Engineering Innovation – within limits

Dr Paul Reeves

jaguar 300x241 Engineering Innovation – within limitsThe Jaguar C-X75, a ‘Jet powered’ concept sports car, has powered the imagination and possibly emotions of petrol headed car journalists in recent days. The ‘jet’ is in fact a micro gas turbine designed by a small UK company, Bladon, which extends the Jaguar’s range as is the case with a standard hybrid design.

Attempts have been made before to use gas turbine based hybrid technology, most notably by Volvo in the 1990s. It would appear that Bladon, driven on by the current demand for clean or green technologies, have made a significant improvement to the manufacturing process which makes the efficient design and production of micro gas turbines possible. This idea is, on many levels, a genuine innovation allowing the internal layout of the car to be redesigned to allow the option for a smaller motor to be fitted to power each wheel, and potentially further options, such as improving handling and styling.

“Architectural” innovations from this, and other electric and hybrid technologies, will no doubt allow for knock on innovations in car design, including areas such as safety, as well as raw performance, and of course the drive to reduce carbon emissions. Clean and “green tech” driven innovations are seen as allowing us to “have our cake and eat it” and at the same time be excited again about the benefits of technology, without the guilt.

While it might seem churlish to have to point out a down side to these seemingly clean tech innovations, it is one that I feel needs to be made. Individually many of these green technologies do exhibit innovation by the individuals concerned, the problem lies in the context in which they develop. Micro gas turbines are a good example. In aerospace I would suggest that these small but potentially important improvements could open a seam of development to allow for the expansion of aircraft types on offer, as well as potentially change the way we experience air travel. One example could be the development of quieter, even possibly hybrid engine aircraft and the possibility for airports to be built much closer to population centres. The issue here, however, is that air travel today is generally seen as a problem and an activity that needs to be curtailed.  Asking technologies to deliver more rather than less is seen as suspect if not foolish.

Back on the ground, who would dare today to suggest that with more efficient power systems matched with improved safety through the use of IT we might also build motorways which allow cars to travel at well over 130 mph, allowing our most flexible transport option the chance to realise its potential to get from A to B as fast as is technically possible? Our imagination is in one sense over active in making linear assumptions that burning carbon can only and directly lead to the planet overheating. From a transportation point of view, this leads directly to moves that either discourage travel and the transportation of goods all together, or generally reduce the speed at which we travel, all in the name of reducing emissions. At the same time, we are being denied the benefits that even modest incremental improvements in technology could give us.

Without over glorifying the exploits of the Victorians, they did at least manage to expand simultaneously their transport options whilst dealing with the limits of their own time – such as the problems of clean water provision and waste management. Imagine the solution if Joseph Bazalgette had been limited to the option of persuading people to consume less or have fewer children to fix the sewerage problems in London in the 1850s? Hindsight makes it clear that small scale or what we now call ‘appropriate’ technologies are not a good enough answer. Joseph Bazalgette both thought and built big. He also took a risk on one of the newest technologies of the time – Portland cement – and completely transcended the problem. Bazalgette’s ultimate tribute is that we don’t even think of the operation of the sewers, even though we walk above them all the time.

Time has moved on, yet we need to maintain an open imagination to develop and apply any technology and infrastructure, regardless of whether it emits carbon or not or uses vast amounts of it in its construction. We should not limit our imagination to only those technologies which fit within the strait jacket of sustainability. With the huge potential intellectual resources of the populations of say China and India, and those of the developed countries, we have the potential to dramatically increase the chances of developing solutions which are truly appropriate to the problems and demands of our age. Adding fast, cheap travel to the mix, would allow those minds to collaborate both commercially and academically, with greater ease.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Dr Paul Reeves is principal software developer at Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks R&D. He is speaking at the session Innovative engineering: within limits? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 31 October. The Battle Satellite event The future of transport: the highway to hell? is taking place on Monday 25 October in Blackwell Bookshop, Manchester.

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  • Jodie White

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