2015 – The year in engineering

As 2015 draws to a close, The Engineer takes a look back at some of the biggest engineering stories of the year, from Crossrail and Bloodhound, to Hinkley Point and Tim Peake’s space adventure.

The year started in much the same way as it is now ending: with controversy over fracking. In January, a bill calling for a moratorium on fracking was defeated in the House of Commons. We asked our readers via a poll for their opinions, and almost 70 per cent said we need to understand more about fracking and its effects before we take action. Despite the lofty ambitions laid out in the Paris climate deal, last week the government handed out 159 new licences for onshore gas and oil exploration. It’s a controversial topic, and one we’ll undoubtedly be revisiting in 2016.

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February saw BAE Systems sign a £859m contract with the MoD for the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, which will replace the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate. The investment will sustain around 1,700 jobs, and is being used to secure long-lead items for the first three ships, as well as to develop shore-testing facilities.       

In April, we caught up with the Bloodhound team to see how their fascinating build was progressing. Later in the year, the vehicle was unveiled to the public, and it will undergo its first testing and record attempt in 2016. It’s a remarkable story of UK engineering, and we can’t wait to see how it unfolds over the next 12 months.

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From one engineering marvel to another. In June we saw Crossrail make its final tunneling breakthrough, completing the network’s 26-mile route under the capital. The feat is all the more impressive given the congested nature of subterranean London, and the project has so far come in on time and on budget. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the first trains are due to start running in May 2017, with full operation set for December 2019. As Europe’s largest engineering project, it’s another story we’ll no doubt be returning to as it progresses.

In July we spoke to Drax Group operations director Peter Emery about the power station’s decarbonisation efforts through its use of biomass. By the time September came around, Drax had controversially withdrawn from the White Rose Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project, reportedly in response to the government’s reductions in renewables subsidies. According to this poll from October, a significant proportion of our readers felt uncertainty over government policy was adversely affecting the take-up of renewables in the UK.

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In other energy news, October was also the month that the Hinkley Point nuclear deal was finally confirmed. Due for completion in 2025, the facility will see a 33.5 per cent stake controlled by China General Nuclear Power (CGN), which will provide a £6bn investment in return. As well as the 3.2GW Hinkley C plant, preliminary agreements have been reached to develop new nuclear stations at Sizewell C in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex.

The year has come to a close with two fascinating space stories that the UK has been at the centre of. At the beginning of December, the gravitational space lab LISA Pathfinder launched successfully. Led by scientists and engineers in the UK, the project will see Pathfinder travel 1.5 million kilometres towards the sun, where it will enter into orbit around a virtual point called L1. From here, it will attempt to detect gravitational waves – ripples in spacetime that arise from some of the most spectacular and important events in the universe, such as supernovas and double black holes.

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And finally, last week saw Major Tim Peake become the first UK astronaut to visit the International Space Station. The former helicopter test-pilot will spend six months aboard the ISS, where he will conduct numerous scientific experiments and enjoy the view of Earth from 400 km above. If skies are clear,the ISS should be visible from the UK on the evening of Christmas Eve at 5.20pm. A very merry Christmas to Major Peake, and to all of our readers.