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Fracking arguments don’t hold water

The news analysis piece ‘Fracking protestors should focus on the more pressing issues’ in the October 2013 issue of E&T gives the view that the protests against fracking in Balcombe are misguided when climate change is considered. As one of the Balcombe defenders, I can say that I and a substantial proportion of the people taking action against fracking do so because of climate change concerns.

The article presents the somewhat illogical argument that the way to transition away from fossil fuels is to start exploiting the whole new resource of shale gas. Justifications for this are carbon capture and storage (as yet not viable), and a global agreement to limit emissions (unlikely to happen any time soon).

The idea that the industry will be “heavily regulated” is also somewhat optimistic. Regulations covering such things as noise, truck movement and horizontal drilling limitations have frequently been ignored at the Balcombe site and it is highly unlikely that there will be the resources to monitor and enforce the regulations at the tens of thousands of wells that would be springing up around the UK.

Saying that shale gas is less carbon intensive than coal has been shown to be fallacy due to fugitive emissions in its production and transport, and it is by no means assured that regulations will change this.

There is a very simple solution to cutting emissions in the UK - burn less fossil fuel. The dubious logic of using shale gas comes about when we indulge in the idea that we can somehow have a simple magical fix in order to continue our profligate use of unsustainable energy. We need to accept that the UK energy policy is a mess, that some disruption to the status quo is necessary, and get on and make the transition to clean sustainable energy.

Dr Rob Basto


How to fill the graduate skills gap

‘What is it like to be a UK engineering graduate in 2013?’ (http://bit.ly/eandt-engineer-graduates) in the August 2013 issue perfectly demonstrates the disconnect that we’re facing in engineering. Industries such as manufacturing are bouncing back from the recession, and a range of emerging technologies like renewable energy and the production of low-carbon vehicles present significant employment opportunities. But there simply aren’t enough skilled candidates to meet employers’ requirements.

Just recently we’ve seen a large UK engineering company say in the media that it struggles to find qualified engineers, and that the majority of talent is now coming from overseas.

Finding ways to bridge the skills gap - not just in engineering, but in all STEM subjects - is vitally important for the future of all industries. Failure to do this will see the UK struggle to remain competitive.

For me, there are two key issues that need to be addressed, not enough people are choosing tertiary education in STEM subjects, and those who do aren’t equipped with the right skills to go into industry.

There are several ways that the gap can begin to be closed. At MathWorks, we get a lot of feedback from sectors such as aerospace, manufacturing and automotive that, although degree-level and post-graduate students have good theoretical knowledge of basic engineering principles, they lack some of the practical skills with model-based design required in industry and are unable to ‘hit the ground running’.

One way to address this is to integrate project-based learning, a practice that engages students in the investigation of science and real-world engineering problems, into university curricula. Project-based learning approaches help students develop key skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration, making them infinitely more employable, and able to make an immediate impact when they do enter the workforce. Crucially, industry-standard software and hardware needs to be integrated into learning.

There is also a real need for industry to make a greater investment and have a greater say in the shape of the STEM curriculum in the UK. More needs to be done to get students and children into contact with industry professionals simply to see the possibilities of what can be achieved working in the field.

All this isn’t limited to university students. Project-based learning and interaction with hardware needs to be built into the curriculum at secondary school to encourage and inspire students to continue their STEM studies. The future of the industry is bright, but only if we invest in fostering talented engineering talent at grass roots.

Dr Coorous Mohtadi
Senior academic technical specialist, MathWorks


Business sense

Ray Piggott’s assessment of engineers’ lack of awareness when it comes to the ‘financial environment’ (Letters, October 2013) struck a chord with this retired engineer. Several decades ago a colleague and I came up with a precious metal recovery process, which theoretically would return over 90 per cent of the market value compared with around 40 per cent. Investment was needed to turn it into reality and a foray into the finance director’s office with the written research proposal and our verbal support was scheduled.

Within minutes it was clear that the director had difficulty grasping the concept of research. It was apparent that spending most of his time looking in his financial rear-view mirror was not good training for seeing something ahead, particularly when the destination depended on scientific principles and where success could not be clearly defined.

We managed to explain that the investment could be lost or, more likely from our preliminary calculations, provide him with a significant contribution to his cash flow if he was prepared to back us. He eventually paid up and in a short time the enhanced scrap value and cash flow contribution was achieved, much to the MD’s delight.

I tell of this experience not to blow a trumpet but to illustrate that, as Ray Piggott says, engineers need to be taught ‘finance and product planning’ if they are to make progress in their chosen career.

In my day engineering education had little such content, and the necessary qualities had to be gained along the way. All this begs the question - why is this lack of business sense still a subject for discussion if the need was identified long ago? Surely modules on relevant subjects are integral to engineering degree courses now or is it still left to the individual to seek awareness after emerging into the business world?

EurIng Ray Oliver CEng MIET
By email


Ray Piggott urges that “engineers should... be taught finance and product planning from a financial standpoint”. The short answer is “They are!”

I teach engineering management at Brunel University and can assure Mr Piggott that our courses offer modules covering finance and investment appraisal, as well as managing people and organisations. Other universities offer similar courses.

It is true that such courses did not exist when I was a student more than 30 years ago, but today’s UK university engineering departments cannot be accused of failing to teach financial aspects of engineering.

Colin McEwen CEng FIET


Inspired by Shute

Reading ‘No Highway’ by engineer and author Neville Shute (Letters, September 2013) as a boy in the 1950s was one of the things that inspired me to become an engineer. In the book, the hero was part of the design team of a new aircraft that had just gone into service. He calculates that the tail of the aeroplane will break due to fatigue after a number of flying hours, but no one believes him. He is subsequently proved right. The story was remarkably prescient of the Comet disasters which occurred just two years after it was published.

As an electrical engineer I was thrust into forensic engineering in my first job as a research engineer in the CEGB, when within a few days of each other I was asked to investigate the low-cycle fatigue failure of a generator rotor end-ring and the high-cycle fatigue cracking of generator water-cooled conductors. Neville Shute’s story had prepared me well!

Professor William Fairney FREng FIET
By email


A classic updated

Having been a motorcyclist for over 50 years, I am always pleased to see that a British manufacturer has been successful, as reported in ‘Back from the Brink’ in the October 2013 issue (http://bit.ly/eandt-back-from-the-brink). However, the Triumph motorcycle pictured is not ‘the famous Bonneville’ from the 1960s, but a more recent model.

The most obvious difference is the ugly bend in the exhaust pipes. This is necessary so that the modern rider can make full use of tyre adhesion when cornering without grounding the silencers. Many other changes have been made to increase safety, emission standards etc, although I am not sure that it was necessary to disguise the injectors as carburettors. It is an excellent retro-bike but it is not the famous Bonneville.

John Beddows MIET


Ahead of its time

I enjoyed Nick Smith’s article on Laszlo Biro and the invention of the ballpoint pen (Classic Project, October 2013), but was startled to read that “he filed another patent in 1943 (this time with the European Patent Office)”. Biro must have been a time traveller as well as an inventor as the European Patent Office did not open for business till 1977!

Brian Spear FIET
By email

Thanks to readers who pointed out this error. The patent that Biro filed in 1943 was of course in the USA as US Patent 2,390,636. Ed

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