Feedback: your letters

TT racing - "zero-carbon" style - we hear from an E&T reader how it went. The electric vehicle debate sparks into life again this issue plus many more letters besides.

Great day out at TTXGP

I was fortunate enough to attend the TTXGP 'zero-carbon' motorcycle race held on the Isle of Man on Friday 12 June as part of the TT Races, and to join the TTXGP party on the day. Highlights included discussions with the many interesting guests on the flights and at the TT itself, a brief encounter with Steve Plater, the eventual winner of the senior race in the afternoon, and of course the racing itself.

What stands out, however, was the sheer enthusiasm and dedication of all those connected with the TTXGP, and I congratulate the IET in recognising that sponsorship of such activities does much to raise awareness of the role of engineering and technology. Whether zero-carbon racing will ultimately become a significant branch of motorsport I would not like to predict, but if the IET's involvement encourages more young people to consider a career in science or engineering, it will have had the desired effect.

I am now much more realistic about the prospects for new technology, having seen many 'false dawns' in my past career, which started interestingly in a company manufacturing electric vehicles. However, I soon recognised that their time had yet to come and turned to the 'dark side', designing electrical systems for IC-engined vehicles, a career that enabled me to visit many interesting places and experience different cultures.

Now retired, one should perhaps not get too involved in activities such as motorsport, but the prospect of riding a motorcycle around the TT circuit still beckons, and like the future for zero carbon motorcycle racing, I would not like to predict!

Dr MA Hind CEng FIET, Horsham, West Sussex

Ethical engineering

Chris Edwards' article 'Ethics and Synthetics' (Vol 4 #11), in which he quotes Lord Winston's comment that "We don't teach physical scientists the ethics of science the way we do with medical students", should be required reading for all scientists and engineers.

According to the 4 February 2009 issue of The Times, the USA and Russia have 5,000 nuclear warheads each, while the UK has "only" 160. Whatever arguments may be used to justify other armaments, weapons of mass destruction, like terrorism, do not choose their victims. Such weapons would not exist if research in nuclear science had not been developed by scientists and engineers willing to do so.

When attending the graduation in medical ethics of my grandson at my old university of Leeds last December, I was delighted to learn that there is now a centre for Inter-Disciplinary Ethics, with courses on ethics for business people and other professionals including engineers. So some progress is being made to fulfil Lord Winston's concern.

Geoffrey Cundall FIET, Newcastle upon Tyne

Dawn of the super-professional

Ian Pearson ('What the future holds', Vol 4 #11) writes that, "It has been true for many years in engineering… a degree has a half-life for usefulness of about six months". They must be poor degrees, bad engineers or both.

My degree taught me to think for myself and developed my ability to learn as an ongoing habit. The fundamental concepts and mathematical tools I mastered during my degree extend far beyond the limits of the nominal degree subject and are mostly relevant today.

Professional knowledge is already becoming accessible via software tools and Internet access to information. Many low-skilled people can now access information to do work previously requiring highly skilled professionals but without a proper understanding in most cases. The social and economic implications of this de-skilling are still unclear but one might expect a reduction in the esteem and rewards for the so-called professionals everywhere. However, we should also witness the creation of a small class of super-professionals whose abilities to think, create and direct will be especially well rewarded.

Eur Ing Dr DJ Rhodes CEng FIET, Nottingham

Electric vehicle prospects

Peter Saul's letter (Vol 4 #11) appears at first sight to show that electric vehicles are a complete non-starter. However, his conclusions are misleading.

His suggestion that the "range and top speed of electric vehicles was and will always be 60 miles and 60mph" may have been true in the 1970s when lead-acid battery technology was all that was available, but it is simply not true with higher-energy density battery technologies such as lithium-ion. The Tesla Roadster electric sports car has a range of 220 miles and top speed of 125mph and there is a wealth of actual performance data available which prove that these figures are reasonably accurate.

Mr Saul attempts to calculate EV range based on the motor power rating (150kW) and battery capacity (35kWh) of the electric Mini. In reality, the car will not be running at full power or even half power most of the time; on average it is probably running at one-tenth or less of the motor-rated power. The surplus power is there to ensure that the motor never approaches its thermal limit, operates at an efficient point, and gives some headroom for acceleration and overtaking. A conservative estimate of 20kWh/100km, based on actual measurements made on a G-Wiz EV, gives a respectable range of 175km.

The UK is committed to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Gasoline and diesel-fuelled cars will struggle to get below about 90g of CO2/km however efficient the design. Yes, the emissions of electric vehicles depend on the electricity grid mix. But as the grid is cleaned up, so the vehicle emissions drop. It's about getting on a trajectory to a zero-carbon future.

The UK can either get on board with electric vehicle development as soon as possible, or simply stand by and watch as the US and Far East rapidly scale up entire industries.

David Howey, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Imperial College London

I have recently seen several photographs of proposed electric vehicle charging leads, connectors and associated street electrical supply points showing how electric car batteries could be recharged at the street side. These are intended to convey to a non-technical public the possibility of a simple street electrical supply replacing the petrol pump. Very little could be further from the truth.

A conventional petrol pump pipe has an energy flow which equates to about 10MW, allowing a full-vehicle fuel capacity transfer to be accomplished in around 100 seconds, while the recharge time for an EV battery can be measured in hours.

Adopting a standardised battery that could be exchanged at 'filling stations', in a similar manner to that used for replenishing liquefied gas cylinders, would effectively remove the electric vehicle range restriction and eliminate the time spent with the vehicle out of service while the battery is recharged.

Geoffrey H Robinson CEng FIET, St Andrews

Charles Dunn (Letters, Vol 4 #10) highlights the need for standardisation for electric cars to realise a pan-European solution. It is at this point I become disillusioned that in the UK we will squander our natural creativeness and, while trying to agree a standard that suits all, fall far behind other countries.

Just look at how Britain can't agree with the rest of Europe a standard mains plug for household appliances! Our natural talent for creativity meets an inherent resistance for change which results in being different and is often on the wrong side of a common approach. This is where our government really needs to make a difference by pushing developments forward and leading Europe from the front rather than waiting for things to happen.

For example, the creation of a government-backed nationwide network of battery swap and hydrogen refuelling stations would open up the possibilities for individuals to embrace these alternatives sooner rather than later, kick-starting the market to develop rapidly.

Eur Ing Bernard Smary CEng FIET, Northampton, UK

In France, Citroën-PSA and Renault are both researching the potential for electric vehicles, with no apparent plans for imminent production. However, the French covernment commissioned its Centre d'analyse stratégique to examine the situation as part of an official report looking in detail at vehicles powered from petrol and diesel engines, with fossil and biofuels, various forms of hybridisation, electric vehicles in many configurations, compressed air cars, natural gas and hydrogen cars and others.

The section 'Cars of the Future' says (my translation): "The petrol or diesel internal combustion engine, in constant evolution, still has a good future in front of it… The electric vehicle, which has the advantage of directly emitting no polluting gases, suffers too many handicaps to have any pretence of large-scale substitution of ICE cars… The ICE/electric hybrid represents a seductive compromise; The plug-in hybrid constitutes, without doubt, the solution of the future… Gas vehicles (essentially natural gas and hydrogen) do not appear to offer pertinent perspectives for France."

France has a high availability of low-cost electricity from low carbon emission sources (nuclear and hydro), so that if any country should favour the EV or hydrogen car, it would logically be France, yet this report suggests the opposite.

Brian Ellis, MIET, Cyprus

Not a waste

The letter headed 'What a waste' in Vol 4 #11 berates the fact that the heat from unlagged domestic central heating pipes. Some years ago I was approached by a long standing 'ventilating engineer' of a large factory who wanted to know what the efficiency of the motors in a very heavy duty machine shop were likely to be. The shop temperature in the summer months was always very high and he was looking into the matter. He wanted to deduce what the motor losses were contributing to the temperature.

I had to point out that all the power put into the machines for machining purposes went into the atmosphere of the shop since machining metal did work which produced heat as well as the smaller losses of the motors and he was most surprised. The ventilation was atrocious and no wonder.

The writer of your letter is in a similar situation. The heat dissipated from his unlagged pipes mostly goes into the house structure, the contribution this makes to heating his house being taken care of by his heating system thermostats barring any lost from pipes run outside the building or subject to considerable undesirable ventilation.

J Weaver FIET, Stafford

Apologies to Denis McMahon of Basingstoke, whose name was omitted from the end of the letter in the last issue - Ed.

Recording the chimes

Nick Spurrier's interesting contribution about the Great Clock at Westminster prompts me to repeat this story. Visiting the bell chamber to record the chimes for Universal Studios in 1969, I was told by my guide that the regulators required a weight between a penny and halfpenney. Since it was not legal to deface the King's (Queen's?) coinage, a special act of Parliament was passed to allow the same.

Placing my microphone next to the BBC's two pigeon-proof instruments, I set my level based on my memory of the traffic noise that we heard just before the first bell heralding the Nine O'Clock news broadcasts during the war.

I had just said to my accompanying brother "I think the tune begins about a minute before the first stroke of Big Ben". He replied "No, we have plenty of.." BONG - and my tape wasn't rolling.

Fortunately, I was allowed to stay up there to get a clean start of the C bell and was able to edit that to the rest of the "song".

John L Mack MIEE, By email

'Over-engineered' solar

The scope of Dan Lewis's article on solar grid parity in the 23 May 2009 issue of E&T and the relevance of cost was brilliant, but it's only half the story. Global warming demands umpteen infallible 24/7 Terawatt green solutions.

The current 'latest design' sun farms are grossly over-engineered. Apart from a potentially flimsy unproven design, mirrors are still in the biplane era. Cheap, site-assembled stressed-skin mirrors, measuring, say 13 ft x 29 ft, are long overdue.

Solar is a field crop. Design and construction should be done by agricultural engineers. Starting from foldable, high-productivity lettuce-cauliflower-harvesting machines, I envisage a container-delivered, laser-guided machine that would enable one man to 'plant' the support pillars for the high-sunlight equivalent of 10MW per hour.

Every construction process can be revolutionised. Starting from 40 ft containers of component parts, specialist teams of glasshousebuilders achieve a group construction rate of substantially over 1000 square feet per man per 8 hour day. Two axis rotation '100+ suns' mirrors, solar cells, cooling and wiring are not harder. Using cheap metal-bashed parts and assembly jigs, a few site engineers and a hundred semi-skilled men might construct and wire the equivalent of one of Drax's 600MW generators within two months. Simultaneously, in two man weeks, factory wired containers could convert and feed that energy to the supergrid.

Ultimately it is grid parity itself that matters. After allowing 10 per cent of capital for maintenance redundancy, some technologies will create a year-round 24/7 supply. I also believe that one of them will achieve true grid parity sooner than solar power. Maybe within a dozen years - and start the decline of global warming within 20.

Francis Frampton, Bognor Regis

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