Comment

Integrating electric vehicles with the grid, and more from this week’s tech news

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.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Power networks could struggle by 2030 under soaring electric vehicle popularity

Nissan's smart-city idea has driverless cars and renewables

National Grid has said it is concerned that when electric cars (finally!) become mainstream they could cause electricity demand to increase rapidly from current levels and push UK infrastructure to breaking point. But this situation could be avoided by using something like Nissan’s smart city concept from last year. The idea is that the batteries in electric cars could be used to store any excess electricity, which can then be ceded back to the grid when power plants aren’t making enough.

The grid is composed of baseload power stations, typically nuclear or coal, that produce electricity at a constant rate 24/7 in order meet the anticipated minimum demand. Peaking power plants are also present that can ramp electricity production up or down quickly in order to meet demand at peak times. Renewables like wind and solar will create random electricity spikes depending on climactic conditions, and their effectiveness is partially hampered by our inability to store this electricity for use at other times.

If the number of electric cars in the UK really does hit nine million by 2030, as predicted by National Grid, that’s a helluva lotta electricity storage capacity being added to the grid in the near future. The time is ripe for power sector companies and automakers to come together to implement a system such as the one Nissan envisaged last year. Using smart devices, electricity customers could be made aware of when to charge their vehicles, and be given financial incentives to do so.

This would simultaneously solve many issues at once, killing multiple birds with a single stone. Any excess power on the grid could be immediately stored in cars, which would also increase the effectiveness of renewables. Considering that we currently overproduce electricity so that demand is always met, this would make the whole network more efficient and would alleviate concerns that an increase in electric cars will cause a rise in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector while providing drivers with free or very cheap means of transportation. Such a system would require intense cooperation between many different parties, but now is the time to set this up; it will be worth it in the long run.

Tim Fryer, Technical Editor

Multi-billionaire mining maverick wants to harness nuclear energy in Earth's core

When I was training to be a mining engineer I had the dubious pleasure of visiting various coal mines (which shows how long ago that was – there are none left in the UK now). The environment down there was particularly unpleasant; very hot with a strong artificial ventilating wind. However, the depth was only 800m or so, a pinprick in the Earth’s crust. Even the deepest borehole is only 12km, while the Earth’s crust is typically 30-50km thick. And it’s 6000km to the centre of the earth. It gets hotter as you go in. The estimated temperature of the Earth’s mantle is 4000 degrees C and the core 5500 degrees C. After a quick Google the highest melting point for any common metal or alloy is 3400 C (tungsten). So assuming that if something is going to be mined it will need a drill hole casing made of a solid substance - remember the mantle is liquid so there would need to be a drill pipe pushed down through the liquid to the core - then we would have to use something pretty exotic just from a temperature point of view. Then it has to deal with the pressure According to Phys.org, “Pressures in the lower mantle start at 237,000 times atmospheric pressure and reach 1.3 million times atmospheric pressure at the core-mantle boundary.” Compare this to the pressure at the very bottom of the sea, the Mariana Trench, which is a mere 1000 times surface pressure. Therefore to keep the borehole casing from melting and/or collapsing would stretch materials science to beyond its current limit. And then there’s the small matter of controlling it from 6000km away on the surface. The giants of engineering disproved the doubters and did what couldn’t conceivably be done. However, I think you can put me in the ‘doubters’ category for this project. It can’t be done. But I’m glad someone is going to give it a go.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Being for the benefit of Sgt. Pepper: The Beatles at Abbey Road

Our World: uniting the planet via satellite

Volkswagen’s hippy camper van reborn for the electric era

The July/August 2017 issue of E&T is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite ever. Not only does it feature The Beatles three times (I've left the third feature that mentions them off this list, as a little Magical Mystery Tour for the more inquisitive souls amongst us), we also have a photo spread about Volkswagen camper vans, another lifelong passion of mine. I really hope the VW ID Buzz comes to market, because from the looks of the 2017 concept car that VW has been showing at trade events, the German automaker has nailed another classic, updating its Type 2 for the electric era. Meanwhile, we looked at the making of another 1960s legend, whose star shows no sign of diminishing even many years from now: The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. What did EMI Studios London (as Abbey Road was known in 1967) contribute to the sound of that groundbreaking record? The Beatles, the last great band in black and white. Also, the first great band in colour, as evidenced by the band's appearance on the Our World global satellite broadcast! Ahh, the Summer of Love: happy daze.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Driverless robot shuttle pod Harry takes to the streets of Greenwich

Some clipboard-wallahs in Greenwich have been out and about garnering people’s views on a self-driving mini shuttle bus with a cutesy name. Mine would be: “Err… Why is it driving on the pavement and why is it hardly moving?” In actual fact, the vehicle is currently stationary – though not, its manufacturer assured me, because of any technical glitch. Goodness no! It is just waiting. In a car park. Until September. Quite why is anyone’s guess. But leaving aside that particular mystery, even when ‘Harry’ (that’s its/his name) does make it onto the road, it/he is not actually on a road. Confused?

Harry the shuttle bus makes use of pedestrian and cycle pathways running alongside the Thames. He’s for ‘last mile’ journeys, see. Normally, motorised craft of any kind are strictly prohibited from going on public footways or cycle paths like these, but apparently the relevant by-laws have been engaged so it’s all fine. Part of the point of trialling driverless vehicles is to see how they perform in real-world conditions, but given the snail’s pace at which Harry trundles along I’m not surprised the whizzes behind this project eschewed the asphalt. Drivers would see red over this high-tech tortoise. Ridiculously, the vehicle is accompanied at all times by stewards in high-vis jackets marching joylessly on either side. Louise Murray, who witnessed Harry in action on one of his rare outings, notes in her article that public expectations were “consistently higher than what the state of technology can deliver”. Quite.

If this is driverless technology, count me out - for now at least. In the long run, I’ve no doubt things will improve dramatically and even I might be persuaded to make the switch. That said, use of pavements by these types of vehicles, even if only for trials, is concerning. Most people won’t mind one or two of these things on the footways, but permitting them sets a precedent, and once the numbers start to grow - and given the narrowness of many pavements - there will inevitably be questions about whose space this really is. Ditto for the smaller delivery bots being trialled by takeaway firm Just Eat.

What happens if people start intentionally blocking the path of these bots for long periods of time, thereby frustrating their movements? Will someone be summoned to shove the troublemakers out the way, or are they technically acting within their rights? Presumably facial recognition and biometrics will be deployed to catch mischief-makers. Is this consistent with civil liberties? As the technology progresses, I will be fascinated to observe how such debates pan out and whether Harry can be taken up a gear, but for now I’ll maintain a healthy scepticism.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Revised guide encourages engineering students to think more about ethics

Most people like to believe they behave ethically, but it’s good sometimes to pause and take stock of what that really means. This guide should help everyone involved in engineering to do just that. It’s significant that the latest update stresses the importance of teaching ethical principles to students and apprentices as well as returning to them at later stages of professional development. That way, when someone is faced with a tricky situation they already have some mental guidelines to help them deal with it.

Electronic documents could be used as a valid will under new proposals

Even now, a well known proverb is sometimes parodied to become ‘where there’s a will there’s a lawsuit’, so some of the ideas the Law Commission has set out for consultation could open up a whole new can of worms, but it’s true that the law needs to take account of changing technology. This is another case where ethical principles need to be part of the discussion.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Revised guide encourages engineering students to think more about ethics

This story reminded me of an entry in a collection of notes, famous in Russia, by the 1920s/30s satirists Ilya Ilf, who in tandem with Evgeny Petrov wrote two iconic Soviet satirical novels ‘The Twelve Chairs’ and ‘Little Golden Calf: “He is a ‘Professor of Cinema Ethics’… And the whole ‘ethics’ can be summed up by one sentence: ‘it is not proper for film directors to flirt with actresses on the set”. Well, I may be entirely wrong here, but large parts of the new engineering ethics code strike me as a waste of time, paper and pixels. They can also appear insulting for some of the people they target. Let’s look, for example at the Honesty and Integrity section which, among other points, lists the following: act in a reliable and trustworthy manner; avoid deception and take steps to prevent or report corrupt practices or professional misconduct; reject bribery and improper influence.

Well, why don’t we add to those: “avoid hitting colleagues in the face and spitting at them”; “try not to use four-letter words in the working environment”; “do not steal equipment from the laboratory”; “do not fiddle your expenses,” and so on…

Apart from repeating the basic principles of human behaviour, which should have been taught in kindergarten, the code carries suspicion that some of the latter could still be prone to lying and to taking bribes. Had I been one of them, I would have been offended. I believe that whereas the new code contains some truly important guidelines, the elementary ‘ethics’ bits (read basic rules of behaviour in a civilised society), like those above, could be easily taken out. Otherwise – by stating the obvious - it may start to resemble the infamous Soviet ‘Fly Planes!’ poster. As if had it not been for that helpful reminder, the gullible Soviet people would have all started flying telephones, cucumbers and fountain pens… Sorry again, if I upset the code’s authors, I’m just trying to stick one its principles and ‘avoid deception’ by being honest!

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Super-fast broadband will be limited to customers who can pay extra, minister says

Where technology meets politics, there’s bound to be a bit of semantic ambiguity. In this case Culture Minister Matt Hancock was differentiating between the universal service obligation broadband speed of 10Mbps that is expected to be available to all British households by 2020 – “a decent level” as he put it – and faster rates which he described as “the really tip-top level” that users will be expected to shell out more for. A lot of the debate in Parliament was about business rates relief for telecoms companies to make it worth their while to install the necessary infrastructure. An important element from the consumer point of view though was Hancock’s acknowledgement that now the government is expecting us to pay taxes, order passports and do so much else online without a practical real-world alternative it’s only reasonable that they make sure we can all get at least a decent level of internet access. My own experience of this is that speed alone can be academic depending on who you share a house with. Broadband that zips along when the young people who regard it as a basic human right are at school or out for the evening can slow to a crawl at times when they’re all at home and using it simultaneously. So the difference between ‘decent’ and ‘tip-top’ can be down to how you’re using broadband as much as how sophisticated the technology behind it is.

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