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The Wonderful World of Three-Dimensional Printing

I started work in 1975, as an apprentice communications engineer. During that wonderful autumn, I spent my time happily cruising around the local area with my supervising engineer, learning the art of installing and repairing telephones to residential addresses.

In the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinstead (which was reasonably affluent), and the surrounding villages, many of the houses were large, and a number of our calls were to fit extension phones, extension bells or small House Exchange Systems.

House Exchange Telephone, circa 1970

Several customers worked from home, and their business needs in terms of equipment were relatively simple. Most had a second telephone line, and extension phones running from each. Some had a Telex machine, and some even had a very basic facsimile machine.

A good old fashioned Telex machine, circa 1970

No computers – all documents were created using typewriters, and I saw anything from a basic “sit up and beg” manual machine through to upmarket IBM “golf ball” typewriters.

IBM Selectric Electric Golfball Typewriter

It may appear strange to think that a home office could be so simple.

Surrounded by high tech, virtually every modern home has equipment that would make a 1975 businessman green with envy.

Inkjet printers that deliver reasonable quality may be bought in your local supermarket for under £100, and a home computer (with a massive 1 Terabyte of memory) will cost only £279.00 from PC World! Wi-Fi connectivity, and the ability to stream feature films in high definition is now commonplace.

My first printer was a Canon Bubble Jet printer, which occupied a corner of my desk. It was hard wired to my very basic desktop PC.

My latest set up is a full colour laser printer, which is attached to my home network by Wi-Fi, meaning that I can send a print request from my iPhone or iPad from anywhere in the house. It also has its own email address, so I can even send a document to be printed from anywhere in the world – not that I see much demand for this feature.

Laser printers used to cost thousands. They can now be obtained for a few hundred pounds.

Advances in software and computer processing, and a good deal of lateral thinking has enabled the development of three-dimensional printers.

In a previous article, “What do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?” I asked whether science fact followed science fiction, or vice versa.

One of the original “Pulp Sci-Fi” magazines that my dear old Dad used to read, and give to me… 2/6d (12.5p)

It seems that in the case of three-dimensional printing, fact followed fiction.

The first documented reference to three-dimensional printing, (as far as I can prove) was made in the Sci-Fi story entitled “Tools of the Trade”, written by Raymond F Jones, and published in the November 1950 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. In the story, the author describes 3d printing as molecular spraying, but the principle was similar to what we now commonly refer to as 3D Printing.

During the early 1970s, a patent was filed by Johannes F Gottwald which described the principles and processes of 3D printing using liquid metals to form reusable structures, however, the technology and materials to develop the concept was unavailable.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, that the concept of 3D printing was seriously considered, and a number of early prototypes were under development from different designers and printer manufacturers.

As the technology was in its infancy, costs were very high – a basic 3D printer in the 80s would have cost upwards of 300,000 US$ (£217,000). In today’s money that would be in the region of 742,000 US$ (£539,000) – so not a realistic proposition for a home office.

By 1993, however, 3D printers using inkjets that sprayed liquid polymers were being manufactured, and by the 2000s, the technology was being developed and refined, and industrial applications were launched that enabled metals to be printed.

Think for a moment, about the way that many metal items are manufactured. Molten metal may be poured into a mould, and the resulting casting must be machined to create the shape of the part required. This is normally performed by using lathes, milling machines under computer control, from a computer-produced 3D design. (CAD/CAM – Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing).

This may be referred to as subtractive manufacturing, where unrequired material is machined away, leaving the part completed. Whilst the waste product may be recycled, this takes effort, and incurs cost.

On the other hand, using a 3D printer to produce a part, say an engine mounting bracket for a car, is an additive manufacturing process, where the part is created from nothing, and built up in the correct shape, layer by layer.

No waste, and incredibly flexible, the 3D printing process allows complex shapes to be created in one hit, rather than a number of different milling machine processes.

3D printing is rapidly penetrating all sorts of new markets, some of which may surprise you.

How about 3D printed food?

Sound crazy?

Maybe not – several companies have developed 3D printers that print Vegan “Steaks” using vegetable proteins. If a mass-produced artificial steak has the same texture, taste and appearance as an animal steak, then many people may switch to the alternative, which may be better for personal health in terms of eating less red meats.

From a sustainability perspective, globally, livestock produce 14.5% of climate change gases, so if meat consumption may be reduced, then there would be a proportionate reduction in intensively farmed cattle.

A 3D food printer which uses plant proteins as ink, and mimicks the texture and taste of meat….https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_Scionti

Would I try one?

Yes, without a doubt, and if they truly were a realistic alternative, and didn’t taste like Linda McCartney’s sausages, then I would no doubt enjoy the experience.

What else then?

How about using a 3D printer to build a house? Already, large scale 3D printers exist that extrude concrete, and 3D house are now being built as new developments, particularly in the USA.

This is quite groundbreaking, and an exciting development. Printed homes can be simply built in a fraction of the time that a conventional house takes. 3D printers can not only build floors, and walls, but can precisely extrude integrated channels for utilities, and mould ducting for air conditioning and electrical services.

A Concrete 3D printer constructing the walls of a building. How cool is that?

They also require far less labour to construct and are considerably cheaper than a conventional home of the same size.

The medical industry is also interested in 3D printing. Imagine being able to print a tablet which contains multiple medications, custom built for each patient. Instead of taking several tablets, a single multi-purpose pill could control a variety of medical conditions.

Imagine constructing an artificial heart, made of medical proteins and stem cells to recreate an exact replica of the patient’s original?

Prosthetic limbs printed quickly that precisely match a patient’s physiology!

Severely burnt individuals treated by repairing damage using artificial skin contoured and printed using a 3D printer delivering layers of bio-ink…

Science fiction?

No – Science Now!

Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh USA) have printed a 100% accurate replica human heart, which exhibits the same levels of elasticity as human heart tissue. Only as a pilot project so far, but this technology can and will take off.

A 3D printed human heart – Pilot now, future of transplants? Photo Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University PA USA

So, from the humble inkjet printer for bashing out a letter to Great Aunt Maud, to printing a three-bedroom house, 3D printing is here to stay.

Thank goodness for technology, eh?

Go Well…

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What Do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?

It’s a lovely day.

The sky outside is an impossibly brilliant blue, with just the occasional cloud to add texture and remind me that nature is hard at work, even if I am not.

This is an absolutely perfect day for flying. Definitely VMC (For my non-aviation friends and readers, that is Visual Meteorological Conditions, meaning that navigating and staying in control of the aircraft is performed by looking out of the windscreen – rather than flying in cloud or above the cloud, thereby having to fly by using the aircraft instruments, known as Instrument Meteorological Conditions).

The perfect day for a fifteen minute trundle over to the airstrip, to pull my aircraft from the hangar. A quick but thorough pre-flight inspection, and then away up into the sky, to meander through the air, with no particular place to go.

Maybe a leisurely buzz south to the coast, then east to Beachy Head, and then back over the sunlit rolling chalk and downlands that make up large swathes of Sussex and Hampshire.

So, why then, am I sitting here in my den, hammering an article into my keyboard.

Well, for one thing, my aeroplane is currently being reassembled after a major rebuild. It’s sitting forlornly in the gloom of the hangar, its wings rigged, and its engine and systems all fitted. However, with no flight control surfaces rigged, she might as well be a boat.

Fully rigged, engine and systems up and running – but no flight controls…

Secondly, I am awaiting the arrival of the technician from Autoglass to change the windscreen on my car.

Travelling back home from work one afternoon, I thought that I had come under machine-gun attack, and the volley of stones that hit the screen might as well have been real bullets, as they plunged deep into the laminated glass, and with a noise like a pistol shot, three long cracks propagated across the screen.

A short phone call to my insurers and £75.00 lighter, and the windscreen would be fixed. It appeared that as I had previously had two chips repaired, this would be a brand new screen.

Well, I was expecting to have to make an appointment to drop the car off at a repair station, but no, it would be changed on my drive, and all in about an hour.

So, staying with the vehicle theme, some of you may have read my previous article on the levels of pollution that is caused by the interaction of car tyres on roads?

No?

It may be worth a read if you are interested in sustainability, climate change and pollution.

Vehicle tyres degrade with use, and the erosion of the tread causes the release of micro-particles that wash into waterways, and ultimately into the seas and oceans.

So, a new piece of space-age technology caught my eye.

My first exposure to NASA[1] was as a barely-ten-year-old boy watching the launch of Apollo 11 on the 16th of July 1969, and subsequently watching recorded footage of the lunar landing on school TV on Monday 21st July.

To say that I was awestruck was an understatement.  Subsequently I couldn’t read enough about space, and became an avid reader of the science fiction pulp magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories that my dear old Dad used to buy from the secondhand bookstall not far from the tube station.

I think that by the time I was 13, I had the complete works of the mighty Isaac Asimov on my bookshelves, and was familiar with all of the Sci-Fi greats; Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick.

A few days before the launch of Apollo 11, the BBC aired it’s first episode of Star Trek, and I had become a fan almost instantly.

The Crew of NC-1701 Starship Enterprise – Star Trek the Original Series

And I have been a real fan of quality science fiction (not to be confused with science fantasy such as the Marvel Superheroes) ever since.

There has always been, however, a blurring of the lines between science fiction, and science fact. Which drives which?

In Star Trek, (the original series) we saw Captain Kirk being presented with what looks like an iPad tablet for him to sign. Uhura, the Comms Officer wears what looks like an ancestor to a Bluetooth earpiece, and Motorola designed a flip phone that looked suspiciously like a Star Trek communicator.

Lt. Uhura, wearing her early Bluetooth earpiece… Photo Courtesy ViacomCBS

I have to admit, that I am REALLY looking forward to using a dematerialisation transporter. Imagine just setting the co-ordinates of a friend’s house in California, and hitting the button and arriving microseconds later.

A universal replicator that ends poverty, and makes the use of money totally redundant…?

I digress…

So, it seems that Science Fact is now about to follow what was Science Fiction up until a few decades ago.

The continuing exploration of Mars has been conducted to a great extent by the Mars Rover vehicles, which have been sedately pottering over the Martian landscape since 1997. Kitted out with sensors, cameras and communications equipment these vehicles have been surveying our nearest planetary neighbour.

Perseverance, the Mars Rover – Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In order to traverse the hostile terrain, the current rover, Perseverance, is equipped with six 52.5cm (20.7 inch) wheels made from aluminium and springy titanium spokes. The wheels are fitted with cleats for additional traction.

Well…

It seems that the NASA-developed tyre technology may be coming to a vehicle near you – well, initially, a bicycle near you!

NASA – Not just a Space Agency! Designers, Developers and Scientists

These highly advanced tyres are designed by the SMART (Shape Memory Alloy Radial Technology) Tire company, and manufactured by NASA using a highly elastic material called NiTinol+.

The Rover’s wheels – Light, and very robust! Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech

Virtually all elastic materials will stretch, and then they may almost revert back to their previous shape and strength. Most will lose their resilience and potency – think of a well-used bungee strap.

The clever thing about the metal alloy used in the construction of Perseverance’s wheels is that it actually changes its molecular composition when it is flexed or distorted. Once no longer subjected to any loads, the material simply returns to its prior profile, and the molecules are rearranged to their previous composition.

Tyres constructed from this material would no longer need to have inner tubes, or be inflated with air – no more punctures, less weight, and the added strength of Titanium.

The outer surface of the “tyre” may be coated with a highly resilient synthetic rubber called Polyurethanium.

The robust nature of the tyre combination means that a SMART tyre will probably exceed the life of the vehicle to which it is fitted! There will be no risks of punctures, and deflations, no need to use sealants or carry a spare wheel.

In comparison to conventional steel, this new alloy, known as METL, is thirty times quicker to recover to its original profile. This made it ideal for use in the hostile environment and rugged terrain of Mars.

Now the good news!

These revolutionary tyres are about to be launched – initially for bicycles, which will enable further development to be carried out for heavier vehicles.

SMART Tire prototype clearly showing woven metal construction, Photo Courtesy SMART Tires

SMART Tires has already collaborated with the Micro-mobility scooter provider, Spin (owned by the Ford Motor Company) to develop tyres for electric scooters.

Currently, this is a small-scale project, but in due course, it will become a primary challenge for the $250 billion global tyre industry to adapt to and deliver. This will be driven, in part, by the ever more urgent need to reduce emissions of any kind.

SMART Tires aims to launch their range of tyres to the cycling community by 2022, and once in full production, will no doubt start developing wheel/tyre units for the automobile and motorcycle industries.

Prototype SMART Tyre designed for a bicycle – Photo courtesy SMART Tires

I imagine that the launch range of bike tyres will be expensive initially, and will appeal to only the upper echelons of competition cyclists, but the economy of scale will undoubtedly reduce prices to the level where they may be bought in your local high street bicycle shop.

So, in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard…

“Make it so!”

Well, Maybe buy one of these after I have bought the tyres! If I have any cash left!

[1] National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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Climate change Ecological Environment Mobile Communications Science Society Technology Wearable Technology

Power Generating Flooring? What a load of Rot…

I walked into my den, clutching a fresh cup of tea, ready to start writing a new article. The squeaky floorboard near the door irritated me somewhat, as SWMB and I had taken every effort (as did our builder) to ensure that the wooden planks didn’t squeak as we walked around the house.

This plan worked well for the first few months, but gradually, the floor and stairs conspired against us, and began to creak as we walked around the house.

In some of the rooms, we managed to inject a resin compound to stop the slight movements, which is accomplished by drilling two small holes into the planks, and squiring the goo in under pressure.

Two tiny holes to stop a squeak… Photo Mark Charlwood©

This, again, worked for a while, until the creaks started coming back – and just when I thought that it was safe…

I personally don’t mind a few little creaks and squeaks, as it adds character to the place.

Squeaks and creaking floorboards happen as a result of the wood settling down, and as it ages, as all natural products do, it flexes more readily, and allows each plank to move slightly against adjoining planks, or shift slightly upon the joist to which it is fixed.

My mind wandered back to the old, edwardian house that I grew up in. Its’ uneven old floorboards used to grumble and groan, even when they were only supporting the weight of a poorly five-year-old.

That old house is etched into my brain indelibly.

When I was a kid, my Mum did all of the familys’ hot meals on a gas cooker, or in the gas oven. As a small boy, I well remember my Dad attempting to boil a kettle, striking match after match, and hearing him curse as the igniting gas finally engulfed his fingers, singing the hairs on his hand as he fumbled, without success to light a gas jet.

In the end the old boy arrived home one day with a small mechanical flint lighter, which was great news for Mum, as the shower of sparks lit the jet with ease.

Simple but effective – a simple spring steel flint lighter.

A few years later, Dad came home with his latest high-tech acquisition – a Piezo-electric butane lighter. This neat device contained a small reservoir of liquified butane gas, and a trigger that when pulled would generate a nice fat blue spark at the tip.

Easy and quick – and I still use one for fire lighting. Photo Mark Charlwood©

The resulting mini flame thrower was a teenage schoolboys’ delight.

I remember being intrigued with the way it worked.

The piezoelectric principle was discovered in the late 1880s. It was found that if certain materials were flexed, an electric current would be produced.

Over the years, this principle was developed, and has subsequently given us SONAR[1], inkjet printers, cigarette lighters, loudspeakers, motors such as those found on autofocus mechanisms in cameras and medical equipment.

Goodyear Tyres even considered using Piezoelectric technology to be used inside the carcase of a tyre that would generate electrical power every time the tyre flexed.

Why am I telling you about all this, when I normally write about new technology, sustainability and alternative energy?

There is a link, believe me.

So, back to sustainability.

Wood is a wonderful material for using in the construction of houses. If sourced responsibly, it is relatively inexpensive, reusable and recyclable. It also offers good levels of thermal and sound insulation, is relatively stable and may be machined fairly easily.

Timber stacked ready to be turned into a house

It is strong and resilient, and may be used in virtually every aspect of the construction of a house, from walls to roofing, and floors to cladding.

Whilst pottering about in the depths of the internet, I stumbled across a reason for welcoming potentially squeaky boards into your homes.

It seems that a team of researchers in Switzerland have established that timber, when flexed also exhibits the piezo electric effect.

Obviously, if it were to be possible to harvest the electrical output generated by people simply walking across a floor then this would assist in the battle to make homes carbon neutral.

The problem is that the types of wood used in flooring do not have enough flexibility to generate power effectively.

The research team discovered that by introducing a mild form of fungus (a white rot) the decaying process could be accelerated a little, and this in turn made the sample wood (balsa in the case of this early research) much more flexible – to the point that harvesting an electrical output became possible.

When a piece of wooden veneer was treated with the fungus, and then fitted with a piezo-electric converter, the plank would produce a voltage whenever it was trodden on!

The voltage was only small – just 0.85 Volts, and at a very low current, but the scientific conclusion is that the output could be scaled up.

Naturally, it’s likely that such a bio-engineered concept would only work over a large square area of floor, with a high traffic load, such as an office, auditorium, ballroom or gymnasium.

Harnessing nature and working with it may offer better long-term solutions to some of our global problems.

I guess the alternative is to incorporate piezoelectric sensors in my shoes, and charge my iPhone in my pocket?

Yes – Really! Walk 10,000 steps, get fit, and charge your phone!

Meanwhile, I will just accept that my floor is just sighing contentedly…

Go Well.


[1] SOund NAvigation and Ranging – The use of sound waves to both navigate a submarine whilst submerged and to calculate ranges undersea for the firing of torpedos. Known as ASDIC by the Royal Navy during WW2

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If You Think Humanity Is Stupid Now, Keep Polluting and See What Happens…

Climate change.

We have been hearing about it in the news almost every day, until it was supplanted by other issues. The run-up to BREXIT, the general election, floods, and now the Coronavirus pandemic have made us all temporarily dump the issue and public attention is now fully occupied with the control of the global pandemic.

The mainstream media have highlighted the drop in climate-change gases – a direct link to a significant reduction in both travel and manufacturing following global lockdown.

From a planetary perspective, the drop is not highly significant and as soon as lockdown finishes, we will probably revert to our old ways very quickly. 

Having said that, I am hopeful that state governments will use the opportunity to consolidate some of the steps that have been taken to enable the use of alternative means of transport – making that small reductions permanent. 

We have seen cities around the world banning vehicular traffic from city streets, together with enhancing cycle lanes and pedestrian routes, making it easier and cleaner to travel.

Electric Bicycles – the best of both worlds – and you can take them on the train!

This is nowhere near enough, but at least it is showing that people can get around large cities safely without using a car or public transport.

All the media focus revolves primarily around the ever-increasing levels of air pollution that are triggering climate change, rising sea levels and rising temperature.

There is, however, an interesting health issue that lurks in the sidelines.

As a species, we rely on breathing air, from which we extract oxygen, and then exhale CO2, together with other gases such as Nitrogen and Methane, and some organic compounds.

In order for our bodies to function correctly we rely on our lungs to absorb oxygen and exhale the COin the correct ratios. 

The composition of the air that we breathe is 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and 1% Argon. There are also traces of CO2, and rare gases such as Xenon, Neon, Helium, Methane.

As we increase the levels of CO2 in the air, our lungs will be unable to exhale the surplus and this will be absorbed into the body, which will have an effect.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado in Boulder, The Colorado School of Public Health, and the University of Pennsylvania, evidence suggests that future levels of CO2 may severely impair our cognitive ability.

The study based its research on two scenarios; one, a world where human society reduces the amount of CO2 it releases into the atmosphere, and the other where we don’t – “business as usual.”

Alarmingly, even when we do reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we release into the ecosystem, by the year 2100, individuals would still be exposed to elevated levels (by today’s standards) of CO2 leading to a 25% decrease in cognitive abilities.

The reduction in mental ability is caused by an increase in CO2 in the brain, a condition called Hypercapnia. which leads to a reduction in brain/blood oxygen (Hypoxemia).

The result is a reduction in brain activity, decreased levels of arousal and excitability. On top of this, it induces sleepiness, and anxiety, the result of which is an impact on our cognitive functions such as learning, memory, strategising and crisis management.

Lost Concentration…? Foggy Brain…? Maybe thats Air Pollution for you…Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

This is easily understood. Who hasn’t been in a lecture room, classroom or meeting room, where our concentration wanders, and we get tired and disengaged. The result of excess CO2 released by a lot of individuals. The solution is normally to open a window to let in some fresh air.

But what if the air outside was not really fresh at all? 

A report in 2001 (Robertson) argued that even slightly elevated levels of CO2 (720 parts per million) could cause lowered pH in the blood (acidosis) leading to restlessness, mild hypertension and ultimately confusion.

The report concluded that if we continue with “business as usual”, flagrantly releasing megatons of COinto the atmosphere, by 2100 we could see our cognitive functions reduced by as much as 50%.

Unless we build on this virally-induced reduction in CO2 and continue to decrease global pollution, we may survive this.

If not, we, as a race, are doomed to become the joint recipients of the last-ever Darwin Awards.

Charles Darwin, Author of The Origin of Species.

Go Well…

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Bill and George? Who?

Today should, by rights, be a good day for me to write an article.

Maybe words to titillate the senses; maybe to educate, entertain or inform? Or maybe an opportunity for me to be self-indulgent.

Why does today augur such good omens?

Well, for a start, it just happens to be the birthday of William Shakespeare, or so the historians think. The actual date of the bard’s birth is not recorded or documented, but his baptism was, and he was christened on 26th April 1564. It was normal to have baptisms three days after the birth, so I guess its a reasonable assumption.

Weirdly, William Shakespeare died on the 23rd April 1616. This is documented, so either way you look at it, this should be a good day for a struggling penman to bash out a few words.

Now, flashback to the early 1970s.

Confounding my father’s prediction that I would be an imbecile for the rest of my life, I did pass my eleven-plus exam, and made the cut to get into Grammar School.

A typical 11+ exam from 1968… Could a ten year old do these now?

English lessons with Mr Dobbins were dreary and dull, but at least he taught me the fundamentals of grammar, and spelling.

Even at that age, I was a voracious reader. My bedroom bookshelves housed the complete works of Issac Asimov (all read, I add), but I recall that I also dabbled with H G Wells, Jules Verne, E E “Doc” Smith and Arthur C Clarke.

Just one of the reasons why I love Science Fiction

However, nothing prepared me for the sheer, unadulterated hell of classes in English Literature.

Miss Briggs, my English Mistress, was a true hippie, complete with an Alice headband, long dresses and mauve tights. I think she knitted her own shoes.

But she was a nice soul, generous with her praise, and gentle with her frustrations at dealing with a totally disengaged class.

The english literature syllabus back then required that students were able to understand the context of the books studied, and could explain the use of metaphores, and allegories.

This meant that the works of the great writers were dismantled, sentence by sentence, line by line, chapter by chapter.

And then the probing questions and tests to establish our understanding…

“Mark, what did Shakespeare mean by his obscure use of the word and in this sentence.

After two years of dissecting Macbeth and Richard the Second, I was put off Shakespeare’s works completely,. So whilst I could (and still can) recite several speeches and soliluquies, I ended up leaving school with a deep seated loathing for Shakespeare, and a not much better opinion of the mediaeval writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Maybe this was a reaction against learning The Millers Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in Middle English.

What the hell were our educators thinking???? My old school friends, with whom I still meet regularly, all left school with the same feelings.

It was many years before I came into contact with the Bard again; I was in my mid twenties, and had joined my local drama group. After gaining confidence and appearing on stage in a lot of very minor bit parts, I was finally being offered more principle or leading roles.

One winter evening, I went to a meeting of the players, to discover that the next play we were producing would be A Midsummer Night Dream.

Would you like to see my Bottom?

My heart sank. Not Shakespeare…

Please…

However, I soon discovered that when read and performed as the great man intended it to be, it was truly joyous, and is a great piece of literature.

I have never managed to read any of his works as a book. I have watched and genuinely enjoyed some excellent performances of his work, so the cultural damage inflicted upon me as a kid have been repaired, but it has taken over four decades!

If they had required that I study Science Fiction, I would have probably passed my English Lit exam with an A+ rather than a C-.

The other thing of note about today’s date, is that it is Saint George’s Day.

Saint George on his charger…

For those that aren’t familiar with Saint George, let me briefly explain. St. George is the patron Saint of England. Not Britain. England.

The true history of St. George is lost in the mists of time, but he did exist. It appears from several accounts that he was a serving officer in the Roman army around 300AD. Legend has it that he killed a dragon that was slaughtering the residents of a local town. He was offered a monetary reward from the King, but refused to accept it, and donated it to the poor of the town.

This made him worthy of Sainthood.

There are accounts from 12th Century Genovese books that refer to Saint George’s colours being a red cross on a white background.

Other accounts tell of him fighting alongside the English Knights Templar during the crusades of the 12th Century.

In 1348 King Edward III of England incorporated the Cross of St. George into the English Royal Standard, and by the end of the 14th Century, St George was adopted as the Patron Saint of England, and the Protector of the Royal Family.

The English Royal Standard, circa 1348

It has been this way for centuries.

Now, the English seem to have a reputation as a self effacing race. We don’t normally go in for self agrandisement, prefering understatement to get by. That and the much publicised “Stiff Upper Lip”.

So, it’s our Patron Saint’s day today. We are in lockdown. So none of our pubs will be open for the discounted English Ale, cheap Cider, roast beef sandwiches and pork pies . There will be no give-away straw hats, or plastic flags. No Public Holiday.

But then, we don’t do that anyway.

Go Well…

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COVID 19 – Lockdown and Walking with Nature

I’m sitting here in the early evening enjoying my back garden, listening to the birds as I mull over this article. My terrace is bathed in warm, golden sunlight, as Sol starts to dip majestically behind the trees lining the nature reserve.

I am so very fortunate. I have managed to make the right decisions – either by luck, intuititon, or skill, that have resulted in me living in a beautiful part of the UK. Or it could be SWMBO’s excellent judgement.

I don’t question SWMBO’s judgement – she is, after all, with me, so her decision making and judgement skills are refined.

I live in Hampshire which, like most of the UK, has a timeline of civilisation that extends 14,000 years into the past.

Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43 and shortly thereafter (in the larger scale of things), Winchester became the County Town of Hampshire.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the British concept of county towns – a county town was the ancient equivalent of of a capital city, but at county level. Traditionally, a county town is the most important or significant town in a county.

Winchester is not only the county town of Hampshire, but also a city in the truest sense of the definition.

In the UK, most people use the term “city” to describe any large town, but the status of a city was traditionally only given to towns that had a Cathedral – King Henry the Eighth establishing the first ones during his reign. To this day, the UK’s monarch has to grant city status to any town.

Winchester cathedral was consecrated in 1093, and is a wonderful old building, which seems to have history seeping out of its walls and emanating from its very fabric.

The opulence of Winchester Cathedral

Winchester is about 24 miles west of where I live. It is a beautiful old city. It is where the ancient English King, Alfred had his royal seat.

King Alfred the Great – Still watching for marauding Vikings…

The old part of the city, in which the ancient cathedral sits, is a maze of tiny cobbled streets and lanes.

Winchester City centre. Disney or Universal take note…

I digress.

The area in which I live is also historic. There has been a human settlement here at least since the 14th Century; the Roman army crossed the River Wey at Lindford, about 1 mile away, whilst en-route to battle in the west of the county in the early part of the the last millenium. The crossing over the local stream has been here since 1350, but the current bridge was refurbished in 2008.

So, we are in Lockdown.

According to Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), we are allowed to exercise once a day. So, this last Sunday, SWMBO and I decided that we would partake of some gentle exercise in the form a walk through the Deadwater Valley Nature Reserve.

It was a beautiful afternoon, with a light zephyr tousling the crowns of the trees as we left the house. A six minute walk up the hill took us to the entrance of the nature trail.

The trail is cool, the smell of damp sphagnum moss mixed with that wonderful, rich, loamy, peaty aroma. The sunlight pierced the canopy with spears of golden light, impaling the shy bluebells and forget-me-nots hiding on the floor of the woods.

Quiet – and with no risk of bears or vampires…

We continue wandering, sowly, drinking in the scents of the woodland. The information board informs me that this is a home to Stag Beetles, Slow Worms, Sparrowhawks, Red Admiral butterflies, Nuthatches and Goldfinches – together with the occassional Roe or Muncjac deer.

We plod on, hand in hand, humbled by the sheer abundance of plants, insects and wildlife.

The Deadwater Sream, slowly meandering its way towards the River Wey…

We see few people on the trail; those that we do are keen to ensure that we all comply with the two metre separation. Sometimes, we yield to walkers coming towards us, standing in the undergrowth so tha they may pass. Natural selection seems to ensure that next time we meet fellow walkers, they hold back for us to pass.

However, the social niceties are maintained, with many “good afternoons”. “please”, “thank you” and “have a good one” as we contine our walk.

The trail isn’t crowded by any means; we are in solitude for most of it – just us, walking, talking, laughing. Soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying nature.

Bluebells carpet the walk – just about everywhere. I love Spring – my favorite season

We continued on, walking generally north until we reached the exit point, where the new housing estate starts.

Not wanting to just return on the same route, we decide to wander through the small town suburbia and re-enter the reserve a little further down.

It’s a relief to leave the road once more, lined as it is, with high density housing, and populated with bus stops, garage blocks and parking bays.

We re-enter the reserve, skirting the sticky muddy morass near the stile, and test the waterproof capabilities of our footwear as we stride on through the silty puddles that surround the more glutinous mud.

Looking at the tracks in the earth, I immediately deduce that the trail is used by mountain bikers, hikers, walkers, children and dogs.

Eat your heart out Sherlock Holmes. Go back to your flat Hercule Poirot.

Whilst the nature reserve isn’t large, we have never visited before, so I was happy that I had a fully paid up account with the Ordnance Survey, and had access to excellent charts.

Using the app, we quickly planned how we would return to the end of the park nearest our home.

Our route back took us past a picturesque pond, which, according to the information board, was home to Toads, Frogs, Herons and Dragonflies.

The pond, basking in the sunshine, as it has done for over 100 years.

Sadly, we didn’t see any of them, but it has given me an excuse to come back again to check it out more regularly.

I would not necessarily have discovered this wonderful place if I hadn’t been on lockdown – so something good has come about as a result of COVID19.

My day today has been filled with catching up on various tasks around the house, so maybe tomorrow I will dig my bike out, and go and explore in a bit more detail.

A great way to do an hours exercise without having to go to the gym, which I find abhorrent at the best of times.

Go Well…

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Coronavirus – The Catalyst for Global Change?

Unless you have been living on the Cook Islands for the last few months, you will have heard of Corona Virus, now known as COVID 19.

The virus is officially a global pandemic, and is now rampaging across every continent, leaving a trail of dead.

Here in the United Kingdom, we are in a state of national emergency, and state-sanctioned lockdown is in effect, with only absolutley essential journeys authorised. All retail shops except those selling essential supplies such as food, maedicines and perhaps bizzarely, alcohol are closed.

The London Underground has shut stations across its network, and passengers figures are plummeting.

Stations shut as a result of Coronavirus

Working at home has been the norm for many workers. As a result, the economy is in freefall, with the retail and hospitality sectors being worst hit. Clubs, pubs, cinemas, churches, sports centres, museums and public buildings are now all closed for the immediate future.

The aviation and maritime sectors have been quick to feel the impact of travel restrictions, and many airports are struggling as flights have become virtually non-existent, passenger traffic stagnated, and many airlines now trying to mitigate their losses by flying freight.

Flight Radar 24 – Screenshot showing flights in South East England. This was taken mid morning on the 13th April 2020. This airspace would normally be teeming with traffic, given that this is a Public Holiday in the UK.

Whilst the global shutdown is severely damaging both our manufacturing and financial economies, we are reaping some form of benefit; pollution levels have dropped across the planet, and air quality is improving.

Imagery from the Copernicus Programme’s Sentinel 5P satellite. The left hand image shows Nitrous Oxide pollution over France and Italy. Darker Red is higher levels of pollution. The right hand image shows how the levels and extent have reduced throughout the month of March 2020

It’s not just transport that contributes to atmospheric pollution – industrial and manufacturing activities have fallen across the UK and Europe as countries shutdown their economies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

This shows that it is possible to stop climate change, but the societal costs are far too high to make this acceptable.

I do believe that when the virus is contained or burnt out, we will emerge from lockdown and social distancing as a changed society.

So, what may happen?

Many firms that up until recently were resistant to their employees working remotely will have seen that some of their “trust issues” have been proved to be unfounded and that staff have been as productive, if not more productive that when working at the office.

Bearing in mind the cost of office space, many companies may find the savings realised by using smaller premises make remote working desirable.

After a major pandemic such as this one, people may be far more cautious about personal hygeine, and become much more concerned to see that public areas are properly sanitised. This could have an effect on the practice of hot desking at work.

The travelling public will probably also need to see evidence that public transport is cleaned and sanitised far more regulalrly and effectively than currently.

The lack of public trust in the health security of public transport could trigger more car use, as people seek to protect themselves with more regularised self isolating. Even car sharing could become less popular as people choose not ot sit in close proximity with another individual on their commute.

Who can really say?

If thousands more people take up remote working, there may well be more economic pain ahead for public transport operators.

Railway and air journeys that used to be undertaken for business meetings may well now be conducted using video conferencing using internet platforms such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.

Will our current level of communications network provision be sufficient to accommodate this?

Individuals that were reluctant to order shopping on-line, or use home delivery services prior to COVID 19 have now been using them out of necessity, and many of these people will now be sold on the advantages, leading to further decline of England’s high streets.

Individuals that were previously regular patrons of theatre and cinema will have become adept at streaming movies and watching “live” performances from the comfort of their own homes, using YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime.

The question is – will they return to the cinemas and thatres with quite the same degree of regularity as they did before?

It seems that the mainstream media have been focusing on the leisure and retail industries and whilst they do report on the struggle for our manufacturing industries, they do not highlight the underlying problems.

In the UK there is evidence that our contingency planning for a “Hard Brexit” triggered our government to closely examine our logisitcal supply chains with the involvement of the retail and distirbution industries, and this has surely helped ensure that truly essential items remained on the supermarket shelves, despite the media-induced panic buying.

The other aspect to this is the lack of resilience that our manufacturers have against supply chain failures.

Whilst numerous products are proudly made here in the UK, few are totally built here. Huge numbers of manufacturers import sub-assemblies, parts and components from overseas which are used to build their product.

The world’s biggest exporter, China, is, to all intents and purposes, the birthplace of COVID19, and also its primary exporter. The subsequent lockdown of the Chinese economy led to an abundance of British manufacturers struggling to obtain the raw materials, parts, components and sub-components needed to build and sell their own products..

This may result in a baseline realignment of our logisitical networks, and maybe re-initiate inward investment.

Who knows, we may see a slow transformation back into a manufacturing economy again.

This is a bit of a mixed bag then; at more localised levels the possible resulting drop in bus and train usage could lead to more cars on the road, each contributing to climate change. On the other hand, more people at home reduces traffic of any kind on the roads.

There are so many possible futures that could result from the aftermath of CV19, which only action at government level can establish.

This could be a great opportunity for each state to re-evaluate its’s strategies for handling pandemics, and may trigger new systems to increase the robustness of manufacturing bases.

Who knows, it may even give us the required impetus to design an improved model for society that will offer progress on controlling our nemesis of irreversible climate change.

Go Well…

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backwards or forwards?

Tomorrow is the date at which the clocks go forwards by one hour, moving us instantly from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to British Summer Time (BST).

Correct today – but tomorrow?

This has been happening every year since the Summer Time Act was passed by Parliament in 1916, whilst the Great War was raging in Europe. Placing the clocks an hour ahead gave workers an extra hour of daylight in the evening, enabling greater productivity for the war machine.

After World War One the annual changes to the clocks continued ping-ponging back and forth between BST and GMT.

World War Two started in September 1939, and by 1941 the UK was on Double Summertime (DST). This was achieved by putting the clocks forward in spring 1940 and not putting them back to GMT at the end of Autumn. In spring 1941, the clocks were advanced by an hour again – giving even more daylight to aid productivity.

This went on until autumn 1947, when the clocks went back completely to GMT.

Despite a parliamentary enquiry conducted in the late 1950s, involving 180 organisations, which concluded that there was a slight preference to remain on GMT +1 throughout the year, Britain stayed with the system

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, its because I’m in two minds about this.

Research conducted by the University of Colorado (Boulder) has shown conclusively that the fatal car accident rate spikes by 6% during the working week following the clocks being moved forward into Daylight Saving Time (DST). As the research only studied fatal accidents, it may be reasonably assumed that the underlying rate for all accidents will increase.

A further study published by Vanderbilt University’s Medical Unit shows that there is a negative impact upon health during the transition from statndard time to daylight saving time.

The cumulative effects of Daylight Saving Time can lead to increasing risks of heat attacks and ischaemic strokes

It appears that its not just the biannual one hour difference interfereing with our “body clock” or Circadian Rhythm – but the cumulative effects of this misalignment which takes up about eight months of the year.

It is the actual process of changing rather than which time reference is followed.

The European Union (EU) has voted to end Daylight Saving Time in autumn 2021. States within the EU have the choice of making their last change on the final sunday of March, or the final sunday of October, depending on whether they wish to have their standard time based on summertime or wintertime. This would naturally accommodate preferences according to geographic location.

More time on my hands – Yes Please!

So – moving the clocks back and forward is bad for health, and bad for accident rates.

On the other hand, there is a big argument for doing something more radical.

This time tomorrow?

Lets stay on GMT+1 as our standard time.

Moving the clocks forward every spring, as we did in WW2, gives us effectively two hours more sunlight in the evening during summer, and one more hour of evening light in the winter.

Looking at this from an environmental perspective; extra light means less electrical demand for lighting in the summer, and during the winter months less demand for heat as well.

Research conducted by Cambridge University showed that an extra hour of sunlight every day during winter could save up to £485M ($604M US) annually.

A further benefit is a proportionate reduction in carbon emissions as well.

Now, lets think about trade. Disregarding Brexit, we still do a lot of trade with our neighbours in the EU. However, even the most western part of the continent is always an hour ahead of the UK, and eastern states such as Finland are two hours ahead.

This is an impediment to easy trade, so staying GMT+1 in winter, and GMT+2 in summer would keep us aligned with our european trading partners.

Tourism would also receive a big boost, with longer hours available when people are not working.

The Tourism Alliance estimated that an extra £3.5M ($435.9 US) of revenue would be generated in the UK as a result iof businesses staying open for longer. This would create an estimated 80,000 jobs.

Individuals would also gain about 235 hours of post-work daylight every year,

Now that’s got to be worth having!

What would people do with all of this extra daylight? Well., they would use the opportunity to play sports, visit parks and enjoy outdoor recreational activities.

This has a health benefit, as more people out exercising (Even if they are only walking or cycling to the pub!) means less people becoming unhealthy as a result of inactivity.

Human nature is such that we tend to stop outdoor activities when it gets dark. SImply readjusting our clocks so that “dark” coincides with “later” means we achieve more each day.

The extra hours of daylight could also reduce crime levels, as most criminals do like to do their “work” in the dark.

My opinion?

Well, I would like to use the old WW2 system of GMT+1/GMT+2. Ilike the idsea of an extra 235 useful hours every year. I like the idea of saving power and cutting emissions.

It does seem that on balance this could be the best option for business, the planet and us living on it.

You decide…

Go Well

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Mobile Communications – The Big Question Part 2

What to believe?

Whilst researching for my previous article covering the climate change impact of mobile communications, I came across further research which claims that mobile communications enables an overall reduction in Mega tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year (mtCO2e/yr).

Very odd.

My previous article presented facts that appeared to prove that the ever-increasing use of smartphones and mobile technology communications was responsible for contributing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

It would be useful to define mobile communications at this point. It covers quite a wide range of systems including mobile telephone networks, public Wi-Fi networks, Wide Area Networks, and Satellite networks.

To be fair, most of the carbon footprint was directly related to the extraction of materials and the subsequent production of the technology itself. The remaining contribution was as a result of the use of the equipment and the supporting infrastructure, such as powering data processing centres and the associated communications networks.

The research appeared to take no account of the societal changes caused by the use of such disrupting technology, and the reduction in the carbon footprint of mobile communications.

The counter arguments presented in this article are as convincing and fact-based as the arguments that mobile communications are climate change’s bad guys.

According to a report commissioned by The Carbon Trust, the use of mobile communications actually leads to an abatement of the carbon emissions generated by the use of that technology – approximately five times as much carbon emissions are abated as the emissions generated.

That’s quite a factor.

Use of mobile communications in the EU and the USA is currently enabling a reduction of about 180 million tonnes of CO2 equivalence per year – an amount greater than the annual carbon emissions generated by the Netherlands.

Part of the UK Mobile Communications Network

So how does this pay-off happen?

A significant percentage of the total reduction in COe – about 70%, is generated by what is known as Machine to Machine (M2M) systems.

Mobile communications have enabled our infrastructure to become “smart”.  

“Smart” buildings are fitted with several types of systems, such as those that monitor occupancy levels and turn lighting on or off as needed, and control heating, ventilation and temperatures according to programmed levels. Sensors fitted throughout the building communicate wirelessly to the controller to enable precise control of energy use and therefore costs.

In some cases, several buildings may be communicating with a server-controller located remotely, and if this is the case, it is likely that the internet or the cellular communications system may be the data carrier.

This type of technology is not limited to just commercial premises.

Flick through some of the glossier housing magazines, and you will find references to “smart homes”

Smart homes are designed and built to encompass the latest control systems. Many household systems may be configured and controlled using nothing more than a standard smart phone using simple software.

Owners of a smart home may be able to control heating, unlock or lock doors, operate lighting, close or open curtains, respond to the doorbell, play music, or switch the TV on or off.

A Typical Smart Home kit, with Heat Control, Lighting, Doorbell and Power Sockets

Some systems will have algorithms that learn the users tastes and preferences and will detect when the house has become un-occupied, and will back off the heating, and control lighting as needed.

This is often accomplished by the detection of system-recognised mobile phones. When the mobile phone(s) leaves the home for more than the programmed time period, the system decides that the house is now un-occupied.

When the homeowner leaves work and gets within a predefined distance or time from home, the phone will autonomously communicate with the house, and the system can put the heat on, close the curtains, put the lights on, and be playing music on the owners’ arrival.

So, whilst data is being exchanged (at an environmental cost) the more intelligent use of power and energy compensates for this. In the world of commerce and business the savings may be truly on an industrial scale.

Local Authorities also benefit from M2M communications and are able to control street lighting and municipal lighting based on pedestrian or vehicular activity. Street lights may be able to communicate with each other and be able to adjust to lower light levels when there is no detected activity. This not only conserves energy, but also prevents light pollution from degrading the night time landscape.

Smart Street Light, fitted with LEDs and clearly showing communications antennae. And Three Pigeons

Some towns have introduced smart refuse bins, which communicate their fill state to the local authority waste processing system. This enables real-time assessment of refuse collection requirements and enables collections to be scheduled only when needed. This has the net effect of making the collection of household waste much more efficient, saves money, and reduces the number of truck journeys made.

A Smart Refuse Bin, capable of sending it’s status to the Waste Collection System

Furthermore, intelligent use of M2M enabled traffic signals can change sequencing according to traffic levels and ease delays, in turn reducing the emissions levels from vehicle exhausts. In the future, as vehicles become internet enabled, they will be able to communicate directly with both the infrastructure and each other, leading to more efficient use of the road system, lowering fuel requirements and hopefully reducing accidents.

Traffic Signal capable of interacting with other signals at other junctions to improve traffic flows.

Mobile Communications has really come of age with faster, secure networks that have enabled a huge number of individuals to work at home.

According to the Office of National Statistics (UK) in January 2014 there were about 4.2 million people working remotely – an impressive 14% of the UK’s workforce. That’s a good few cars and their associated emissions taken off the road.

With growth in the self-employed “gig economy” the number of people working from anywhere (WFA) is bound to have expanded, which is good for the environment, and better for both the employer and the employee[1]

Working From Anywhere – All that’s needed is a Tablet or a Laptop and an internet connection
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Using mobile communications, it is possible to attend meetings remotely, using systems such as Skype, which are sophisticated enough to enable delegates to share their computer screens with other team members working at the office or from home.

Mobile comms also cuts down on wasted paper, saving trees. Simple smartphone-based apps enable an employee to submit their expenses remotely, simply taking photos of receipts, and submitting them electronically.  This reduces postage costs, as well as saving paper and time.

The rapid acceptance of smartphones and their associated technologies, has also stimulated behavioural changes in people’s personal lives.

Today, an average person may unwittingly reduce their carbon footprint by using video calling to talk to friends and family. In many cases this saves a time consuming drive to each other’s homes.  It’s not quite the same as visiting, but enables better use of time, and again, takes another polluting journey off the road network.

Mobile comms also impacts on the provision of healthcare.

Individuals with serious and chronic health problems will often require frequent visits to hospitals and clinics in order to monitor their conditions, or to discuss their symptoms with a healthcare professional.

Personal Health Monitor linked to a Smartphone

Smart phones and wearable technologies such as smart watches and fitness trackers are already beginning to enable a far more consistent capture of healthcare data. Suitable software programme can then transmit this over the mobile networks to the individual’s doctor.

Wearable Technology is getting evermore sophisticated…

Whilst this may not have a huge impact at current levels, as this become more accepted in the medical community, it will save journeys to hospitals, for both patients and visitors. It also enables patients to be potentially cared for at home rather than in hospital, which reduces consumption further.

Even agriculture and forestry benefits from the use of mobile communications.

Arable farmers may make use of smartphone and laptop-based systems to monitor crop conditions and target which areas of fields may require dressing with fertiliser. Natural fertiliser is an animal by-product which subsequently releases methane into the atmosphere.

Smartphone App to pre- plan an Aerial Survey conducted by a Drone linked to the Smartphone itself!

Applying less fertiliser and targeting it where it’s needed is far more effective and eco-friendly than just applying a regular amount onto a crop that may not need it. This also saves runoff from fields polluting the water table – so a double benefit!

Animal farmers are already using smart apps that monitor the health of pregnant cattle, and herds may be monitored by GPS trackers – all enabled by mobile communications. This allows farmers to reduce veterinary call-outs, and simplify herding journeys, saving both time, money and the environment.

Moo Monitor – A mobile based animal health monitor.

Having researched the information from both sides, my personal jury is still out on this subject. It has to be borne in mind that the report produced by the Carbon Trust was supported and funded by EE, BT, Telefonica (Who own O2 in the UK, and provide mobile comms globally) and Vodafone.

I am, however, a firm supporter of reducing traffic wherever and however possible, and working remotely using mobile comms is an obvious way to do this.

Go Well…


[1] A key takeaway from our research is that if a work setting is ripe for remote work – that is, the job is fairly independent and the employee knows how to do their job well – implementing WFA (working from anywhere) can benefit both the company and the employee” The Harvard Business Review

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Mobile Communications – the Big Question

If like me, you have embraced new technology, you will, in all probability have a smartphone. It is likely that you will also own either a tablet computer or a laptop. Some of you may also have a smartwatch as well.

The smartphone has invaded all our lives, and research suggests that there are more than 79 million active mobile phone subscriptions. A recent report shows that Smartphones have penetrated 71% of the UK market – about 57 million units, all of which are sophisticated handsets capable of streaming video, internet surfing, emailing, and even making telephone calls and humble texting.

Business has been quick to see the potential in such technology, with banks and financial institutions offering account access via self-contained mobile applications – “Apps” in common parlance.

With a smartphone and the correct apps, it is possible to buy railway tickets, check bus times, take photos or video film, and plan a route to walk, cycle or ride.

Smartphones are also able to monitor health, run a diary, shop online and remotely control domestic systems such as heating, lighting and manage solar power generation systems.

Not bad for a device that’s smaller than a reporter’s notebook![1]

Mobile communications are not just limited to cellular telephones, but also incorporates laptops and tablets, and as any customer of a high street coffee shop will attest to, enables work to be conducted just about anywhere where there is an internet connection.

Work isn’t just limited to processing documents. I have been unlucky enough to be seated next to a very loud woman who was conducting a Skype meeting with her team from the normal genteel environment of Costa Coffee in Haslemere. Not only is this rude and inconsiderate, but she was also revealing an awful lot about her company and its confidential details.

I digress…

For the price of a coffee, it is possible to hook into a reasonably stable Wi-Fi connection and work for an hour or two, writing and responding to emails, conducting research, and creating reports and presentations.

No commuting either – so its got to be ecologically sound to either work from home, or from the local coffee shop.

So, you would think.

It’s not quite as simple as that though, but to be fair, it never is.

Have you ever thought about the invisible carbon footprint generated by mobile communications?

Let’s forget, for a moment, the environmental costs of producing a smartphone in the first place. Concentrate purely on the actual business of communicating.

In order for your simple SMS text message to be sent, the message must be digitised and transmitted over the cellular telephone network. Your phone sends these messages using microwave frequencies to the nearest cellular base station. These are easily recognisable as they normally have several antennae mounted upon a mast.

At the base of the mast, is a small building that contains all of the necessary electronics systems to enable the mobile elements of the network to interface with the Public Switched Telephone Network.

The message then has to be processed by one or more data centres and forwarded back out into the network for onward transmission over the cellular network to its intended recipient.

All of this infrastructure consumes power and has to be resilient enough to provide secure, continuous and reliable service 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

AEDEE3C1-BED9-476F-B0B6-A1116ED4DD36
Photo Credit E S Wales – Cellular Base Station

The same system supports mobile voice calls.

So – you want to read your emails in the coffee shop?  Surf the web?

Emails require multiple data servers, and more computer communications centres, all of which consume massive amounts of power.

Maybe as you glug back your vente white americano you want to order that item on Amazon, or eBay?

More data servers, more computer communications centres, but now with the addition of financial data processing centres, with yet more power-hungry servers.

Here are some sobering facts.

Data Centres and Communications networks together with other parts of the infrastructure were responsible for in the region of 215 megatonnes of CO2e/yr back in 2007. By the end of 2020, this will have risen to about 764 megatonnes of CO2e/yr, with data centres accounting for about 33% of the total contribution.

The entire carbon footprint of Canada in 2016 was about 730 MtCO2e/yr! 

According to research conducted by McMaster University,[2] the relative contribution to climate change from information and computer technologies (ICT) is predicted to grow from 3.5% (2007) to about 14% by 2040.

Quite shocking when compared with global transport’s contribution of 23%! (World Health Organisation figures)

Relative emissions generated as a result of smartphone use has risen from 4% in 2010 to an expected 11% by this year.

Absolute emissions (which include the production footprint; manufacturing energy, mining energy for extracting rare metals and gold and end-user activities) from these much loved ‘phones will, therefore, jump from 17 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) to 125 Mt-CO2e/yr in the same period! That’s a massive 730% growth.

981E67D5-AB86-4E4A-935F-23BC020B3066
I am Guilty too – My Smartphone and Coffee Mug. Image Mark Charlwood © 2020

Take out the production emissions, and we are looking at 12.5 megatonnes of CO2 per year just to use our smartphones.

Our Mobile operators (In the UK, EE, O2, Vodafone, Three) have an unintended impact on emissions. Many of their mobile ‘phone plans encourage their customers to upgrade to a new phone every couple of years.

I resisted this in the past and kept my old iPhone 6 for almost five years before I decided to change phones. I would have kept it longer, but the 16GB memory was full, and the software was in danger of becoming unsupported by Apple.

Encouraging and incentivising customers to change phones when their previous handset was more than adequate, is a good model for enhancing a corporation’s profit, but the negative impact on our environment is unsupportable.

There is only a limited number of ways that we, as a society can stop this.

At a societal level, state intervention and corporate governance must ensure that all data centres are upgraded so they may be powered solely by renewable sources of energy.

As individuals, we must all take a bit more responsibility.

It’s all very well for climate change protestors to exhort us all to ditch our cars, and to stop using plastics.

Equally important is not buying a new product unless the old one is either worn out, damaged beyond economic repair or no longer supported by the manufacturer or network requirements.

Upgrading to a new phone every time one comes out is nothing but technological vanity.

Remember too, if you must upgrade, then recycle your old phone.

Shockingly, less than 1% of all smartphones are being recycled.

Despite this, for the time being, Life’s Good.

[1] iPhone XR dimensions 150.9mm x 75.7mm x 8.3mm 174gm

[2] Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations, L. Belkhir & Elmiligi