British engineering concept ‘could make NASA’s nuclear rocket a lot better’

The Nasa project will use low-enriched nuclear fuel (Credit: Nasa)

The Nasa project will use low-enriched nuclear fuel (Credit: Nasa)

A 40-year-old British idea could make a new nuclear-powered rocket programme from NASA “a lot better,” an engineer has said.

The American space agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center recently signed a $18.8 million contract with BWXT Nuclear Energy for a “highly efficient, high-thrust engine” concept – to potentially take future crewed missions to Mars and beyond. The design and testing project will run through 2019 subject to Congressional approval.

NASA scientists hope the rocket engine will be much more efficient than traditional chemical propellant engines. The Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) concept could use nuclear fission of low-enriched uranium to heat hydrogen, firing it from the exhaust to create huge amounts of thrust.

An NTP engine could have double the propulsion efficiency of the Space Shuttle’s main engine, reducing a trip to Mars from six to four months, NASA said.

However, a heavy nuclear reactor and large fuel tanks for the relatively low-density hydrogen could reduce some of the potential benefits, said aerospace engineer Mark Hempsell.

“You need to use hydrogen propellant and that means the tanks tend to be a lot heavier than they would otherwise tend to be,” said Hempsell, who is also president of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), to Professional Engineering. “A lot of the advantages tend to disappear a little when you get down to looking at the detail.”

NASA’s claim that shorter trip times would mean less radiation exposure for astronauts and reduced weight is also flawed, Hempsell said, as radiation from the nuclear reactor would require heavy shields.

The rocket could nonetheless hit ultra-fast velocities of 12km/s if NASA and BWXT adapted a concept developed by British engineer Alan Bond, Hempsell said. While working for Rolls Royce in the 1970s, Bond proposed an engine system using the nuclear reactor to create an electrical “arcjet”. The electricity would impart more energy to the heated gas, increasing its exit speed and creating more thrust – “then you are really humming,” said Hempsell.

However, he said the Nasa concept will still have performance advantages compared to chemical propellant alternatives.

The NTP “could open up deep space for human exploration,” said NASA aerospace engineer and NTP project manager Sonny Mitchell. “As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond.”

Big wake up call from world’s cheapest electric car

Credit: GM

Credit: GM

The arrival of what could be the cheapest ever electric car must accelerate innovation around zero-emission vehicles, experts warn

China’s launch of a fully-electric car that sells for under £5000 is being described as a “wake up call” to European car manufacturers and policy makers.

Through a Chinese subsidiary, General Motors (GM) has unveiled the Baojun E100; a vehicle the size of a Smart car with a 100-mile range.

The new car is being rolled out in China and is not expected to appear in the United Kingdom or Europe any time soon, but its launch has coincided with several major developments in the motor industry.

The much-awaited Tesla 3 model was launched recently, grabbing headlines and hundreds of thousands of buyers. Selling for around £27,000, Elon Musk’s latest offering is billed as a revolutionary step in making electric cars more affordable.

At the same time, Volvo has committed to stop making purely-petrol cars by 2019, saying it will produce only hybrid or fully-electric cars from that year on. In Britain, government has proposed new laws against petrol and diesel vehicles that it hopes will usher in a new, greener future come 2040.

Last year, the number of electric cars in the world zoomed past the 2-million mark and in Norway, a third of all new cars being sold are electric. While electronic vehicles make up less than 1% of cars on the world’s roads, some estimates suggest this will rise to around 4% in less than a decade.

GM’s Baojun E100, released by SAIC-GM, is powered by a single motor that produces 29kW and a top speed of 100km/h. The car’s lithium-ion battery recharges in 7.5 hours and the vehicle offers some nice modern luxuries, like WiFi connectivity, a touchscreen console, keyless entry and parking sensors.

The latest launch, says David Bailey of the Aston Business School in Birmingham, is part of a wider story around China’s booming electric car market and within it, the growth of cheap battery-powered vehicles.

Bailey says that half a million electric vehicles were sold in China last year, making it the biggest market in the world. The race to electrify cars, he adds, is part of a “massive effort” to improve air quality in that country.

Due to regulations (which take into account safety standards), the Baojun E100 will be difficult to import into Europe or America but, Bailey says, major change is coming. “The direction is clear. Electric cars are coming and they are coming in a very big way. There is going to be a revolution not only in electric cars but also in driverless cars.”

Yoann Le Petit, clean vehicles and mobility officer at the Brussel-based research group Transport and Environment, believes this could be the cheapest electric car ever built. The cheapest hybrid vehicle in the UK currently sells for over £10,000.

He agrees with Bailey in that the Baojun E100 is not likely to arrive in Europe for years, but says its launch is a clear sign that there is a growing demand for cheap, electric cars.

Le Petit says more investment and research is needed in Europe into zero-emissions vehicles and particularly into the batteries that power them, the cost of which can account for 40% or more of the car’s price. In this respect, he says, China has a competitive advantage.

“In Europe, you have more and more cities banning diesel engines,” he says. “If we don’t produce the batteries and the cars, the big risk we are running is (having) to import all these cheap vehicles from China. In 20 years it could be the end of the automotive industry in Europe. So for car makers and policy makers this should be a wake up call.”

Save £600 a year by turning your home into a power station

A new development in Port Neath (right, top) will incorporate power generating features including saltwater batteries (bottom, right). The technology has been tested in an 'energy-positive' classroom in Swansea (left)

A new development in Port Neath (right, top) will incorporate power generating features including saltwater batteries (bottom, right). The technology has been tested in an ‘energy-positive’ classroom in Swansea (left)

A new report reveals that household energy bills could be cut by as much as 60% if homes were designed to generate, store and release their own energy, saving the average household over £600 a year.

The report is based on a concept for a new social housing development in Wales that is currently in planning. The Active Homes Neath development is the first major project with energy generation and storage built into the design of new buildings.

The houses, which are being built by Pobl Group, Wales’ largest housing association, feature solar roofs, shared battery storage, and the potential for electric vehicle charging points. A solar heat collector heats the water, and waste heat is captured and recycled.

The technology has already been implemented at a school in Swansea, which has the UK’s first energy-positive classroom. Over six months the Active Classroom, which was developed by Swansea University’s SPECIFIC Innovation & Knowledge Centre, generated more energy than it consumed.

The report, by independent energy consultant Andris Bankovskis, says that if 1 million homes like this were built across the UK it could reduce the amount of energy required at peak times by 3 gigawatts, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions be nearly 80 million tones over 40 years.

“The scale of the potential impacts is compelling, and demands that we make considered decisions about how we meet housing needs sustainably,” said Bankovskis. “It suggests that if we are prepared to take some bold decisions about the way energy is supplied and used in our homes, the rewards could be significant and lasting.”

Kevin Bygate, chief executive at SPECIFIC, called for more partnerships with industry and government to roll out renewable technology into new housing projects. “Today’s report shows that households and the country as a whole can benefit if we design our homes to be power stations,” he said. “The technology works, so what we need now is to build on our partnerships with industry and government and make it happen.”

Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association said that efficient homes could “empower consumers”. “This new initiative is a good example of the bold innovation and big-thinking taking place in the renewable energy and clean tech industries right now,” she added.

Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at IMechE, told Professional Engineeringthat the Active Homes Project was a great example of bringing housing and energy initiatives together. “As we build more new homes across the U.K., new and innovative distributed, flexible energy systems will be required that can meet the needs of different regions,” she said. “By creating local distributed energy systems that cater for domestic heat and power and transport the pressure on the centralised system can be reduced.”

According to Chris Goodall, author of The Switch, homeowners could even sell power to their neighbours, but it would require an improvement in digital technology. “What there is a need for information technology which records how much is going out of your system and where it’s being used,” he has told PE. “Advances in digitalisation are making that easier and easier – we’ll see sales and purchase systems developing. It’s a perfect use of blockchain – highly distributed ledgers. That’s what we’ll eventually end up with – millions and millions of small producers, putting into a network and getting payment and paying via some sort of distributed ledger.”

Independent energy review ‘welcome recognition’ of industry cost concerns

(Credit: zhongguo/ iStock)

(Credit: zhongguo/ iStock)

A review into energy prices and future consumption is “welcome recognition” of industry concerns amid rising costs compared to the EU, an expert has said.

The newly-announced review, led by Professor Dieter Helm, an economist at the University of Oxford, will recommend ways to keep energy prices as low as possible while ensuring the UK meets climate change targets. It will look for opportunities to cut costs in the whole electricity supply chain – generation, transmission, distribution and supply – and consider the role of new technologies like electric vehicles, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The Government said its ambition is the lowest energy costs in Europe, for both households and businesses. The review will ensure “clean, secure and affordable supplies over the coming decades”, said business and energy secretary Greg Clark.

“This is a welcome recognition by government of industry’s concerns over increasingly uncompetitive energy prices and the need to act,” said Roz Bulleid, head of climate and environment at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation. Terry Scuoler CBE, the body’s chief executive, will sit on an advisory panel.

“I think industry has been concerned for some time that we have got diverging costs from the rest of the EU,” Bulleid said to Professional Engineering. Factories in some UK industries pay far more than in EU countries like Germany, she added, costing businesses millions of pounds.

“It is good to see the Government addressing the issue of the cost of energy in this new review,” said Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at IMechE. “However, the review only addresses electricity, which is approximately 20% of the whole energy system.  In order to fully understand the cost implications of energy, the connections and interdependencies within the whole system of electricity, heat and transport should be considered.”

Decarbonisation programmes need “huge” investment over the next decade and beyond, said Oxford professor and previous government adviser Helm. The Government aims to cut 80% of carbon emissions by 2050, a key national target to help restrict a global temperature increase to only 2°C. New technologies could bring many benefits but must be implemented properly, said Helm.

“Digitalisation, electric transport and smart and decentralised systems offer great opportunities,” he said. “It is imperative to do all this efficiently, to minimise the burdens. Making people and companies pay excessively for policy and market inefficiencies risks undermining the objectives themselves.”

The review, which will not comment on individual energy projects, will set out options for a “long-term road map” for the power sector. “All homes and businesses rely on an affordable and secure energy supply and the government is upgrading our energy system to make it fit for the future,” said Clark. “We want to ensure we continue to find the opportunities to keep energy costs as low as possible, while meeting our climate change targets.”

Smartphone-compatible device ‘cuts disease test times’ with one drop of blood

(Credit: BernardaSv/ iStock)

(Credit: BernardaSv/ iStock)

A new smartphone-compatible diagnostic tool could slash the time needed for life-saving disease tests, a team of researchers has said.

Biomedical engineers at Duke University in North Carolina said their new device detects disease markers “as accurately as the most sensitive tests on the market” in a fraction of the time. The tool, called the D4 assay, spots low levels of antigens ­– protein markers of diseases – in a single drop of blood.

The team created the D4 by printing antibodies onto a glass slide with a non-stick polymer coating. The coating stops proteins not associated with disease from attaching to the slide, removing “background noise” from results and making the device more sensitive than it would be otherwise. When blood touches the antibodies, they dissolve and bind to target proteins and create fluorescent light to reveal how much of an antigen is present.

Users then read results using a table-top scanner or a 3D-printed smartphone attachment. The Duke team said their “lab-on-a-chip” identifies disease biomarkers in as little as 15 minutes – far quicker than the current “gold standard” enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (Elisa) test. Elisa detects diseases like Zika or HIV, but requires trained researchers or liquid-handling robotic devices.

“What’s cool is that our assay can achieve comparable sensitivity to the Elisa within 15 minutes, and if further sensitivity is needed, longer incubation times can be used,” said engineer Daniel Joh from Duke University.  “This device can also be compared to a lateral flow test, which is quite fast as it takes less than five minutes to get a reading, but that test isn’t as sensitive. This is really the best of both worlds.”

The researchers used the D4 in clinical trials, measuring levels of serum leptin – a hormone which can reveal mortality and complications in malnourished children – in patients at Duke University Medical Center. Joh and co-author Angus Hucknall will next use their prototype in a field test in Liberia to better understand how results can monitor and help plan treatment strategies for malnutrition, and how it can perform wider diagnostics.

The device offers efficient and accessible testing which could be useful in remote or developing parts of the world, the team said. They said D4 chips will cost less than $1 and the smartphone attachment developed at the University of California will be less than $30.

“Diagnostic tools such as this have significant advantage over existing lab-based methods in that they can be used in the most extreme and isolated of areas, enabling communities who previously would have had to travel for days to a hospital to be tested in their own home or at a local clinic,” said Dr Helen Meese, head of healthcare at IMechE, to Professional Engineering. “This type of equipment means that clinicians can sample, analyse and diagnose patients more rapidly with equivalent or better results than existing techniques.”

Many more “lab-on-a-chip” devices will be developed in the coming years, she added, as they shrink from desk-sized to handheld and even plug-ins for mobile devices. However, as with other medical technology they face extensive research and clinical trials before widespread introduction.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.