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Air pollution, fusion investment, green attitudes: best of the week's news

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.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

AI and satellite data used to build British air pollution map

The problem described here – that on-the-ground environmental-monitoring stations are sparse in certain parts of the UK – is absolutely true. Those of you that are into coding and software development may want to check an R-coding language library called rdefra to plot measuring stations across the UK.

The package allows the public to retrieve air-pollution data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s air-information resource, UK-AIR. Why is this helpful? Usually, services provide an application programming interface (API) for users – researchers or journalists like myself. But UK-AIR, UK's air-quality information service, doesn't have an API. The package scrapes the relevant HTML pages to get information that I and others can use to find trends in the data.

Below is a map I swiftly created from the data and the helper functions that the library offers. As mentioned in the illustration, grey circles refer to all the stations with coordinates (there may be more). Large areas have no coverage. Even more sparse are stations with hourly monitoring capabilities (in yellow). See how those dots are almost exclusively concentrated around larger cities and towns?

UK air pollution monitoring stations

Image credit: E&T/Ben Heubl

What quickly becomes obvious is that large parts of the country remain unmonitored, especially in more rural areas. In defence of the current system, a 1kmx1km grid across Britain proposed by the new nationwide air-pollution map will still be insufficient in some areas, such as cities where air pollution and particulate matter levels change from one street to the next or from neighbourhood to neighbourhood – in London, for example, areas are tightly clustered. As the authors of the study in this news story attempted to demonstrate, the most valuable use of satellite images is to combine the two systems. In other words, get the best possible monitoring coverage in rural areas where there are fewer on-the-ground stations, while benefiting from granular data in cities, where stations tend to be more numerous.

Speaking from the perspective of an analyst, the federal administration may want to improve how they issue and share the data. I am speaking more about format, which should allow easy comparison with health and accident data sets that are also public but may not match areas from air-pollution measurements. At the moment, hospital statistics are hard to compare with air-pollution intelligence. There is definitely room for improvement. The grid proposed by this study might seem a good idea but, if it isn’t compatible with existing spatial boundary data sources, it might be more difficult to come to an exact conclusion about where it is in the UK that peoples' health is in jeopardy due to air pollution. 

Tim Fryer, technology editor

UK fusion investment creates 36,000 jobs, report finds

I’ll not go into the argument about nuclear being (in many people’s minds) the only obvious partner for renewables if we are to aim for a carbon-free future. But if we assume that is the case, what direction does the nuclear industry go in? Fission works but is hugely expensive to build; if we had to rely on a technology to provide maybe 20-40 per cent of the country’s electricity supply, to cover the base load, then the technology is there. We just need to build the capacity, and quite soon as well. Hinkley C is still three years away and Sizewell C, if it happens, is a further 6-8 years down the line, while everything else has the end of its useful life in sight.

Fusion is the exciting option. It’s safer, it uses cheaper and more benign fuel, and if it worked it would offer almost unlimited power. But while it works in theory, in practice its success is limited to producing electricity but only at a rate less than the significant amounts needed to provide the extreme magnetic and temperature requirements for the reaction to take place. Even with this fairly limited success, a whole industry is building up according to this report, in the shape of 36,000 jobs and a four-fold return on investment. Small fry in the grand scheme of the country’s economic woes, but imagine the benefits when it actually does work! It’s an exciting prospect and something we will be keeping a close eye on at E&T.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Most UK adults feel ‘radical’ action necessary to combat climate change

The IET’s Green Preferences Survey is an excellent idea – ask thousands of people representing a cross-section of the proverbial great British public what they think about environmental issues and what they think the solutions should be. Substitute Covid-19 for climate change though and the problems faced by anyone trying to put the findings into practice become clear.

I’m sure if you asked a similar group whether they think ‘radical’ action is necessary to combat the current pandemic a similar number would agree. As we’ve seen from the reaction to the latest attempt to clamp down with a system of regional tiers, however, most people may favour a strict approach only if it applies to someone else.

While respondents to the IET research were keen on the least painful personal actions they can take around sustainability, they’re less enthusiastic about things that they regard as a significant inconvenience. For example 73 per cent said they would rather drive 15 minutes to go shopping than take public transport for 45 minutes, and just a quarter would take the train to continental Europe for a holiday for £500 rather than flying for £200.

That reluctance to take individual responsibility is reflected in the mere 16 per cent of participants who said they place the responsibility to make changes to mitigate climate change on the individual, with 23 per cent placing total responsibility with national government.

For me, one of the worrying things to emerge from the survey is that nine in 10 adults accept that human activity is driving climate change. One in ten unconvinced by the scientific evidence is a lot of people, and I’d suspect there’s an overlap with those who are sceptical about the fact that we’re even in the middle of a pandemic. Whatever the issue though, robust research like the Green Preferences Survey can hopefully do more to influence policymakers than noisy protests complaining about infringement of civil liberties.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Unique combustion technique could produce safer nuclear fuel

This Los Alamos project hints at the exciting possibility of producing safer nuclear fuels at scale. Actinide nitride fuels have preferable energy density and thermal conductivity than conventional nuclear fuels, allowing for lower temperature operations and a larger margin to meltdown under abnormal conditions. However, the extreme temperatures and sophisticated equipment necessary to produce them has been an obstacle to their uptake by the nuclear industry.

These researchers have shown – using a material which behaves remarkably similarly – that it may be possible to produce this alternative fuel through a self-sustained combustion reaction.

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