General election unlikely to impact on engineering jobs

The upcoming General Election in the UK is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the job sector, engineering recruiters have told PE.

“Projects for this year are already under way across various sectors and set to continue,” said Mike Morgan, director at Hays Engineering. “UK employers are confident despite uncertainty and are still planning to recruit this year, so the main challenge will be finding suitable applicants.”

Morgan said that previous elections demonstrated that job registrations and salaries will more than likely remain stable.

Mark Wilkinson, director of Coburg Banks, added: “Most people are expecting the current political landscape to remain more or less the same after the election which will eliminate any knee jerk impacts that are often caused during periods of uncertainty. We shall have to wait and see.”

In the past 12 months the engineering jobs market has remained consistent despite the Brexit vote.

Hays UK’s Salary & Recruiting Trends 2017 Guide found that that 74% of engineering employers are planning to recruit a mix of permanent and temporary staff as they expand their workforces this year.

“Engineers are always in high demand and head count has fluctuated as usual, with acute skill shortages set to continue. There has been no significant decline in the amount of jobs registered since the referendum announcement last year,” said Morgan.

However, Hays reports fewer professionals are moving jobs, despite 55% of engineering professionals citing they plan to move jobs this year, likely due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. It has also seen more counter offers.

Wilkinson agreed the jobs market for engineers has remained steady, but said Brexit will bring about some change. “The skills shortage that was evident in the engineering industry remains in full force post-Brexit.

“But it will have an impact, again due to the uncertainty it causes. We have found that many employers, often in the SME space, are nervous about making the financial investment required to hire someone on a permanent basis.”

Grahame Carter, managing director of Matchtech, told PE that only one sector was hit by the referendum. “There was an immediate 20% reduction in our private sector design buildings market. Other than the building sector, we haven’t seen an impact on the engineering market following the Brexit vote.

“With the amount of projects the UK is working to deliver – HS2, Hinkley Point, Crossrail, Heathrow, the highways – there is no way the UK can’t be affected. The economy is in a slightly improving state – the vote will not have an impact on our engineering capability.”

Salaries in the sector have also remained steady in the past year and recruiters do not expect this to change any time soon.

Engineers discover no-bake recipe for Martian bricks

Future colonists of Mars should be able to turn the planet’s soil into bricks without using an oven or additional ingredients, according to US engineers.

A study, published in Scientific Reports, found that all explorers would need is to compact the soil with the equivalent of a blow from a hammer.

The engineers from the University of California San Diego, funded by Nasa, initially tried to cut down on the amount of polymers required to shape Martian soil into bricks, and accidentally discovered that none was needed.

Researchers found that to make bricks out of simulated Mars soil, without additives and without heating or baking, two steps were key: to enclose the soil in a flexible container, in this case a rubber tube, and secondly to compact the soil at a high enough pressure.

The amount of pressure needed for a small sample is roughly the equivalent of someone dropping 10lb hammer from a height of one metre, said Yu Qiao, a professor of structural engineering at UC San Diego and the study’s lead author.

The engineers believe that the iron oxide, which gives Martian soil its signature red colour, acts as a binding agent. They scanned the simulated soil’s structure and found that the tiny iron particles coat its bigger rocky basalt particles. The iron particles have clean, flat facets that easily bind to one another under pressure.

Researchers also investigated the bricks’ strengths and found that even without rebar, they are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete. They said their method may be compatible with additive manufacturing. To build up a structure, astronauts could lay down a layer of soil, compact it, then lay down an additional layer and compact that, and so on.

Proposals to use Martian soil to build habitats for manned missions on the planet are not new. However, this is the first that shows astronauts would need minimal resources to do so. Previous plans included nuclear-powered brick kilns or using complex chemistry to turn organic compounds found on Mars into binding polymers.

The research has become all the more important since the US Congress passed a bill in last month, directing Nasa to send a manned mission on Mars in 2033.

Defence companies post better-than-expected 1Q results

International defence contractors have reported better than expected results for the first three months of the year.

“General Dynamics delivered very strong first-quarter operating performance,” said chief executive Phebe N. Novakovic. “We are on track for a productive 2017 as we continue our focus on operational improvement and successful execution on our robust backlog.”

Meanwhile, US weapons maker Northrop Grumman’s results were boosted by an increase in sales in its business that makes parts for F-35 fighter jets.

The company’s net earnings rose to $640 million in the quarter, from $556 million a year earlier. Sales in its aerospace unit, which also makes manned aircraft, drones and space craft, rose 13% to $2.9 billion, partly helped by higher F-35 deliveries.

In addition, Tomahawk missile manufacturer Raytheon Company has posted net sales for the first quarter 2017 of $6 billion, up 3% on last year. The firm said an increase in earnings was driven by operational improvements.

“Solid revenue growth and margin expansion drove strong earnings per share performance in the first quarter, with all of our businesses meeting or exceeding expectations,” said chief executive Thomas A. Kennedy. “Our focus on global growth and operational excellence, combined with our balanced capital deployment strategy, continues to create value for our customers and shareholders.”

However, the UK’s Meggitt, which specialises in components and sub-systems for the aerospace, defence and energy markets, faired less well. The company said lower US demand for defence products has led to a slight fall in first quarter organic revenue growth. However, Meggitt’s civil aerospace division recorded organic revenue growth of 3% in the quarter, driven by increased demand for business jets.

The company completed the acquisition of Miami-based Elite Aerospace, which specialises in pneumatic, hydraulic and avionic components for commercial and military aircraft, in the first three months of 2017.

Also reporting it’s first quarter results was global engineering company Weir Group. The Scottish company reported 15% increase in first-quarter orders, with growth primarily driven by increased activity in North American oil & gas and strong aftermarket orders in minerals.

“Mining and oil and gas markets continued to grow in the first quarter, supporting the view that we are at the beginning of a cyclical upturn in our main markets,” chief executive Jon Stanton said.

“Assuming commodity prices remain supportive, we continue to anticipate good growth in constant currency revenues and strong cash generation, with full year profits anticipated to be in line with current market expectations and weighted towards the second half.”

US town gets free rides in Waymo’s driverless cars

Self-driving car start-up Waymo is signing up residents of a US town to take rides in its autonomous minivans – for free.

The firm, a spin-off from Google, wants to use its ‘early rider’ programme in Phoenix, Arizona to gauge how people would use autonomous vehicles, and the level of demand.

Waymo is making its services available to the public for the first time so that “as many people as possible can experience the technology, and to bring self-driving cars to communities sooner,” said chief executive John Krafcik.

“We’ll be accepting hundreds of people with diverse transportation needs to give feedback,” he added.

Residents can hail a ride using Waymo’s app, which also collects data on all journeys. An employee will be present behind the wheel of every minivan on the programme, but the goal is for rides to involve minimal human input.

Since its launch last December, the company has been testing self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan to improve the technology, and 500 more vehicles will now hit the streets for the Phoenix trial.

Arizona has also been a testing ground for Waymo’s competitor Uber, as the state has lax legislation for autonomous vehicles compared to states such as California. However, Uber pulled its driverless cars off the roads after a crash earlier this year.

Waymo is also suing Uber for allegedly plagiarising its lidar technology, a system of lasers that creates a digital map around cars for safe and accurate navigation.

On this side of the pond, Oxford-based artificial intelligence company Oxbotica has announced that its autonomous technology will be used for a fleet of driverless vehicles to be trialled between London and Oxford in 2019. The trial is going ahead after a £8.6 million grant was awarded by the government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Oxbotica held a driverless trial in Milton Keynes last October.

Meanwhile, Chinese search-engine giant Baidu announced this month that it is making its autonomous vehicle technology publicly available for all carmakers, in the hopes of fast-tracking the development of driverless vehicles around the world.

US scientists create material for artificial photosynthesis to clean air

A new method for on-demand photosynthesis could not only give us cleaner air but produce energy at the same time, say scientists.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida have created a material that can absorb enough visible light to activate artificial photosynthesis, eliminating greenhouse gases and making fuel.

“The idea would be to set up stations that capture large amounts of carbon dioxide, like next to a power plant,” said Fernando Uribe-Romo, energy expert at the university and lead author of the study. “The gas would be sucked into the station, go through the process and recycle the greenhouse gases while producing energy that would be put back into the power plant.”

Scientists have previously attempted to tailor materials that absorb light for the chemical reaction – which involves carbon dioxide and sunlight converting into sugar – to take place.

However, they usually found that only ultraviolet light had enough energy to be picked up by everyday materials such as titanium dioxide.

But ultraviolet light only makes up 4% of the sunrays that reach Earth, according to the researchers. Only a few materials pick up visible light, which represents majority of the sun’s rays, and the ones that do – such as platinum – are too expensive.

Instead, Uribe-Romo’s team used a metal-organic framework (MOF) – a porous material made of metal ions in a hydrocarbon network. MOFs are often used to store gases such as hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Similar to the way plants break down carbon dioxide, the researchers used the MOF to turn the gas into fuel. They added “light harvesting” molecules called N-alkyl-2-aminoterephthalates to titanium, and then manipulated the molecules to absorb the colour blue on the visible light spectrum.

The team then put the material inside a blue LED chamber together with carbon dioxide, and watched artificial photosynthesis take place while solar energy turned into chemical energy, cleaning the air.

But not everyone is so sure this technique can be implemented on a realistic scale, as “the vast majority of MOFs are far too expensive to produce,” said Timothy Easun, a materials scientist at Cardiff University, who was not involved in the research.

“They are also far too inefficient at carbon dioxide harvesting to ever be useful at scale in the capture and storage of the gas,” he added.

The Florida team is now working on tweaking the material to absorb other wavelengths of light, and suggest that the material could be used on house rooftops to clean the surrounding air and produce energy for the home.

The study has been published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

Nuclear workers extend industrial action in row over pensions

Hundreds of workers at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which is responsible for the design, manufacture and maintenance of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, are to hold two further 24-hour strikes after their pension concerns were “ignored”.

The dispute centres on promises made in the early 1990s by the then-Conservative government to AWE workers regarding the future of their pensions once they transferred to the private sector.

Unite the union claims these promises were broken when AWE bosses closed the defined benefit pension scheme on 31 January this year, leaving employees facing thousands of pounds being slashed from their retirement incomes.

The union came up with alternative proposals, prepared by pension experts, for a new defined benefit scheme, but claims the company has not responded.

As a result, the workers will hold two 24-hour strikes on 10 and 18 May at AWE sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire.

This new industrial action by more than 700 workers, who help deliver the Trident nuclear programme, are on top of strikes already announced for 4 and 8 May – bringing the number of strike days since November to 18.

“We have not received a response or even an acknowledgement to the pension proposals that we sent to the AWE management on 13 April,” said Unite regional officer Bob Middleton. “We put forward these proposals in good faith, but our members feel that they have now been snubbed.”

AWE told PE that it has made improvements to the new scheme and additional benefits have been included. “This is a very competitive scheme which has been benchmarked against external comparators and puts the revised AWE scheme in the top 25 percentile,” said a company spokeswoman.

“The safety and security of AWE staff and the general public continues to remain our top priority during periods of industrial action. We have undertaken detailed contingency planning and have resilient measures in place.”

AWE, which employs about 4,000 people, is a consortium of two American-owned companies Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering and UK-listed Serco.

Indonesia: Energy for all?

Green, clean, renewable. More and more countries are turning to renewable energy projects in a bid to meet climate change quotas – and Indonesia is one of them, with Jakarta stating that it wants renewables to account for 23% of the archipelago’s energy mix by 2025.

Indonesia has around 17,000 islands, with about 6,000 islands inhabited. Some 12,659 villages on them do not have access to electricity, though. So to tackle the issue, the New and Renewable Energy & Energy Conservation organisation started the Bright Indonesia Program (Program Indonesia Terang) in November 2016, aimed to increase electrification in the eastern part of the archipelago using local renewable energy resources. And in February, Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM) announced new regulations to back the development of renewable energy, replacing the original feed-in tariff (FIT) system that was introduced in 2009.

“Investors have now had time to digest and fully understand the implications of the regulations,” Yulanda Chung, energy consultant at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis told PE. “The regulation actually incentivises Indonesia’s state-owned energy company PLN to sign a power purchase agreement with new and renewable energy producers.”

In the past, PLN has been reluctant, she added, since NRE tariff has been set higher than average of what PLN is capable of paying. So the company had to rely on government subsidies, and “has been unable to raise consumer tariffs. The upshot is that there is no clear avenue for cost recovery for PLN. The regulation has changed this dynamic,” said Chung. Investors also welcome the fact that the regulation requires PLN to operate NRE plants up to 10 MW as a must-run, she added, which means the tariff stipulated in the power purchase agreement will be a take-or-pay, giving investors much needed assurance on returns.

International developments

These initiatives seem to be doing their job, as recent months have seen a flurry of renewable energy projects being announced in the country. At the end of March, France’s Engie revealed plans to invest up to $1 billion to develop photovoltaic and biomass power plants in Sumatera and Eastern Indonesia with PT Sugar Group over the next five years. The projects, which will have with a total power generation capacity of 500MW, will significantly contribute to the national programme to cut greenhouse gases, with an estimated carbon avoidance of 1.5 million ton of CO2e per annum.

One venture relates to the construction in Indonesia one of Engie’s first high temperature geothermal power generation plant in the world, Muara Laboh, and it’s also the group’s first renewable project in the country. “The projects will be a significant step towards Indonesia’s goal to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil-based energy sources, and to provide 97% of the population with electricity by 2019,” said Engie Group’s executive vice-president Didier Holleaux. “Our strategy is to work through an ecosystem of partners to co-develop and scale renewable energy and innovative low-carbon technology solutions to meet the country’s unique energy challenges.”

Meanwhile, DCNS Energies and PT AIR have recently signed a Letter of Intent designed to deliver a roadmap for the engineering, industrial development and commercial ramp-up of a tidal energy industry in Indonesia. The companies, who have been working together for the past two years to access the most suitable sites for tidal energy projects, will analyse and assess the commercial and economic conditions required to build a tidal energy industry.

“Over the past years, Indonesia has also done a massive effort to develop a legal framework adapted to the development of marine renewable energy projects, in particular by establishing solid processes for the procurement of permits, consents and authorisations,” a spokesman for DCNS told PE. “The next step to allow the concretization of these projects would be the definition of a clear pricing policy for marine energies which does not exist yet.”

Local governments are very supportive to develop pilot marine renewable projects, he added, but still need the visibility of federal authorities on pricing policy to launch them. “In the future, the development of this new industry would have economic and social benefits for local states,” he said.

Also in the tidal energy market, UK-based Atlantis signed a preferred supplier agreement with SBS International for the supply of turbines, engineering services and equipment for a 150MW tidal-stream array located in Lombok, an Indonesian island east of Bali and west of Sumbawa. SBS has been awarded exclusive development rights to three offshore sites around Lombok and Bali, and have a combined ocean energy capacity of 450MW. Front End Engineering and Design (FEED) and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Phase I (12MW) are expected to commence this year.

Atlantis also hopes to establish a local facility for turbine assembly, testing and maintenance and a local turbine manufacturing facility once aggregate orders for turbines exceed 100 units in Indonesia. “Indonesia has clear potential for commercial-scale tidal power and the support of PLN shows there is also the demand and support for the development of tidal power in remote island locations across Indonesia,” said Atlantis chief executive Tim Cornelius.

Geothermal energy is taking off in the country as well. Japan’s Toshiba Corporation and US-based Ormat Technologies recently announced that the first unit of the Sarulla geothermal power plant, located in Indonesia’s North Sumatra, has started commercial operation.

The 110MW power plant, which combines flash and binary technologies to provide a high efficiency power plant and 100% reinjection of the exploited geothermal fluid, is operated by Sarulla Operations. As participants in the project, Toshiba supplied the geothermal steam turbines and generators for the flash systems, while Ormat provided the conceptual design of the Geothermal Combined Cycle Unit power plant and supplied its Ormat Energy Converter, which serve as the condensing units for the steam turbines and utilise the separated brine for maximum resource exploitation and maximum power output.

Domestic initiatives

Meanwhile, the country’s domestic green energy companies are attracting overseas interest. PT Pembangkit Jawa-Bali has caught the eye of Czech company Doosan Škoda Power – a manufacturer and supplier of equipment for power stations and machines related to steam turbines. It is interested in the Indonesian firm’s proposed initiative to build power plants that make energy from garbage and waste.

Also in recent weeks, Indonesia’s Terregra Asia Energy unveiled plans to raise up to $14.9 million from its upcoming stock market listing. The company said it will use the proceeds to fund four hydropower projects worth $70-$90 million. They are planned to start construction this year, according to a recent report in Jakarta Globe, which cites sources from the company. Overall, Terregra has a pipeline of 12 hydropower projects totalling 490MW. The company, which also has a solar division, currently has 72MW of installed hydropower and solar power plants in the country.

And state-owned electricity company PT PLN (Persero) signed agreements with six developers to build PV projects throughout the Southeast Asian nation.

Although Indonesia still has a long way to go to meet its renewables target, it appears that its government regulations and initiatives to attract foreign investment and expertise are working, and soon there might be energy for all in the archipelagic state.

5G to give robot cars ability to ‘hear’

Finland plans to introduce 5G mobile technology to its road network to boost safety, with the aim to make autonomous cars ‘hear’ their surroundings.

The 5G-Safe project, led by the country’s VTT Technical Research Centre, wants to cut the number of traffic accidents and optimise robotic cars.

“Contemporary driver support systems are mainly vision-based, relying on signals generated by the vehicle’s sensors. 5G will also bring the power of speech and hearing to vehicles, taking their capabilities to a new level,” said Tiia Ojanperä, a project manager at the centre.

The real-time services will not require any input from drivers, as sensor and video information will be collected to send warnings automatically. Cars passing each other will be able to exchange information about road and weather conditions using video and radar data.

To realise those capabilities, the Finnish team is researching advanced cloud computing technologies to reduce delays in data exchange between cars and road operators, for enhanced safety.

 

The automotive industry is projected to be a significant platform for the technology, as “connected, automated driving will be one of the key use cases of future 5G systems,” said Chaesub Lee, director of the International Telecommunications Union’s Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau, who is not involved in the project. “In 5G, industry sees an opportunity to deliver the automotive sector with exactly the communications capabilities it needs.”

Partners in the venture include Nokia, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Sunit, VR Transpoint, Sito and Tieto.

The project is slated for completion in 2018.

Lack of internet trust is impacting digital economy, says survey

A survey conducted by the Centre of International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and market research company Ipsos, in collaboration with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Internet Society, reveals declining trust in cyber security and the halted growth of the digital economy.

The review says that almost half of internet users refuse to make online purchases due to privacy concerns, following news reports of several data breaches in government elections across the world.

These growing concerns could have financial consequences that are “nearly irreparable,” said Osler Hampson, director of CIGI’s global security and politics programme. “The results offer a glimpse into why policy makers should be concerned, and why there is a strong link between user trust and the health of e-commerce.”

The survey found that 82% of users think cyber criminals are their top concern, while almost three quarters of them mistrust internet companies and 65% believe their governments could be spying on them online.

The findings also suggest that this lack of trust is more likely to impact regions such as the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, as people are wary of those locations.

More than half of users say they do not do their online shopping outside of their country, limiting the global spread of the e-market.

For example, people in France, Germany and Japan are about 66% less likely to make mobile payments on their smartphone than those living in China, India and Indonesia.

“The survey confirms the importance of having adequate consumer and data protection in place, areas where many developing countries are lagging behind,” said Shamika Sirimanne, director of UNCTAD’s division on technology and logistics, adding that more capacity-building is needed.

The Internet Society suggests immediate action should be taken to address user concerns, by using technologies such as encryption to secure online communications and re-build online trust.

The 2017 CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust was conducted across 24 countries with 24,225 participants and was released at the UNCTAD E-Commerce Week in Geneva, Switzerland.

Scientists turn waste glass bottles into batteries for electric cars

Waste glass bottles could enable the next advance in battery technology for electric vehicles, say scientists.

Engineers at the University of California, Riverside are using a low-cost chemical process to turn waste glass bottles into silicon-nanoparticle anodes – the negatively charged side of batteries – for high-performance lithium-ion batteries.

“We started with a waste product and created batteries that stored more energy, charged faster, and were more stable than commercial coin cell batteries,” said Changling Li, materials engineer at the university and the lead author of the study. “We have very promising candidates for next-generation lithium-ion batteries.”

The silicon dioxide found in the billions of glass bottles that end up in landfill sites every year could replace graphite as a material for anodes, as silicon can store up to 10 times more energy, according to the researchers.

But the problem with silicon is its tendency to expand and shrink during charge and discharge, making it unstable.

The team overcame this issue by downsizing silicon to the nanoscale, putting an almost pure form of silicon dioxide through a chemical reaction to produce lithium-ion half-cell batteries that can store nearly four times more energy than conventional graphite anodes, said the scientists.

The Riverside researchers created the anodes for coin cell batteries by crushing and grinding bottles into fine white powder. They then turned silicon dioxide into nanosilicon by removing oxygen using magnesium at an elevated temperature. The nanoparticles were then coated with carbon to improve stability and energy storage properties.

One glass bottle produces enough nanosilicon to make hundreds of coin cell batteries or up to five pouch cell batteries, Li added.

The team has previously developed and tested lithium-ion battery anodes made from other environmentally-friendly materials such as portabella mushrooms and sand.

The study was published in Nature’s journal Scientific Reports.