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Wasted opportunity

The January 2012 issue of E&T was an excellent collection of articles providing a great insight into the UK’s waste problem and the opportunity it presents.

As part of a course, I segregated the solid waste that my family generated over a period of four weeks and was surprised at the amount of organic food waste that we threw away each week: 4-5kg, which is about average.

We have been told by various political parties over the years that the engineering to handle waste, build renewable energy plants and other biomass power stations could generate many jobs. I have been fortunate to work on several of these projects and at one stage was aware of well over 300 waste to energy projects at various stages of planning. Something that struck me time and time again was that the vast majority of tenders for the plant were being offered by companies based in other parts of the world, principally Germany, France, Spain and the US.

One can’t help wondering how many of these potentially great engineering projects will actually provide a financial benefit to the UK economy.

John Leigh MIET


Diploma doubts

I would urge a little caution on behalf of our professional bodies regarding what appears to be wholesale support of the engineering diplomas being delivered by schools. While there may be some that are able to deliver a very good standard, such as the one in Birmingham that has appeared on recent news reports, there are others who are quite frankly failing their students and putting kids off engineering completely.

My son has just completed an engineering diploma worth seven and a half GCSEs and delivered by a consortium of several schools with an external ‘learning partnership’. In the two years that he attended this course, his sum total of practical engineering consisted of facing off a piece of stock bar and turning one step into it. The vast majority of the practical work was completed by the teaching staff or external companies as there was insufficient time for them to do it themselves. As all of the pupils attending this course had to be transported to the host school and return to their own schools in time for the normal school finishing time, they spent almost as much time on the bus as they did in the classroom.

As a professional engineer, I was appalled at the quality of teaching and by the fact that kids were dropping out and had been turned off engineering as a subject at the end of the course.

At a time when we desperately need to raise the profile of engineering, and with any luck make some headway into getting the engineering title protected, for education of the standard I have seen with my own eyes to be considered worthy of seven and a half GCSEs is, quite frankly, an insult. Sadly, any employer taking these kids on with the expectation that they’d been given a good basic grounding in engineering principles would be severely mistaken.

Colin Plumb

By email

Nuclear future

I am delighted that the government is still pressing ahead with new nuclear power stations in England and Wales (‘New Age Nuclear’, February 2012). Hopefully we will start to build power generation which is capable of keeping Britain’s lights on.

There was no reference in Anne Harris’s article to any development of thorium in this country as a much cheaper and safer alternative to uranium as the source for nuclear power. Of course, it is not possible to produce nuclear weapons from this source and so it isn’t favoured by governments.

Surely it would be much better to spend public money on development of thorium as a nuclear fuel, the safe use of tar gas sands, and other sensible long-term conventional power generation methods, rather than on plans that our future electricity supplies should rely on thousands of wind turbines, which need continual backup by conventional power generation.

A Anderson CEng MIET

By email

It seems that power generators using thorium produce very little radioactive waste products compared with uranium. There are thousands of years’ supplies of thorium compared with 80 years’ worth of uranium at current usage. Also, the yield from mining is very much greater than that of uranium, without the need for difficult refining.

Reactors have been proposed that would be intrinsically safe because runaway is impossible; not enough neutrons are produced in the reaction. Plugs that melt and release the thorium from the core can prevent overheating independently without monitoring, giving automatic shut-down. A secondary cooling system would not be necessary. There is a difficulty in that a source of energetic protons or neutrons is required to make up for the lack of intrinsic neutrons emanating from the fission of thorium, and it is this aspect that might benefit from R&D.

There is one big drawback - thorium reactors do not produce weapons-grade plutonium. The possibility of a thorium reactor has been known for many decades and shelved, apparently because of the drive for weapons.

The UK would be in a position to develop and sell these generators but funding has been cut. Are we going to miss the boat again?

NM Willcox MIET

By email

Anne Harris’s article claims that there is widespread cross-party support for the continuation of a nuclear component in the UK generation capability. Sadly, there is one party that stands aloof from this belief - the Scottish National Party .

I wonder how much of that belief is shared by the party’s MPs and MSPs, and how much is Alex Salmond’s personal opinion. He trumpets forth that Scotland “does not want nor need nuclear power stations”. The irony is that he may be right.

Thankfully we have a strong interconnection capability that will enable Scotland to import English, Welsh and French nuclear energy to flow north as it will inevitably be needed sometime. What price Scottish ‘independence’ when that happens?

John Lewis FIEE FIET


How low can you go?

Several of the buildings featured in ‘Green Building Blocks’ (December 2011) are quoted as having 100 per cent energy efficient lighting. I am not aware of any lamp that does not give out some heat as well as light so I would very much like to know what light source is being used.

I am also intrigued by the percentage reductions in total carbon dioxide. Surely a 100 per cent reduction takes the emission down to zero - which sounds wonderful but, as the text notes, zero carbon means different things to different people. What then does a 148 per cent reduction mean?

Philip Gray CEng MIET

By email

[We should have made it clear that the figures used in the article rate the proportion of lighting fixtures for each building design that are considered energy efficient. The emission-reduction figures, taken from Zero Carbon Hub profiles, are calculated using the emissions target in Approved Document Part L1A 2006 as a baseline. This deals with ‘regulated’ emissions resulting from heating, hot water and ventilation. Eliminating all these is equivalent to a 100 per cent reduction. Until March 2011, ‘unregulated’ plug-in energy for computers, televisions, cooking etc was to be covered by the definition of a zero-carbon home from 2016 and would have needed to be accounted for in design.

Figures quoted above 100 per cent emissions reduction are from projects where design and construction prior to this date targeted part or all of both unregulated and regulated energy use. Housebuilders doing this were generally trying to meet Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6. Now that plug-in energy use is no longer part of the definition of zero-carbon homes, this may have repercussions for how this is defined in the future.]

Not the first

The article about the Bentley Continental GT (February 2012) refers to variable displacement and states that “Bentley is a pioneer of this technology”. In fact it has been used by several automotive companies in the past. Back in 1979, as a graduate trainee at Lucas Electrical, I remember a US saloon, I think it was a Cadillac, being dissected by the development group to see how its variable displacement engine worked.

This was introduced in response to the 1970s oil price hike, but was withdrawn when oil prices fell and alternatives such as turbo chargers proved to be more flexible and more reliable.

Alistair Fox

By email

Wrong dish

The caption to your February 2012 ‘Bigger Picture’ refers to removal of “satellite dishes” from the BT Tower in London. These were actually antennas used for point-to-point microwave communications to other terrestrial towers within line-of-sight in the UK so the correct terminology is terrestrial microwave dish/antenna. The only similarity with the larger antennas used to receive signals broadcast from geostationary satellites is the parabolic geometry of the main reflector.

David Bryant CEng MIET

Haughley, Suffolk

[Apologies for this error, and thanks to all the readers who pointed out both this mistake and the typo suggesting the BT Tower is 500m tall - Ed]

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