Capricorn Horoscope

After a busy period of many new beginnings, you’re faced with a lot of endings in your life: You are dealing with the loss of someone close to you. This person is headed for a better future, so do not worry about what he or she is going through. Transitions like this are difficult, but you are blessed with people in your life whom you can really count on. Reach out to them, and don’t be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve.

sounds about right. 

The Pale Blue Dot

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”

- Carl Sagan

I thought I would begin with a quotation.  While musing about creating this website, the first question for me was what to call it.  I obviously needed something catchy, engaging, and something that creates a certain expectation of what will be found within it.  I settled quickly on “The Pale Blue Dot”, confident that it would encompass everything I wanted to talk about perfectly.  Perhaps some of you will get the connotation immediately; perhaps the vagueness of it is off-putting.  I have egotistically picked a name I love and expected you to go along with it. 


The name pays homage to a famous image captured by of planet Earth and reflected on by Astrophysicist Carl Sagan.  The image itself was taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a distance of about 6 billion kilometres from Earth.  It was (and I believe still is) the most distant photo ever taken of our planet.  It looks for all intents rather unremarkable; a smoky, grainy photograph with a few pale bands of colour. However, almost hidden in the image is a single pixel, a pale blue dot. In a word, us.

I find Carl Sagan’s above quotation an incredibly poetic and touching reflection on the importance of this image.  Nothing could quite as well set the scene of the significance of this speck of dust, our speck of dust, on the canvas of the cosmic galaxy.  We are a planet amongst billions.  Earth is beautiful, yet she is fragile and ultimately, all we have.  Our planet’s resources are finite, and we, especially in the developed world, live unsustainably beyond its means.  The work of preserving our planet for future generations as a vitally important one; socially, economically and politically, and one that I am proud to be involved in. 

About this blog

Hi there.  This is my first escapade into the world of blogging, so well done if you’ve found me.  I thought I’d start off slowly and introduce myself and what I intend to blog about.  My name is Marek, and I’m a civil engineer by first degree.  Currently I’m doing an engineering doctorate (EngD) into Renewable Energy at the TSBE centre at Reading University.  My research area is the impact of renewable resource variability on electricity systems (e.g. sometimes it’s windy, sometimes it isn’t) - particularly existing generation (i.e. the fossil fuel power plants and nuclear we have used in the past), and how these might need to adapt in the future to facilitate the growth of renewables.

I intend to use this blog to talk about any and all of the aspects of engineering, renewables, climate change, politics that interest me, though I might also venture out of this remit occasionally and blog about anything that I feel like sharing my thoughts on.

I hope this is a useful source of information and offers some interesting perspectives, whatever your background or however you stumbled across this blog.  If you have any feedback, requests for particular discussion topics, or any questions I’d love to hear from you.


Motion Capture Adventures

Genuinely today was great fun. 

We were doing a motion capture study of sit-to-stand movements, which meant I had to put on a cycling onesie and tape markers to various bits of my lower limb. IT WAS HILARIOUS. You can walk about in the VICON system once these markers have been recognised and named etc and see a little stick frame representation of your lower body (in my case). It was very odd to see how I move - you don’t pay attention to how your hips/pelvis move when in motion but it definitely made me think! 

Decided it’d be a great idea to make my wee frame gyrate full monty style! and skip about :D 
We also realised we could ‘recreate’ the Anaconda video if I shifted side to side on the thing I was sitting on as it showed you the ground reaction forces for each bum cheek - apparently I sit more right than left. 

Now we’ve got to analyse the data and say whether or not a low chair, a chair the height of your knees or a chair higher than knee height creates a greater moment at your knees and hips. 


The case for UK renewables Part II: Climategate and other nonsense

The argument that our earth’s climate is changing, and that this is due to our human activity, has been a point of discussion for many, many years.

Over time the strength of argument has grown, with more studies and more verification.  There is a strong consensus of the scientific community that anthropogenic (human influenced) global warming is occurring, and that we need to sharply reduce our carbon emissions to limit the change to our climate that has been set into motion. 

Sadly, scientists (with notable exceptions of characters such as Brian Cox and Robert Winston), have a poor track record at engaging with the general public, and explaining science.  The job is often left to the media, whose job is to entertain as well as to inform.

Notable scandals and controversies, such as “climategate” undermine this consensus in the eye of the public.  This is seized to political advantage, and climate change is presented as the need to change the way we change we think about our energy consumption as an unnecessary tax.  A con. 

If you investigate the University of East Anglia emails for yourself (Go on… I’ve linked it), you might be surprised to find there is nothing in fact to the hype of the media regarding the scandal.  Of course, most of us do not have time to investigate these things for ourselves, and rely on the media to inform of us of current affairs.  This is where the seeds of doubt are presented in our minds and why the climate change argument keeps re-emerging; consensus is boring.  People don’t want to read about it. 

This is a very difficult PR problem for the scientific community to overcome.  We, as a community, need to be able to convey our research across more effectively.

If you are a climate skeptic, I would encourage you to look at the reports of the IPCC if you wish to delve into the science, and to watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth even if you are not.  These set out the case for anthropogenic climate change a lot better than I ever could.  Be wary also of the anti-climate science used to dispute these findings.  Some are perfectly reputable studies, discovered by the media and use out of context to report something the scientist did not intend to be understood.  Others are based on cherry picking evidence (case in point, the “Climategate” emails).  Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is an excellent resource to arm yourself against disputable techniques used in the anti-climate science camp, and indeed in all aspects of science.

That’s enough for this post.  This is a big topic and one that could never be adequately addressed in a few paragraphs, but hopefully there’s enough food for thought there to go out and investigate if you find yourself doubting climate change because of what you have read in the media.

The case for UK Renewables Part I: Setting the scene

I hear the same misinformation, misleading stories and misunderstandings crop up all the time regarding renewable energy, particularly wind, which is an area I have worked in for over three years now. 

Anti-wind websites, often set up by “not in my back yard” residents, determined not to have wind farms built near their homes, reuse these same mistaken arguments against wind.  Politicians such as Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP and Roger Helmer MEP also put forward these same disproven arguments. 

I have linked some example websites below to illustrate a cross section of some of the repetition of these anti wind statements that are incorrectly passed off as wind facts.








Some of the statements that crop up frequently:

Wind turbines do not reduce emissions”

Wind farms only work 30% of the time”

“Wind requires dedicated backup of conventional generation for when the wind isn’t blowing

Wind turbines kill birds

“Wind farms are noisy”

“Wind turbines are dangerous”

In a series of blog posts I intend to dissect and sense check these myths and explain why, though wind has its challenges, it’s a valid and necessary technology to invest in.

Before we delve headlong into myth busting, I feel it is necessary to build the case for renewables.  In this post, I will introduce how we generate electricity now, and why we need to change the way we generate electricity.   In future posts I will steer the discussion through the technology alternatives, before coming back to the topic closer to my own interest; wind energy.

The energy field is such a broad field of discussion that thousands of papers and books have been written on the subject, and it is a topic of endless debate.  It is necessary, and somewhat unfortunate, that I must cut down the scope of discussion, though I will happily address specific questions if anyone raises them.  For now, let us stick to the electricity production.  There are other types of energy, used for heating transport, but these have their own challenges (though granted, they are linked to many of the same concerns).

We currently generate electricity in the UK mainly through gas turbines and coal-fired steam turbines.  In the industry, these are referred to as conventional generation.  As opposed to these new-wave hippy forms of generation like renewables presumably.

Conventional generation has been very convenient in the past.  Fossil fuels are energy dense, so a relatively small plot of land can provide gigawatts of power.  They are also controllable – if you want more or less electricity, you push more or less fuel into the system and the output will increase or decreasing accordingly.

However, there are strong arguments why we cannot continue to do this indefinitely:

a) The overwhelmingly strong evidence for anthropogenic (i.e. human influenced) climate change caused in part by the large amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

b) A concern over security of supply of our electricity; in other words, from where we import the fuels we use to get electricity.

c) The growing concern that fossil fuels are a finite resource and the rate of growth of our demand for electricity worldwide cannot be sustained using such a resource.

Next time I’ll start looking at these concerns.

First block of EngD - COMPLETE

Managed (hopefully) it. 

4 exams in 4 weeks. 

Cell Bio - was really, really hard and the Krebs Cycle is the most mad thing ever. Conclusion : The human body is a swirling pool of WTF. 

Physiology1&2 - What I learned here is that the central nervous system is the most INSANE communication system ever. Tiny zaps firing down your axons = pick up that cup and drink. YES. The heart and cardiovascular system is complicated and FASCINATING. The heart is a complex little engine driving your existence. To learn (even in basic detail) how it swirls your blood around was so great. Really intrigued now. OH, also - YOUR KIDNEYS ARE IMPORTANT. DO NOT HURT THEM. And please look after your heart! 

Anatomy - Jings, where do we begin? The prosections we got to examine in the labs we attended were fascinating. Yes, they were real human parts - and it was absolutely amazing to see how we all fit together. Spinal cords, hearts, feet - complicated structures. Hands - your hands are so cool underneath the skin! If you ever get a chance to visit the Anatomy Museum at Glasgow University, DO IT. It’s so interesting. The top floor shocked me at points, due to there being all sorts of specimens in jars (foetii, animal parts etc) but this part is a collection from YEARS AND YEARS AGO. 

Overall, the past 4 weeks have been so intense, and very difficult at times, but so interesting and challenging. It’s been such a change from physics - a bit of a shock at times - but alot of the time it’s been good fun :) Onwards and upwards - the 9-5 daily timetable starts Monday - I’ll keep you all posted! :P 

Research Poster


I’ve finally got around to something that I’ve being to for a long time… upload my research poster!  The poster has been done for a long time now, it’s just that uploading it has been at the bottom of the list of a long things to do for a while, and it didn’t look like that list was ever going to diminish to the point that I’d get it done.

If you’re unfamiliar with my research it should give you an overview of what it is I do and why it’s important.  I’ve tried to cut down the jargon, but the language is still a bit stuffy and techy (hey, it is an academic research poster), but I’ve tried to explain all of the important terms so hopefully it’s reasonably accessible. 

The case for UK renewables Part VIII: Renewable energy

Ok, last post  in this series.


We’ve now covered the problems with carrying on as we are in terms of generating electricity (basically, we can’t!), and have tackled two of the three technologies that can help us deal with this challenge.  Finally, a little bit wiser hopefully, we are on to the technologies I originally wanted to discuss… renewables.


There are a huge number of renewable technologies, including:


·         Onshore wind

·         Offshore wind

·         Biomass

·         Tidal

·         Solar PV

·         Solar CSP

·         Wave

·         Hydro


In the UK we are blessed with one of the best wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe, all forms of renewable energy that can be developed and exploited to our benefit.  Renewable energy is a broad field, and not one technology, but an umbrella term for many different technologies with different respective advantages and characteristics.


Their common benefits are that they utilize naturally replenishing resources, rather than finite fossil fuels, or finite nuclear fuels.  Their fuels, the wind, the waves, the tides, are all free.  They are zero carbon, and provide a huge potential opportunity for manufacturing, innovation and growth.  Anything else about them has to be said individually, as they have different characteristics that offer different drawbacks and benefits.  To avoid cramming this all into one post, I will have to tackle these individually at one point or another in the future.  For now, suffice to say these can work in a very complimentary way, and many technological developments can help some of their potential drawbacks.

The World Renewable Energy Forum

There has been silence on the blogging front for a little while, as I am away at the World Renewable Energy Forum in Denver, Colorado.  Although this means I will not be updating here for a while, this is one of the most social media active international conferences I’ve attended, and you can keep up to date by following my updates on twitter.  Normal blogging service to resume soon.

The case for UK renewables Part VII: CCS

CCS is a technology that allows us to produce electricity through the conventional fossil-fuel based processes, but with the added task of capturing and storing all the carbon dioxide that is emitted to the atmosphere.  Such a solution is certainly convenient if it can be made reality; it allows us to use electricity generation technologies that we have used for more than 100 years.  Conventional power also is more flexible in its ability to vary its output compared to nuclear, which makes it more compatible with variable output renewables.


All the individual steps to make CCS technologically feasible already exist, and are used in a variety of industries for various purposes.  However, bringing them all together in a commercially competitive manner is still a worryingly distant goal.  The cost uncertainty is not as much as an issue as for nuclear – we know CCS will be expensive!


A number of demonstration projects being attempted, (the Global CCS Institute reports 74 large scale demonstrations around the world) , but in Europe the CCS movement has stalled, with demonstrations both in the UK (Longannet in Scotland) and Germany (Vattenfall Jänschwalde) cancelled due to funding and regulatory issues respectively. 


A drawback of this technology is that the storage aspect of CCS is surrounded by uncertainty.  Many novel techniques have been proposed to store carbon dioxide, but the most proven are those already used by the oil and gas industry; namely to pump CO2 back into gas and oil fields.  Historically, this has been used to enhance oil recovery rates, but the goal of permanently storing the CO2 is more challenging.  Even if carbon can be stored in such a way, we need to be certain that it will not leak out over time, for example by escaping through cracks in the impermeable geology we are trying to trap it in.  We will be doing the climate no favours if we adopt this technology and merely delay the rate of carbon escaping into the atmosphere by a few decades. 


The main concern, at least for me, is that the added energy input required to capture the carbon reduces the efficiency of the power plant.  This means more fossil fuels have to be burned at an even greater rate to sustain the same amount of electricity production.  With a growingly scarce resource, this seems like a foolhardy approach.

The case for UK renewables Part VI: Nuclear power

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Nuclear power is a non-renewable resource.  It is, however, low carbon. There are two main types of nuclear power; fission and fusion.  Fission operates on the principle of breaking apart atoms to release energy, fusion on slamming them together.  There are no commercial fusion reactors in the world (though there are demonstration models), a technology which attempts to replicate the type of reaction that is fuelling our sun.  Fission on the other hand has been used since the late 1940s, following the development of the atomic bomb, and is based upon the same principle.  To be clear, when I refer to nuclear power, I refer to fission, rather than fusion. 


A nuclear reactor, once built, is able to produce very large amounts of energy very cheaply, assuming the cost of Uranium processing do not increase in the future, and that nuclear power runs much as it has in the past – as what is known as base load  power.  Base load power is essentially a continual steady supply of energy near full output, and  no variation from this pattern.


As the technology has been around close to 70 years, we also know it is commercially proven, unlike CCS or some of the more experimental renewable technologies. 


The first drawback to nuclear power is that reactors are very expensive to build.  Nuclear reactors are hugely complex.  Extensive planning and safety considerations need to be met.  This makes them difficult to finance; few companies are willing to make an investment in a technology that will take some 30 years to pay back. 


Furthermore, at the end of a nuclear reactor’s life, it has to be decommissioned.  This involves taking apart the reactor and remediating the site, i.e. dealing with the nuclear waste and radiation.  This is expensive, and is another big issue for investors – not only are you asking a business to front a large bill to construct the reactor, and take the payback over several decades, you are then asking them to pay a significant cost at the end of the project.  The German nuclear decommissioning costs that were a result of German policymakers decision to retire it’s nuclear capacity (as a backlash to the Fukashima incident) have also stalled development plans in the UK, with RWE and E.ON both pulling out of new developments.


Another concern is the radioactive waste that is a by-product of the fission reaction.  Though small in volume, a long-term solution for dealing with this waste (as opposed to just storing it) has never adequately been addressed.  This becomes a greater concern if nuclear becomes adopted worldwide as the solution to decarbonizing our grids, as the volumes of waste will greatly increase.


Public perception of safety is another concern.  Disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukashima all tar the image of nuclear.  Personally, I feel the media overplays the danger of nuclear; there are valid concerns over safety and rightly so, however, we do not hear the same hype over the number of deaths associated with the coal industry, where a tragic number of lives are lost in third world countries mining coal.  I may at some point return to the Fukashima reactor, because it’s an interesting case to learn from, but I would stress that though a large area of land has been exposed to radiation that makes it unsafe to inhabit, no one has to my knowledge reportedly died from the accident.  This is compared to the 15,000 lives so far accounted for taken by the combined earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and led to the nuclear incident.  A sense of proportion to risk nuclear presents must be maintained.


Another, more political issue is the concern of nuclear proliferation.  In other words, the danger of a civil nuclear program being used to mask a military development of nuclear weapons in less stable countries (such concerns have been raised with Iran), or the risk of nuclear materials being stolen from a power plant for nefarious purposes.


A final concern to note is the inflexibility of generation.  Nuclear is cheap because it generates at full output all the time.  It is difficult to use nuclear in anything other than an on/off state.  This makes it somewhat incompatible with wind, which requires a degree of flexibility in other generation to account for the variability in its supply of electricity.

The case for UK renewables Part V: There is no Plan B. But there are 3 Plan As.

So given the security of supply, fossil fuel scarcity and climate change concerns, we now  have a much more compelling basis  to consider alternative forms of generating electricity.  We have three choices:  Nuclear Power, Carbon Capture and Storage and, finally, Renewables.

I’ll dedicate my next few blog posts to these technologies in turn.  I will not elaborate on how they work or debate them in detail; merely present the benefits and concerns with them. If you do wish to learn more, I’ll be happy to point you in the direction of any resources.

The case for UK renewables Part IV: plummet or plateau?

On to the final of our three arguments of why our fossil fuel based economy can’t continue, and perhaps the most fundamental of all. Even the skeptics of climate change and those unconcerned by security of supply find it difficult to argue with the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource that will run out, potentially within our lifetime.  Coal, gas and oil have all formed over millions of years, by the slow relentless buildup of heat and pressure of many layers of geology.  They cannot be replenished in our lifetimes.  They will run out; the question is simply a matter of when.


Calculating how large the reserves of fossil fuels are in the subterranian world under our feet is an uncertain and imprecise art, and for this reason, estimates vary widely.  It is normally quoted as an “X years supply remaining” figure, though of course this relies heavily on the assumptions that are made regarding future consumption patterns.  All trends point upwards, given the rapid development of countries such as India and China.


It is widely accepted that there is substantial more coal than gas or oil that has not been tapped into, perhaps enough to last several hundred years.  It is more labour intensive to extract, requiring extensive mining operations rather than wells, and it’s quality varies largely; there are many different types of coal, depending primarily on the age of the seam.  The “best” coal, and the longest pressurized, is anthracite, which resembles a very hard rock, the weakest for use as a fuel  is peat, which is still almost like a soil.  These fuels all burn with very different qualities; poorer coals such as lignite and peat produce less energy and a lot more ash per unit burnt compared to anthracite.


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Peat sample

Our oil and gas reserves look a lot less short lived than coal.  Estimates of reserves vary considerably, and it is again very difficult to know how significant the resource we actually have is.  Oil and gas come from deep under the earth’s surface, something we can only probe at.  It is not a simple metric to measure, and most predictions involve statistically including reserves that we have not discovered (probable reserves) in addition to those we know we have (proven reserves).  Depending how optimistic you are about finding new reserves, you get rather different answers regarding how much supply of oil we have left.  Estimates are typically in the range of 50-70 years supply for both.


There is still considerable debate as to whether  a world peak of oil production will occur, and whether a sharp decline will follow. Economists and oil companies argue that advances in exploration and adapting technology to unconventional fuels (e.g. shale oil fracking) will delay the peak and prevent a sharp decline, or even plateau it indefinitely, buying the world time to develop a technology to replace oil, whereas many geologists believe that the peak is imminent.


In either case, there is a matter of time running out that forces our hand… climate change, security of supply and scarcity of finite fossil fuels all mean we need to transition to producing electricity another way, and within only a few decades.  No mean feat.  Next time… what are our options?

The case for UK renewables Part III: Dour men in grey suits

Last time I discussed the first of the arguments for moving away from  fossil fuel based generation, summarising that climate change, while certainly supported by a vast body of evidence, is not well communicated with the public and this has led to acceptance issues. 

This time, we shall consider the second argument of those I identified in Part I, relating to security of supply.

Security of supply is a very serious sounding term, the likes of which is used by dour men in Westminster, wearing somber coloured suits, tutting quietly and beguiling  the state of things.  The term simply means ensuring that our electricity supply is not interrupted.  That the lights stay on.  Always.

Our economy depends on an uninterrupted supply of electricity.  Our economy would not function without it.  The stock market, the internet, motors… all run off this invisible supply, carried by transmission and distribution lines up and down the country.  A blackout costs the economy billions.  Worse still, it can cost lives.

If we accept the climate change argument, we already have a strong argument to move to sustainable, low carbon forms of energy.  Even if we do not, there is a second valid concern regarding our dependency on other countries for the fuel we use.  In the UK, we produce electricity with a lot of gas and coal.  We have limited resources of gas and rely heavily on imports.  Even though we do have coal reserves, we get a lot of it from other countries because it’s cheaper.

As fossil fuel resources become scarcer (or alternatively, more expensive to process, for example with shale gases), electricity prices will be forced to rise.  Competition increases, and we will struggle to continue with a reliable supply of fuel.  The Russia-Ukraine gas crisis of 2006 is a classic example of the danger of relying on one country for much of the fuel used in our power mix.  If we rely on gas, and our gas is primarily piped from Russia, what happens if the supply is switched off?  Security of supply.  Tutting dour men in Westminster.

Food for thought, even for the climate skeptics.  Next time: the final of the three main arguments; fossil fuel scarcity.