Letters to the editor: volume 17, issue 4
Image credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash
In the May 2022 issue of E&T, readers discuss what to do with the UK’s plastic waste, how the status of the engineering profession can be improved, and more.
Options for Plastic Waste
I found the article on the export of plastic waste for recycling in the March 2022 issue of E&T of interest, particularly as in Coventry, where I live, there is currently a strike by household waste collection lorry drivers.
In common with other cities, Coventry has a waste incineration plant that provides heat energy for electrical generation and heating of civic buildings. Flue gases are treated to minimise pollution and the bottom ash has metals recovered by magnetic and eddy current processes before being used for road building or landfill cover. As the waste contains non-recyclable plastic waste the incineration process cannot be considered entirely carbon-neutral.
Councils separately collect recyclable material, aiming to meet imposed targets. Much of this is exported. As the article describes, exported plastic waste is not being properly treated in many cases. While we are stuck with single-use plastics it is surely better (or less harmful) to burn it efficiently in CHP plants than to transport it to far-off lands where it may be dumped, burned on roadsides and released into the environment.
John Greenhalgh MIET
Engineering Needs a Single Voice
John Butler (Letters, April 2022) makes the point that to be taken seriously, the engineering profession needs a single representative organisation. As he suggests, the various disciplines now overlap to a great extent.
As a Fellow of both the IET and the IMechE I note that the April issue of E&T majored on concrete, whilst the equivalent IMechE publication, Professional Engineering, also approaches diverse engineering topics. It is worth noting that despite the two institutions deciding against a merger, the IET was housed in the IMechE’s London buildings in Birdcage Walk during the refurbishment of the IET’s Savoy Place. The IMechE is now embarking on a hugely costly refurbishment of Birdcage Walk. It does seem odd that two institutions which each address the broad church of modern technology can nevertheless find the funds to maintain separate identities and dilute the power of the ‘engineering voice’ which could otherwise be heard loud and clear in the corridors of power.
I feel sure that, as John Butler proposes, a single institution with specialist sectors for electrical, mechanical, chemical, civil etc would be a much better solution. There would be protests about loss of heritage and so on, but surely we should collectively be looking forwards to address the challenges of the 21st century?
Peter Finch FIET FIMechE
Multiple Institutions Offer an Invigorating Choice
Some 13 years ago, having become disillusioned with the ongoing debacle and obsessive preoccupation with status, I as a civil engineer decided to resign and join the Institution of Engineering and Technology to find some solitary and an elevated level of intellect.
I was somewhat alarmed to stumble across letters from John Butler (Letters, April 2022) and Malcolm Joynson (Letters, March 2022) which appear to miss both ethos and understanding of diversity and inclusivity. The Engineering Council is spot on to advise of the impracticality of ring-fencing the term ‘engineer’. Put simply, because we like to engineer our solutions, a common and accepted usage in a variety of disciplines and not unique to engineers specifically.
Concerning disparity between institutions and perceived lack of unity, it shall be a sad day, when we are left with only a monocratic-style institution and qualifying body, if not dull. The inviting mix of institutions offers newly fledged graduates and members alike opportunity and diversity of choice, with invigorating, inspiring food for thought. Some choose to professionally affiliate, like me, with more than one, to reflect respective interests, specialisms and share knowledge.
It is very important to permit those differences to flourish, particularly as we tackle the challenges presented by climate change, carbon reduction and integration of renewable energy. This must be an interdisciplinary process; my specialism is bridge engineering, in the context of highways and transportation and civil in the wider societal context of arts, manufactures, business and commerce. Efforts to restrict entrepreneurial business start-ups, by the engineering novice, risks stifling innovation and is anticompetitive in nature.
Wendy Frankland MIET
Campaigning Won’t Change Meaning
Once again the ‘engineer’ title has come under discussion. Tying it legally to professional qualifications is the ideal and works well in many countries, significantly in mainland Europe. Unfortunately, elsewhere, the local language often gives a different meaning to the word. In North America, for example, it means someone who drives a train. No amount of campaigning or legislation will alter that.
John R Batts
Give Engineers a New Name
The impracticability of reserving the term ‘engineer’ for professional practitioners in the UK prompts me to suggest we look at the way estate agents in the US (‘real estate’ agents) addressed their own status. They created the trademark REALTOR® and legally reserved it for the exclusive use of members of their own national association. I wonder if it might be possible for the Engineering Council to create a word (perhaps based on classical language relating to innovation and creation) and trademark it, subsequently granting user licences to chartered members of the engineering institutions.
Barry Stagg CEng MIET
School Eco Clubs
I am encouraging schools locally and worldwide to set up Eco Clubs where pupils can create eco gardens, insect hotels, bird feeders and hedgehog homes. The example of Walsall Academy has been highlighted by BBC TV News.
More importantly, such groups can press their school to install solar cells where funding can be obtained. I have provided an outline calculation that suggests that the savings will pay back the cost in three to four years. Also, there can be a rolling implementation plan reinvesting the savings. Such a plan can ensure that all local authority schools will be converted by 2030.
My own local authority states that they want to have all schools converted by 2030 but they have no plans in place. I am pressing them to set a start date and a timescale. I encourage E&T readers to press their own local authorities by putting pressure on the councillors, MPs, school heads and members.
In carrying out the study I was also able to create a pupil activity that compares the different types of eco-friendly power – solar cells, local turbines, heat pumps and combined heat and power. They are asked to look at the problem for their own house and for their school.
Derrick Willer MBE
IET Coventry and Warwickshire Schools Liaison
Supply and Demand
It appears that whatever route the UK takes to decarbonise, it will need to generate more electricity, whether to charge batteries, fuel a hydrogen grid – what else? It all needs electricity. So how do we get there? It has to be a mix of renewables and (hopefully, small) nuclear. Has Government foreseen the magnitude of generation requirements?
But there are further challenges. The worldwide shortage of electronics chips has focused minds on supply vulnerability. And in due course, supply shortages will also apply to the scarce elements for batteries and fuel cells that could slow the adoption of electric vehicles.
An assessment by the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining with the Critical Minerals Association indicates that such a shortage is likely to occur in the not too distant future. So, what should government policy be? Batteries and fuel cells will rely on imported scarce elements. But the present suppliers of these critical materials, currently dominated by China, are neither dependable nor sustainable. And how much environmental damage and carbon emissions will exploiting large new reserves cause? Even that may not prevent a future shortage, because it can take 10-15 years to get alternative supply chains up and running.
And has anyone calculated the tonnage of scarce elements needed to make batteries for every car on the planet? What are the planet’s total realisable reserves?
Prices will inevitably escalate as demand increases. With growing battery electric vehicle (BEV) production, even the cost of nickel and copper has increased 25 per cent over the past five years. Scarcer elements, cobalt, rare earths, even more.
The problem is that the UK cannot be self-sufficient in these scarce elements. But we could be self-sufficient in hydrogen produced from renewables and (hopefully small) nuclear electricity generation. And costs would be far less than continually having to import scarce elements.
Should the UK not consider alternatives to policies that require scarce elements? Alternative solutions could be planned now to mitigate future disruption, which would not only have financial advantages for the UK but would avoid increased carbon emissions from expanding scarce element production.
One strategy would be to encourage the manufacture of hydrogen-powered IC-engined vehicles (HICs) to co-exist with BEVs. The technology is well known, demonstrators having being built over the past few decades. Other countries already have far more hydrogen vehicle refuelling points; the UK so far has only around a dozen.
The UK and continental Europe are planning in due course to have hydrogen grids. This will be necessary to decarbonise domestic heating in the 20 million or so older UK houses and will require large-scale production of hydrogen. If the government signalled to car makers that it would welcome HICs, the major oil companies would probably create hydrogen refuelling stations.
All that’s needed is Government policy!
Dr Eur Ing CB Mynott
Changing Electricity Prices
“Wind has a cost of £35/MWh and this is continuing to fall,” says Alastair Evans, government and corporate affairs director for SMR at Rolls-Royce, in ‘Could nuclear power help get us to net zero?’ in the March 2022 issue of E&T.
UK generating capacity is wind 25GW, solar 12GW, gas 40GW, nuclear 8GW, biomass 5GW, coal 5GW, hydro 2GW and then there are the interties. This is on a load demand ranging from 25 to 40GW. Recently the wind was blowing very well and gas generation was at an absolute minimum, yet the electricity wholesale price over the 24 hours ranged from £120 to £250 per MWh. So where is this £35/MWh rate? The Hinkley C price of £92.5/MWh looks as though it is ‘in the frame’.
Let us look at my domestic electricity rate and use the same units that the generators use, because £/MWh and p/kWh seem to confuse some people, especially in the general press. In December 2009 my day rate was £107.76/MWh (10.776p/kWh), the night rate was £46.40 and the standing charge was 20.96 pence per day. The new rates from 1 April 2022 are £307.10 day rate, £201.80 night rate and 49.73p/day.
So what has changed in the last 12 years? A huge installation of wind turbines and solar panels to generate my electricity. Yes, the gas price has gone up and today the wind is hardly blowing and I see over the last 24 hours the price of electricity has run between £300 and £500/MWh, of course helped by European politicians and Putin with their gas price rises. That is what we deserve when we allow electricity to be run by politicians, lawyers and accountants, not engineers.
Doubling the day rate from December 2021 illustrates the stress on the distribution network with all the smart meter and local cable capacity problems. (24.95p to 49.73p). I suspect a lot more is to come as many people have been faced with expensive upgrades to fit car charging and heat pumps.
During the period that wind and solar generation has been installed, my day electricity has gone up 285 per cent and my night rate has gone up by 435 per cent. The renewables crowd should explain fully why they still say wind is £35/MWh and they propose to build a further 40GW of wind turbines before they completely destroy our industry and manufacturing.
Mike Travers FIET
Is Fusion Really Making Breakthroughs?
The March issue of E&T has two items on fusion energy, joining the many media articles suggesting that the recent JET DT run producing 59 megajoules was a significant breakthrough. The truth is that this is far from so, and it is important to put the result in context.
What the first article doesn’t mention is that the energy input in the JET experiment was 700 megajoules, giving an energy gain, Q, of 0.084. The article also stated that ITER is designed to sustain a plasma of 500MW for a thermal power input of just 50MW. This may be so, but as for the JET result, the energy used to run the machine is ignored. As pointed out by Steven Krivit on the New Energy Times website, this is estimated to be 500MW; thus with Q = 1 no excess energy will be produced.
Since a working reactor would need an energy gain of 10 to 20 times, rather than one, it is a moot point whether one can talk about fusion breakthroughs. Helena Pozniak in the second fusion article starts by asking the question “are we getting there, or does it remain in the realms of science fiction?” Since getting the correct plasma conditions for fusion could be one of the easier problems in the complexity of a power-producing reactor, the answer to us is very clear.
John Evans and John Leake
Productivity Without Robots
The recent focus on productivity in E&T has been interesting. Productivity has a wide range of meanings and means different things to different people, but artificial intelligence and robots are far from solving our problems.
Principles taught to me in my days with Courtaulds as an engineer and manager were that we all have the same 168 hours a week to do something with and while a technical edge might be gained here and there, we all have the same machinery. The only thing that really differentiates us from our competitors is our people. It was ingrained into us that these are your most important asset that can give you that edge over your competitors in business. And yet all we hear is that productivity will only go up if you get rid of your people and replace them with robots. Doesn’t make for feeling cared for and invested in, does it?
But the productivity of individuals, as important as that is, pales into insignificance when compared to some of the ‘macro’ waste we glibly allow to go on. Making pupils stay on at school until 18, I recall being introduced by a Labour government as an expedient to limit an immediate short-term growth in unemployment. It was nothing to do with the benefit it brought to individuals, many of whom are not suited to further education and would be far better off learning at work and being productive for themselves, their employer and their country.
There was a view that we were all going to work behind computer screens and have office jobs, when in fact we need to be making things just as much now as then, but we as a nation just discarded the work of large numbers of skilled folks and communities.
The notion that we should ship things thousands of miles around the globe for the expedient of the cheapest labour wherever that may be is just nonsense. Easy as we found it to let these things go, it is incredibly difficult to get them back, but get them back we surely must.
We need to take a long hard look at ourselves, and resolving even a portion of the above would increase the ‘productivity’ of the nation substantially without so much as a robot in sight.
Brian Jenkinson MIET
Write to E&T at email@example.com. We reserve the right to edit letters and to use submissions in any other format.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.