Category Archives: Engineering

We are ecosystem engineers

Decorative photograph of common cuscusHumans have been ecosystem engineers since the Pleistocene, more than 12,000 years ago.  There is evidence of a tree-dwelling possum, the common cuscus, being introduced to the Solomon Islands from New Guinea more than 20,000 years ago as a game species [1].  The ecosystem is a complex system and there are unintended consequences of our engineering.  For instance, the burning forests and grasslands about 8,000 years ago changed reflectivity and absorption of heat in parts of Eurasia which altered the pattern of monsoons in India and parts of South East Asia.  The palaeobiologist, Thomas Halliday has suggested that we are such effective ecosystem engineers that is impossible to think about a pristine Earth unaffected by human biology and culture [2].  The challenge now is to re-engineer the ecosystem so that it remains habitable.  This involves handling the complexities of  the ecosystem, human society and their interactions.  The philosopher, Nabil Ahmed has written, in the context of his native Bangladesh, that it is impossible to differentiate between land and rivers, human population, grains and forests, politics and markets because they all coalesce as a single entity resulting from the legacy of interaction between politics and natural actors [3].  Everything is interconnected – more than we realise.

References

[1] Abate RS & Kronk EA, Climate change and indigenous peoples: the search for legal remedies Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 2012.

[2] Halliday T, Otherlands: A world in the making, London: Allen Lane, 2022.

[3] Ahmed N, Entangled Earth, Third Text, 27:44-53, 2013.

Image: Exhibit in the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova, Via Brigata Liguria, 9, 16121, Genoa, Italy; by Daderot, CCO 1.0 licence

Admiral’s comments on fission hold for fusion 70 years later

Last month the US Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm announced a successful experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in which 192 lasers were used to pump 2.05 mega Joules of energy into a capsule heating its contents to 100 million degrees Centigrade causing fusion of hydrogen nuclei and the release of 3.15 mega Joules of energy.  An apparent gain of 1.1 mega Joules until you take account of the 300 mega Joules consumed by the 192 lasers.  The reaction in the media to this fusion energy experiment and the difficulties associated with building a practical fusion power plant, such as the Spherical Tokamak Energy Production (STEP) project in the UK (see ‘Celebrating engineering success‘ on November 11th, 2022) reminded me of a well-known memorandum penned by Admiral Rickover in 1953.  Rickover was first tasked, as a Captain, to look at atomic power in May 1946 not long after first human-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was initiated in Chicago Pile #1 during an experiment led by Enrico Fermi in 1942.  He went on to become Admiral Rickover who directed the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion programme and the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine was launched in 1954.  With thanks to a regular reader of this blog who sent me a copy of the memo and apologies to Admiral Rickover, here is his memorandum edited to apply to fusion energy:

Important decisions about the future of fusion energy must frequently be made by people who do not necessarily have an intimate knowledge of the technical aspects of fusion.  These people are, nonetheless, interested in what a fusion power plant will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take to build and how long and how well it will operate.  When they attempt to learn these things, they become aware the confusion existing in the field of fusion energy.  There appears to be unresolved conflict on almost every issue that arises.

I believe that the confusion stems from a failure to distinguish between the academic and the practical.  These apparent conflicts can usually be explained only when the various aspects of the issue are resolved into their academic and practical components. To aid in this resolution, it is possible to define in a general way those characteristics which distinguish one from the other.

An academic fusion reactor almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small.  (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose . (7) The reactor is in the study phase.  It is not being built now.  On the other hand, a practical fusion reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now.  (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is complicated.

The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed.  If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed.  If the practical-reactor designer errs, they wear the mistake around their neck; it cannot be erased.  Everyone can see it. 

The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante.  They have not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with their projects.  They are free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of ‘mere technical details’.  The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details.  Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow.  Their solutions require people, time and money.

Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decisions without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of fusion technology and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For the large part those involved with academic fusion reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen.  Since they are innocently unaware of the real and hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence.  Those involved with practical fusion reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions, and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed.  It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forth-rightly as possible.  Although it is probably impossible to have fusion technology ideas labelled as ‘practical’ or ‘academic’ by the authors, it is worthwhile both authors and the audience to bear in mind this distinction and to be guided thereby.

Image: The target chamber of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility, where 192 laser beams delivered more than 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet to create fusion ignition on Dec. 5, 2022 from https://www.llnl.gov/news/national-ignition-facility-achieves-fusion-ignition

Blockchain engineering

Decorative imageBlockchain engineers create and maintain the decentralised digital databases that store and share information in blocks that are connected together to make up chains.  A blockchain is formed by a global network of autonomous computers communicating with one another to reach a consensus on the contents of a database or ledger.  The computers compete to be paid to validate the ledger by solving the cryptographic equations that describe a series of transactions.  The requirement for the global distribution of autonomous computers means that a blockchain is not lodged at a single location or managed by a single entity or group of entities.  This decentralisation makes the blockchain both almost incorruptible and expensive in terms of time and energy.  Digital or crypto currencies, such as bitcoin, are based on blockchains as are non-fungible tokens (NFT) which are unique digital identifiers that define the ownership of an item, usually a digital file, and are recorded in a blockchain.  Engineers in a range of fields are starting to use blockchains to authenticate digital information and update it during engineering processes in a way that allows it to be shared with regulators, clients and consumers.

Source: Matthew Ball, The metaverse: and how it will revolutionise everything, London: W.W. Norton & Co Ltd, 2022.

Image: ink drawing by Zahrah Resh owned by the author.

Storm in a computer

Decorative painting of a stormy seascapeAs part of my undergraduate course on thermodynamics [see ‘Change in focus’ on October 5th, 2022) and in my MOOC on Thermodynamics in Everyday Life [See ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016], I used to ask students to read Chapter 1 ‘The Storm in the Computer’ from Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason by Manuel Delanda.  It is a mind-stretching read and I recommended that students read it at least twice in order to appreciate its messages.  To support their learning, I provided them with a précis of the chapter that is reproduced below in a slightly modified form.

At the start of the chapter, the simplest emergent properties, such as the temperature and pressure of a body of water in a container, are discussed [see ‘Emergent properties’ on September 16th, 2015].  These properties are described as emergent because they are not the property of a single component of the system, that is individual water molecules but are features of the system as a whole.  They arise from an objective averaging process for the billions of molecules of water in the container.  The discussion is extended to two bodies of water, one hot and one cold brought into contact within one another.  An average temperature will emerge with a redistribution of molecules to create a less ordered state.  The spontaneous flow of energy, as temperature differences cancel themselves, is identified as an important driver or capability, especially when the hot body is continually refreshed by a fire, for instance.  Engineers harness energy gradients or differences and the resultant energy flow to do useful work, for instance in turbines.

However, Delanda does not deviate to discuss how engineers exploit energy gradients.  Instead he identifies the spontaneous flow of molecules, as they self-organise across an energy gradient, as the driver of circulatory flows in the oceans and atmosphere, known as convection cells.  Five to eight convections cells can merge in the atmosphere to form a thunderstorm.  In thunderstorms, when the rising water vapour becomes rain, the phase transition from vapour to liquid releases latent heat or energy that helps sustain the storm system.  At the same time, gradients in electrical charge between the upper and lower sections of the storm generate lightening.

Delanda highlights that emergent properties can be established by elucidating the mechanisms that produce them at one scale and these emergent properties can become the components of a phenomenon at a much larger scale.  This allows scientists and engineers to construct models that take for granted the existence of emergent properties at one scale to explain behaviour at another, which is called ‘mechanism-independence’.  For example, it is unnecessary to model molecular movement to predict heat transfer.  These ideas allow simulations to replicate behaviour at the system level without the need for high-fidelity representations at all scales.  The art of modelling is the ability to decide what changes do, and what changes do not, make a difference, i.e., what to include and exclude.

Source:

Manuel Delanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason, Continuum, London, 2011.

Image: Painting by Sarah Evans owned by the author.