Cars that run on air might seem like a fairy tale or an April Fools story; but it is possible to use air as a medium for storing energy by compressing it or liquifying it at -196°C. The MDI company in Luxembourg has been developing and building a compressed air engine which powers a small car, or Airpod 2.0 and a new industrial vehicle, the Air‘Volution. When the compressed air is allowed to expand, the energy stored in it is released and can be used to power the vehicle. The Airpod 2.0 weighs only 350 kg, has seats for two people, 400 litres of luggage space and an urban cycle range of 100 to 120 km at a top speed of 80 km/h. So, it is an urban runabout with zero emissions and no requirement for lithium, nickel or cobalt for batteries but a limited range. A couple of years ago I tasked an MSc student with a project to consider the practicalities of a car running on liquid air, based on the premise that it should be possible to store a higher density of energy in liquified air (about 290 kJ/litre) than in compressed air (about 100 kJ/litre). His concept design used a rolling piston engine to power a family car capable of carrying 5 passengers and 346 litres of luggage over a 160 km. So, his design carried a bigger payload for further than the Airpod 2.0; however, like the electric charging system described a few weeks ago [see ‘Innovative design too far ahead of the market’ on May 5th, 2021], the design never the left the drawing board.
The forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow is generating much discussion about ambitions to achieve net zero carbon emissions. These ambitions tend to be articulated by national governments or corporate leaders and there is less attention paid to the details of achieving zero emissions at the mundane level of everyday life. For instance, how to recharge an electric car if you live in an apartment building or a terraced house without a designated parking space. About six years ago, I supervised an undergraduate engineering student who designed an induction pad integrated into a kerbstone for an electric vehicle. The kerbstone looked the same as a conventional one, which it could replace, but was connected to the mains electricity supply under the pavement. A primary coil was integrated into the kerbstone and a secondary coil was incorporated into the side skirt of the vehicle, which could be lowered towards the kerbstone when the vehicle was parked. The energy transferred from the primary coil in the kerbstone to the secondary coil in the vehicle via a magnetic field that conformed to radiation safety limits for household appliances. Payment for charging was via a passive RFID card that connected to an app on your mobile phone. The student presented her design at the Future Powertrain Conference (FCP 2015) where her poster won first prize and we discussed spinning out a company to develop, manufacture and market the design. However, a blue-chip engineering company offered the student a good job and we decided that the design was probably ahead of its time so it has remained on the drawing board. Our technopy, or technology entropy was too high, we were ahead of the rate of change in the marketplace and launching a new product in these conditions can be disastrous. Maybe the market is catching up with our design?
For more on technopy see Handscombe RD and Patterson EA ‘The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business‘, World Scientific, Singapore, 2004.
While pandemic lockdowns and travel bans are having a severe impact on spontaneity and creativity in research [see ‘Lacking creativity‘ on October 28th, 2020], they have induced a high level of ingenuity to achieve the final objective of the DIMES project, which is to conduct prototype demonstrations and evaluation tests of the DIMES integrated measurement system. We have gone beyond the project brief by developing a remote installation system that allows local engineers at a test site to successfully set-up and run our measurement system. This has saved thousands of airmiles and several tonnes of CO2 emissions as well as hours waiting in airport terminals and sitting in planes. These savings were made by members of our project team working remotely from their bases in Chesterfield, Liverpool, Ulm and Zurich instead of flying to the test site in Toulouse to perform the installation in a section of a fuselage, and then visiting a second time to conduct the evaluation tests. For this first remote installation, we were fortunate to have our collaborator from Airbus available to support us [see ‘Most valued player on performs remote installation‘ on December 2nd, 2020]. We are about to stretch our capabilities further by conducting a remote installation and evaluation test during a full-scale aircraft test at the Aerospace Research Centre of the National Research Council Canada in Ottawa, Canada with a team who have never seen the DIMES system and knew nothing about it until about a month ago. I could claim that this remote installation and test will save another couple of tonnes of CO2; but, in practice, we would probably not be performing a demonstration in Canada if we had not developed the remote installation capability.
The DIMES project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 820951. The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
I feel that I am moving to the next level of experience with online meetings but I am unsure that it will address the slow down in productivity and a loss of creativity being reported by most leaders of research groups to whom I have spoken recently. About a month ago, we organised an ‘Away Day’ for all staff in the School of Engineering with plenary presentations, breakout groups and a Q&A session. Of course, the restrictions induced by the pandemic meant that we were only ‘away’ in the sense of putting aside our usual work routine and it only lasted for half a day because we felt a whole day in an online conference would be counter productive; nevertheless, the feedback was positive from the slightly more than one hundred staff who participated. On a smaller scale, we have experimented with randomly allocating members of my research team to breakout sessions during research group meetings in an attempt to give everyone a chance to contribute and to stimulate those serendipitous conversations that lead to breakthroughs, or least alternative solutions to explore. We have also invited external speakers to join our group meetings – last month we had a talk from a researcher in Canada. We are trying to recreate the environment in which new ideas bubble to the surface during casual conversations at conferences or visits to laboratories; however, I doubt we are succeeding. The importance of those conversations to creativity and innovation in science is highlighted by the story of how Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico. While wandering around San Juan on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011 discussing the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses by chopping up the DNA of the virus, they realised that it could be turned into molecular scissors for cutting and editing the genes of any living creature. They went home after the conference to their labs in Umea University, Sweden and UC Berkeley respectively and collaborated round the clock to implement their idea for which they won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Maybe the story is apocryphal; however, based on my own experience of conversations on the fringes of scientific meetings, they are more productive than the meeting itself and their loss is a significant casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are people who point to the reduction in the carbon footprint of science research caused by the cancellation of conferences and who argue that, in order to contribute to UN Goals for Sustainable Development, we should not return to gatherings of researchers in locations around the world. I agree that we should consider our carbon footprint more carefully when once again we can travel to scientific meetings; however, I think the innovations required to achieve the UN Goals will emerge very slowly, or perhaps not all, if researchers are limited to meeting online only.
Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.