Walking across Kensington Gardens in London last week, on my way to attend a conference on Carbon, I came across the sculpture in the picture. It is ‘Physical Energy’ by George Frederick Watts (1817 – 1904), which really confused me because I automatically started thinking about the sort of energy that is associated with horsepower. Horsepower is a unit of power (energy per unit time) developed by James Watt (1736 – 1819) to evaluate the output of his steam engines. The plaque below the sculpture calls it a ‘sculptural masterpiece; a universal embodiment of the dynamic force of ambition’ and states that the artist described it as a ‘symbol of that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of physical things.’ So, while the connections seemed obvious to me, it would appear that Watts was not inspired by Watt.
The conference was interesting too. There were delegates from all over the world presenting research on a wide range of topics from new designs of batteries to using carbon as an sorbent for toxins, carbon-based composites and self-assembly of metal-organic meso-crystals. Two students that I have supervised were presenting their research on establishing credibility for models of the graphite core in nuclear power plants and on algorithms for identifying the surface morphology in samples of graphite.
Recently, over dinner, someone I had just met asked me what type of engineering I do. I always find this a difficult question to answer because I am sure that they are just being polite and do not want to hear any technical details but I find it hard to give an interesting answer without diving into details. Earlier the same day I had given a lecture on thermodynamics to about 300 undergraduate students so I told my inquisitor about this experience and explained that thermodynamics was the science of energy and its transformation into different forms. Then, I muttered something about being interested in making and using measurements to ensure that computational models of aircraft and nuclear power stations are reliable and the conversation quickly moved on. A week or so earlier, I was having my hair cut when the barber asked me a similar question about what I did and I told him that I was a professor of engineering which led to a conversation about robots. We speculated about whether we would ever lose our jobs to robots and decided that we were both fairly secure against that threat. There is a high degree of creativity in both of our roles – while I always ask for the same haircut, my hair is in a different state every time I visit the barbers’ and I leave looking slightly different every time. I don’t think that I would like the uniformity that a row of robots in the barbers’ shop might produce. And, then there is the conversation during the haircut. A robot would need to pass the Turing test, i.e., to exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from a human, which no computer has yet achieved or is likely to do so in our lifetime, at least not a cost that would allow them to replace barbers. The same holds for professors – the shift to delivering lectures online during the pandemic might have made some professors worry that their jobs were at risk as recorded lectures replaced live performances; however, student feedback tells us that students have a strong preference for on-campus teaching and the high turnout for my thermodynamics lectures supports that conclusion.
For a new website I was asked to describe my research interests in about 25 words and used the following: ‘the acquisition of information-rich measurement data and its use to develop digital representations of complex systems in the aerospace, biological and energy sectors’. Fine for a website but not dinner conversation!
There have been some attempts to build a robot that cut your hair, for example see this video.
Two weeks ago I used two infographics to illustrate the dominant role of energy use in generating greenhouse gas emissions and the disportionate production of greenhouse gas emission by the rich [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021]. Energy use is responsible for 73% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 16% of the world’s population are responsible for 38% of global CO2 emissions. Today’s infographics illustrate the energy flows from source to consumption for the USA (above), UK and Europe (thumbnails below). In the USA fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are the source of nearly 80% of their energy, in the UK it is a little more than 80% and the chart for Europe is less detailed but the proportion looks similar. COP 26 committed countries to ending ‘support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022’ and recognised ‘investing in unabated fossil-related energy projects increasingly entails both social and economic risks, especially through the form of stranded assets, and has ensuing negative impacts on government revenue, local employment, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and public health.’ However, to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels we need a strategy, a plan of action for a fundamental change in how we power industry, heat our homes and propel our vehicles. A hydrogen economy requires the production of hydrogen without using fossil fuels, electric cars and electric domestic heating requires our electricity generating capacity to be at least trebled by 2050 in order to hit the net zero target. This scale and speed of transition to zero-carbon sources is such that it will have to be achieved using an integrated blend of green energy sources, including solar, wind and nuclear energy. For example, in the UK our current electricity generating capacity is about 76 GW and 1 GW is equivalent to 3.1 million photovoltaic (PV) panels, or 364 utility scale wind turbines [www.energy.gov/eere/articles/how-much-power-1-gigawatt] so trebling capacity from one of these sources alone would imply more than 700 million PV panels, or one wind turbine every square mile. It is easy to write policies but it is much harder to implement them and make things happen especially when transformational change is required. We cannot expect things to happen simply because our leaders have signed agreements and made statements. Now, national plans are required to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels – it will be difficult but the alternative is that global warming might cause the planet to become uninhabitable for us. It is time to stop ‘making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ to quote Kurt Vonnegut [see ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016].
You would not think it was difficult to build a thin flat metallic plate using a digital description of the plate and a Laser Powder Bed Fusion (L-PBF) machine which can build complex components, such as hip prostheses. But it is. As we have discovered since we started our research project on the thermoacoustic response of additively manufactured parts (see ‘Slow start to an exciting new project on thermoacoustic response of AM metals‘ on September 9th, 2020). L-PBF involves using a laser beam to melt selected regions of a thin layer of metal powder spread over a flat bed. The selected regions represent a cross-section of the desired three-dimensional component and repeating the process for each successive cross-section results in the additive building of the component as each layer solidifies. And there in those last four words lies the problem because ‘as each layer solidifies’ the temperature distribution between the layers causes different levels of thermal expansion that results in strains being locked into our thin plates. Our plates are too thin to build with their plane surfaces horizontal or perpendicular to the laser beam so instead we build them with their plane surface parallel to the laser beam, or vertical like a street sign. In our early attempts, the residual stresses induced by the locked-in strains caused the plate to buckle into an S-shape before it was complete (see image). We solved this problem by building buttresses at the edges of the plate. However, when we remove the buttresses and detach the plate from the build platform, it buckles into a dome-shape. Actually, you can press the centre of the plate and make it snap back and forth noisily. While we are making progress in understanding the mechanisms at work, we have some way to go before we can confidently produce flat plates using additive manufacturing that we can use in comparisons with our earlier work on the performance of conventionally, or subtractively, manufactured plates subject to the thermoacoustic loading experienced by the skin of a hypersonic vehicle [see ‘Potential dynamic buckling in hypersonic vehicle skin‘ on July 1st 2020) or the containment walls in a fusion reactor. Sometimes research is painfully slow but no one ever talks about it. Maybe because we quickly forget the painful parts once we have a successful outcome to brag about. But it is often precisely the painful repetitions of “try and try again” that allow us to reach the bragging stage of a successful outcome.