London’s missing trees, Valleytronics, Paris snub and more: best of the week’s news
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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.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
Trees may not be technologically whizzy, but as a simple, relatively cheap and easy fix for many of the problems facing cities, cultivating a verdant urban canopy is pretty much unbeatable. In his government-commissioned review of engineering and the built environment, eminent architect Sir Terry Farrell stated as much. Trees store approximately 2,367,000 tonnes of carbon in London alone. They also soak up storm water runoff, thereby helping prevent floods. There is also a growing body of evidence that they help improve air quality too. And all this before one even touches on the mental health benefits inhabitants of cities have been shown to gain from having plenty of trees, along with the multitudinous birds and bugs they accommodate, surrounding them. If figures obtained by E&T are anything to go by, councils are taking the chainsaw to an awful lot of street trees. Quite why this is remains unclear – and many town halls are at pains to point out that they also engage in extensive planting programmes. But it appears that, in England as a whole, more trees may now be being cut down than are being planted. Could technology save the leafy giants in our midst? At very least, it could assist in surveying (as shown by a new online map in which the locations of London’s trees, searchable by species, can be viewed), and social media could inspire the next generation to engage a little more with the natural wonders on their doorstep. From small acorns grow mighty oaks...
Tim Fryer, technology editor
Moore’s Law is being challenged as silicon reaches its physical limits when it comes to cramming more transistors into an ever decreasing area of chip. As a consequence research is going on into using more exotic materials, like the Europium sulphide and tungsten diselenide being used by a team of researchers at the University of Buffalo. Their experiments, conducted at the decidedly parky temperature of -266°C, showed promise for technology called ‘valleytronics’. Clearly there is a big gap between these experimental temperatures and ambient room temperature – a big enough gap that it is hard to imagine it being bridged any time soon. It also is most likely to be suitable for non-volatile memories – isn’t it processing power rather than storage potential that will fuel future advances in electronics and computing? I believe the way of conquering Moore’s Law in the short to medium term is to stack chip layers in the same package, which may be cheating in terms of transistors per mm2, but I don’t think Gordon Moore specified that it had to be in two dimensions. And having kicked around the industry for a number of decades, the concern that “this is the year when we have finally reached the physical boundaries that means the end of Moore’s Law,” is something I have heard most years.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Did the organisers of the Paris Air Show deliberately neglect to invite the US Air Force to showcase the F-35? They say not, but some people aren’t so sure. I don’t have much of an opinion one way or another to be honest, there are a lot of crazy things going on the world’s political stage this year, but I will say one thing – more fool the French if this is a snub. I saw this baby fly at the Farnborough Air Show last year and it was one of the most pant-wettingly exciting things I have ever seen. Seriously now, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an F-35 perform a vertical take-off and hover in mid-air. How can you have an air show without the most incredible stealth fighter jet in military history? I’ll tell you – you can’t. You just can’t. If I was thinking of going to Paris this year, this might make me rethink my plans.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
You can't go to a technology conference these days without hearing about the new disruptive platforms. Whether it's Uber in the taxi industry or AirBnB in the holiday accommodation business, newcomers with often no assets but efficient apps that match spare capacity to demand are upsetting traditional industries, for better or worse depending on where you stand. Will energy be next? Independent renewables projects are now powering up to a quarter of UK homes, thanks to small-scale local solar and wind schemes combined with investment in battery storage. Is it a trend to worry or please the energy giants? Look out for our investigation in the next issue of E&T, published in mid-May both online and in print, ahead of the CIRED electrical distribution event in Glasgow.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Theresa May’s concern over cybersecurity with regards to the upcoming election is probably very sensible considering the alleged tampering that occurred last year in America and may just have swung it in Trump’s favour. But ultimately, Russia’s meddling did expose some dodgy activities on the part of Hilary Clinton that, although they didn’t amount to much, revealed a shady side that the public probably had a right to know about before voting for her. Since taking the reins as Home Secretary, May has always been a champion of the “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” attitude. This was most pertinently demonstrated with her strident support for the Snoopers’ Charter which finally came into law last year. Yet suddenly she’s paranoid about hackers infiltrating the Tory party. What have you got to hide May? Are your MPs up to no good? Oh wait, up to 20 of them have been the subject of police enquiries linked to spending on the 2015 general election campaign. Does May’s paranoia suggest this may just be the tip of the iceberg? Dig in Russian hackers, see what you can find.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
In a week when there’s been a lot of talk about the potential medical benefits of cannabis, and the case for loosening up legal restrictions on its use, another example of how researchers are exploiting the properties of a natural material that have been known about for years. By embedding a substance called chitosan that’s extracted from the shells of crustaceans into traditional hydrogel wound dressings, scientists at Lodz University of Technology in Poland have given them additional properties that could be invaluable in addressing the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. A genuine example of great things coming from small origins – in this case literally a shrimp.