Engineering News (December 2018)

Virgin Galactic finally kick starts the commercial space age

They’ve done it. Virgin Galactic’s fourth and latest test flight has successfully reached the edge of space and has returned safely. SpaceShipTwo reached an altitude of 82.7km, close to where Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. The flight however didn’t reach the 100km Karman Line, the official industry benchmark for the boundary between the Earth and Space.

“Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world,” Sir Richard Branson told the world. Branson first formed the commercial spaceflight company back in 2004, hot on the tails of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who formed SpaceX and Blue Origin respectively.

Ten years ago, Virgin Galactic announced its intentions to provide sub-orbital spaceflights for tourists “within 18 months”. Following a number of delays and a massive setback five years ago when a fatal crash in 2014 put that goal very firmly on hold, the ship and mothership took off from its base in the Mojave Desert in California. The space ship’s motor burned for 60 seconds, taking the small craft up to 2.9 times the speed of sound as it climbed with its two test pilots and a mannequin called Annie who acted as a stand-in passenger, along with four research experiments for NASA.

Branson is in competition with both Musk and Bezos to be the first commercial enterprise to launch fee-paying civilian passengers into space. SpaceX and Blue Yonder have indeed gone further into orbital space, but have yet to put humans into space. That will almost certainly change after yesterday’s historic flight.

SpaceX is already in a partnership with NASA, and actively preparing for manned missions in the first half of 2019. Blue Origin has similar plans for the first half of next year. So far, more than 600 people have bought tickets from Virgin Galactic for the chance to reach the edge of space, a mere snip at $250,000 for a 90 minute flight.

Courtesy of Jeff Foust – Flickr CC BY 2.0

Bloodhound neutered

The Bloodhound supersonic vehicle project is no more. The Bloodhound supersonic car (SSC), which finally saw the light of day back in September 2015, was an incredible project that aimed to create a vehicle capable of hitting speeds in excess of 1,000 mph. Despite the initial excitement with the British public, in particular schools and other institutions interested in STEM subjects, the project has failed to secure the £25 million of additional funding that would have ensured the completion of the project. Consequently, the project went into administration back in October, finally admitting defeat last week.

Bloodhound project leader Andy Green is still hopeful that the final amount can be funded by someone somewhere. He was the driver of the current land speed record-holding vehicle, Thrust SSC back in 1997. Green believes that there may be interested parties out there who could keep Bloodhound going, although he admits it’s a fast fading hope.

Test runs held at Newquay Airport last year saw Bloodhound hit speeds in excess of 200mph. the car is primarily propelled along by a Rolls-Royce Eurofighter jet engine adjacent to a rocket engine, and is ready to break the land speed record held by Thrust, which holds the existing land speed world record of 763mph.

Andy Green has gone on record as saying that he would “love to see the car run” and still believes that it is possible. “If somebody is out there with a quarter of a million there is a car there. There is still a chance that Bloodhound could run. “

The attempt on the land speed record was to have been held in South Africa at the 18km long, 1,500m wide Hakskeen Pan track in the Northern Cape. “You’re going to need to find a few million to get it running to full speed,” said Mr Green who added he knew a team of engineers “who could help”…”We have basically completed the main structure, the desert is ready, we just need the funding.”

Courtesy of Katie Chan

Crossrail gets another kicking

Project overruns had added £1.4 billion to the Crossrail project. The Elizabeth Line, which should have begun its operating service back in August this year had been put back to the autumn of next year, possibly later depending on a number of milestones which have yet to be completed. The Elizabeth Line as it is officially now known, is 60 miles long, and stretches from Reading to to Shenfield. When it finally opens for business, the Elizabeth Line should ensure that Central London’s rail capacity increases by 10%, with an estimated daily footfall of just over half a million passengers. The delays are being put down to a number of factors, chiefly core stations and rail infrastructure works that still need to be completed, as well as critical safety testing.

Because of this, a financial delivery package has been formalised between the government and the Mayor of London’s office, and other stakeholders such as the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Transport for London (TfL). Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London is absolutely furious. “I haven’t hidden my anger and frustration about the Crossrail project being delayed. This has a knock-on consequence of significant additional cost to the project. It has been increasingly clear that the previous Crossrail Ltd leadership painted a far too optimistic picture of the project’s status.”

“With London’s population continuing to grow, our priority must be getting this monumental project completed as soon as possible.”

An audit by KPMG of Crossrail’s finances estimate that the cost of delaying the project could in fact be anywhere between £1.6 billion and £2billion. Taking into account the £300 million gifted to the project by the Department for Transport (DfT) and TfL in back in July 2018 meant that the project requires an amount ranging from £1.3 billion to £1.7billion to close everything out.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) itself will need a loan of £1.3 billion from the DfT, and the repaying that using an existing Business Rate Supplement (BRS) and the Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy on top of the £100 million it will be injecting into the venture, taking its total contribution in the form of a grant to £1.4 billion.

Floating Wind turbines

For the first time, wind turbines have been installed in the North Sea. The Kincardine Project, situated 15Km South East of Aberdeen and installed by Bourbon Subsea, was developed by Principle Power, a research company based in Portugal.

When finalised, the Kincardine Project will use seven floating turbines capable of generating 50MW, and if deemed successful, will no doubt pave the way for more wind farms in the North Sea.

The reason this system of wind turbine is so different is that it uses a semi-submersible platform which enables a mooring system to be set up at sea. The turbine can then be set up in a nearby port and then transported and fitted at sea later on. Because of the system’s modular design, this drastically reduces vessel and assembly costs and speeds up the offshore installation process, and can be deployed anywhere in the sea, regardless of the local seabed depth.

Green power shines a light

Proof positive that plants power more than the planet. A team of roboticists and biologists at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy have discovered that plants can generate electricity. They found that plants can be made into an ecofriendly power source. A single leaf has the potential to generate more than 150 Volts, which can power 100 LED light bulbs. In a recent paper, Barbara Mazzolai and her team in Pisa, believe that the process can be significantly upscaled in order to utilise whole forests to generate electrical power for the world.

The same team have demonstrated their research using a hybrid ‘tree’, consisting of both natural and artificial leaves, working as an electrical generator converting wind power into electricity, when they are either touched by certain materials or affected by the wind via natural mechanical forces applied at the leaf surface that are then converted into electrical energy as the result of a process called contact electrification. The charges generated are then transmitted into the inner plant tissue, which acts like a cable, transferring that electricity to other parts of the plant. All that is now required is a ‘plug’ to connect the plant stem to a device.

The study, a European-funded project called Growbot has been set up to create and use biologically inspired robots that can emulate the ways in which these plants grow and look for natural sources of energy such as sunlight. These machines will be partially powered plant-derived energy sources.

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Engineering News – November 2018

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