This month's pick of the E&T postbag and inbox
Japan was first with high-speed rail
As a lifelong rail enthusiast and sometime train spotter, I have always been a supporter of high-speed services as a solution to the problems of motorway congestion and aircraft pollution. So I was pleased to see the article 'The need for speed' in July's E&T.
What disappointed me, however, was the failure to mention the contribution Japan has made to the development of high-speed rail as a way of moving people between major urban centres. Tony James rightly quotes the advances made in Europe with the TGV and ICE, but ignores the fact that the first high-speed line (Shinkansen – literally 'new main line') was built in Japan in 1964, a time when British Rail was still, for the most part, relying on steam traction.
Even today JR is expanding its network of lines across the country to places on the west coast of Honshu, overcoming the massive geographical problem of the Japan Alps, and also north to Hokkaido and south-west to Nagasaki.
China, by contrast, is a relative latecomer to high-speed rail and has just copied the technology of the original Series 0 Shinkansen train from the 1960s. Even the Pudong airport Maglev is not originally Chinese but designed and built by TransRapid of Germany using technology developed in the West. Compare this with the Japanese idea of having completely separate high-speed tracks in parallel to the existing network; something which is only being slowly implemented in Europe.
EurIng Mark Atkins CEng MIET
John Evans's letter (August 2011) criticising the pursuit of nuclear fusion for commercial power generation is extraordinary. It was never going to be cheap or easy to develop the only possible solution to the world's need for inexhaustible, large-scale generation of dependable, clean, safe electricity, but to denigrate the idea because it is challenging is defeatist in the extreme. If we had turned away from difficult scientific and engineering enterprises over the last 7,000 years, we would still be waiting for civilisation to kick-off.
He asks, 'Would anyone build a reactor where the massive build-up of radioactivity would preclude access for maintenance?' I rather thought we had done that many times and plan to do so again in the form of fission reactors. The comments about insufficient tritium are misleading since it is radioactive and occurs naturally in only negligible amounts due to its half-life of 12.32 years. Lithium is essential for the initial and breeding supply of tritium but this may be better for the world's supplies than electric cars.
Crucially, as Professor Steve Cowley said in the interview to which Mr Evans was responding, fusion requires more funding. It is worth comparing the ITER budget of $15bn with the US expenditure of $13.3bn per month on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the UK government's enthusiasm for spending £32bn on HS2.
However, what fusion needs more than anything is political will and a strategic realisation target. In short, fusion needs an 'Apollo statement'. President Kennedy gave NASA a clear goal in 1961, and without his courage and direction, the US would have continued with evermore elaborate rocket experiments rather than put men on the Moon a mere eight years later. I would argue that achieving success with Apollo was more problematical than building a fusion reactor.
Dr J Nigel Bennett CEng MIET
Marple Bridge, Cheshire
While I would echo what John Evans says about the potential for fusion energy, he seems to assume that tokamaks are the only fusion game in town.
Tokamaks and inertial confinement fall under the heading of thermonuclear fusion, which are only likely to be realisable by running D-T reactions. Such reactions certainly generate considerable neutron flux resulting in the necessity of replacing equipment and materials close to the reactor core on a regular basis. Electricity generated from such a reaction is not going to be cheap.
As implied, though, there is an alternative – accelerator-based fusion. Such methods are orders of magnitude easier and cheaper than traditional thermonuclear fusion. To mention just a few advantages, a range of fuels is possible (not just D-T, but the current favourite is the near-aneutronic pB11), electricity can be generated directly from the reaction without the need for a thermal stage, and all of the fuel takes part in the reaction.
In one configuration, boron nuclei and protons are made to collide in intersecting storage rings. This method has recently been explored by AG Ruggiero of Brookhaven National Laboratory. However, the one that really stands out is the polywell reactor, which is being developed by Richard Nebel at EMC2, New Mexico, under a US defence contract. Nebel needs $200m to construct a 100MW demonstration power plant. The basic science, including the scaling laws, has been worked out and the only task remaining is to build the power plant. It is estimated the reactor vessel will be about 2m in diameter.
How much has ITER cost so far? $25bn. And how much has been spent on tokamak research in previous decades? So why have accelerator methods, polywell in particular, been sidelined for so long? A likely answer is politics.
Imagine if those in charge of the finances for fusion research suddenly realise that they've bet on a horse that is not even likely to finish. I suspect that pressing on with the status quo may be more of a face-saving exercise.
University of Keele
The cost of wind
I would like to correct the impression contained in Ian Hubbuck's letter (August 2011) that the heavy use of wind power has caused Denmark to have the highest electricity prices in Europe. It is true that the Danes have high electricity prices but this is due to taxation. Official figures for the pre-tax energy costs of the original 15 members of the EU published in DUKES show that electricity production costs in Demark are 7-20 per cent lower than in the UK, depending on the size of consumer.
It is true that the Danes import electricity to balance their grid, as we do in the UK, but unlike us they are a net exporter of electricity. We should look to Demark as an example of what can be done, not as a warning.
Dr John Rogers CEng MIET
Ian Hubbuck and Bill Hyde both believe that the UK is being conned by the wind power industry and the 'Greens' to believe that a variable source such as wind is capable of helping us in our desire to depend less on imported fuel and to exploit indigenous non-polluting energy sources.
In July this year, parliamentary group the Westminster Energy Environment and Transport Forum organised an event in London to discuss 'The Next Steps for Smart Grid Development'. The meeting, attended by leading power system and other engineers from industry and consultancies, was addressed by Nick Winser, executive director responsible for transmission of the UK National Grid and an engineer. He confirmed that National Grid is taking all appropriate measures, including smart grid developments, to receive about 25 per cent of electricity demand from wind power by 2020 and to supply it to consumers at an acceptable reliability and at a cost that would be lower than if we were to rely solely on traditional fuels.
With regards to the '...ruinous commitment to renewables' by Germany, as viewed by Mr Hyde, Prof Ulrich Beck, a member of the special expert commission appointed by German chancellor Angela Merkel, stated: 'It could well be that those who criticise Germany's decision to opt out of nuclear energy have fallen victim to the caterpillar's mistake: as it emerges from the chrysalis, it laments the disappearance of the cocoon because it has no premonition of the butterfly of renewable energy it is destined to become.'
Germany's engineering credentials are highest to none and their foresight will place them in a leading position when renewable energy becomes the only accepted solution.
Professor Leon Freris FIET
CREST, Loughborough University
No recognition for engineers
I would like to give an example of the topsy turvy attitude that pervades society. I ran a successful business for 30 years, employing 22 engineers and other staff. I didn't go bust, although I slowly shut it down until I sold it last year, all without any help from any government department, Quango or bureaucrat. My efforts went by without any official recognition, no gongs, no thanks, nothing, not that that bothered me too much.
Take another scenario: a friend's child joined the diplomatic service, was a first secretary overseas doing goodness knows what, finished after eight years and got an MBE! For what; doing their job and getting well paid for it? The person is a young adult but it is obviously considered by the public school wallies who rule this country that their contribution to society was much more valuable than mine.
So the message is don't do anything useful, join any public body and you will get recognition just for being there.
Steve Dunning IEng MIET
Engineer or not?
Dr David Laverty's list of engineers who have succeeded in business (Letters, August 2011) was unfortunate in putting James Dyson top. Whatever he may be, Dyson is not an engineer and has no formal training or qualifications in engineering. He studied art and design, and furniture and interior design. The fact that he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2005 is reflection on the fact that, despite its claims to the contrary, this supposedly august body is presumably more interested in a name that has become well known than in electing a professional engineer.
Dyson is undoubtedly an inventor, albeit using established principles and adapting them to appliances in ways that hitherto may not have been considered. And his endeavour and application have undoubtedly paid off, but that does not make him an engineer, even if these days he chooses to use the title 'chief engineer'. Arguably, in doing so, he devalues the epithet.
Dr CL Murray, chartered mechanical and electrical engineer
Dmitri Vitaliev's Web privacy tips (July 2011) suggest using the encrypted search at https://encryptedgoogle.com. This changed my Google homepage to https://securegoogle.com, losing labels for gmail docs and making it difficult to access email. Restoring the Google homepage wasn't straightforward, but the solution is to delete the secure Google add-on.
T Fred Carruthers CEng MIET