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?
A few weeks ago we went to the Tate Liverpool with some friends who were visiting from out of town. It was my second visit to the gallery in as many months and I was reminded that on the previous visit I had thought about writing a post on a painting called ‘Bottle and Fishes’ by the French artist, Georges Braque. It’s an early cubist painting – the style was developed by Picasso and Braque at the beginning of the last century. The art critic, Louis Vauxcelles coined the term ‘cubism’ on seeing some of Braque’s paintings in 1908 and describing them as reducing everything to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’. It set me thinking about how long it took the engineering world to catch on to the idea of reducing objects, or components and structures, to geometric outlines and then into cubes. This is the basis of finite element analysis, which was not invented until about fifty years after cubism, but is now ubiquitous in engineering design as the principal method of calculating deformation and stresses in components and structures. An engineer can calculate the stresses in a simple cube with a pencil and paper, so dividing a structure into a myriad of cubes renders its analysis relatively straightforward but very tedious. Of course, a computer removes the tedium and allows us to analyse complex structures relatively quickly and reliably.
So, why did it take engineers fifty years to apply cubism? Well, we needed computers sufficiently powerful to make it worthwhile and they only became available after the Second War World due to the efforts of Turing and his peers. At least, that’s our excuse! Nowadays the application of finite element analysis extends beyond stress fields to many field variables, including heat, fluid flow and magnetic fields.