Best of the week’s news 2 December 2016: analysis from E&T’s editorial staff

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor

Battery powered by radioactive diamond could solve nuclear waste dilemma

Lithium-ion batteries, molten salt batteries, batteries that run on sugar... When it comes to generating electricity, there's plenty of choice - and now researchers from the University of Bristol have developed batteries powered by nuclear waste. The team has grown an artificial diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, can produce a small electrical current - to, one day, help solve some of the nuclear waste issues and generate electricity in a 'green' way. The diamond produces a charge simply by being placed very close to a radioactive source, and the scientists used Nickel-63 as the source for their prototype ‘diamond battery’. The next step is to significantly improve efficiency with the help of Carbon-14, a radioactive version of Carbon, produced in graphite blocks that moderate the reaction in nuclear power plants.

Tereza Pultarova, news reporter

More techno-species than bio-species on Earth, study finds

The number of types of technological objects created by humans now outnumbers the number of biological species currently living on Earth, according to a new study. According to researchers from the University of Leicester, all the human-made objects currently existing on Earth - the so-called technosphere - collectively weighs some 30 trillion tons, which is about 50 kilos per square metre of the planet’s surface.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Re-engineered Tube train begins main-line diesel trials

This week I went to the IET’s Railway Annual Lecture, delivered by Adrian Shooter, who heads the company behind this plan to meet the continuing need for diesel trains on unelectrified railway lines. I had expected him to talk about that project, but his wider theme was ‘innovation’, which he defined as something that “creates value for which customers will pay”. Novel ideas are only subsequently remembered as innovations if they turn out to be useful. His examples weren’t all things that came out of the blue, either. Often, the innovation lies in applying something that exists in a new context, such as the way US locomotive manufacturers adopted the marketing techniques of the automotive industry or, at a simpler level, how lengthy ticket queues were cut at one busy station by converting a standard car-park payment machine to sell the most commonly used tickets. All this ties in with the IET’s own interest in the concept of ‘horizontal innovation’, which is also based on adopting and adapting ideas that are already being used successfully in other fields. Food for thought.

Power infrastructure projects around the world go over budget by an average of 35 per cent

Large power infrastructure and utility projects are delivered with a 35 per cent cost overrun and a two-year delay on average, according to analysis by Ernst and Young. When I saw this headline it didn’t particularly surprise me, but then I started wondering why it should be so. Surely there’s enough past experience of projects like this to be able to give more realistic estimates? Then I remembered that here in Britain, the government adds a percentage for ‘optimism bias’ to the estimated costings for big transport projects. I suppose it’s natural that the kind of people who promote massive infrastructure projects will be enthusiastic and optimistic about them - it’s not really a task for those who are more temperamentally inclined to consider the possible snags. But it strikes me that above all else, if an organisation bids for a big contract with a realistic cost and timescale plus a margin for the unexpected, they’ll probably lose out to the rival that undercuts them and then runs late and over budget. That’s why this headline didn’t come as a surprise.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

World's worst wiring: the top three most shocking electrical installations

It all started exactly a year ago. In my end column of E&T, volume 10 issue 11, I summed up readers’ responses to the traditional ‘After All’ ‘challenges’ of the year. The column was illustrated with a reader’s photo of a “power shower” in an Indian hotel bathroom –  featuring a shower head daringly plugged in a 15A mains socket. On our editor-in-chief’s suggestion, in the end of that column, I asked E&T readers to share their photos of “peculiar and slipshod electrical work”. Little did I know that it would signify the start of the by far the most plentiful, creative and witty readers’ feedback in all my (nearly) ten years with E&T.

Several days after that issue’s publication, the entries started trickling in. This trickle soon turned into a stream which quickly became a real flood of emails, with photos of outrageously messy, at times truly horrendous, wiring work. The subject had clearly touched a responsive chord – or shall I say a naked wire? – with E&T readers. Soon I had to put aside some less urgent editorial matters and spend half of my working days filing the seemingly endless photographic flow. The boring repetitiveness of that occupation was being made bearable by the fact that the accompanying readers emails more often than not carried nice words about my column and the magazine in general. As for the readers’ comments regarding the careless electrics they captured on film in many countries of the globe, they often made me laugh out loud at my desk, so sharp and witty they were.

There was never a hint of misunderstanding here: all my correspondents, without exception, accepted the rules of the game. And it was indeed a game, an extended joke, with a serious and important subject matter. “Each joke contains a bit of truth,” goes an old Russian proverb. No one in his right mind could believe that by publishing three selections of the photos in the magazine we were somehow trying to generalise about the countries they came from, or make any serious conclusions about the state of electrical engineering in them. The purpose of those publications – as well as that of the “voting” process, summarised in the above news story - was to make people smile. And think. As one distinguished satirical writer noted, even those who are not afraid of anything are still afraid of laughter.

Yes, laughter can be a very powerful weapon. And whereas we never set ourselves a realistic goal to eradicate all bad and dangerous wiring in the world with our jokey “Crossed Wires” competition, we were still hoping that the scary photos, accompanied by readers’ funny, or sarcastic, comments, would remind everyone about the importance of the subject and of the tragic consequences of ignoring it. Judging by the readers’ overwhelming response (we received approximately 500 images from around the world), our hopes were not in vain. If even a handful of careless electricians anywhere were put to shame, I would call it “mission accomplished”.  

The “voting”, in which hundreds of E&T readers took part, is now over (see the above news story). Yet, in 2017 I am planning to issue another similar readers’ ‘challenge’ – not necessarily related to wiring, but, possibly, to other careless engineering jobs. Let’s keep laughing together!  

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Electric vehicle super-network for charging planned across Europe

Hats off to a group of big car manufacturers, including Volkswagen which could do with some good publicity right now, for plans to create an ultra-fast, high-power charging network for electric vehicles. As a driver who’s ready to be persuaded to go electric, the problem is that an initial target of 400 charging points across the whole of Europe just isn't enough to assuage my ‘range anxiety’. The network will eventually encompass thousands of points, but even these will be located near to major highways. What the companies involved are describing as ‘the charging experience’ will one day, they say, be as convenient as stopping at a petrol station, filling up, and being on your way again within a few minutes. Good luck to them, but I couldn’t help thinking about how this would have helped me one day this week when an accident on the M25 left me sitting on the bridge from Essex across to Kent for over an hour. If I’d been low on fuel and gradually getting lower it would have been easy enough to get off the motorway at the first opportunity and fill up. With hold-ups like this a seemingly regular occurrence on some stretches of UK roads though, is there risk of exacerbating them by ending up with electric cars with flat batteries sitting in the middle of existing traffic jams?

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Piccadilly Line Night Tube hours should be halted due to engineering issues, RMT says

Having been in London most days this week, a phrase I heard repeatedly was: "There are severe delays on the Piccadilly line". The knock-on effect of this at rush hour, as passengers abandoned the Piccadilly and rerouted themselves via other Underground lines, meant trains were even more cramped than usual (and that's saying something at rush hour) and the platforms were dangerously fit to bursting. They were so full at the Victora/Bakerloo interchange at Oxford Circus one evening that the crowd of people was squeezed back out of the platform area, through the narrow rounded entrance passageways, like a human sausage machine, as a single malleable - and grumbling, complaining - lifeform. The headline of this story thus makes perfect sense to me. If the Piccadilly Line train wheels need fixing, fix 'em and fix 'em fast.

Human brain keeps it real when faced with androids

Reassuring to learn this week that despite all science-fiction spook stories and advances in humanoid development to the contrary, we humans can discern in less than one second whether we're faced with an android or a fellow homo sapien. Less I, robot; more hi, robot.

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