Tag Archives: fossil fuel

Nuclear winter school

I spent the first full-week of January 2019 at a Winter School for a pair of Centres for Doctoral Training focussed on Nuclear Energy (see NGN CDT & ICO CDT).  Together the two centres involve eight UK universities and most of the key players in the UK industry.  So, the Winter School offers an opportunity for researchers in nuclear science and engineering, from academia and industry, to gather together for a week and share their knowledge and experience with more than 80 PhD students.  Each student gives a report on the progress of their research to the whole gathering as either a short oral presentation or a poster.  It’s an exhausting but stimulating week for everyone due to both the packed programmme and the range of subjects covered from fundamental science through to large-scale engineering and socio-economic issues.

Here are a few things that caught my eye:

First, the images in the thumbnail above which Paul Cosgrove from the University of Cambridge used to introduce his talk on modelling thermal and neutron fluxes.  They could be from an art gallery but actually they are from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and show the geometry of an advanced test reactor [ATR] (top); the rate of collisions in the ATR (middle); and the neutron density distribution (bottom).

Second, a great app for your phone called electricityMap that shows you a live map of global carbon emissions and when you click on a country it reveals the sources of electricity by type, i.e. nuclear, gas, wind etc, as well as imports and exports of electricity.  Dame Sue Ion told us about it during her key-note lecture.  I think all politicians and journalists need it installed on their phones to check their facts before they start talking about energy policy.

Third, the scale of the concrete infrastructure required in current designs of nuclear power stations compared to the reactor vessel where the energy is generated.  The pictures show the construction site for the Vogtle nuclear power station in Georgia, USA (left) and the reactor pressure vessel being lowered into position (right).  The scale of nuclear power stations was one of the reasons highlighted by Steve Smith from Algometrics for why investors are not showing much interest in them (see ‘Small is beautiful and affordable in nuclear power-stations‘ on January 14th, 2015).  Amongst the other reasons are: too expensive (about £25 billion), too long to build (often decades), too back-end loaded (i.e. no revenue until complete), too complicated (legally, economically & socially), too uncertain politically, too toxic due to poor track record of returns to investors, too opaque in terms of management of industry.  That’s quite a few challenges for the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers to tackle.  We are making a start by creating design tools that will enable mass-production of nuclear power stations (see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on January 28th, 2015) following the processes used to produce other massive engineering structures, such as the Airbus A380 (see Integrated Digital Nuclear Design Programme); but the nuclear industry has to move fast to catch up with other sectors of the energy business, such as gas-fired powerstations or wind turbines.  If it were to succeed then the energy market would be massively transformed.


Subtle balance of sustainable orderliness

129-2910_IMGI wrote this short essay a couple of weeks for another purpose and then changed my mind about using it.  So I thought I would share it on this blog.

Whenever we do something, some of our useful resource gets converted into productive activity but some is always lost in useless waste.  In other words, 100% efficiency is impossible – we can’t convert all of our resource into productive activity.  Engineers call this the second law of thermodynamics.  Thermodynamics is about energy transitions, for instance converting chemical energy in fossil fuels into electrical energy in a power station, and in these circumstances, the useless waste is called entropy.  At the time of the industrial revolution, Rudolf Clausius recognised that entropy can be related to the heat losses which occur whenever we do something useful, such as generating electricity in a power station, cleaning the house with an electric vacuum cleaner or running to catch the bus.

Clausius’s definition of entropy was really useful for designers of 19th century steam engines but it is difficult to use in other walks of life.  Fortunately Ludwig Boltzmann gave us a more valuable description.  He equated entropy to the number of states in which something could be arranged, or its lack of orderliness.  In other words, the more ways you can arrange something, the less ordered it is likely to be and the higher its entropy.  So a box of children’s building blocks has a low entropy when the blocks are packed in their box because there is a relatively small number of ways of arranging them to fit in the box.  When the box is emptied onto your living room floor, there are very many more possible arrangements and so the blocks have a high entropy.  The chance of knowing the whereabouts of a particular block is small. Whoops!  Now we’ve wondered into information theory.

Let’s get back to the second law, which using Boltzmann’s description of entropy, we can express as the level of orderliness should always decrease.  Stephen Hawking describes this as the arrow of time.  Because, if someone shows you a video clip in which steam gathers itself together and returns into a cup of coffee, or that box of children’s blocks repacks itself, then we know the video is being run backwards because these processes involve decreasing entropy and this can only happen spontaneously if we reverse the direction of time.  If this is true then why do we exist as highly ordered structures?

Erwin Schrödinger in his book, ‘What is Life’ says that organisms suck orderliness out of the environment in order to exist, so that the orderliness of the universe, that’s the organism and its environment, decreases.  Humans digest highly-ordered food to sustain life and food, in the form of plants, is brought into existence by metabolising energy from the sun and releasing entropy in the form of heat.  When we die these processes cease and the orderliness is sucked out of us to sustain insects, maggots and bacteria.

We are organisms, known as Sapiens, that organise ourselves into cultures and societies.  Organisation implies an increase in the level of orderliness in apparent contradiction of the second law.  So, we would expect to find a corresponding increase in disorder somewhere to counterbalance the order in society.  The more regimented society becomes the greater the requirement for counterbalancing disorder to occur somewhere in order to satisfy the second law, which might happen unexpectedly and explosively if the level of constraint or regulation is too great.  This is not an argument for anarchy or total deregulation, the financial sector has already demonstrated the risks associated with this path, but for an optimum and sustainable level of orderliness.  This requires subtle judgment just like in elegant engineering design and living a healthy life, both physically and psychologically.

Are we all free riders?

girl in smogThe ‘tragedy of the commons’ is an economic theory founded on the idea that when there is unregulated use of a shared resource then the rational consumer, acting independently and in their own interests, will maximise their consumption leading to the depletion or destruction of the resource.  For example, if there is no cost or limit to grazing sheep on common land then a rational shepherd would maximise their flock size in order to maximise profit.  Eventually, the commons’ ability to sustain the sheep is overwhelmed and it becomes a wasteland.  Are we all taking a free ride on the world’s ecosystem?  Our cars and houses freely pump out huge quantities of carbon dioxide that are overwhelming our ecosystem.  Most of us do nothing – either because we refuse to believe the evidence, or we believe it is not in our interests to act, or we don’t think it is our problem, or we don’t know what to do, or a combination of these excuses.

This might seem a low priority to you.  But, for the 40% of the world’s population that live in the five countries with the worst air quality, it is a high priority.  If you visit these countries, you experience days when it is difficult to breathe because the pollution is so bad and it is hard to read your smartphone because the air is so thick with particles.  We are all part of a single ecosystem on the planet, Gaia if you like, and we are joined to one another through a myriad of connections.  So we ignore this issue at our peril, or the peril of our grandchildren.

It seems unlikely that our leaders will take effective coordinated action and so grass roots action is needed as suggested by Kofi AnnanAssess your carbon footprint now and think about ways to become carbon neutral.  If you want to find out the carbon footprint of your organization then the Carbon Trust has useful information and services.


The Economist Pocket World in Figures 2015 edition, Profile Books Ltd, London 2014

Thumbnail: http://blogs-images.forbes.com/benjaminshobert/files/2015/01/China_Smog2-1940×1293.jpg

And then we discovered thermodynamics

sunEnergy, matter, space and time came into existence in the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago. 10 billion years later biological organisms started to appear. 70,000 years ago one of those organisms, man started to organise in structures, called cultures and history began. For most of history if you wanted something moved then you had to do it yourself or persuade someone else to do it. The agricultural revolution began 12,000 years ago and shortly afterwards we realised that if you fed fuel to an animal then it would ‘burn’ it and do work for you. And that’s how it remained for thousands of years – we didn’t know how to convert heat into work or work into heat. The average energy consumption per capita was about 20GJ per year. Then, 200 years ago we discovered how to imitate nature by burning fuel and producing power in the steam engine. We had discovered thermodynamics and our average energy consumption started rising towards 80GJ per year today.

As a consequence, ‘we have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ as Kurt Vonnegut wrote. And that’s because nature starts from solar energy and recycles everything and we haven’t learnt how to do either very effectively. But energy or power engineering has been around for less than a blink of eye relatively speaking and we are just learning how to perform a trick nature has been using for billions of years: convert solar radiation into other energy forms. The sun delivers about 340 Watts per square metre to the Earth so we have plenty energy available.

If you would like to know more about energy engineering or thermodynamics and its potential then join the 5000 people who have signed up for the MOOC that I am teaching for five weeks from next Monday.  Listen to me interview Ken Durose, Director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy on the prospects for renewable energy.



Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind. London: Vintage (Penguin, Random House), 2014.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.