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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, 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.