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Chile lithium hazard, Brexit car threat, Korea 5G and more: Best of the week's news

Image credit: Ramón Morales Balcázar from the Plurinational Observatory Of Andean Salt Flats

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Lithium firms depleting vital water supplies in Chile, analysis suggests

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or in the context of environmental technology, there is no such thing as a single solution to tackling carbon reduction. I’m looking at this from the combined perspective of two articles we will run in the next issue of E&T. One looks at the materials that will define the next age of technology, and the other is the excellent bit of research linked above from Ben Heubl looking at the effects of lithium mining in Chile.

Lithium is important. In fact we identified it as one of the candidates that could define the next technological age. We have had a Stone Age, Bronze and Iron, and as we discuss in the October issue there are several more that lay claim to the intervening years.

What comes next is less clear, but lithium makes the list because of its role in energy storage. To reduce climate change we will inevitably need to phase out fossil fuels and develop the renewable electricity generation technologies to replace them – including, most significantly, how we are going to store that electricity once generated. Lithium isn’t the only solution but it does appear, currently, to be best.

Is there enough of it to support a fully electrified world? There’s a lot but, as Ben’s article illustrates, even using a fairly simple technique, mining it is not without its issues. In the case of the regions of Chile that Ben examined, the consequences of using all the water for lithium mining (and copper) are devastating.

Very few things can either be classified as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, but I suspect the perspectives of scientists developing efficient lithium-ion cells in labs are pretty far removed from those of the inhabitants of the Atacama desert. As ever, the bigger picture is important and surely the strongest message is always going to be to use less, rather than just using more of different things.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

No-deal Brexit poses serious threat to UK car industry

Next week will be an incredible few days for UK politics in what is already an extraordinary month and a stormy year. A no-deal Brexit looks more likely than ever before. 'Let's Go WTO'? Is it 'No Deal – No Problem'? That's not what the UK's car industry thinks, as it came out and said loud and clear this week. Is it right, or just scaremongering ? Write to me at engtechletters@eandtmagazine.com with your opinion for our lively E&T letters page.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

South Korean government queries Samsung’s release of 5G smartphone

This story is based on material provided exclusively to E&T about South Korea reaching the milestone of 2.5 million 5G subscription numbers, an achievement that other countries can only dream of. It illustrates how operators and smartphone companies are collaborating to support a government dream of leading on 5G technology, something that is unheard of in western markets.

To be fair, South Koreans have nothing to worry about in terms of connectivity. The country’s 4G network remains world class and can easily trump most nations in the West. So, the first question worth raising is: why doesn’t the UK try to get 4G right first before approaching 5G?

Secondly, there is a subtle difference between the paths to 5G adoption being pursued in the UK and South Korea. Korea is building at maximum speed in the interests of national pride. This is very different to how UK operators are approaching 5G rollout. The UK wants 5G in places where the network has the most traffic. The network would also act more as a problem solver for the operator because they would like to offload the traffic to 5G wherever they are squeezed tightly by the present 4G network.

With record numbers of new subscribers, Koreans appear unconcerned by the price of 5G contracts. It’s just so faaaaaaaaaast. The marketing on racetracks and so on is impressive. Samsung’s decision to roll out its 5G Note 10 smartphone without an equivalent model for 4G is a bit of a cheeky way to push for operators’ business, but we’ve known from the start that Samsung is in bed with them. So nothing new here. However, the recent government intervention is something new and might be a harbinger of further state intervention in big tech within Korea and beyond. 

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Night vision for human eyes could be possible after nanoparticle breakthrough

So, would you have permanent night vision? Like, everything would look a little different during the day? Would you be super sensitive to light? Consistent migraines? Have they thought this through?

Researchers from University of Massachusetts Medical School successfully tested nanoparticles on mice, which means that us humans could end up providing built-in night vision for humans. Unfortunately for the wee mice, they injected nanoparticles into the little critters’ eyes, giving the fluffies infrared vision for up to 10 weeks, even during the day. I, for one, am not down with animal testing. Horrific people, on the other hand, I definitely support. It would mean tests would be more trustworthy, safer, and would take less time to get to the market.

Why haven’t we done this already? Screw the infrared vision, use the time and money to abolish animal testing. If you’re not OK with having the terrible people of the world suffer like the animals we torture, then there should be research into alternative methods. Just saying.

The scientists have now reported progress in making versions of these nanoparticles for human applications. Fun. They reckon, with near-infrared vision, we could see the universe differently, like infrared astronomy with the naked eye. We could even get night vision without bulky equipment. Super stealth.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

KFC to trial plant-based ‘Beyond Fried Chicken’

Perhaps it’s a subconscious consequence of the Stevenage Leisure Park KFC outlet being the first thing I see if I look out of the window from my desk at the neighbouring IET building, but fried chicken is never top of my list if I’m on the hunt for fast food. In fact, with one vegan and one vegetarian in my immediate family, although I’m fairly omnivorous I’m always looking out for convenient places to eat that will cater for the non meat eaters. And to be honest, I’ll often choose the veggie option myself just out of curiosity.

I’ve tried a couple of the Beyond Meat plant-based meat substitutes and genuinely found them preferable to ‘the real thing’. The arrival of a chicken version at KFC is almost as much a sign of how many other people must feel the same, and of how times are changing, as the fact that the company spokesperson who claims that customers will find it difficult to tell the difference rejoices in the job title of ‘chief concept officer’.

Not much chance of anyone at the IET being tempted to cross the road and test this boast for a while; samples of the ‘Beyond Fried Chicken’ product are being tested on customers at a branch in Atlanta, Georgia, who, I think it’s safe to assume, are going to be more wedded than I am to their carnivorous habits. If the concept makes it to the UK, though, I might just overcome my natural aversion to any food that’s served up in a bucket, derived from an animal or not.

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