Vitali Vitaliev train journey

Farewell Vitali, hydrogen economy, spotting fakes and more: best of the week's news

Image credit: Christine Bohling

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.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

After All: May you never need the services of a ‘Horizontal Travel Agent’

It’s not for want of anything else to comment upon that I’ve chosen my own column from the latest issue of E&T as my pick of the week’s news. For a change, this is one of those rare occasions when my 13-odd-year column has some, even if limited, news value.

The news is in no way life-changing or groundbreaking in terms of global politics, yet many readers will probably be interested to know that this is my very last ‘best of the week’ contribution in my capacity as E&T’s features editor, a role from which I’m retiring after nearly 14 years of service.

For the sake of many hundreds of readers who kept writing to me regularly throughout all those years, I hurry to add that my After All column is going to continue, so what we have here is in no way a farewell, but rather a quick goodbye of the type: ‘Bye for now, see you again soon!’

As for the news picks per se, this is indeed the last one. Our efficient managing editor brought me to tears (well, nearly) yesterday by emailing a copy of my very first ‘pick’ dated 16 May 2014 (time flies!). I take the liberty of reproducing it below.

“I was on board the first ever Eurostar train, which as we reported made its maiden journey 20 years ago this week [meaning in May 1994 – VV]. As a staff columnist for the now-defunct ‘European’ newspaper, I was on that historic trip with a large group of London journalists. It did have a touch of a miracle then, and I remember feeling a bit uneasy as the train was rattling through the pitch darkness. 20 years on – to the day! – on 7 May 2014, I was returning home from a press trip to Paris. In between these two memorable trips there have been hundreds of Chunnel journeys to the Continent and back. Among those was one unhurried walk… through the service Channel tunnel (on top of the two main ones) – as part of yet another press trip, this time for E&T. I have to confess that after 20 years of frequent Eurostar trips, I haven’t quite come to grips with the fact that I can (theoretically, at least) be in my Paris hotel room three hours after leaving the E&T offices in Stevenage. No wonder Eurotunnel is often listed among the ten engineering miracles of modern world.

Back in post-peak-Covid-19 2020, I found myself briefly in St Pancras Station last Sunday and was happy to note that after nearly grinding to a halt (just one London-Paris train a day!) at the height of the pandemic, Eurostar services are now running over a dozen of trains  a day both ways – still far from their normal traffic volume, yet no doubt, a promising re-start.

Just like the Eurostar trains, life will be coming back to normality little by little, and we shall all resume our normal daily pursuits, which to me will mean new books, new travels and new columns of course. To those of my faithful readers who write to me regularly (and your emails keep coming in literally as we speak) and who want to keep following my movements and my work, here are a couple of links. (Note that my email address will no longer be valid).

My books are available from Amazon, follow me on Medium or visit my website. I’m also in the process of building a new website and have already acquired the domain I’ll find a way of letting you know when it launches, hopefully soon.

So, as both the French and the Russians say - ‘Au Revoir’ and ‘Do svidaniya’ – meaning ‘until I see you again!’.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Trial makes the case for hydrogen fleets

Avid readers of E&T will know that we’ve covered the subject of electric vehicles extensively recently, and a large part of our latest print issue is given over to the subject. Clearly EVs offer the possibility of a greener future for our planet, but while the technology to make EVs is in place, there are still some fundamental barriers to overcome.

One is that of diminishing resources when it comes to the materials used in state-of-the-art batteries – if we were to switch today to an all-electric fleet then we wouldn’t have enough lithium or cobalt to support the industry. However, another big issue is that about a quarter of road-transport carbon dioxide emissions comes from freight and as it stands electric vehicles don’t scale up. Lorries with the necessary range would have to be huge just to carry the batteries they would need, leaving no useful capacity for cargo. I’m sure technology still has a long way to evolve in this respect, so it’s not the case that lorries will never be electric, but we do need to explore the alternatives. One of these is hydrogen.

Hydrogen as a transport fuel has been slightly pushed to one side by the big automakers, who have collectively backed the electric option. Realistically, without the buy-in of these companies, development of a mainstream alternative would be tough. Hydrogen does have a lot to offer though, the main virtue being that the output from a hydrogen fuel cell is water. The project described in this article demonstrates that it’s a technology which could work for heavy-duty vehicles, as long as it has the infrastructure of course.

Making hydrogen is expensive – it cost more in energy to create hydrogen through electrolysis than you could get as energy output from the hydrogen you create. But I return to a project I visited a couple of years ago on the Orkney islands. Having been left slightly stranded by the National Grid and a consequent inability to rifle almost endless wind, wave and tidal renewable energy into the system, the islanders used this free energy source to make hydrogen, essentially for free. While the Orkneys is unusually blessed with renewable energy reserves, the rest of the UK is in a pretty healthy spot too – and I could see this as being key to the growth of the hydrogen economy. It’s a tough ask for the private sector mind you, it would take serious commitment and investment in infrastructure from central government to make it work.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Machine-learning system identifies social media disinformation campaigns

It’s pretty simple to detect fake accounts, in my experience. Take fake Twitter handles. The profile photo is often an indication. You can attempt a reverse image search yourself, using photo search by Google, Bing, Baidu or Yandex.

I prefer the latter since Yandex turned its facial-recognition search on. The facial-recognition algorithms are sublime. If the image comes from an image stock platform results might indicate so. If it comes from a generator like Thispersondoesnotexist then there are different ways to spot a fake profile - the position of the eyes, for example. A post next week will expose more details and privacy implications of reverse image searches on the web. 

Then there are other stats from the account activity that can expose bots. The time of tweets can be an indication. If the account is based in the UK and tweet volume sees a recurring surge between 11pm and 3pm, it might be an indication that something is off. The joining date can also be a sign. If the account joined only days ago, and at the same time (within seconds or minutes) as other accounts that support the same cause or message and follow each other, something might be off. Investigative journalists can expose such orchestrated campaigns via various techniques, including network-analysis techniques. What recently happened is that many accounts were spotted to be reused or recycled. That means their inception date might be much older, trying to avoid alerting fake profile and bot hunters.

Bots in a network are often different from individual fake accounts. What I mean by that is that they’re often much more prudently and carefully set up. Owners take more precautions in hiding their true identity while playing a fake game. Those behind so-called sock puppet accounts may put much more time into building a believable backdrop. But for larger and often instantaneous bot campaigns, orchestrators often put less time and effort into pretending to be real. By the time they’re detected, the message has already spread into the wider social media’s sphere.

That’s why, for now at least, it’s still relatively simple to spot simple bots. The lesson is to become quicker in spotting them. Also, remember that many bots can be legitimate. Take the Twitter handle @WebSecurityIT. It openly declares that it is a bot created by a developer and acts as a support for open-source intelligence-related posts. That’s not a problem - it openly declares its intentions. Those that pretend to be something else and try to influence, that's questionable business.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Shells and grapefruit inspire ‘non-cuttable’ material

Yes, nature. Kicking butt in the technology game again.

A team of engineers have developed the first manufactured non-cuttable material, which essentially reverses the force from a cutting tool. Cool, right? Durham University and Fraunhofer IWU led the study, and the researchers got the idea for the new material from tough cellular grapefruit skin and fracture-resistant mollusc shells, specifically abalone.

Abalone shells are super-strong due to their structure: they’re made from tiny calcium carbonate tiles interlinked with a clingy protein. When the shell is struck, the tiles slide beside each other rather than shattering, with the protein deforming to take some of the force of the blow.

Materials scientists are taking inspiration from these structures to build super-strong body armour and other items. Nature always inspires; it’s great. The researchers replaced these organic materials with aluminium ceramics and a metallic foam matrix. Ceramics spheres are encased in this structure, creating a light, non-cuttable material.

The structure resists cutting by creating high-speed motion where it interacts with cutting tools. When a cutting tool like a blade or drill bit is applied, the spheres create vibrations, causing the force of the cutting tool to be effectively turned back on itself. This causes it to gradually erode until it is rendered entirely ineffective. As the ceramic spheres fragment, they reduce to a dust which fills the matrix and stiffens as the speed of the cutting tool is increased. The material also resisted cutting by water jets, because the curved surfaces of the ceramic spheres widen the jet, reducing its cutting capacity.

Awesome work, science!

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Hydrogen or electric vehicles? Why the answer is probably both

Trial makes the case for hydrogen fleets

I didn’t think I had anything useful to say about our online news this week, then these two came along in quick succession. Electric cars have been a hot topic for the best part of 15 years now (I just checked my archive - my own first story about them was in 2006), but they still aren’t the first choice among the general public, and a great many of the vehicles on our roads aren’t cars. Batteries are heavy and don’t necessarily deliver the power output needed for commercial and municipal vehicles - though it’s worth noting that this year’s MacRobert Award went to a construction vehicle, JCB’s electric digger.

In many situations, hydrogen can be a viable alternative, either for fuel cells or internal combustion engines, - but building the infrastructure to supply it requires financial commitment. That’s why, as with the first electric vehicles, it makes sense to start with fleets that operate from a fixed base. The recent trial whose results we report may help persuade funders that it’s worth the investment.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Premiership football clubs subject to repeated hacking attempts – NCSC report

I’m not an avid football fan, but I am conscious of how much money is poured into Premier League clubs, particularly when transfer deadlines loom and millions of pounds are lying in a pot, so this doesn’t come as a complete shock. Hackers who are money-driven would do anything to get hold of big chunks of cash, so it’s not surprising that from a hacker’s perspective, a multi-million business like a premiership club is an attractive target.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Ban gas boilers from 2025 to meet zero carbon goals, experts say

It’s always handy when a news story pops up on the E&T website that reminds you of something you’ve been putting off doing and gives you a gentle nudge. In this case it’s the annual service for my gas boiler, which under the maintenance contract needs to be carried out in the next couple of months.

Yes, I’m one of the suckers who springs for one of those every year instead of just coughing up for a repair when it’s needed. I just like the convenience of not having to find a technician who’s available at a reasonable price when problems occur, and the contract’s carefully priced to make it a reasonable amount more than a service alone even if I don’t need any repairs.

The cosy arrangement that I expect many other householders have got used to over the years could change if the Government listens to the Heat Commission’s call for new conventional gas boilers to be ‘banned’ in just a few years’ time. Instead, the choice when your existing equipment packs up would be between greener alternatives like heat pumps, hybrid systems, and hydrogen-ready boilers.

It seems like a trivial matter when there’s so much else going on in the UK, but fits nicely with other announcements the current administration’s found time to make recently about how it expects sustainability and green jobs to help drag us out the Covid-19 recession. It remains to be seen what manufacturers who have so much invested in gas boilers think of the idea. At the coal face, however, I’d imagine the smart technicians are already looking around for training that will give them a head start in the no-doubt lucrative market for installing and servicing the proposed new systems.

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