Why the Britannia’s not coming back….nor the Empire!


the-royal-yacht-britannia-in-1960-136397590004503901-150416125808 The Britannia….where the queen would wine and dine blood thirsty dictators so the UK could sell them weapons

Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and a number of the other Brexiters want to bring back the Royal Yacht Britannia. They fantasize about a future where they travel the world signing new trade agreements from its decks. Really?

Well the current yacht was built in 1952 and completely obsolete (it was declared as much when it was decommissioned 22 years ago). I mean there’s a long list of things it won’t have (such as this thing called “the internet”….Liam Fox might want to look that one up!) and you’d have to train an entire crew as to how to use it. One would have to question the logistics of bringing it up to speed and back into service.

Furthermore, its also way too small for modern trade negotiations. The days…

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The trouble with Corbyn



So labour have elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader (again). However while he’s wildly popular with his party base, many others in the party, notably the PLP have serious misgivings and perhaps for good reason. Hence a split in the labour party is now a very real possibility.

Take for example Corbyn’s stance on Brexit. He’s spent most of the last few months going around apologising for the swivel eyed loons who voted for Brexit, trying to portray it as a revolt against globalisation. Well I don’t remember once hearing that word mentioned in the campaign, I seemed to remember a lot of xenophobic screaming about migrants and some BS lies about billions to the NHS. And while yes it is known that many neo-fascist parties are opposed to globalisation (not because they want more socialism, quite the opposite!), that still doesn’t make them you’re friends. However, it…

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The greater fool fallacy and Trump



There are some who support Trump even though they know he’s a bigot and a racist, but they support him despite this, because they think he offers the possibility of significant change (same goes with quite a few who voted for Brexit). That he can be manipulated into doing certain things other politicians won’t do. Other politicians would feel the need to run things by “advisors” and “experts” and worry about public opinion (or put the idea to focus groups), then realise its not going to work and hesitate. A shoot from the hip type president will do things others won’t, because he’ll act first without thinking things through.

Examples of those looking to exploit a future president include space cadets, the far right and even some elements of the far left (Bernie Sanders types who took all that anti-Hillary stuff way too seriously). I’ve…

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America’s shale oil slow down

I’ve been watching the EIA’s Drill productivity reports for a couple of months now and they do hint at a slowdown in US shale oil and shale gas production.

Certainly it has to be said that over the last year the overall figures show production is up for gas, although down slightly for oil. However as figure 1 shows this represents drops in older legacy fields being replaced by new production in less mature fields. But in some cases the rate of replacement lags behind the rate of decline, hence why production from some fields is now down and oil is now down overall.


Figure 1: Overall production changes for various shale oil & gas fields [Source: EIA, August 2016]

One of the issues with shale oil and shale gas fields is that production rates tend to tail off much more rapidly than with a conventional oil or gas field. Often there’s a need to perform further fracking on the field at regular intervals to maintain production. So a drop in the rig count in many parts of the US would probably be the explanation for this tailing off of older fields. And of course it implies that once the younger fields complete their current growth spurt, they too will enter into decline.


Figure 2: US rig count [Source: Peakoilbarrel.com, Feb 2016, Based on EIA data]

Indeed the situation becomes more stark when we look at the rate of change in production by field over the last year (figure 3). Looking at individual fields (figure 4) we can see there are signs that some of America’s major shale oil and shale gas basins have already peaked and are starting to enter into a state of decline.


Figure 3: Change in production output of Shale oil & gas fields [Source: EIA, August 2016]


Now, lets not get ahead of ourselves. Oil production rates do go up or down, few fields or regions show a constant upwards trend throughout their entire lives. And with oil prices so low its hardly surprising output is falling. If oil companies are already losing money on shale oil and shale gas plays, why throw good money after bad just so you can drive down prices even further? Some production growth may emerge in future, but it would require much higher prices. Of course if prices go too high, that risks an economic slow down and a fall in demand. And ultimately its clear that there is a natural limit to year on year production from shale gas and shale oil sources, which we might not be very far from exceeding.


Figure 5: US oil basins overall trend from year of first flow to April 2016 [Source: Shaleprofiles.com 2016]

Consider that even all of America’s unconventional oil production is only about 4 million barrels/day, while US oil consumption is closer to 16 million bbl/day. So while yes shale oil is doing a lot better than many would have thought was possible, its still not good enough. America is a long way from self sufficiency. And if current trends continue this could well be the high point of shale oil production.

The best case scenario now for the shale oil and gas industry is for something to happen that would make oil and gas prices go up. One could even present a case for carbon taxes as being pro-shale industry. Given that gas generates less carbon emissions than coal (well on paper anyway, some research would dispute these claims), it would probably benefit from any decline in coal production. Higher oil and gas prices would mean more drilling, although yes in the long run it would mean them going out of business.

But certainly what these trend do demonstrate is that Shale oil and shale gas are not the infinite horn of plenty that its long been argued they represent.

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Sunday service


A few stories that caught my eye over the last week……

Blackouts & Newspeak

With Hinkley C now hanging in the balance, the National Grid seem to be waking up to the realisation that its unlikely we’ll be getting any new power infrastructure in time to offset the likely decommissioning of the UK’s ageing coal and nuclear plants. So they seem to be putting their faith in energy efficiency measures instead.


Keep in mind a few years ago, I was scoffed at for making such a suggestion at a conference by someone from NG, who felt such measures were unnecessary or that they won’t work (he was trying to argue the case for Hinkley C and how the ground would open and swallow the country if it isn’t built). And these very measures were part of the so-called “Green crap” Cameron cut to keep his allies in…

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Aviation: the green stuff – coming soon to an airfield near you

Solar Impulse recently completed the first ever circumnavigation using a solar powered aircraft. So it might be an appropriate time to review the options as regards alternative fuelled aircraft.


Figure 1: Solar Impulse 2 completes its final landing

A long standing assumption of many has been that given the very high rates of energy consumption by aircraft and the heavy dependency of aviation on fossil fuels, once oil supplies peaked (or we were forced to curb consumption to fight climate change) this would mean the end of commercial aviation as we know it. No more cheap flights, no more holidays in the sun, the world would suddenly become a much larger place. However its possible that this may not be the case. The technology of Solar Impulse 2 hints at a range of possible solutions that are either in the works or already exist.

The eternal plane

Firstly the concept behind Solar Impulse is not new. Electric powered aircraft have been around since the 1970’s and as early as 1979 the first ever solar powered aircraft had taken flight, the Gossamer Penguin, developed by pioneering aerospace engineer Paul MacCready.


Figure 2: Gossamer Penguin

In the 1990’s NASA developed first the Pathfinder and later the Helios aircraft. These were large solar powered UAV’s designed to stay aloft more or less indefinitely, a so called “eternal plane”, which could loiter for extended periods (potentially days at a time), performing various tasks (such as reconnaissance communications or weather/earth observation), a sort of poor man’s satellite. Due to the limitations on battery technology at the time they used fuel cells and hydrogen tanks to store energy overnight. While the project was successful at a technical level (save one crash, not an unusual occurrence with any prototype aircraft), it became a victim of funding cuts being brought in by then President Bush (lets face it anything “solar” was pretty much doomed with him in charge).


Figure 3: NASA’s Helios UAV in flight [Source: NASA 2001]

Even so, the concepts developed by the Helios/Pathfinder program have found their way into other projects, Solar Impulse is merely one of them. Airbus and Qinteq for example are trying to develop a solar powered UAV similar to Helios, while Google are trying to develop their own “eternal aircraftin the form of a balloon. And much as various challenges and competitions within the automotive industry have driven onwards development of electric cars, so too is this true for alternatively powered aircraft.

Certainly as far as day to day aviation goes, a aircraft that crawls along at 60 knots and has a wing span larger than a football field, its not exactly a practical plane. However, there are proposals to take the technology behind these aircraft forward. For example, there are proposals for a whole series of electric aircraft that would be at least partially powered (or could be recharged while sitting on the apron) by solar energy.


Figure 4: Solar powered aircraft concept [Source: Jason Ruhr, Solar flight, 2015]

Electric aircraft

Any solar aircraft is of course an electric aircraft, the question is merely do we charge its batteries in the air off the sun or on the ground off the grid.

In some respects an electric powertrain offers several advantages over a fossil fuel based powertrain for aircraft, much as it does with vehicles. Electric motors are much more energy efficient, deliver high levels of torque and they generally don’t need a complex cooling system (certain battery or fuel cell systems can require cooling thought). They are also less prone to many of the technical issues that can be devil conventional aircraft, e.g. engines cutting out due to aircraft inversion, compressor stall, or high g manoeuvres. Also as an electric motor doesn’t need oxygen to operate, the service ceiling can be higher (of course there are many other factors that limit the service ceiling of an aircraft).

Noise issues can also potentially be reduced, an important factor, given how aircraft noise is a major issue at many airports. Another consideration is that by relocating the power plant of the aircraft (i.e. we are no longer limited to a set of big turbines or prop’s, we could have several sets of smaller motors instead), we can do things with our electric powertrain that you can’t do with a conventional aircraft. Things like VTOL can potentially become simpler to implement (that said, all VTOL aircraft pay a “premium” in that provisions for VTOL tend to come at the expense of increased fuel consumption in level flight).


Figure 5: The GL-10 prototype, an electric powered tiltrotor [Source: NASA/David C. Bowman, 2015]

The main disadvantage is of course where do we get the power from? And generally that means batteries (we’ll talk about fuel cells and hydrogen a bit later). As with electric cars, we face the dilemma that to give the aircraft a decent range, we need to add more and more batteries. But this makes the aircraft heavier and thus its energy consumption increases, meaning it needs yet more batteries. In other words, there might be range issues.

However, it should be noted that in much the same way that the bulk of car journey’s are relatively short and well within the range of electric cars, the same is true for aviation. The vast bulk of flights are either short haul or are the sort of trans-continental flights that could be broken down into short sections. So while it is probably true to argue that electric planes cannot offer a like for like replacement with aviation fuel, there’s still a large number of roles that they can perform.

Already a number of electric planes are entering the market. Most of these early entrants are short range light aircraft intended for use as trainers, or for general aviation use. For light aircraft the benefits of an electric power train offer a significant advantage, while the main downside (range) is less of an issue, as trainers rarely stray particularly far from their home airfield. There is something of a price premium to be paid, as they are slightly more expensive than a similar piston powered aircraft. But the fuel efficiency savings (the major cost of ownership of any plane tends to be fuel) would presumably reduce the burden of those costs.


And some companies see these light aircraft as a natural stepping stone towards larger aircraft flying perhaps commercial flights with fare paying passengers and cargo.

One concept for example, is the Ce-Liner. This will use ducted fan electric motors powered by Li-Ion batteries. Should you be wondering how long does it take to recharge all those batteries (and how many coffee’s does the pilot need to drink while he waits), well the batteries are mounted on standard cargo pallets, the same ones used to carry air-freight and luggage in. This means the amount of batteries the aircraft carries can be lowered as necessary (freeing up space for more cargo), improving fuel economy on shorter flights.


But, how long would it take to load all of those extra cargo pallets? Well a study conducted by Schmit et al (2016) showed that it would only take marginally longer (or around about the same time), to load up and service an electric plane like the Ce-liner compared to a conventional aircraft. However, crucially in this situation loading of passengers ceases to be part of the critical path. Nine times out of ten, a flight delay is due to a “technical issue” with “self loading cargo”. We’ve probably all had that experience, some guy starts queuing to board twenty minutes before the gate is called, then stands in the middle of the aisle with everyone behind him, forced too wait while he sorts through his luggage, takes off his coat, flosses his teeth, etc. while the stewardess starts to turn blue with rage.

I think most airlines would take an extra few minutes on the stand as a small price to pay for a lower fuel bill and a greater certainty of the aircraft leaving on time.

Hybrid aircraft

Others look to a slightly less radical approach of hybrid engines. Much like how hybrid cars operate, a hybrid plane would use a mix of electric motors (powering the aircraft along) with a fossil fuel powered APU and batteries powering everything. Alternatively, Boeing has proposed the Sugar Volt concept, which will use hybrid engines that will use fuel during take off and then switch to electrical power during cruise. While these planes will still be dependant on fossil fuels, the concept does offer significant fuel savings and the range issues mentioned earlier are resolved. And again recall that the one thing above all else airlines are usually trying to do is cut fuel costs.


Figure 8: Boeing’s Sugar volt concept hybrid aircraft

Also longer term, we could see these hybrid aircraft, switch from aviation fuels to either biofuels or hydrogen. And its worth noting that biofuelled planes are not a new thing. Virgin Atlantic has already flown commercial passenger flights using biofuels to power a conventional 747 (back in 2008). So the only real limiting factor her relates to fuel supplies, rather than any technical barrier within the plane.

Hydrogen powered aircraft

Hydrogen planes fall into two flavours, the first time use fuel cells in place of batteries, but are otherwise electric planes. The second replace jet fuel with hydrogen fuel, but run on “conventional” engines (anything from gas turbines to rocket motors, basically you burn stuff and it goes out the back of the plane very fast!).

As noted earlier, fuel cell aircraft have been developed and tested. Boeing’s Phantom Works for example has developed a small light aircraft (trainer type) powered by a fuel cell. This was used as a development step towards a much larger aircraft, the Phantom Eye, a long range hydrogen powered drone with the capability for several days endurance, intended for various covert and military applications.


Figure 9: Boeing’s Phantom Eye UAV drone [Source: Boeing Inc.]

Hydrogen as a combustion fuel in aircraft is nothing new. Back in the 50’s, Locheed’s Skunk works developed the CL-400 Suntan aircraft as a high speed, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The Russians experimented with a hydrogen powered airliner, the TU-155, back in the late 1980’s. And the idea has not died a death, Reaction Engines, a group of researchers working on a variety of hydrogen powered aircraft (including an SSTO concept called Skylon) have proposed the LAPCAT A2, a Mach 5 airliner powered by hydrogen.


Figure 10: Reaction Engines Lapcat A2 proposal [Source: Reaction Engines]

Hydrogen offers several advantages over conventional aviation fuel, its got a much higher calorific value and delivers twice the specific impulse, allowing aircraft to fly higher and faster. So why don’t we use it? Well there’s the small matter of getting the hydrogen onto the plane. Up until now the focus has been on using cryogenically cooled liquid hydrogen, which comes with a series of problems and practicalities (boil off being a problem as well as tankage).

A number of solutions are proposed to solve this. Developments related to the automotive FCEV means that lightweight carbon fibre reinforced tanks, capable of operating pressures as high as 700 bar, are now available. The Wh/kg ratio for hydrogen at these pressures is higher that it is for gasoline, even when we account for the weight of the tank itself. That said, there’s still something of a weight premium to be paid (even when empty they still add weight), which would impact on range and cargo in the case of shorter flights. Given that such tanks would have to be mounted in the fuselage (rather than wing tanks), this would take away from the aircraft’s internal cargo volume.


Figure 11: Cella Energy’s “solid” hydrogen storage concept [Source: Cella energy, 2015]

Another concept is to use hydrogen stored in solid form. A company called Cella Energy is working on the idea of hydrogen stored in the form of solid oxide pellets that absorb hydrogen like a sponge. When heated, they release the hydrogen, with the pellets then returned for “recharging”. The system is being developed for use both in aviation and in vehicles, with energy densities three times better than Li-ion batteries being claimed. Test flights of small drones powered by hydrogen pellets are already underway and tests with a fuel cell powered car are to follow.

Many options available – but not much time

In summary, there are many ways by which the aviation industry’s fossil fuel addiction can be broken. Many of these could indeed radically transform aviation, allowing for aircraft that will be able to fly faster, with greater fuel economy (some drones capable of staying aloft almost indefinitely) and less noise. Climate change deniers often try to claim that going green means giving up what we have, retreating into the woods and becoming hippies, but this is simply not true. There are alternatives.

But as is so often the case with green technology, its unlikely we’ll be able to develop a like for like replacement for fossil fuels. We’ll likely end up with a range of different aircraft powered by various different technologies. Also, there’s the ticking clock. In short, will we develop the technology quickly enough to allow aviation to adopt a smooth transition away from fossil fuels? If not, then its possible some disruption to air travel becomes a risk. But it is those who stand in the way of change who would be the cause of this disruption, not a lack of ideas.

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Non Rio news


Brexit guarantee

Reacting to the wide scale dismay over possible funding, the UK government has committed about £6 billion a year to guarantee post-EU funding in areas such as farming and scientific research. But critics argue it doesn’t go far enough. Indeed, I would argue its very worrying as it suggests the government simply does not get the message.

figure-5 The UK receives billions in research funding from the EU

Take research funding. A clause in the government guarantee implies it only applies to research funding contracts signed before the autumn statement comes out. Given that many of those grants went in the bin on the 24th of June it is highly unlikely they could be resurrected between now and then. That’s not how academia works.

2254-14463807862079654283 For UK farmers subsidies are their main source of income

I’ve been quite busy the last week with resit exam marking, I’ve got viva resits…

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