmonisation, the Bologna 46 will be looking at where to take the process next. And the answer is: probably in directions less appealing to the British.

The French, in particular, have objected to the Shanghai rankings. Points are given, French commentators complain, to universities whose researchers have articles published in Nature and Science - English-language publications, which puts the French at a disadvantage. The Shanghai rankings are important because this is what Chinese bureaucrats look at when deciding to send their numerous students abroad.

Many would argue that, with English the language of science, articles published in Nature and Science are true indicators of a university's scientific excellence. Nevertheless, the French are proposing an alternative, European-constructed, ranking system with different criteria. The details will be revealed in April - but you can be sure that it won't be one where French universities do worse and British universities better than before.

Wind lobbyist turns to gas

By Paul Dempsey

Billionaire-turned-renewables-lobbyist T Boone Pickens is turning his immediate attention away from wind power to promote gradual conversion of haulage fleets from diesel to natural gas.

Pickens - a former oil executive who now devotes his energies to promoting the Pickens Plan for US energy independence - discussed his new priority at a Washington DC meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Right now, there's no credit to do it," Pickens said, citing wind power as another victim of the banking crisis. "But, it's also that wind is priced off the margin, and natural gas is the margin for power generation. In Texas, wind'll work when gas is at $8/MCF [thousand cubic feet], but it's at $4, so it won't work."

Pickens has ordered 687 wind turbines from General Electric and paid a $150m deposit for deliveries starting in 2011, with another $1.5bn due.

"It's two years before I start having to stack them up in my backyard," he said. "But seriously, between now and 2011, wind will come back. There'll be a recovery in the gas price and there'll be something in the [forthcoming US] Energy Bill.

Pickens believes that targeting haulage will pay faster energy dividends. His model is a programme launched seven years ago in California, where diesel dustcarts were replaced at end-of-life with natural-gas vehicles. Legislators noted that each truck was equivalent to 325 cars in terms of pollution and energy consumption.

Pickens wants to apply the concept to '18-wheelers', the huge vehicles that carry America's road freight. Here, it can take just three years for a whole fleet to be refreshed, as opposed to a decade for public vehicles. He argues that the Energy Bill could provide subsidies towards the higher cost of gas-powered replacements.

"I would want to give $80,000 each for 350,000 of them," said Pickens. "It'll cost $30bn, but for every gallon you use of natural gas, you use one gallon less of foreign oil - it's a gallon-for-gallon trade-off. It creates 450,000 jobs directly and 1.6 million jobs indirectly, and it reduces imports by four per cent."

Decommissioning Dounreay

BNS Nuclear Services has won a £13m contract for maintenance and operations services in support of the decommissioning of the Dounreay nuclear site's two fast reactors. Until now, four different companies have provided maintenance and operations support to Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL).

That work will now come together under one management. Combining workforces means not only sharing knowledge and skills but also managing the culture change. BNS is expected to develop an integrated planning system for the reactors' maintenance and operations activities.

Brad Smith, DSRL's site project manager, said: "Even though our reactors are of different designs, there is a great deal of commonality about the decommiss-ioning approach needed for liquid, alkali-metal-cooled, fast reactors. This contract should act as a pilot study to show we can take advantage of this."

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