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Chemical engineer working in the field of bulk chemicals for e.g. plastics and energy, specifically energy efficiency and renewables.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Details of the bicycle trip.

  • Bicycle: Trek 1.5 racing bike, standard setup, 7L handlebar bag, lights and armadillo armoured tyres.
  • Trailer: Extra wheel trailer with 2 60 L Crosso dry panniers
  • Trip: Alkmaar to Strasbourg via Arnhem mostly following the Rhine. Detours included Frankfurt and Heidelberg.
  • Plan: Loose plan. Hostels were preferred but I had a tent in emergency but I never had to use it. Was aiming for a 12 day trip but ending up spending 16 days. From Strasbourg, I got a train to Paris and met up with friends for a few days and then we drove back.
At the end of September, my contract with the company expired. I did not renew with them and instead decided to move on. In this process I also decided to take some time out as I still had some money coming in from side projects. Thus I fixed my sights on cycling down the Rhine taking about 3 weeks in total for the holiday. I had never toured by bicycle before. I have extensive road bike experience and from my younger days (I am 27), downhill mountain bike experience. However something like this was completely new for me.

The first step was to decide what setup I was going to use. I had a Trek 1.5 racing bike but I did consider buying a new bike specifically a touring bike completely setup for touring. The two bikes I was considering were from Koga and from the Cannondale touring range. The latter was discontinued and the former seemed to my mind to be over the top for the time I would spend. Thus I decided to stay with the racing bike. The next step was to work out whether I would go ultra-light or carry gear. I decided that the time of year warranted gear. Options for carrying gear on the racing bike were limited so I decided to buy a trailer. I choose the extra wheel trailer over the bob yak as it allowed me to buy the complete package. With the Crosso dry panniers, the trailer cost approx €300 + delivery from Poland.

The next step was to pick my route. I decided to go down the Rhine along the Rhineradweg. I choose this as it is a pretty flat route (according to bikemap.net) and should have a pretty good surface for many parts. Further in the case of any emergencies, the area is well populated and has many bike stores and train stations. I planned to stay in hostels but I carried a tent just in case. I had my stops laid out until Cologne. After this point I would work on the fly. The distances I was going to do until that point were on average 100km per day. I would at Cologne assess the setup and the distances. I would aim to start early (06:00-08:00) and finish early (no later than 15:00). 

Trip details
The first few days were pretty uneventful. I had travelled to my 1st step Utrecht before but I had a beautiful day of sun. Arnhem my next stop, was new and the landscape started to change from the flat, open plains to forest areas with some slight inclines. Getting across the border proved to be difficult as when I left the hostel, there was essentially a thunderstorm occurring. Further calamity would occur as the side of the Rhine I would choose was closed to cyclists just as I crossed the border. There were no boat crossings in the vicinity so I had to detour. The storm lasted all day and I stopped around 14:00 to assess my situation. I had cycled 70km and due to the detour had a similar distance to go. I also had picked up an injury on my Achilles so I decided to get the train the rest of the way to Duisburg where I stayed with friends. The next day having strapped up my ankle and finding that all my gear was dry, I continued to Cologne where I would have 2 days to spend.

At Cologne I opened all my bags and emptied then. I did find a small amount of moisture but this was more due to having hastily packed semi-wet clothes into the waterproof bags rather than water ingress during the storm. I let the bags dry out and enjoyed the jewel on the Rhine including its impressive Dom, a praetorian excavation, a museum depicting the Nazi rise to power in Cologne and other various sights.
After Cologne I decided to reduce my travel distance per day. I was now aiming at travelling approximately 40-60km per day. Below Cologne, the Rheinradweg is incredible beautiful and easy to follow especially on the right side of the river as you look south. Indeed this is the recommended side to travel as it stays truer to the Rhine. With the weather holding dry and temperatures around zero to twelve degrees, conditions were perfect for taking in the breath taking scenery. In particular the hostel in Oberwessel was located on top of a hill beside an old and renovated castle. Other sights included Lorelei , the pretty Koblenz and uncounted castles among a long list of others.

At Mainz I could not find accommodation and tried to get to Frankfurt. On paper, it is easy as you simply follow a river branch off the Rhine. On that weekend, a cargo vessel full of chemicals sank and so that track was closed. I made a detour which became pretty ardours as it took me through vineyards. There was no direct bike track for a long way and thus I ended up doubling my distance. However I finally made it to Frankfurt. Frankfurt has a spectacular skyline (unusual for us Europeans) but it is a pretty soulless place filled with flashy bars and restaurants that lack substance and depth. Sachsenhausen, the old part of the city does provide some more substance.
Form Frankfurt I stopped in Worms which is noted for the Diet of Worms and has a nice old town. From there I travelled to Mannheim (which is a weird city with a chessboard layout and no street names) and continued on to Heidelberg. Here I delighted in the castle and the philosopher’s way which cumulates in the ruins of an old monastery as well as the Thingstätte amphitheatre. Heidelberg is a beautiful town. Afterwards I headed to the quaint but under construction town of Karlsruhe. A large remodelling of the towns metro and tram system makes it appear ugly but the people are very friendly. My final stop was Strasbourg which is a historic and beautiful French town. This was a fitting end to the trip.

Impression: Route
The route is highly recommended. It is visually impressive and contains many distractions to get you away from the cycling. For the most part the surface is paved though there are several sojourns across forested areas without paving. Sign posts are pretty regular but the golden rule is always to keep near the Rhine. Once you go too far away, you are on your own. If you accomplish this, the route is flat and contains no climbs. However if you do feel adventurous, most of the castles are located on top of the hills along the Rhine and 10% gradients need to be overcome to get to these by bike.

Impression: Gear
The handling of the bike and the trailer held up extremely well even under difficult conditions such as forest trails. The racing bike is obviously not the best for these trails but the trailer added extra stability. Under normal conditions the trailer lowers the centre of the gravity so there is more manoeuvrability which helps avoid bumps. The panniers proved to be large and water proof even under thunderous conditions. One thing is that the bike with the trailer attached is difficult to take up and down stairs. Cycling with the trailer does take a bit of getting used to but after 100km, I was completely at ease.

I would make some improvements. A rear mudguard for the back on the racing bike would be an idea. A kickstand would also be very useful. For the trailer, a long carry strap would be useful. Also a socket for a light would also be appreciated.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

An ending. A new beginning.

Near St Goar
One can only measure ones humility, courage and strength of character by doing something that changes ones perception of humility, courage and strength of character.  In recent weeks I stopped writing because I was challenging my determination. I have cycled from the Amsterdam area to Strasbourg, mostly on the Rhine. In many respects it was the celebration of an ending and the utterance of a potential new beginning. In all honesty it was a mental test of unyielding stupidity. Truely after nigh on a thousand kilometres and on reflection, one could wish for a new beginning and perhaps a new intelligence. But in consequence, I remain mostly the same.

At the end of October I finished my contract with the current company. I am not unhappy about the situation as I believe that the company is resting on its laurels. Further in the group and unit that I was in, I see very little coherence in management and see the wrong people brought to the fore and talking advantage of the situation. Finally the goals that I had set for the company and its primary product (it takes/makes research products and tries to bring them to market) at the start of this contact did not materialise. I do not see them being realised in a significant way for some years despite that fact that I feel that these goals were attainable during my period at the company. One of the main drivers for doing the trip was to soften the negative feelings related to the lack of progress and to let the positives from my experience assert themselves more.

My trip down the Rhine took me to places such as the beautiful Cologne, the charming Oberwesel which is just up the road from Lorelei, the soulless Frankfurt, the country town of Karlsruhe and to the very French Strasbourg among others. I finished with friends in Paris via train. In all I spent 21 days travelling with 16 days taking me from Amsterdam to Strasbourg at approximately 850 km on the bicycle.

This trip has put some very important issues into perspective. It has allowed me to focus on the negatives but in a more humorous light. It has brought to the fore my sense of achievement in the job I did which allows me to articulate on that subject. In brought into perspective a small part of the energy issues in Germany that I wrote about earlier. Most of all it showed my determination and overcome an obstacle that was placed in front of me. This will prove useful in my forthcoming job hunt.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The German nuclear folly

There were many releases in the media regarding Germanys announcement that it would phase out nuclear power by 2022 a few months back. Indeed these stories have been around from at least 5 years ago (Ny times, Business week: Coal boom). Now that the dust has settled, three very disturbing facts seem to be coming to the fore. Germany will no longer be able to export electricity to other countries and may have to rely on imports. Germany may be facing blackouts as soon as this winter.  Meanwhile Germany will be destroying its environmental credentials as it will have to increase fossil fuel use.

Germany currently receives around 23% or approximately 31 GW of its electricity from nuclear production (CNBC: Germany dims nuclear). Its total electricity production is around 133 GW so stopping the electricity from nuclear power will leave 100GW. The demand for Germany is approximately 80-90GW. There are already calls to keep the availability of one or more of these reactors operational from the head of Germany’s federal network agency no less. (Spiegel: Calls for nuclear).  This is because variability in the solar and wind network could easily see that 10 GW safety margin disappear  (As a follow-up which came some time after I wrote the above we see that Germany will rely on dirty coal and imports to power itself (Platts: Nuclear not needed)). Germany is no longer an electricity exporter).

Indeed despite apparent success in the renewable energy sector (The renewable sources act),  the real story of the last five years is the boom in coal plant construction as indicated by the Business week: Coal boom report. This expansion under the new revised timeline for nuclear departure is likely to increase with increased reliance on coal and gas (Businessweek: Russian gas for Germany). Despite the promise of clean coal, the only major project in Germany is Vattenfall’s project and this pales in comparison to the size of typical plants (Vattenfall clean coal pilot plant, Clean coal). Not only that but initial estimates show that the process consumes nearly 30% of the energy that it generates leading to the use of even more raw material.

The politicians cannot guarantee that the climate goals that they have set for themselves can be meet while keeping electricity as cheap as it is now. However in a quote from the CNBC: Germany dims nuclear article, there is a much greater threat
This winter, Amprion predicts its grid will have 84,000 megawatts of electricity at its disposal, to provide 81,000 megawatts needed for consumption — an uncomfortably slim margin of safety, Vanzetta said. In prior years, electricity was readily available for purchase on the European grid if the price was right. But exported German power is what helped keep France glowing in winter.
There is the chance that there will be blackouts in both Germany and France due to the slim margins. Indeed considering that margin and that up to 6% of the electricity generated in a grid is lost (ABB: Efficiency in the power grid), one might even believe that meeting the demand is impossible without imports.

The poignant message is that German politicians are either lying to its electorate or are illiterate on energy issues. Increasing renewables will cause massive cost increases to the German taxpayer due to the high feed in tariffs needed to keep these energy sources competitive (competitive for the producer, not the consumer). Subsidies for solar and wind (see the renewable energy sector link) are approximately 10 times the industrial spot electricity price (EU industrial energy prices). As the share of renewable power increases, electricity prices will start to rise and meet the feed in tariff cost. Indeed change over to gas will also increase electricity prices to a certain extent.

My opinion on the issue is quite simple. Merkel has simply bowed to pressure from the ill-informed electorate to stop nuclear power due to fears after Fukishima. This was the incorrect choice and such issues should not be decided by political pressure. There is an easy choice that should have been offered to the German consumer. They could accept stability of supply by keeping a large part of the nuclear power online or they could have been shown that electricity production without nuclear is extremely fragile. In that light I think that the German consensus would have been to reduce rather than do away with. However that would have required some political will. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Potentail for a new and cheaper desalination process from Siemens

Chemical engineering magazine in their August issue  is running a story that has high importance to many people worldwide. Siemens has been running a  demonstration unit for water desalination for the last 3 years based on a relatively niche technology called electro dialysis (ED).  Apparently using this system reduces the costs of desalination as compared to reverse osmosis by half. 

This is big news. First reverse osmosis membranes has a hefty market value of $9 billion and most of this comes from desalination. Being able to capitalize on that market, expand it and dominate it with a new technology would be very profitable for Siemens and its baseline. Secondly reverse osmosis usage is only going to increase so the market will tend to grow naturally even without a large step improvement in the technology.  Obviously countries like Australia, Singapore  and Israel have RO. Water scarcity in these countries rivals energy and environmental concerns with pressure on existing reservoirs and on reusing water.  However large desalination plants exist in wetter countries such as the UK and other Northern European plants due to the pressure on the natural reservoirs.

Taking the UK as an example (I use it as I happen to have the data saved) we can look into more detail. Current water costs taken for the existing system in the UK are approximately €1/L though it varies widely on the authority. Using current electricity prices, RO water would cost approximately 0.80€/L before markup. This would suggest that either RO can be directly put into the water grid there or that the market is significantly larger than 0.20€/L (which is why we don’t see a lot of RO in the UK). The advent of the new technology would mean that desalination could actually compete as a standard technology (and not just because of scarcity) in the UK and countries with similar situations. 

Indeed in drier countries, we may start to see RO being used for agricultural water which would certainly help reduce the depletions of various aquifers worldwide to supply farms. Water scarcity is going to be a major problem in the future with many countires already having a high water stress.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

About three years ago I moved to The Netherlands and was subsequently using my summer bonus to buy a Trek 1.5; a standard entry level raving bike (the frame is fantastic BTW). Currently I also have a 30 year old Peugot bike as my go to for socialising and shipping. This was brought about by the fantastic cycling infastructure in The Netherlands. While the weather is not always the best, it is easily possible to cycle from one side of the country to the other without ever joining a road that contains cars. Essentially The Netherlands has a bike road network with its own traffic lights and sign posts. Cycling is not only segregrated, it is revered in this country with the right of ways always in favour of the cyclist (except on major roads where bikes are not allowed) when cars and bikes should meet. Since nearly everyone cycles, there is a good respect between cyclists and other road users. The use of the bicycle does many things for me and this article got me think about it again. I will discuss some of these things below.

Carbon footprint

My daily commute to work and back is approximately 50 km. I work on average 220 days a year assuming I take no overtime and an 8 hour day. My annual commute is approximately 11,000km. I have three main modes of transport to get to work. I can get the company provided bus, I can get a lift from my house mate who works on the same site sometimes and I can cycle. The breakdown is as follows
  • Company bus: 6,800km
  • Lift from friend: 2,000km
  • Cycle 1 day a week: 2,200km
Using the carbon footprint calculator for driving a car, I can come up with a figure that is specific for the make and model of the car. Using the data from the slate article allows me to calculate the carbon footprint for the overall lifetime. By cycling that amount and not going by car I am saving around 300kg of CO2. The average CO2 emissions per person for the UK is around 10,000kg. One thing to note is that it is difficult to get CO2 emissions data for cycling.

Cost for fuel

Obviously I would have to purchase a car, have insurance etc. But in terms of fuel, the cost is easy to calculate. The car I chose for the carbon test does approximately 6.6L/km and fuel costs in The Netherlands is around €1.65 per liter. I save €550 from the exercise.

Freedom and exercise

The feeling of freedom on a bicycle is hard to convey. Hitting the road and exploring the surroundings is always interested. Not only that but it leads me into a bicycle trip that I will be doing in the future where I currently plan to go down the Rhine. Obviously I do not need to go to the gym (though I do for rugby) to keep in shape.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Food for thought: Cars

I do not own or drive a car. I use a bus, other public transport, bicycle and my two feet to get around. That can cause problems especially when I might be on call for work but there is always a work around. I am not against a car or more particularly the ICE as a mode of transport. If I consider a city such as London, then I come to the conclusion that that city would not be able to feed itself were it not for the ICE. Our society is based on the access and affordability of cheap transport fuel and that is why large cities and megalopoli are able to exist without the need for large areas of the city being devoted to farmland. The food can be transported easily from where it is produced, e.g. New Zeeland lamb, Israeli oranges etc.  Our society would not exist as it is without the Ice and I think that the current version is preferable to what came before. 

The main reason why I do not drive is necessity. I do not need the use of a car. This has the added benefit of reducing my costs drastically. However if approach the car from a purely mathematical point of view there could be another reason why I would not drive; efficiency. Is the ICE necessary? Yes. Is it efficient? No.

Efficiency 1
The first measure for efficiency that people know can be miles per gallon or liters per kilometer. However I want to look towards the energy inputs and outputs of the car and see what are used. The input is the energy contained in let’s say gasoline/petrol. The outputs are in the energy used in moving the car forward which are (but not limited to) overcoming rolling resistance, drive train losses (friction, heat), engine losses (heat, noise etc) and so on. According to the link, if I assume that there is 100 units of energy in my petrol tank, driving my car will only use 15 of these units. The rest is wasted energy and my efficiency based on the car alone is 15%. The biggest loses is from the engine mainly as a function of Carnot

Efficiency 2
There is another measure of efficiency; payload efficiency. Payload efficiency is a measure of how efficient it is to take a package and transport it in a vehicle to its destination. It is also a pseudo measure of the amount of resources needed to support said activity. A high efficiency would suggest that less resources are needed (i.e. less roads due to smaller cars). So if I go back to my car. Myself with my computer and lunch will weigh circa 100 kg. Assuming I use a 730kg Smart car then my efficiency based on mass only is 100/(100+730) which is around 12%. Combining the two results in a rather cringe worthy number of 1.8% efficiency, *&+?. In other words when considering both the vehicle (car) and the activity (transporting me from A to B), the useful amount of fuel used is 1.8 units. Once my car arrives at work, it sits there for 8 or so hours and does nothing. 

So how can we improve on these results. For the energy lost in the car itself (efficiency 1), there is not a whole lot that can be done with the ICE. Sure titanium could be used in the engine block but that is hardly cheap or easily workable and the same can be said for more improvements (except maybe heat recovery). The best way to gain efficiency would seem to be with mass saving. The Peel P50 30 years ago could achieve 100 mpg and the Edison2 car can achieve a bit more but with the ability to carry 4 people. However we get a payload efficiency of 63% for the Peel and (based on 4 people in the car) 32.5% for the Edison.  

In short if I decide that I need a form of ICE transport for personal use, I will be using a small or very small car or moped.

Monday, 1 August 2011


Fear. It is certainly an abstract title for an engineering blog. However in many respects it is inherent in many items of engineering and is a problem that must be overcome. It can dictate how people act and how they respond to critics. However first a personal insight.

There are a few things I am afraid of most of which are somewhat abstract in reference to daily life (i.e. death). However one thing that is coming up is heights; I have a fear of heights. My fear stems from when there is a sheer drop (cliff or steep decline) and no preventive measures in place to keep me from falling off. To counteract this I do a fair bit of hiking when I can have the opportunity.  To be sure I do certainly get afraid when hiking/scrambling 60° gradients. However my first serious hikes were over three years ago in Slovenia and since then, things are definitely getting easier (at the time I was unaware of my fear). To that end I did a u-shaped route around the Galtee mountains when I was back in Ireland recently. I hit four peaks and reached 919m and hit some very steep climbs and walls (I consider the mountains to be relatively easy; a fit person can do the route I choose in 6-8hours; an experienced person can do it in 5).

In that activity, I challenge my fear and eventually I will overcome it or be able to accept it as an additional risk. However in my work I see many other fears which are not easy for people to deal with. As an engineer, I do not really invent anything. Indeed my job is to take inventions and test them on small to large scales. Thus I have no emotional attachment to the product(s) that my group has invented. Essentially I am more like a customer as I do not want a failure to happen while at the clients site and then have to deal with few thousand cubic meters of unused and flammable organics. Thus in the laboratory I am very critical of results and demand a high level of scrutiny and insight into said results.

This can come across very caustic initially with several people but usually once I explain my position (and also that I will be taking all the risk for their failure though I do say it more diplomatically), they come around to my point of view. However some do not and these are the ones who are most attached to the product and essentially the most invested in the product. The problem here is that they cannot see past their fear of failure. They prefer to propagate the myth that a product can do what it cannot or they do not test the product in a stressful enough environment. The hope can have many facets, some or  all of which can apply. 

They might be looking for some else to take responsibility for the failure and believe that deflecting that failure to other people or to process will not reflect badly on them. They might also believe that change is bad and the stand procedures are correct and need not be modified. This can extend to the persons experience and someone can certainly feel undermined when a junior is advocating a more extensive work package, one that was not envisaged. Et Cetera.

This leads to a problem. Ultimately if anyone harbors that attitude, then a poor way of working can develop to be the norm for that person and problems are avoided rather than confronted. When ultimately a failure does happen, that kind of attitude will lead to a bad reaction or dismissal of the failure as either an outlier for example and thus it can be dismissed. 

A fear of failure can be hubris, it can also be a hallmark of bad engineering. What that means for the individual. Not only must one confront their own fears, they must challenge them. That means challenging their own opinions and sometimes, challenging their core belief. One must never be afraid to challenge.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A sustainable energy company?

I take this story from Gernot Wagner. He goes into the reasons behind why the energy company in a free market is adapting what would seem to be bad tactics. While this analysis is valid in my opinion, a deeper message can be wrought from the story.
When a person decides to purchase a car, one of the main considerations in Europe is the mpg or L/km. That is the amount of the fuel needed to drive a certain distance; an efficiency rating if you will. This think has been around for many years due to the high taxes exerted on the gasoline price. In recent times, the idea has extended to other electrical goods like washing machines etc. 
The reason for this is to help the consumer make a choice, a choice that can save them money. By using less electricity the consumer can reduce their electricity bill. They are also making another choice that they probably do not realize. They are reducing their energy consumption by moving away from inefficient machines thereby reducing the burden on the resources available to them. This is the ultimate goal of the energy efficiency scheme as launched by the EU. This scheme aims to reduce primary energy usage without reducing the quality of life. However it is not working and the EU admits that it will miss its 2020 target achieving only a 10% saving instead of 20%.
Here is where the message from Gernot's post arrives. The EU should not only be focusing on efficiency with new appliances but also focusing on using less electricity. Simple examples include street lights which could be reduced. At the home, leaving items on standby or even on when not used (e.g. t.v./radio) can also be eliminated. It’s all about developing a habit of turning things off when not in use.
Typically this is not the goal of an energy company. The company will want people to continue using more energy so that their profits can increase. That is why we see many companies advertising their great 'advances' in alternative energy so that the amount of energy we use does not need to be reduced (a story I do not believe). Instead the first message that any energy company with a real view to sustainability should have is for people to reduce their consumption. People should drive smaller cars, increase efficiency in their homes etc. When a company does not put this message to the fore and still considers themselves sustainable or aiming for sustainablity, ask yourself is that a truly sustainable message?

Thursday, 21 July 2011



I was on holidays in my hone country in Ireland for two weeks and so I did not post anything. I will post a topic by the end of the week.

In the meantime I have added a link list and a blog list. This list will no doubt expand over time. The site I use most is Consumer Energy Report; a site dealing with a wide of energy issues in the context of the American market. As a European I use this as there is no analog in this vein focusing on the European market.

In any case energy issues are the main concern of our time in my opinion. In the future I will be posting on the issue. But next something a little bit more abstract.

Monday, 27 June 2011

A comment on managing an engineering lab

For the past number of years I have been working in a laboratory involved with energy research (before that I worked in another laboratory). Primarily the goal of my part of the laboratory is to test inventions that are made to see how well they perform especially after one year of continuous use. To that end I use a lot of different types of equipment and invariably end up both on a lab scale and on a pilot scale (demo scale is performed off site). Invariable troubleshooting of equipment due to it breaking down is a part of the weekly if not daily routine. Essentially it is an engineering or experimental laboratory where complex interactions between multiple pieces of equipment exist. Unfortunately my boss is not an engineer but a material scientist. Many items like equipment maintenance and lifetime have been overlooked in the past.

Troubleshooting equipment is essentially wasted time or time lost. Consider my job; I am trying to ascertain when the inventions fail, under what conditions do they fail and how suitable they are for a particular application. If I cannot test, time pressure can start to play a part and potentially (you can only do so much with what you have), gaps in the analysis appear. Nothing or less than what might be is learned. Typically the type of gaps that appear relates to the lifetime. If an equipment failure occurs then the invention must be stopped. However this additional stress may cause it to deteriorate and fail when restarted. Also if an experiment is stopped prematurely, then a failure that was due to happen next week may not be caught until the experiment is expanded to a larger scale*.

Ultimately it is up to the people on the lab to attempt to solve these issues. However more importantly, once the issue is solved and closed, there should be information there for future improvement of the equipment to reduce or even prevent the failure from occurring. This requires on the job assessment and multi-tasking. It is quite difficult to achieve. The outcome should be a memo or concept design which lists the options for improvement and this should be include in the equipment file. 

This file should also be sent to the equipment manager and the project leader. A discussion should be held and the merits and demerits discussed. What is now crucial is that a the people involved have a good technical understanding of the equipment involved and are also willing to discuss the equipment and its problems. In other words they should have used the equipment before and thus can appreciate how costly and frustrating downtime can be. Without this one key point, a good decision on whether or not the improvement is necessary is impossible. Often failures can just become part of the routine of using the equipment and the worker may not appreciate this. Thus a manager sometimes (though rarely) needs to be more aware than the users.

Consider manager that has arrived new to the laboratory. While familiar with certain aspects of laboratory operations, new items will undoubtedly exist with which the manager has no experience. If said manager is called to decide on the equipment, he will either have to rely on other peoples expertise of to ignore the problem and just make to part of the routine. Both avoid the manage having to develop a knowledge and rapport with the processes involved. 

*There is always a risk when scaling up a process due to test duration. It is rare that a pilot will test for the full time required for use in industry as this is very expensive. However realistic time scales should be set before the experiment. So if an invention has to perform for 10 years, your test in the lab should be six months to a year. What I allude to here is when this 10% scale is cut short due to equipment issues.

The problem then arises when the manager has to assign tasks or to acquire work. Not knowing the limitations of the equipment will lead to unrealistic demands being placed on the workers and the equipment. Indeed the toll on the equipment that the new work will introduced will not be known either and thus not accounted or budgeted for. Not only that but safety issues can then creep in and if the operators are not clued in, sever consequences can occur. 

To manage equipment effectively the manager responsible needs to have an understanding of the equipment and its limitations. Without this, the situation can only be saved by the operator. That system I am afraid is rife with potential issues.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Gestapo prison, Cologne.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Cologne in the west of Germany. Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city. Amongst many other things it is home to what I consider to be one of the most impressive cathedrals in the world as well as many museums (one of which shows the excavation of a Praetorian palace) and beer halls. All of this is done in a friendly atmosphere which exudes a very relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. Cologne is definitely a jewel on the Rhine and is recommended. 

However this is not a post about the beauty of Cologne.  During my visit to the NS  Dokumentationszentrum or the Gestapo museum, I certainly had moments to be unnerved and for profound pause. In many respects it is a terrifying reminder to the Nazi domination. For me it is a sorrowful reminder of the desperate reaches that humanity can occupy, something with which I am familiar. 

The museum housed the Nazi Gestapo prison which was active before and during the war. Here people were held for no reason other than to advance the Nazi belief. It blissfully survived the bombings and obliteration of Cologne by the bombs of the Allies. The museum is made up of multiple floors (four I think). The basement was by far the most moving part and it is here that you get a sense of the depravity involved. The other floors depict the rise of the Nazi party and the effects of the war mostly in Cologne. It was in the basement where my memories were aroused.

About eleven years ago I took part in an aid working project in India that lasted a month. For the most part we worked in relatively good conditions teaching in a free school. However the first three days were an introduction to Kolkata. There things are seen that are not even fit for nightmares. Visiting slums reveals a world that seems impossible, implausible and incomprehensible to a person of the first world. The conditions are horrifying and I am reminded of these when I read Dante’s inferno. That experience is not something you can forget or abjure. To survive I had to make the experiences a part of my life and my character. That took a long time and is a project that will never be truly finished. I will always have a sense of discontent somewhere in the background.

In the Gestapo prison, people were tortured with over 30 people crammed into a room not fit for a dog. They had a bucket with which to relieve themselves and precious little opportunity to wash themselves. Writings were scrawled into the plaster on the walls of the prisoners and when this is coupled with their story (where available) of these people… . 

The difference between my experiences in India and what must have occurred here, I can only guess upon. In India I have a small but solid shore of comfort. The problems here are ultimately caused by poor planning and people looking for an opportunity to earn money. The massive influx leads finally to squalor where the street is ankle high in excrement and where the water supply sprouts from a hill covered in (and I suspect made from) the same.

The feeling from the prison is that the Nazi’s not only carried out the depravity but reveled in its glory. Their deluded sense of madness brought about actions of tyrannical monsters and in that role, they sacrificed whatever dignity they or their victims had. The actions that would make one unnerved were carried out with rancor towards the prisoners and with revelment towards those very actions and what they represented. The prisoners became the embodiment of the Gestapo’s actions. Possibly in the minds of the Gestapo, a warped justification for carrying out those actions came from this embodiment.

I can only imagine what emotions those prisoners must have enduring to attain that tranquility that is found in the arms of sorrow.
“Sorrow is tranquility remembered in emotion.” Dorothy Parker
That is if any were to be found at all.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

What is an engineering skeptic anyway?

On the back of recent and dramatic failures, I have been forced not only to consider why these failures have occurred but also the situation around my own position. For the last 3 years I have been working in energy research and before that, I did a Masters in the same area. I have been involved in the good, the bad and the incompetent. But one thing has been a constant. I am sometimes described as negative. I do not agree with this point. Indeed I think that this attitude is why those failures are happening. 

My job is to take the inventions of others and apply them in the real, dirty world. That is I work with the processes and perform the tests that are necessary. I therefore do not have to imagine what the performance could look like and am very aware of the pitfalls of the technologies involved. Indeed a large part of my job is trouble shooting equipment as well as the inventions themselves.
On that point I have no emotional attachment to the invention that I may test. It can be nice, it can be pretty but I do not fall in love. In many ways I compare it to my fascination with the expression of English literature in poetry. For example Evan Boland wrote
The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent clear patience
of its element.
I think that this describes the heartless nature of war in juxtaposition to its gross physicality. I can certainly appreciate those lines and study them but it does not mean that I love English literature.

This is where my skeptic label comes about. The inventors tend get attached to their inventions and the processes inside which they work and reside. The shortcomings can be glossed over and often the abilities of the invention are pushed too far. An example is of cellulosic  ethanol whereby companies have being promising $1-2 gas for years. However the reality is that the EPA has had to keep pushing back the date for when it expects this product to arrive on the market. Most of this comes about from having an un-realistic view of the technology and the difficulties in producing cellulosic ethanol

The best way to introduce a technology is to treat it with a short view. Essentially you want the produce to succeed but you do not believe it will until proven otherwise. It is the guilty until proven innocent principle. If you have an emotional attachment, it will be very difficult to take this approach. I consider this to be a realistic view and not a skeptic view as many of my colleagues consider. So what is the basis of this approach.

  1. ·         Everything is only a potential breakthrough until it actually has broken into the market. The sucess of an invention is based on how much it breaks into the market.
  2. ·         Pilot, pilot, pilot. If the concept is not proven on a pilot scale, then I do not consider it a potential breakthrough. Pilot scale is operating in and around 1-10% of full scale production. For example for an invention that has a lifetime of 10 years, that means continuous testing at the process conditions for 1 year is a pilot test.
  3. ·         Repeatability and reproducibility. The invention must be reproduced multiple time by different people and different equipment. Each incarnation must be shown that have similar performance (within 10%) in the same process.
  4. ·         Predictions of how the invention will perform should be taken as ‘indications only’ until pilot scale has been proven.
So what kind of success rates can you expect for the chemical industry (e.g. a new catalyst) from lab scale to full scale implementation? Approximately 1% and certainly no higher than 10%. Typically the 10% figure relates more to the concept or overall guiding idea and the 1% represents the change or each incarnation of said idea. Why such pessimism? At lab scale the feedstock is typically clean. Heavy tars and sulphur compounds for example are often missing from the feed stream. As scale up proceeds, equipment and feedstock become more complex allowing for a more complete picture to develop. The outlook changes. It is often that few ppm of poison that can ruin your catalyst and you find out the real effects at pilot scale of said poison.

Modeling the process on the computer or by hand often makes use of assumptions and ideality. Corrosion, a common problem in refinery operations it not easy (well almost impossible) to model accurately. Even after pilot, failure can occur because long term effects are hard to predict and improvements in existing and competing technologies can render the invention less favorable. 

In short, take the short view of a new claim and invention. Dig around for more data and demand that people prove their claims. You are not skeptical; just realistic. In that way failures and unrealistic assertions can be avoided.