Siemens brings down giant electronics cartel; super-strong magnets about to transform MRI scanning; ice-free Arctic summers within a decade; semiconductors save energy says IET President - watch his inaugural lecture and read the latest news here...

Transformer firms fined for rigging markets

By Lorna Sharpe

Several European and Japanese producers of power transformers face large fines under European competition regulations for operating a market-sharing agreement.

The European Commission announced the fines, totalling €67,644,000, on ABB, Areva T&D, Alstom, Fuji Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba. They have the option of appealing against the decision. Siemens, which was also part of the group, escaped penalties because it revealed the existence of the cartel and was given 'state's witness' status.

According to the findings of the Commission, the seven companies operated an oral market sharing agreement between 1999 and 2003, under which the Japanese members would not sell power transformers in Europe and the European members would not sell power transformers in Japan. The agreement related to high-power transformers used to modify the voltage in electricity transmission networks.

Cartel members met once or twice a year, usually in high-class hotels in Asia or Europe, to reaffirm their agreement. Commission investigators found that the members went to great lengths to try to hide their illegal behaviour. They concluded the market-sharing agreement orally and used code names for their companies to avoid detection.

The fine for ABB was increased by 50 per cent because it had previously taken part in a similar infringement concerning district heating pipes.

All seven firms were also part of a larger cartel that received record fines in 2007 for market-rigging and price-fixing of gas-insulated switchgear [E&T Feb 2007], though on that occasion ABB was the whistle-blower.

At the time of the infringement, the parties' combined annual sales in the European Economic Area (EEA) were estimated to be worth around €100m.

European Commissioner for Competition Neelie Kroes said: "Customers and tax payers all over Europe suffered from this cartel for a number of years. The Commission has now put an end to this rip-off. The Commission will not hesitate to increase fines for repeat offenders until they have learned the lesson that cartels do not pay."

Super-strong magnets to make medical scans less onerous

Incredibly powerful magnets developed by Cambridge scientists could make a future generation of magnetic resonance imagers small and cheap enough for use in doctors' consulting rooms.

Dr Tim Coombs, founder of Magnifye, a Cambridge University spin-out, explained: "We have developed a method of manufacturing incredibly strong superconducting magnets using flux pumping, without relying on the large and expensive equipment that was required in the past. Our new magnets are cheap to produce and incredibly strong for their size - a one-inch magnet could lift a lorry!"

These advantages in size, efficiency and power density would be attractive for traction motors in ships, trains and buses, Coombs told E&T, and could lead to the production of machines that have not previously been possible - he suggested a 10MW generator for wind turbines, adding that with no gearbox needed reliability would improve, which is particularly important offshore.

But for now, Magnifye is concentrating on MRI scanning. Although a valuable diagnostic technique, patients can find it uncomfortable and claustrophobic, as well as very noisy as the gradient coils switch on and off. "Implementing these magnets in a new generation of MRI scanners would enable a radical redesign of the equipment," said Coombs. "Scanners could be made smaller and the opening for the patient made larger, making the whole process quicker, quieter and more comfortable for patients, while simultaneously enabling huge cost savings for hospitals. MRI could even be incorporated into a hand-held wand for quick imaging in A&E departments or even in the field."

Magnifye's method uses a heat engine to virtually 'stroke' the magnet - in much the same way as children learn to magnetise a nail in school physics lessons. The resulting magnets range in strength from 2 tesla up to around 17 tesla. (A traditional MRI scanner uses a magnet of around 3T.) While a conventional 7T magnet would be around 1,000 x 1,500mm, one of the new magnets could reach this magnetic strength in an item only 10 x 28mm.

The magnets are made from single-crystal yttrium barium copper oxide in a layered structure. The superconducting properties come into effect as the magnets are chilled to 93K using liquid nitrogen.

"Using liquid nitrogen does mean that the technology is never likely to be suitable for domestic use," said Coombs. "But there are plenty of industrial applications besides MRI."

Arctic survey data confirms rapid ice loss

By Nick Smith

Within a decade the Arctic Ocean will be mostly open water during the summer, according to the results of a new ice-thickness survey. Data released by the Catlin Arctic Survey and WWF provides further evidence that the Arctic Ocean sea ice is thinning, leading to claims that the ocean will be largely ice-free during summer within a decade.

Reacting to the report, UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband said: "The Catlin Arctic Survey and WWF study sets out the stark realities of a rapidly changing climate and illustrates the risk of an ice-free summer in the Arctic in the not-too-distant future. This further strengthens the case for an ambitious global deal in Copenhagen in December, which the UK is fully committed to achieving."

The Catlin Arctic Survey, completed earlier this year, provides the latest ice-thickness record, drawn from the only survey capturing surface measurements conducted during winter and spring 2009. It produced more than 6,000 measurements and observations.

The data, collected by manual drilling and observations on a 450km route across the northern part of the Beaufort Sea, suggests the survey area is composed almost exclusively of first-year ice.

This is a significant finding because the region has traditionally contained older, thicker multi-year ice. The average thickness of the ice floes measured 1.8m, a depth considered too thin to survive the next summer's ice melt.

These findings have been analysed by the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge, led by Professor Peter Wadhams.

"With a larger part of the region now first year ice, it is clearly more vulnerable," said Wadhams. "The area is now more likely to become open water each summer, bringing forward the potential date when the summer sea ice will be completely gone."

Wadhams continued: "The survey data supports the new consensus view - based on seasonal variation of ice extent and thickness, changes in temperatures, winds and especially ice composition - that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years, and that much of the decrease will be happening within 10 years."

According to scientists who have studied the data, the technique used by the explorers to take measurements on the surface of the ice has the potential to help ice modellers to refine predictions about the future survival or decline of the ice.

Catlin Arctic Survey expedition leader Pen Hadow commented: "This is the kind of scientific work we always wanted to support by getting to places in the Arctic which are otherwise nearly impossible to reach for research purposes. It's what modern exploration should be doing. Our on-the-ice techniques are helping scientists to understand better what is going on in this fragile ecosystem."

At the unveiling of the results in London, Dr Martin Sommerkorn from WWF International Arctic Programme, which partnered with the Survey, said: "The Arctic sea ice holds a central position in our Earth's climate system. Take it out of the equation and we are left with a dramatically warmer world."

"Such a loss of Arctic sea ice cover has recently been assessed to set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself - self-perpetuating cycles, amplifying and accelerating the consequences of global warming. This could lead to flooding affecting a quarter of the world's population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes," Dr Sommerkorn said.

"Today's findings provide yet another urgent call for action to world leaders ahead of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen this December to rapidly and effectively curb global greenhouse gas emissions."

Semiconductors save energy, says IET President

By Chris Edwards

The semiconductor industry could have a major role to play in reducing the world's energy consumption, says the IET's new President, Professor Christopher Snowden, who took over the role in September 2009.

"Semiconductors are not just crucial for satisfying our demands for technology, but they also play a role in reducing energy demand," said Snowden in his inaugural lecture this month.

FinFETs and devices made from polymers will help improve energy efficiency and allow semiconductors to replace other technologies, he added, continuing: "By 2030, the US economy could expand by more than 70 per cent and still use 11 per cent less electricity than in 2008. That reduction could eliminate almost 300 power stations."

"Semiconductor technology improvements have saved an estimated 775 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006," compared to what would have been required using the technology of 1976, Snowden claimed, based on research performed by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

"Semiconductor technology could turn out to be extremely important in sorting out some of the environmental challenges in front of us. It could be very significant, perhaps reducing energy consumption by as much as half," Snowden concluded.

Professor Snowden is currently vice chancellor and chief executive of the University of Surrey and was previously chief executive officer of Filtronic ICS.

Watch the President's Address at [new window]

Ingenious ideas invited

The Royal Academy of Engineering is offering grants for projects that help engineers communicate their expertise and enthusiasm to wider audiences.

The Academy is inviting applications for Ingenious, its public engagement grants programme, and for individual Public Engagement Fellowships.

Lesley Paterson, Head of Public Engagement at the Academy said: "Ingenious funds creative ideas for projects which will inspire engineers to share their stories and passion for engineering and develop their communications skills. It also aims to create debate about the diversity of engineering and its impact on society.

"Whether you're an engineer in academia or industry or from an organisation specialising in communication, education or the arts, we want to hear from you."

Applications must be received by 19 November 2009. [new window]

Nobel Prize recognition for fibre-optic pioneer

An IET Fellow whose work in fibre-optics was published in the institution's research journals has been jointly awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics with the two scientists responsible for developing the charge-coupled device.

The prize was given "for two scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today's networked societies," the award committee said.

Charles Kao, a Shanghai-born British-American, won half the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4m) prize for a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fibre-optics, by determining how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres.

His seminal work was carried out at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow, Essex, shortly after he completed his PhD at University College London. He studied for his first degree at Woolwich Polytechnic, now Greenwich University.

The electro-optics group that he had been appointed to head in 1963 had carried out a thorough study of loss mechanisms in optical materials, devising measuring techniques and carrying out extensive modelling experiments using microwaves.

Kao described the team's work in 1989 when he spoke to the magazine of the IET's predecessor, the IEE. He had been awarded the IEE Faraday Medal that year for his achievements.

"We covered a lot of ground, and by 1965 we had a good set of data, and the beginnings of a real understanding of attenuation mechanisms," he recalled.

The extent of this understanding was revealed by the publication in the Proceedings of the IEE in 1966 of a landmark paper, 'Dielectric fibre surface waveguides for optical frequencies', co-authored with colleague George Hockham.

The paper was essentially a declaration of feasibility for optical transmission by glass fibre, which showed that silica glass had the potential to meet the attenuation requirements of telephony. It also set out the basic design criteria of a narrow core surrounded by a cladding material of lower refractive index.

Its appearance had an enormous influence on the development of optical fibre, especially in the UK, where it was directly responsible for the establishment of research projects. In 1970, Kao and Hockham's predictions were confirmed when Corning Glass announced, at a meeting at the IEE in London, production of the first 20dB/km glass fibre.

"These low-loss glass fibres facilitate global broadband communication such as the Internet," the Nobel Prize committee said. "Text, music, images and video can be transferred around in the globe in a split second."

Kao said news of the award left him "absolutely speechless". "This is very, very unexpected," he said in a statement issued by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was vice-chancellor from 1987 to 1996 before retiring.

According to Professor John Midwinter, who pioneered BT's adoption of optical-fibre technology when he led the team that laid down the UK's first trial links in the 1970s, Kao paired an exceptional understanding of science with an appreciation of its commercial applications.

"Charles's work in establishing optical-fibre communications is characterised by an unusual combination of attributes," he said. "Excellent theoretical and experimental science coupled with a solid grasp of what the telecommunications market actually needed in the 1970s. The result was that his work focused attention on solving all the key problems to enable the launch of a successful product whilst not detracting from the excellence and fascination of the science. This was never science for the glory of God, even though it was glorious but always skilfully-aimed fundamental research."

Further information [new window]

NHS to test heat-powered corridor lights

By Lorna Sharpe

The developers of a device that uses waste heat to power a light say it has the potential to save the National Health Service thousands of pounds a year if a forthcoming trial is successful. It could also be used in other applications where lighting is only needed intermittently.

Michael Reid, co-founder of Peterborough-based HeatLight Ltd, said: "Getting more from less energy is key to sustainability. Within the NHS there are many miles of corridor that are lit all night when the building is empty. Our devices would charge up when the heating is on and then use proximity detectors to provide low-level lighting at night as required, saving money and carbon emissions."

Preparations are under way for a trial of a dozen units in an NHS hospital this winter, with video monitoring to demonstrate that the lights turn on and off as intended. If that is successful, the company hopes to move into commercial production in late 2010.

The HeatLight device is based on a Peltier generator that converts heat into electricity to charge a battery. An LED module is powered up in response to a signal from an infra-red presence detector when someone approaches.

LEDs are not only energy-efficient, but are tolerant of being turned on and off repeatedly, unlike fluorescent strips. Moreover, Reid points out, the energy source is heat - generally from gas, which is much cheaper than electricity.

Other applications might include nightlights in the home, emergency lighting during a power cut or even powering LED Christmas lights in small shops.

Telecoms technology speeds production-line printing

By Lorna Sharpe

A Cambridge start-up company has applied telecoms technology to industrial packaging, developing an industrial laser printer that can print customised information on items at production line speeds.

The Skalene Technologies printer will use an array of high-powered fibre-optic lasers to print information such as high-quality barcodes at speeds of over 3m/s - a major breakthrough in printing technology. A prototype was on show at the recent Diving with Dolphins technology showcase in Cambridge.

Skalene co-founder Julian White explained: "Barcodes, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, now contain detailed information about the product in addition to where and when it was made. If a barcode is not readable, for whatever reason, big retailers can impose heavy fines on suppliers."

In addition, information such as 'best before' dates must be applied at the end of the production process. This used to be done with continuous inkjet printing, which is fast but can smudge. In recent years, CO2 or YAG laser markers have become widely used. These are scanned over the surface to burn or at least singe a visible mark. However, scanners may not maintain complete coverage on a fast-moving substrate, and the technique is not suitable for packing with delicate contents. Moreover, much of the input energy is lost as waste heat.

"We have taken technology that the telecoms industry has used for many years," White told E&T. The printer is constructed as a monolithic array of powerful (8W) fibre-coupled diode lasers, with no moving parts, and the modular design makes it scaleable to fit the application, he said. A standard data/lot code could use 32 lasers, whereas the address label on a magazine might require up to 128 parallel channels.

All the lasers are modulated in parallel, so the system can deliver 100 per cent coverage, making it suitable for producing dense text and graphics - not only bar codes but potentially a photograph on an ID pass.

"We can print now at up to 3m/s, and we're aiming for 4m/s," White said. "Our technology allows late stage customisation. For instance a unique and store-specific barcode voucher could be printed on soft drink bottles a few minutes before being loaded on the delivery lorry. It also allows territory-specific information to be printed on generic packaging. We have developed an easy-to-use Web interface which supports this process."

Skalene is developing the technology as a full print system, including the software platform to drive the printer in production facilities, with a view to moving to beta-site testing early in 2010.

4G handsets 'likely to disappoint'

By Luke Collins

The first generation of 4G handsets is likely to disappoint, according to experts at Cambridge Consultants. The prediction came as the ITU Telecom World Forum got into its stride in Geneva with a series of announcements related to LTE - the 'Long Term Evolution' technology that will underpin fast wireless broadband applications.

"The first generation of 4G handsets will not perform in the way they have been presented. They will be a disappointment," said Monty Barlow, DSP group leader in the wireless division of Cambridge Consultants.

The problem lies with the extremely complex algorithms used in the multi-antenna LTE standard to squeeze as much bandwidth as possible out of the available channel. Building optimal implementations of these algorithms will take enormous amounts of computing resources.

"The question is, how do you simulate the environment well enough to know the optimal way of decoding multiple signals from multiple antennas," said Barlow. "It takes more processing power than you have and more time than the universe has existed." The alternative is to find ways of producing sub-optimal solutions.

Tim Fowler, commercial director of the wireless business unit, added that the first implementations of 4G will not be as big a disappointment as the first implementations of 3G: "LTE will deliver a user benefit, if only in terms of lower-cost infrastructure. And some people's products will do better than others."

A number of operators and equipment makers used the ITU event to announce trials of LTE equipment.

Telefónica has reached an agreement with six LTE technology providers to launch test projects in six countries with a view to introducing 4G networks in the regions in which it operates.

The suppliers chosen so far include Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Huawei, NEC, Nokia Siemens Network and ZTE. The trials will look at the behaviour of the equipment in the field and will be carried out in Spain, the UK, Germany, the Czech Republic, Brazil and Argentina.

The company says its LTE network will offer peak speeds of up to 340Mbit/s in ideal conditions and will also increase capacity for mobile broadband services. Implementation will be subject to the availability of customer equipment, such as datacards and later handsets, and the necessary spectrum.

Meanwhile, Anite and LG Electronics said they have verified the industry's first LTE protocol conformance test cases, and made the results available to members of the 3GPP standards body. Conformance testing ensures that new handsets and data cards can deliver the services expected and work with existing users and networks.

"LTE device certification is essential in ensuring that next generation LTE wireless devices meet customer expectations," said Paul Beaver, 3GPP director, Anite. "Working with LG is speeding the availability of the first LTE test cases, enabling the wireless industry to deploy the technology successfully and more quickly."

Chinese LTE goes to Geneva

Motorola took to the streets of Geneva during ITU Telecom World to demonstrate a time-division-duplex version of the LTE next-generation mobile standard (TD-LTE) for China Mobile, one of the world's largest mobile operators.

China is keen to promote the development of a TD version of LTE to provide a development path for its current TD-SCDMA 3G standard.

Passengers in the demonstration van saw the standard at work in a mobile environment that included hand-offs between base stations. Applications included HD video streaming on the downlink and uplink, VoIP, video conferencing and high-speed Internet browsing.

Motorola has already completed joint over-the-air trials with operators and is also involved with the TD-LTE trials initiated by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

View from Washington

Delaying a deal on tech transfer will benefit US

By Paul Dempsey

One area causing plenty of heartache during negotiations towards a Copenhagen treaty on climate change is our old friend technology transfer.

At the recent pre-COP15 meeting of world leaders in New York, everyone agreed that the topic has to be one of the pillars of the agreement.

Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has warned that a dozen countries are at risk of becoming failed states due to food and water shortages caused by global warming. This scenario has also alarmed military experts such as retired US General Anthony Zinni, who has observed: "We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, or we'll pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives."

Companies and governments with the resources to develop the technologies needed by the poorer nations in danger want a fair return on the investment involved. The definition of 'fair' continues to threaten any formal agreement.

Third world nations accept that some price must be paid, but make valid points about how high it should be and who should actually pay it. After all, the industrialised world has generated the bulk of the pollution. Moreover, developing nations remain justifiably wary of the private sector, following earlier controversies over terms for the supply of genetically-modified seed crops and anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS. In this context, many believe that technology transfer will be left outside any treaty that is agreed in Copenhagen as part of a non-binding 'set of proposals'.

In the US (and possibly much of Europe), failure to secure global agreement on a technology transfer framework will disappoint many private-sector players that might have entered the green economy. When industry talks about "certainty", it is not referring only to specific targets for the reduction of emissions.

However, some companies are moving ahead. The world's largest producer of solar modules is Chinese, Suntech. Sovereign wealth funds and petrodollars from the Arab world are pouring into renewable energy. The thinking is that the Sun beating down on the desert may be worth as much as the oil beneath it.

What they see is not merely something that is necessary, but also an opportunity to exploit US economic weakness. George W Bush's presidency with its scepticism on global warming saw the US surrender technological pre-eminence across much of a major scientific and economic sector.

The Obama administration is aware of the problem - indeed, some observers believe that this, as much as the political complexities surrounding climate change, is why US energy secretary Steven Chu says he would be happy to have Copenhagen act as a 'beginning' rather than a 'resolution'. The US needs time to play economic catch-up.

And on technology transfer, the US may get its wish. The problem will be that its rivals feel fit to compete not just on the science, but also on the price. Whatever happens, this debate may prove more relevant to the world of engineering in Copenhagen than any other.

Mould and mend with self-curing silicone

By Bryan Betts

Three London-based inventors are hoping to turn their idea for a self-curing, mouldable and adhesive silicone rubber into a ubiquitous tool along the lines of a three-dimensional sticky tape.

Their material, called Formerol, sticks to things, can be shaped by hand or using tools, and then cures at room temperature. It can be used for repairs as well as to adapt or 'hack' other objects - for example to add cushions or grips to a handle, or to put soft edges on things.

Formerol is already used by a manufacturer of professional garden tools to let buyers customise a tool's handle to fit their hand. However, product designer Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, who came up with the idea for the material, believes there are also many opportunities for it as a consumer product for repairs and adaptations, or 'creative personalisation'.

Due to go on sale shortly under the 'Hack things better' motto, the consumer version will be called Sugru, and ni Dhulchaointigh has already run a number of 3D hacking and repairing workshops to explore its possibilities with trial users. She added that Sugru will initially be available in orange, red, green, blue and black. [new window]

Belfast audio firm claims technology breakthrough

By Chris Edwards

Belfast-based audio processing specialist APTX has developed a lossless compression scheme for HD-audio that the company claims performs better than the standard FLAC codec.

APTX chief technology officer David Trainor told the Audio Engineering Society conference in New York that tests showed its apt-X Lossless codec was on average 10 per cent more efficient than FLAC, a lossless compression scheme now being used to deliver music at higher quality than the lossy AAC or MP3 schemes.

Trainor said the initial targets for the Lossless codec technology are: "Bluetooth systems, wireless headphones, microphones and speakers, as we're engaged in those spaces with existing products. But it's our thought that the wide-ranging and automated adaptability of this coding scheme will make it applicable for deployment in a number of diverse audio markets.

"The codec can trade off different performance characteristics, such as bit rate, delay and computational complexity. Different performance characteristics can be assigned relative 'priorities' which are taken into account as the codec adapts to changing conditions."

The company said the coding delay is comparatively low, adding a typical latency of around 2ms, so that it can be used in interactive games and two-way communications.

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