A lot of hot air

I have no wish to be unnecessarily contentious, but global warming continues to be of enormous benefit to the engineering community worldwide, creating jobs and opportunities hardly imagined 20 years ago.

It provides the principal basis for funds for research and development on a level not seen outside a state of emergency, such as in wartime.

Thousands of companies have benefited from this bonanza for which we should all be grateful. Governments are not easily separated from their money, so the magic wand of global warming – which seems to excite such a sense of generosity from the hard-faced mandarins – should be regarded as truly remarkable.

However, there is something rather disingenuous about the focus of technology on fossil fuel conservation, even though that technology is often superlative. The end results are sometimes not really relevant to the current neurosis over global warming.

Features that have appeared in the Engineer support this observation. The development of ultra-bright lights using nanotechnology, for example, is a brilliant piece of R&D, (excuse the pun) as described in ‘Seeing the light’ (News, 3 July) and certainly deserves to be state funded.

The sad the truth is that the University of Surrey probably wouldn’t have been awarded the funding without the magic wand of global warming being waved.

In many ways it is a shame that product engineers and companies developing new products have to resort to global warming to attract funding. It would be so much better if funds were more available for projects that were valuable in their own right. Unfortunately, the issue can become contentious when academics use the ‘warming card’ to initiate projects like the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (Focus, 3 July).

Anyone involved in thermophysics will know that the element requiring the greatest expenditure of energy is the creation of heat for heating, not work. And, although in physics heat and work are the same, in the real world the production of heat for its own sake consumes far greater amounts of energy than the creation of heat to produce mechanical energy for useful work.

To illustrate the significance of this, an average household with two cars will, over the year, consume something in the order of 12 gallons of fuel a week, but by getting rid of one car this usage may be reduced to eight gallons a week.

This is what the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership would love to enforce, but the argument is false because it is incomplete. The whole truth is that the same household, were all its heat energy requirements translated into heating-oil use, would consume about 20 gallons a week.

Whereas there are about one million vehicles actually burning fuel on the road at any one time in the UK, (far less at night) every household, factory, shop, supermarket, hospital and utility – from swimming-pools to libraries – are busy burning fuel for heat, day and night.

Energy that is used to produce work generally leaves something useful behind, but energy for heating leaves nothing. It is lost forever and cannot be recovered. We are warm-blooded creatures and whether or not our heating is provided by electricity or directly by oil, it is not surprising that, one way or another, over half of all the fuel in the world is burnt simply to keep us either warm or cool.

If Dr Jillian Annable of the UK Energy Research Council, as you reported, stopped imagining people’s driving habits could make any difference to global warming, and instead looked at the over-heating of all buildings in the UK, she could save a lot of hot air.

Justin Gudgeon



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