For some time now I have been worried about the present batch of “Alternative Energies”, their biggest problems are to do with efficiency and their ability to deliver energy when it is needed rather than just when it is available. Great savings can be made in energy efficiency in order to reduce our need for energy but fundamentally in order to achieve a low-carbon existence we need ways to make “Alternative Energies” work for us, and by “Alternative Energies” I mean taking advantage of natural sustainable sources of energy such as wind, wave and solar power. Making best use of these sources is even more important since the German Government decided to shut down all of it’s nuclear power generation earlier than planned, because now European fuel prices have to rise dramatically because Germany will now be vastly more dependent on Fossil Fuels until they can fill the gap with viable alternatives.

Currently the way we store energy if there is an excess in the grid is to convert the excess electricity into potential or kinetic energy until it is needed again later. There are many water storage facilities in the UK which pump water up-hill to large reservoirs in a technique called “Pumped Storage Hydroelectricity“. By pumping the water up-hill when you have excess energy you can then let it come back down again and recovery the energy with hydroelectric turbines. Each time you do something like this you waste some of the energy because of energy conversion inefficiencies.

Wind energy is interesting, when the wind blows we get a fair amount of energy returned by the gigantic wind turbine. The most you can ever capture from a wind turbine is 59% of the available wind energy passing through, this is a fact of physics proved by Albert Betz in 1919. However that is the upper limit, in reality there is conversion from kinetic energy (the motion of the wind) to electrical energy and such conversions always result in a loss of efficiency in gears, dynamos and power couplings. Because this energy is available “When The Wind Blows” and at no other time there have been issues where the National Grid has had to shut down turbines because they weren’t needed and this is a great waste of their potential.

Solar energy is another area of great interest to many people and I struggle to get excited about what should be a great source of energy because everyone gets excited about Photovoltaic (PV) energy which uses chemically doped materials to directly convert sunlight into electrical current. The reason I struggle to get excited is that PV isn’t very efficient, typically high quality solar panels are about 14-17% efficient and that really isn’t very much. Also solar PV cells need various exotic chemicals in their production of which only a portion is recycled and they aren’t exactly “low carbon” in their transport around the world. Solar energy is logically only available during the hours of sunlight and again, logically, is subject to the intensity of the sun in the location.

In an “Off Grid” environment, where a home owner has no access to mains electricity from the grid, it is quite common to store energy in batteries so that the peak energy availability can be disbursed over a longer period. Not everyone has access to a source of large quantities of water and a reservoir pond (or two) to store it in. Batteries are great for our mobile phones, they store energy in chemical form for good periods of time and release it on demand. Some batteries can release their energy quickly or some can release it slowly over long periods of time. But fundamentally batteries are flawed because they depend on harsh chemical processes which break down the components over time and can result in failure of the cell. Also you can only really discharge a deep cycle battery to 70-80% before you start causing premature damage to the battery cell, thus you need to be careful with your management of supply and demand.

Some time ago I started to wonder: why don’t we store more energy as directly coupled kinetic or potential mechanical energy? Wind farms, for example, I wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to install giant clock springs under them (or in their stems) so that we could regulate the release of all of that good mechanical energy. Now, giant clock springs sound silly at first, but actually many companies use kinetic energy storage as a power backup medium. In computer data centres, when you have a power failure it takes time to start the local on-site diesel generators and you need something to keep all the equipment going until the generator is up to speed. Some companies use giant banks of batteries which they carefully maintain and monitor, but I have seen a few UPS failures and they get rather messy and expensive. Plus batteries can release hydrogen gas which could cause harm to operatives working in the UPS battery room. The alternative that some companies really do use is to use a motor to spin a giant “fly-wheel” on a very efficient bearing, when the power fails that mass still has a great deal of momentum, and as the motor is no longer supplying force to keep it spinning it can be used as a generator to take that kinetic energy and turn it back into electricity. There can be enough energy in the momentum of a large enough mass to keep a data centre alive until the generator is ready to take the strain. This spinning mass technique however somewhat depends on the problem that you can’t store such kinetic energy for long periods, the friction of the bearings causes momentum to be lost over time and affects efficiency but it is great for short-term non-toxic energy storage. Some buses around the world are now using spinning masses as a means of kinetic energy recovery in breaking and they can then use that energy to help move the bus away from the stop before the engine takes over again, a nice and clean “Start-Stop” technique.

This application in buses and the idea of the hydroelectric storage leads me to another angle. The disadvantage of water as an energy store is partly because it can’t be compressed, it takes up a great deal of space and the disadvantage of kinetic energy is that the spinning mass can’t spin forever. Well, what about storing energy in a static way, under compression which can be quickly released on demand. This leads us neatly to: Compressed Air Energy Storage. Now of course I don’t declare to be the first to propose such an idea, because it is already in industrial use around the world to a limited degree. But what I would like to do is highlight the concept because it deserves more attention and also because I think it might have some interesting applications as a battery replacement technology.

In an off-grid situation we could see a tank being placed in an out-building which has a store of highly compressed air, this is generated through wind, solar or other inconsistent energy supply. In addition I think that some kind of Sterling Engine arrangement could supply the mechanical work for solar energy without needing to waste energy on conversion to and from electricity just to achieve compression. What about automotive situations? Many companies are installing very expensive and potentially unreliable batteries in cars, what about compressed air tanks which could be used as a kind of compressed air transmission instead of a gearbox? Directly drive the gears with the compressed air perhaps? Just put a 600CC compressor in and regenerative breaking, should have a snappy little number!

Dear Readers,

I know I have neglected this blog and website for some time, but now is probably an opportunity to use this page to explain myself in more than 140 characters.

Four years ago I was a moderately disgruntled Senior Lecturer at Ravensbourne College, I was referred to speak to a head hunter by a friend on the basis of my broad experience and knowledge. As a result of two interviews I was able to obtain the position of Chief Technologist at Humax Electronics in the UK. Humax is one of the top five manufacturers of set-top boxes in the world and the UK’s top manufacturer of digital television recorders. This role has seen me drink a great deal, socialise a great deal and most importantly it has seen me gain a great deal of knowledge about a sector which I had very little experience of; in addition it is perhaps worth saying that as a broadcast engineer by training I had very little appreciation for this industry which I now see differently. I have a better understanding of commercial issues as a result of my work with my colleagues and most especially my boss, Graham North, who is among one of the most respected people in the business.

Now, four years have passed and it is time to move on. It is not for me to explain here the motivations for my moving on, but I have opportunities that I can follow. I hope I can reveal further details about my mysterious new employer once I have started but for now I must concentrate on doing the best for Humax until I leave.

I will miss my colleagues, I will miss my work and the opportunities that it brings to meet new and interesting people. But as one door closes another one opens and I have little doubt that I will meet many of those that I know again because this is a small business.



A question was posted on DigitalSpy which asked:

“Have there ever been or are there any “Pirate” satellite TV transmissions?”

So I answered and I thought I would share my response here:

It is not always required to have a license to broadcast in your target country, usually only the country broadcast from (this can be used to avoid local broadcast laws for advertising). In my past I have seen rouge transmissions, but they have usually not been pirate TV but illicit communications. More common is illegal jamming of transmissions as a result of political differences between nations, but again this more affects telecommunications than broadcast TV.

While it is possible to broadcast without permission, a satellite operator would rather jam an illicit signal rather than permit it to profit from transmission time which is not paid for. The simplest way to jam a signal is to put up a carrier spike through the offending transmission to prevent reception. It is possible to geographically locate a rogue transmission, but the resources required to do so are great and the timescales required are unpleasant. Satellite owners do not allocate such resources lightly because it would cause a great deal of disruption to their infrastructure. Usually jamming a rogue signal is enough to discourage illicit transmissions, this can be done cheaply and effectively.

This friday Angel and I were both in London at the same time of the evening and I suggested we went for dinner. As I was in Docklands I suggested Canary Wharf as the ideal location to meet and eat. Interestingly when we arrived there was a small anti-capitalism protest in progress, nothing spectacular but a couple of hundred people.

We did a little capitalist shopping and sat down at a capitalist chain restaurant to watch the anti-capitalists at work. They made interesting charges at a line of police taunting them and it was rather childish really.

What really caught my attention was a sign “Capitalism isn’t working!” being heald up by people I think assocated with a group of socialists present. We both thought it was interesting because when did pure socialism work? Well the only examples I can see of socialism are communist and quasi-communist countries such as Russia, Albania, China, Cuba, the list goes on but it lists as a litany of countries which have either complete social unrest, a great deal of poverty or suppression of human rights. Some might argue China is very successful as a socialist state but when you consider it’s reforms involve greater financial liberty tending toward capitalism and it still has a terrible human rights record, I think there isn’t much of an arguement for the alternative to Capitalism.

Personally I think that both systems are flawed, capitalism assumes unconstrained and continued growth when in fact resources are finite and growth cannot be infinate. However socialism does not permit personal growth and requires great self sacrifice, which while noble on paper is actually unworkable. Having read the combined works of Plato I have come to his realisation that no political system is ideal, however you just have to make the best you can of a libertarian state.

Maybe “Capitalism isn’t working” is correct, but “Socialism never worked” is also true.

I’ve had a couple of HTC phones now and even more Windows Mobile phones. The experience, while not pain free, has roughly been positive. However with the release of the HTC Touch Diamond from Orange really whetted my appetite, it looked like the sexy iPhone challenger and the demos were really quite sweet. It wasn’t easy to get hold of, it sold out very quickly, but this week mine arrived.

First thing I noticed, the non-standard HTC USB interface ("Because we are special"), I could live with this even if all the existing phones in our house use standard USB chargers quite easily.

Second thing, well it wasn’t exactly fast on the start up…

Third thing, well it sucked battery quicker than the proverbial ‘Duncan’s mum’.

All of these things I felt I could get used to, but then there was the killer:

I have a TomTom Go 910, I bought it a few months ago from on sale. It was great, because not only was it the excellent TomTom satnav but it also has TomTom Traffic when used with a GRPS enabled Bluetooth Phone AND it can act as a bluetooth headset! Wow! This has worked great with my works Blackberry 8800, OK but without the modem on my works Blackberry 8310 and it worked fine with my Orange/HTC SPV M600.

Obviously and quite plainly it the TomTom Go 910 doesn’t work with the Bluetooth of the new HTC Touch Diamond! Damn

I’ve called HTC ("Not our problem speak to TomTom"), TomTom ("Not our problem speak to HTC") and Orange ("Its not really a function of the Orange network that has a problem so it’s not our problem.").

I have the right of return and now it looks like I will have to take that up. It’s really disappointing to reach that, I had hoped there was some fix or patch for the software but I asked HTC if it was a known issue and they said "no". So I am left with little choice but to send it back and find something else. I have two phones, so it might just be simpler to downgrade my contract with Orange and save myself some effort.

A sad day for HTC, a sad day for Orange and a sad day for producy expectation.


I would like to publically thank (as much as I can here) the company "Learning with Linden ".

They have sorted me out with the brackets for a projection screen that was delivered in a poor state by the vendor. The vendor has been difficult to deal with on this problem, but looking over the delivered package I noticed a name on it that included a model number. By googling that name I found "Learning with Linden" and from there I was able to find the product.

I was able to call them, explain my situation and after they verified I had purchased the product they said they would send me the brackets tonight in the post! Wonderful, well, I will see and perhaps update you.

To update you, it went up, it doesn’t look great, but then again you get what you pay for in life, and it didn’t cost much. 

 So, I confess my father is a Baron, not a feudal type Baron or the enemy of Dangermouse, but a "Baron of the Cinque Ports". There were traditional rights and I wonder how many of these still apply because no one actually revoked them.

Continue reading “Barons and rights”