UK drivers go electric, origami robot and more: best of the week’s 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.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
So, 51 per cent of British car buyers would be “open to” owning a part-electric vehicle, while 35 per cent would be willing to go fully electric – hardly an overwhelming vote of confidence in this technology, but then the wheels of progress often move slowly. There are plenty of theories as to why motorists are reluctant to accelerate headlong into the electric car revolution, and I do not intend to rehearse these here. What I do intend to rehearse is the argument that electric cars also pollute. London Mayor Sadiq Khan tacitly acknowledged as much this week when he revealed every single Londoner is breathing air that exceeds safe limits for the most dangerous type of toxic dust: a tiny particle known as PM2.5.
Unlike NOx (that’s oxides of nitrogen, dontcha know), PM2.5 is not especially related to those sinister diesel fumes politicians harangue us about. (Remember, not long ago politicians were encouraging us to buy diesel cars to reduce our carbon footprint, so some scepticism around their pronouncements is only natural.) Sources of PM2.5 are car brakes, car tyres and the chassis. Thus, electric cars are unlikely to provide a solution to this aspect of the pollution crisis. The other reason why it is misleading to describe electric cars as “zero emissions” is that electricity in the UK is currently derived from a mix of fossil fuels and renewable sources. Yes, the renewables component is rising, but a lot of electricity still comes from dirty fuels.
I don’t think we should delude ourselves about electric cars. In some ways they are an improvement, but at the end of the day they are still cars. They are still a horribly inefficient means of using road space. They are still, in various ways, quite dangerous to public health. However, a lot of people do the equivalent of putting their hands over their ears and chanting “la-la-la” when anyone points this out. When I reported earlier this year that a leading transport expert, Professor Roy Harrison, had said going electric might not make much difference to roads-related particle pollution, I was inundated with mild personal abuse on Twitter from irate electric car owners who suggested I might have some ulterior motive for writing this (I don’t). Yesterday (Thursday), another pollution expert, Professor Frank Kelly of King’s College London, echoed Harrison’s concerns. He said electric cars tend to be heavier than normal cars and so could actually end up generating more PM2.5 than their non-electric counterparts.
Personally, I think all cars should be heavily impeded, if not banned outright, across swathes of London. If one takes at face value the statements of Sadiq Khan about how many people are dying because of air pollution then this, logically, is the only morally acceptable course to follow. Khan regularly fumes about pollution, but examine his actions and you will find that he is doing disappointingly little. Either he should decide he has actually been overly alarmist and should shut up – now – about air pollution, or he should follow the logic of his rhetoric and take the brave but necessary actions. If he wanted to, Khan could today order councils to use their powers to reduce speed limits to zero, thereby grounding all cars immediately. He could announce he was increasing the congestion charge to £1,000 a pop and was widening the congestion charge zone to cover most of London. He could cancel the planned Silvertown Tunnel and start the process of pedestrianising most of central London. If he really wanted to rid London of cars and thereby strike a major blow against the air pollution menace he claims to be fighting, he could even force the Metropolitan Police to clamp down on all vehicles parked on the kerbside on the grounds that they are, technically, illegal obstructions on the Queen’s Highway. (Yes, I’ve checked, and strictly speaking that is their status under British law.)
Last week I made these perfectly reasonable points to a high ranking and politically connected Labour councillor. His response? “To do any of that would be politically impossible.”
Tim Fryer, technology editor
This isn’t the first time I’ve come across origami-inspired invention. The ability for a structure to fold away into something much smaller, or more importantly to be able to do the reverse, is of critical importance in spacecraft. Real estate on a satellite’s outer skin is a very valuable commodity – size is all important for launch. Deployable structures therefore are used to expand once in orbit to provide such things as communications receivers and arrays of solar panels. One particularly elegant example of this was created by a company called Oxford Space Systems who used the skills of a professor of engineering science with expertise in origami (really!) from Oxford University. There were many more tricks required to make space-hardened, reliable deployable structures, but using origami techniques allowed strong structures such as antennas that took up a minimum amount of satellite space at take-off and expanded to 12m diameter when in operation.
The trick with a medical robot designed using these techniques will come in the accuracy of the actuation, but according to Hilary’s article it looks like they have potentially many advantages in surgery.
Hilary Lamb, news reporter
I’m coming to the end of my first Salman Rushdie novel, ‘Midnight’s Children’, and it is masterful (I’d hesitantly say it is genius). I can understand why Rushdie has been such a popular choice for the Nobel Prize for Literature for so long, although reportedly the Nobel committee believed that Rushdie was “too predictable” a choice for the honour. Well, usually the obvious choice is the obvious choice for a reason, and that was the case this year as the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to three major figures in the detection of gravitational waves. These were predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein, and their discovery is a colossal achievement: Einstein himself thought we would never develop the technology to detect them. Gravitational waves – ripples in space-time – are born from violent astronomical events, such as the collision of two black holes. So perhaps it is funny that listening in to the echo of these events requires us to tune in to a tiny disruption (a thousandth the diameter of a proton) in a miles-long laser beam using what is essentially the most enormous, expensive and precise ruler ever constructed: Ligo.
Jade Fell, supplements editor
This story presents will come as welcome new to the long-term ill, hospital workers and germophobes alike. A form of self-cleaning textile developed by scientists at the University of Leeds could help prevent cross contamination and the spread of infection in hospitals. Leeds-based industrial designer Adam Walker came up with the idea for a self-cleaning doorplate, which could be incorporated into hospital and doctors surgery doors as a more hygienic alternative to traditional metal plates, after visiting a doctor’s surgery and worrying about the spread of infection. Hospital doors, which are often touched by the sick and elderly, have been recognised as a weak link in hospital hygiene. At present there is only one other self-cleaning doorplate available, which is copper based and takes up to 8 hours to disinfect. The new device contains three separate textiles which emit a small amount of alcohol gel onto the surface of the textile when put under pressure. This gel disinfects the surface in seconds and evaporates.
The strange behaviour of a star which has confounded scientists for years could be evidence of life on other planets. Ok, so there are actually a few other potential explanations for this stars mysterious antics, which mainly involved periods of rapid, unexplained dimming, including it having swallowed a nearby planet, or being orbited by an unusually large group of comets, but neither of these explanations is anywhere near exciting enough for my liking. Aliens, on the other hand, I can get on board with. We’ve had a few exciting alien-type stories in E&T so far this year, including the idea that strange intergalactic radio pulses could be powering alien spacecraft, and I’m hoping for more before the year is out. Am I the only one thinking that a little festive visit might be on the cards?
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Having spent the best (worst?) part of this year in hospitals due to a major surgery and subsequent complications, I know only too well the life-saving importance of battling MRSA, Clostridium difficile and other stubborn hospital bugs that remain one of the major causes of infections often leading to complications and even fatalities. (A staggering 300,000 cases of hospital infection a year in Britain alone, according to this story). It is a huge shame when a brilliant job of a surgeon gets undermined by some persistent little microbes, increasingly resistant to all kinds of disinfectants and drugs. As you may have guessed, I do have a grudge to bear, still struggling with a stubborn post-surgery infection – an unwelcome souvenir from one of the British hospitals, the hygienic conditions of which were reminiscent of the Soviet infirmary where I was treated for a duodenal ulcer as a student in the late 1970s. Over fifty percent of the patients in that leading (God knows where to) city of Kharkov hospital, including yours truly, ended up with severe cases of sepsis due to unclean needles used by nurses during injections. I will spare you descriptions of the state of the corridor toilets (one per 100 patients), bed linen grey and nearly transparent from decades of laundering, and slimy door-handles which, according to the above news story, constitute an obvious “weak link in hospital hygiene” (if any at all). Now, I have to tell – and you have to believe me here – that the British hospital, mentioned above, was actually a private one! A couple of NHS hospitals, in which I had to spend some time too, were actually a tad better, but could also do with a good clean-up. I do hope therefore that the self-disinfecting textile is introduced all over Britain ASAP. Glory to the University of Leeds scientists for this truly ground-breaking invention!
Let me help the thoroughly discombobulated astronomers by providing my own – tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly unscientific – guess as to why the distant and mysterious KIC 8462852 keeps dimming. If we forget about all those light years that separate it from our guilty Earth, from its vantage point in the sky the star should have a great all-encompassing view of our own tormented planet, with all its never ending problems: greenhouse gas emissions, hurricanes, earthquakes, climate change, mass shootings, wars, terrorist attacks – enough for anyone, including a star, to get depressed. So my purely emotional guess would be that the sensitive KIC 8462852 keeps dimming not due to aliens and cosmic cannibalism (read ‘planet swallowing’) but with shame and embarrassment for poor us – dwellers of planet Earth. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that at times, it may even feel like giving a good KIC (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) in the… South Pole.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Count me among the three-quarters of Brits who are wary of the ‘smart home revolution’ we’re all apparently about to experience. I don’t necessarily share the common concern about data collection though; it’s the price we pay for convenience and as long as there’s a trade-off between sacrificing some information and saving money on things like home insurance I’ll bite the bullet. What I’m not convinced about is how reliable it is at present. So I can forget about carrying a clunky bunch of keys around with me, but I either have to make sure I’ve got my phone with me to activate a security system app and open my front door when I get home, maybe try fingerprint recognition, or if I’m brave give voice recognition a go.
I was actually in the minority a couple of weeks ago when a show of hands at a smart homes event showed most of the industry people present are regular users of Amazon’s Alexa software. It was revealing that one early adopter claimed his young children who have grown up with it now take it for granted that they can switch on lights, change channel on the TV and lots more just by speaking slowly and clearly into thin air. That’s probably an indication of the way things are going, and how in initial scepticism on the part of the older generation will be swiftly overtaken.
Perhaps the most interesting prediction at the same event was the extent to which companies like Amazon and Google could succeed in their ambitions to muscle in on the home energy market, where smart meters are the one bit of this kind of tech that are quickly finding a foothold in British homes. Combine that kind of real-time monitoring of consumer habits with what retailers and the like already know about how much we spend, when and on what, it’s been claimed, and they’ll soon be able to offer us packages that include energy along with subscription TV services, same-day shopping delivery and much everything else that’s becoming an indispensible part of 21st century life.
Would ‘free’ gas and electricity bundled in with other less essential commodities from a supplier who knows enough about you from monitoring your home to be certain they’ll make a profit convince you to buy into the smart home revolution? However appealing the idea may be, the important thing is to make sure we have all the safeguards in place to ensure the data involved is absolutely secure.