An ‘under the hood’ look at Dublin’s First ‘waste-to-energy’ plant

Covanta Incinerator

The Dublin ‘waste-to-energy’/incinerator plant – as it will look when completed – that will be taking household waste from waste operators in the Dublin region from September 2017LISTEN


This discussion about the science and technology underpinning the plant was broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke on (08/08/16)

Dubliners and visitors to the city in recent months may have noticed a huge addition being made to the skyline with a large structure under construction next to the two iconic chimney stacks at the Poolbeg ESB Station at Ringsend.

This is Dublin’s first ‘waste to energy’ plant, which its opponents, and there are many, would prefer to call an incinerator. According to its operators, Covanta, it will be capable of handling 600,000 tonnes of black bin waste, the vast majority of which will come from the city and the three Dublin county council areas

The plant will begin operating here in September 2017. Covanta state that it will convert waste from the city’s black bins – most of which would otherwise end up in landfill – into electricity for the grid and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

I went along to the plant last week (4/08/16) to see how the construction phase is progressing, and to have a look at some of the engineering and science that will underpin the plant’s operation.


The Dublin waste to energy plant, or incinerator, is a highly contentious project. The story dates back to the late 1990s when the plan for an ‘incinerator’ or ‘waste to energy plant – the name depends on your view on it – was first mooted.

At that stage it had become obvious that Ireland needed to be able to tackle its own waste, rather than simply putting it into landfill, or exporting it.

In 2005 Dublin City Council awarded the contract for the plant to a Danish company called Elsam. Elsam was subsequently bought out by DONG energy generation, another Danish company. In 2007 the City Council sent a letter agreeing to engage DONG and Covanta Energy, a US company, to design build operate a Dublin waste to energy plant as a joint venture.

The EPA gave the plant a licence in 2008 and after the Commission for Energy Regulation gave authorizations to allow the plant to generate and supply energy (via electricity) in September 2009 there was a green light to start building.

It didn’t happen, and construction was suspended because the companies were unable to obtain a foreshore license to allow a development to take place on the coastline. The Minister for the Environment at the time, John Gormley, was opposed to granting the license and represented the local Dublin 4 area.

Finally, the license was granted, and Covanta re-commenced construction in 2014. There is significant progress now at the site, with the main structures in place, and it will began to accept waste from the local area in September 2017.


Covanta, is US based, but has built many ‘waste to energy’ plants on this side of the Atlantic and is looking to expand further into Europe. The firm has about 30 years of experience operating 45 ‘waste to energy’ facilities around the world.

Covanta like to think of themselves as being in the recycling business because they recycle about 500,000 of metals from the residual bottom ash left behind after municipal waste is incinerated or burned.

The majority of Covanta plants are based in the US and the company claim that there facilities there operator up to 90% better than government standards require.

In Dublin, they have an almost exclusively Irish management team, and have been able to easily hire people with the required expertise based here, or to lure back Irish people that have worked on waste to energy plants overseas.


The Poolbeg site for the plant is currently a hive of activity, with construction workers in yellow safety jackets, and helmets everywhere to be seen, swarming over the site. There is a sense of purpose, organisation and urgency as the company are working to a tight deadline and they are determined to began accepting waste in September of next year from local waste operators as they are required to do.

There are all manner of specialist construction workers at the site, as the piece of this gigantic puzzle are put into place. It is like watching a large football stadium, or a huge cruise liner being built, and it’s fascinating to watch.


Most informed observers agree that Dublin, and Ireland, has a major problem with its waste, most of which is being exported.

There is very little capacity to deal with the large amount of waste being produced in the Dublin region, and Ireland as a whole, as there are just 5 landfills operational here that accept waste, and there is little or no likelihood of new landfills being set up as they are a health risk and no-one wants them.

This has been the situation for many years now, and what Ireland has been doing is exporting its waste, both its hazardous wastes, and the ‘ordinary’ black bin household waste overseas by ship, where plants in other countries burn the waste and recover energy, and dispose of the unusable or dangerous remnants.

The EU wants member states, and regions to deal with their waste in their own area, and this is also a key part of our national and regional waste policies here. That means that Dublin must deal with its own waste in Dublin, rather than the situation where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste are sent to towns like Drogheda and Arklow where they are ‘bailed’ and exported by ship. This is wrong in principle and storing waste like this represent a fire and health risk too.

We currently export about 560,000 tonnes of waste from Ireland each year, and the new Covanta plant has a capacity for about 600,000 tonnes.

Recycling does not appear to be solution to our waste problems, as even if we hit the predicted recycling rate here of 45-50% by 2020 there will still be a substantial amount of waste that has to be dealt with one way or another.

The waste that we produced can, with this plant, be put to good use to produce electricity and to reduce the need to important fossil fuels, such as gas from Russia and oil from the middle east, which are burned to produce electricity.

We need it. If we don’t, then in the absence of new landfill sites, the EU could decide that Ireland is no longer permitted to export its waste on a massive scale in contradiction of EU policies, and our own national policies. The EU have been very patient with us on this issue, going back almost two decades now.


The plant is huge. Is located at the end of South Bank Road, which is off the roundabout at Ringsend as you head south onto the coast road past Sandymount for those that know Dublin. It is next to the Poolbeg Power Plant, and beside the Irish sea, the river liffey, a sewage treatment plant, and a nature reserve.

The shape of it is very distinctive, it is very sleek and modern, and reminded me of a streamlined version, without the lifeboats and all the extras, of the kind of large cruise liner that we have grown used to seeing in Dublin Port these days.

The footprint of the plant covers about 3 football pitches, and at 52 metres at its highest point, it almost identical in height to the nearby Aviva Stadium, which is 4 metres shorter.

There will be two chimney stacks, which are not yet in place. These will be 100 metres tall, and from which will emerge, the company state, mostly water vapour at the end of the waste-to-energy process. That can be compared to the existing Poolbeg stacks, which stand at 207 metres, more than twice as tall.

The design is a kind of shell-like wrap around design, and the Covanta manager said that about 100 million euro was spent on design, to make the plant better fit in with its surroundings. In my opinion they have done a pretty good job in that, as it doesn’t look like a typical dirty power plant or industrial factory site.

In terms of the materials, there will be an extraordinary amount put into the construction such as 6,000 tons of reinforcing steel, enough concrete to fill about 6,500 concrete trucks and enough vertical supporting piles to run – if all the piles were laid out on the ground – the 64km from Poolbeg to Kildare town.

Waste to energy

When the plant is up and running, it will operate 24-7, although it is not permitted to take waste on a 24 hours basis.

The waste trucks will arrive from around Dublin – the busy time is often the mornings at these plants I’m’ told – they will be weighed and checked in before they go to a tipping hall when they unload their waste in a designated ‘bay’.

The waste will be unloaded out onto the floor and then put into a huge storage pit and thoroughly mixed before being lifted with a big mechanical grabber and put into what are called ‘hoppers’, and from the hoppers the waste travels to the combustion area where it is burned.

In the combustion chamber the waste will be burned at about 2,000F and the combustion a single load of waste from a hopper takes one or two hours. As waste is burned the heat will convert water in the steel tube lined walls that rise through ‘boiler tubes’ where it is superheated.

The steam will turns a turbine driven generator to produce electricity. The electricity produced by the turbine generator is will be exported to the grid for use by homes and business in the immediate Dublin 4, south city area.

Steam from this electricity generating process will be condensed back into water and returned to the boiler tubes, giving a efficient ‘closed loop’ system.

After this process, the volume of waste, Covanta tells me, will be reduced by 90%, with mainly ash and metal remaining. The ash can be landfilled or re-used. The metal such as iron and steel are recovered for re-use.A separate process recovers other metals like aluminium and copper.

The plant has pollution control equipment to ensure, the company states, that emissions are below limits to protect human health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can come onto the site whenever they wish, and they can access Covanta’s emission monitoring computers.

The goal, Covanta say is to have real time information on emissions available to whomever is interested on the company website when the plant is running.

In terms of air pollution, acid gases will be neutralised using lime and a scrubbing, or cleaning, process, and carbon will be injected into the gaseous mixture for better control of heavy metal emissions.

Small particulates – which can cause human health problems, particularly breathing difficulties – are removed as emissions pass through a ‘bag house’. This uses thousands of fabric filter bags to catch and hold particulates.

All gases pass through the bags before leaving the stack. The control room monitors emissions through a real time emissions monitoring system and controls steam flow and other automated processes in the plant.

In Dublin, Covanta are using the nearby Liffey water to act as a coolant in the plant, and they are capturing rainwater and surface water for the same purpose.

Potential benefits

The plant will produce 60 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to heat 80,000 homes, and to provide district (local) heating for 50,000 homes.

It makes use of ‘grey water’ from the nearby sewage treatment plant – which would otherwise require energy to be further treated – to cool the process, which is important, as temperature regulation is central to the safe and efficient operation of the plant.

Most importantly, it has the capacity to take up to 1,800 tonnes of black bin waste per day, and up to 600,000 tonnes per year.

This will greatly benefit our environment, as some of this waste may have been going to landfill, which has health and safety risks attached. It will help us to comply with the EU requirement that we deal with our own waste, and it will mean that waste is dealt with close to where it is produced in Dublin and not stored around the city, or in port towns where it can be a fire or health risk. This was caused by waste storage and it was a dangerous fire.

It should also be remembered that in many places in Europe plants like this are welcomed by ‘green’ political parties as they help move us away from landfill, and promote the idea that waste should be treated as a recoverable resource.


A note of caution was sounded when it was reported last month by The Irish Times that a Covanta run plant in Canada did not meet emissions targets on dioxins and furans as set out by the Canadian Ministry of Environment.

I asked Covanta, based on that story, how could they reassure people in Dublin that the plant there was safe and would meet emissions targets.

Covanta responded that they had measures in place in the Canadian plant to shut it down as soon as a problem arose on one of two emissions stacks. This ensured that there was no risk to the environment or health of local residents, and that this was, Covanta told me, confirmed and supported by the Canadian authorities.

Furthermore, Covanta said all emissions from the Dublin plant will be independently monitored and verified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Statement in full (for those that are interested) below from Covanta in response to my question about the issue that arose at Canadian plant.

A stack test in May 2016 at the Canadian plant indicated that the limit for dioxins and furans were exceeded on one line. The emissions exceedance for this unit was not representative of normal operations and previous stack tests and engineering runs have demonstrated compliance. Unit 2 continues to operate without issue with dioxin emissions at only 20% of the permitted levels.

While the emissions for unit 1 exceeded the limit at the stack, ambient air monitoring results of dioxins and furans upwind and downwind of the Canadian plant were well below the air quality standards set by the local environmental regulations. Soil sampling was also done and the testing found no elevated levels of dioxin/furans. The testing regime that Covanta had in place in Canada enabled the shut-down of Unit 1 as soon as the problem arose and thus ensured there was no risk at all to either the environment or the health of local residents which was confirmed by the relevant authorities.

The Dublin plant is technically different from the Canadian plant in many ways and the Poolbeg waste-to-energy process provider has successfully delivered 29 new plants across Europe since 2000 – 10 of these in the last 5 years and without any environmental incident. In addition Dublin Waste to Energy has invested heavily in experienced management and staff for the Poolbeg plant which will ensure smooth commissioning, start-up and operations.

The emissions limit values permitted for the Dublin plant have been set out by the EPA in accordance with best practice and EU legislation. In addition, the frequency and testing regime has been set out by the EPA and all emissions (in addition to be monitored by DWtE) will be independently monitored and verified by the EPA. As an indicator of Covanta’s diligence and commitment to the monitoring of stack emissions to ensure continuous compliance to the EU requirements, the plant has a full CEMS (Continuous Emission Monitoring System) as a stand-by to the two CEMS systems which monitor the emissions from the two lines.

Japanese satellite, with Irish input, is tumbling in space

My story on the tumble taken by Japanese satellite, Hitomi, which has had significant scientific input from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, from The Sunday Times last weekend.

Satellite Story

What would life be really like in space?

Click below to listen to discussion on ‘Living in Space’ on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast on 1st February 2016)


Mars colonies will use the resources of the planet to grow plants, produce drinking water and generate energy (Credit: Bryan Versteeg)

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live in space for an extended period of time, or whether humans will one day be living in thriving communities dotted across Mars, and some other planets?

President Obama – now 54 – plans to be still around when NASA lands astronauts on Mars sometime during the 2030s. And for children born today, there is a real chance they could travel to Mars in their lifetimes.

But, what is it like to live in space for an extended period of time? And what role is Ireland playing in mankind’s quest to explore other planets?


We have been in space now, of course, for almost 50 years, which will come as a shock to people who still vividly recall Neil Armstrong landing on The Moon in 1969.

The famous Apollo missions took place between 1969 and 1972, and since Apollo finished, more than 44 years ago now, humans have – remarkable – not left lower Earth orbit.

This means we have ventured no further than about 400km above the ground, which is the altitude of the International Space Station, as well as many of our communication satellites.

Yet, although technically this is not space, as space starts somewhere out around 800km above the Earth, the I.S.S. living environment tells us most of what we need to know about living in space for a long time.

Much of what we know about life in space comes from the information passed on to us by scientists and astronauts that have spent time there.

Space Station life 

The I.S.S. was launched in 1998, and astronauts and scientists, such as Chris Hadfield and Tim Peake have enlightened us. Others have too.

In 2014, as part of the RTE Radio 1 science series What’s it all about? I got the opportunity to talk to an Italian astronaut called Paolo Nespoli, who spent six months onboard the I.S.S. about his life there.

Paolo, a married man with kids, employed by the Italian army, was onboard the I.S.S. for six months in 2006. He said it was a struggle at first for his body to adjust to the microgravity onboard the I.S.S.

Micro-gravity is defined as very small amounts of gravity; a negligible amount compared to what our bodies are used to here on Earth.

He suffered from nausea, and all the while he had to share a space of about 100 square metres – a modest apartment – with five colleagues.

He noticed that while they were all working on different surfaces in a relatively small space, the people rarely touched off each other.

They fly around like superman and the utilisation of all the 3D space meant that people could work on different surfaces and still have space.

There was a definite sense of constantly falling, he said, and that’s not a surprise because the I.S.S. IS constantly falling to Earth.

It doesn’t hit the Earth because the Earth is round, and it has booster rockets which keep it in a stable orbit 400 km above the Earth.

For the I.S.S. to stay in that relative position it needs to have an orbital speed of 28,000km per hour – or about 8km per second.

At that kind of speed, the I.S.S. does a full orbit of the Earth in about 1.5 hours or the same time as it takes to drive from Dublin to Belfast.

Paolo said that when he was living on the I.S.S. he had to get used to a sunrise or sunset every 40 or 50 minutes with 16 sunrises every day – defined as a 24 hour period.

There is a viewing area, and from there he said he could make out Italy and other parts of the world coming into view below.

Staying in touch 

NASA, and the other space agencies, make a big effort to ensure that people living on the I.S.S. do not feel isolated so there are telephones and people can call who they want.

Paolo called his family every night, and once a week he had a video conference with his family from the I.S.S. There is internet, and Paolo, like fellow I.S.S. astronauts Chris Hadfield, and the UK’s Tim Peake used social media to connect with a huge audience.

There are strange little things to get used, said Paolo,  like the fact that there is no more ‘up and down’ and fluids don’t automatically go into your stomach. That means it can feel like choking when you take a drink of something.

Paolo said that despite the painfully slow internet connection he could check his bank account, transfer money and pay his taxes from space!

During this time on the I.S.S. his mother died, and he couldn’t attend her funeral, but his colleagues on board gave him a one-minute silence.

Ireland’s involvement in space

Ireland is involved in a surprising amount of space projects, and the past decade or so saw the growth of a vibrant space industry here.

There are in the region of 50 Irish companies working directly with the European Space Agency with contracts to the value of 31 million euro.

Taking some examples:

For example, NASA and others are worried about the deterioration of bone and muscle tissue in people living in space for an extended time.

The trip to Mars may take up to three years to complete, and during this time people will experience muscle wasting from living in low gravity.

Dr Brian Caulfield and his team at UCD have designed a muscle stimulating device, which can help astronauts exercise while asleep.

This work has been funded and supported by the European Space Agency and could be relevant to all future manned space missions.

This 32 metre satellite dish based in Midleton Co Cork, will be used to track and monitor dangerous 'space junk' [Source: National Space Centre]

This 32 metre satellite dish based in Midleton Co Cork, is used to track and monitor dangerous ‘space junk’ [Source: National Space Centre]

One big danger to astronauts in space, is the growing problem of ‘space junk’ but an Irish company, the National Space Centre in Midleton Co Cork is using a 32 metre satellite dish to track and monitor space debris.

The dish was originally built in 1984 to transfer telephone calls between Ireland and the USA, but now it’s being used to track space junk.

Meanwhile, an Irish firm called Cortona 3D is helping train astronauts.

Cortona has been contracted by the ESA to develop training videos for astronauts so they are less likely to make mistakes in space.

Up to recently astronauts were faced with long lists of ‘to do’ tasks and reading manuals, but these videos take them visually through the jobs.

The Irish made videos will be helping astronauts to dock the Automatic Transfer Vehicle that carries food and other supplies to the I.S.S.

In January, meanwhile, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, announced it was to be a partner in Japan’s ASTRO-H space mission.

This is a mission that wishes to find out more about about things like black holes, and the dynamics of hot gas in galaxy clusters.

The mission is set for launch by the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA on the 12th February equipped with powerful equipment to observe x rays.

Observations in X-rays are a key part of modern astronomy and can only be made from space as X-rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Could humans live on Mars

The answer to that is a resounding yes, although there are many technical problems to be overcome to setting up a Mars colony.

Mars is incredible hostile for humans. It is very cold and as there is little atmosphere, there is no protection from harmful space radiation.

The average temperature on Mars is -60C and temperatures range from -126C in winter near the poles to 20C during summer near the equator.

Temperatures can fluctuate widely, and quickly and this can result in powerful dust storms which could clog up electronics and equipment.

Like an army invading a foreign country, supply lines will be crucial, as shipping materials from Earth will not be viable for the most part.

Gravity is just 40 per cent as strong as Earth, and there is little known about the long term effects of this on our bodies.

To survive the cold and lack of air pressure humans will need to live in pressurised and heated habitats, and NASA is offering a prize of $ 2.25 million to anyone who can design a 3D printed habitat for Mars.

It will be important to use the resources of the planet, as carrying water to Mars will use a lot of resources – water is heavy to carry across space.

It will be important to extract water from the Martian soil, which is feasible now that scientists know Mars once had flowing rivers.

This water can be used to generate drinking water, breathable air, and rocket fuel, but there is still the issue of food and other vital supplies.

Martians will have to grow their own plants and that means removing toxins from the Martian soil and using what we have learned on Earth about hydroponics – which is the growing of plants without soil.

The new science of genetic engineering might make it possible for Martians to engineer offspring adapted to conditions on mars.

There is also the strategy of changing Mars to better suit humans, rather than the other way around, through the process of terraforming.

This will require lots of greenhouse gases to warm up the planet, and it could also unleash frozen reserves of water buried under the soil.

The vision of some is to create a Mars where humans, or genetically engineered humans, could live on it without need for a spacesuit.

Certainly, the exploration of Mars up to now, which has been a fascinating story, has shown that it has the resources to support life.

The key life-supporting compounds of oxygen, nitrogen and water are available on Mars, though harnessing these will be a big challenge.

The Martian soil contains compounds with high chemical energy and this would help to manufacture rocket fuels on mars.

There is potential to harness solar and wind power, which are available on Mars too.

The new technology of 3D printing would also help Martians to print spare parts when things break rather than wait for Earth supplies.

Why go?

It’s in our nature to explore, and like ants, if some intrepid individuals don’t explore the health of the colony is at risk.

This is the second coming of space exploration. It is not driven by fear, as it was before, but by curiosity and our need to keep developing.














Could this Irish-invented device have solved VW’s diesel emissions problem?

A portable device, invented in Ireland, easily fitted to cars and trucks has been found to increase engine fuel efficiency by 15% and reduce harmful emissions of NOx compounds.

This is the conclusion of scientific tests on the device by Professor John Cassidy and Dr Michael Farrell, of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

The results of detailed tests on the ‘Nu Nrg Reformer’ – invented by Athlone-based businessman and architect David Harvey – will be published in an upcoming edition of the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.


Nu Nrg Reformer

The device pictured above – called a Nu Nrg Reformer – invented in Ireland has been scientifically proven to increase fuel burning efficiency in engines by 15%.

How it Works

The Reformer device pictured on the right works by extracting water from the reservoir tank above, and splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen gas, the two elements that make up water.

The electrical power needed to get the Reformer working initially comes through a link to the combustion engine’s battery.

When the Reformer gets going, it starts to produce the two gases, and this causes the water in the tank to circulate and heat up.

This in turn causes gases to form and bubbles of gas rise to the top of the water.

The hydrogen gas exits the Reformer via a pipe which carries it to the engine which it enters via its air intake valve.

The hydrogen is burned as a fuel, which reduces the engine’s need to burn petrol or diesel. This improves combustion efficiency and almost eliminates the smoke and soot, which are particularly associated with some diesel engines.

Water vapour is also generated along with hydrogen and oxygen, and it is also piped to the engine via the air intake valve.

This cools the combustion temperature and ensures that oxides of nitrogen (commonly known as NOx) which are damaging to human health are significantly reduced.

Meanwhile, the electronic control module – the ‘brain’ of the device – adjusts the electrical charge going into the Reformer.

This ensures that only the required amount of electricity is going into the Reformer for the job in hand.

The water in the reservoir can be re-filled, and is ‘deionized’ thereby removing charged molecules which conduct electricity and could interfere with the electrical current.

The steel enclosure acts to hold the unit safely and secure it in position on the vehicle.



“The device is an electrolyser,” explained Professor Cassidy, “which means it splits water into its basic parts, hydrogen and oxygen.”

“There is a lot of work going on trying to produce hydrogen from water and other sources, as a cleaner fuel option to burning fossil fuels.”

Fossil fuels are running out at an alarming rate, explained Prof Cassidy, and this is being exacerbated by the growing fuel demand in China and India, yet there has been little progress on identifying new fuel sources.

While fracking and nuclear power have competed with renewable forms of energy such as wind, tide and solar, Prof Cassidy continued, there is scope for what’s called the ‘hydrogen economy’ to expand.

The majority of hydrogen is synthesised using ‘steam reforming’, said Prof Cassidy, which requires fossil fuel and steam to produce hydrogen.

There is another method for producing hydrogen which is called electrolysis, where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using a direct electrical current. This accounts for only 4% of hydrogen production.

The Reformer device invented by David Harvey is an electrolyser.

The electrolysing method of producing hydrogen, said Prof Cassidy, is attracting greater interest because it offers the possibility of obtaining large amounts of hydrogen without the consumption of fossil fuels, emission of pollutant gases or use of nuclear power.

Cian O’Reilly, a chemistry graduate from DIT worked on the portable electrolysis cell in the DIT.

“The idea is to produce hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel in a combustion engine, reducing the need to burn petrol or diesel.”

“In a combustion engine, whether it uses petrol or diesel, this device supplies hydrogen to the engine via the air intake valve.”

“Since the device works at high temperature water vapour is also generated and introduced to the engine – essentially cooling it.”

“This cooling reduces the combustion temperature of petrol or diesel fuel in the engine, and, thus, the amount of NOx emissions produced.”

“Research has shown that introducing water vapour into the air intake valve of a diesel engine will reduce emissions and lead to a decrease in fuel consumption as less hydrocarbons will be burnt.”

The net result of fitting this portable device to an engine should increase its fuel burning efficiency by 15% and reduce emissions, said Prof Cassidy.


Inventor David Harvey, says that preliminary emissions tests in the laboratory showed a reduction in CO and NOx emissions – two gases which are poisonous to humans – by 91 and 93.4 per cent respectively.

Prof Cassidy said that while the emissions tests, which were carried out by Dr Jack Tracey at DIT, look promising, more testing is required.

The recent VW emissions scandal centred on the VW claiming falsely low NOx emissions from some of its popular brand of diesel powered cars.

Car manufacturers generally have struggled to find meet stringent NOx emissions regulations, particularly in the US, from diesel engines, while maintaining diesel engine performance.

“This device works at low direct electrical current, which means it requires less power input to achieve its efficiencies,” said Prof Cassidy.

“This also means it is safe, and we have shown it to be reliable and durable, as well as portable and inexpensive.”




Electric cars set to go driverless

Click above to hear discussion broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1, 30th November, ’15

Google Car

Google plans to bring a driverless electric car to market in 2018, and is already road testing driverless vehicles in California (Credit: Google)

Electric cars have been around the late 19th century, but they have never matched the appeal of cars run on either petrol or diesel.

That is all set to change, as the most popular cars on the market in coming decades are likely to be both electric and driverless.

The question is, is Ireland ready for electric, driverless cars, how do they work, are they safe? and how will they potentially make our lives better?


The first commercial electric cars appeared as early as the 1880s and ‘electric drive’ cars as they were called were popular with early drivers.

However, from the turn of the 20th century, there was a growing demand for cheaper automobiles, from the general public.

From the 1920s, petrol was becoming more easily available and cheaper, petrol driven cars had a longer range, had greater horsepower, and the introduction of automatic starting mechanisms in petrol cars increased their appeal to all groups.

Yet, from as early as 1908, when the first Model T Ford’s were mass produced, the popularity of the electric car was waning.

In the mid 1960s the United States Congress introduced the first bills recommending support for the development of a new generation of commercial electric cars to try and deal with the issue of air pollution.

This paved the way for a revival of interest in electric cars in the 1970s, a revival which was further helped following the soar in oil prices following the Oil Crisis of 1973, and the birth of the environmental movement.

It seemed to many back then, 40 years ago, that the time had come for electric cars, but people resisted buying them, due to their cost, so-called ‘range anxiety’ and the daily hassle of recharging their batteries.

The situation stayed like that for the following decades, with electric cars remaining a niche market, but in the last decade two things happened.

Governments, including the Irish government, began actively promoting e cars as a way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, and to reduce reliance on imports of fossil fuels from The Middle East.

In Ireland this mean grants for people buying e cars (there is a 5k grant in place) and tax relief. Allied to that the ESB began building a network of public charging points, and there are now about 2,000 on the island.

The other thing that happened is that battery technology – which has been slow to develop for technical reasons – has started to improve.

Fully electric cars (there are also electric/petrol and electric/diesel hybrids) are totally dependent on batteries, usually lithium ion types.

These batteries, like the ones in our smartphones, are efficient, but the are expensive. This of course, affects the sale price of e cars.

The e car batteries need to be 80 per cent cheaper, some industry analysts say, in order for e cars to break through into mass use, and truly  compete with cars based on the internal combustion engine (ICE).

Some believe it will be possible to make cost cutting improvements to the lithium ion battery, while others say a new battery technology is needed.


Electric are based on pretty simple technology, which hasn’t changed all that much since the first electric cars appeared in the 19th century.

One hundred per cent electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, the Ford Focus Electric and the VW e golf all make use of an electric motor.

There is a battery, of a series of connected batteries, that link to the electric motor and provide the power to drive the car forward.

They are green because they are based on electricity rather than petrol or diesel, but, of course, electricity can be produced by burning fossil fuels.

The battery is vital, as it charges the electric motor, and determines how far the car can travel without a charge, and its performance.

The first battery used in any electric vehicle was an old fashioned lead-acid battery which was itself invented in 1859.

The batteries that are, these days, used in electric cars are lithium ion batteries which are light, and have a good ability to store energy.

The problem with lithium ion batteries, as many of us will know from using smartphones, is that they need to be regularly recharged, and that after hundreds of recharges, they can become depleted, and just ‘die’.

So, there is a desperate need for a new battery technology that do not need to be recharged as often, and don’t die with lots of re charges.

From the buyers point of view, the big downside with electric cars is that they have to be recharged for hours, overnight, and that the driver might still, with a long journey, feel that he might needed a top up recharge.

This is something called ‘range anxiety’ and it’s a well known factor that has turns off buyers and that e car makers are trying to address.


Yes, there are a few competing options. Perhaps the most promising is one being developed in the UK at Cambridge University.

Scientists there last month announced they had found a way to develop batteries that are one-fifth the coast and weight of current e car batteries.

The technology is called lithium air technology and it’s important because it can reduce the cost of electric cars, while also enabling them to match the range of petrol and diesel cars.

Electric cars, based on these, the scientists say, could drive from London to Edinburgh with a single charge, hugely increasing the range of e cars.

This new technology also produces batteries which can store a lot of energy, and can recharge thousands of times without the battery dying.

Yet, lithium ion batteries, as well all know from our smartphones, have to be recharged often, and after repeated charging they can gradually die.

A lithium air battery can create a voltage from oxygen molecules – air – in the vicinity of the positive electrode. It appears to be a big breakthrough.

This all looks promising, but it is just emerging from the lab, is at the development stage, and may be a decade before it enters the real world.


Sales of e cars in Ireland remain disappointing low, despite the efforts of Government to promote e cars through subsidies, grants and tax breaks.

The ESB have been actively promoting the greater use of e cars in Ireland by building a network of public charging points and grants. Grants are of 5k are available from  the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland for buyers of new e cars.

Minister Coveney has been pictured driving a fully electric Nissan Leaf, and the ESB has been busy building infrastructure to support e cars.

Yet, in 2014, Ireland’s Central Statistics Office reported that just 222 electric cars were sold, which, is poor, but significantly up on the 55 cars that were sold in 2013.

The Government has set itself a target of 230,000 e cars being in use in Ireland by 2020. We currently have a little over 10,000 e cars here.

To compare, there were 13,929 petrol cars sold in 2014, and 47,559 diesel cars. So, electric is still very much a niche market in Ireland.

Ireland might use Norway as a comparison, a country of similar size, where 23, 390 electric vehicles were registered in 2014 alone.

The Norwegians have encouraged this through the lack of VAT on e cars, and free car parking, free access to bus lanes and free public charging points for e car owners. Ireland has followed some of these measures.


People are still reluctant to purchase e cars, and one of the mainr reasons is the ‘range anxiety’ already mentioned  as well as the perceived hassle of charging batteries for hours overnight.

People might also enjoy driving, and feel that an electric car, running silently without gear changes, is not what they traditionally enjoy.

For e cars to really take hold here, the Government might have to follow Norway’s lead and allow e cars travel in bus lanes, and park for free.

Allied to that, the cost of e cars needs to come down. I think they really need to be cheaper than existing petrol or diesel cars to break through.

They might also need to have a ‘unique selling point’ that marks them out as distinctly different or superior to petrol or diesel cars.

There are signs that this might happen, as electric cars are set to become driverless, and that this will happen a lot faster than we might imagine.


Hard-nosed analysts of the global car industry are convinced driverless cars WILL happen, and will happen in the near future.

Certainly, companies with huge reputations like Google, and Apple are reportedly investing in developing a driverless, electric car.

Volvo are working on one too, as are BMW, and legislation has already been passed in some US states permitting cars to be driverless.

VW too, who are under huge pressure these days of course, are reportedly work on an electric driverless car of their own.

The people who look at these things closely are expecting that a driverless car will be for sale inside the next five years.

The market potential is huge, according to the Boston Consulting Group, who estimate the driverless car market will be worth $42 billion by 2015.

The Google X driverless car is expected to hit the market in 2018, with Apple’s Project Titan to arrive in or around the same time.

It is very interesting that technology companies like Google and Apple are investing so heavily and secretively in driverless cars.

These giants clearly believe that people will be travelling in driverless, electric cars in future, using the Net, Apps, or whatever else freely.

Inside a Google car, Google have a captive audience to promote all kinds of other technology which people will use freely on their way to work.

Many of the barriers that would have blocking the development of the driverless car are being removed.

The two biggest blocks are legislation and the willingness of people to use them. A lot is happening on the legislation side.

For example, six states in the US have already passed legislation allowing the testing of driverless cars out on the public roads.

The world has already had its first driverless car crash, which happened in July last when a driverless Lexus crashed and three Google employees got minor injuries.

Also, just last week a the Google driverless car had an encounter with the law in Silicon Valley California for driving 24 mph in a 35 mph zone.

The police officer pulled over the prototype car and spoke with the people inside, but no ticket was issued.


Irish and UK legislation would have to be substantially changed to allow for driverless cars to operate here, but it needs to happen urgently.

The UK is addressing this in law, and we need to too.

The other legal issue people would have is who is to blame if a driverless car crashes. People don’t want to be held account for something that is not under their control – understandably.

This led Volvo last month to say that it would take liability for any crash of any of its driverless cars – others will probably follow.

But, generally speaking the driverless car will be far safer than a car piloted by a human, who may be tired, distracted, or drunk.

Game changer 

We have had technologies in our cars which are not under our control already for years.

The best example perhaps would be ABS braking. This has been around since the 1980s, where control of the braking is taken from the driver to best ensure that wheels don’t lock, and spin out of control.

There are also systems which help us to park -self parking systems – where sensors guide a car as well as cruise control.

But, the vision for a driverless car goes way beyond these familiar features to a situation where a person, or persons, sit in, type or speak in a destination point, and then sit back and relax, read or work.

The driverless car will be able to sense its surrounding using existing technologies like RADAR, GPS and computer vision.

They will update their maps based on sensory input, and be able to track their position everywhere and adjust to all driving conditions.

Most of the ideas for driverless envisage a person in a driver’s seat, with a cloud, or wifi connection to other vehicles all around them.

The vehicles will communicate each other’s position and destination, and share the sensory input on road blocks,  accidents or weather conditions.

All that intelligence will better get everyone safely from A to B. Dublin might have a swarm of electric vehicles, efficiently moving all of us.

A giant, traffic management system, with zero pollution, and an order of magnitude safer than what have. Safety, and efficiency might drive this.

It is not about breakthrough technology it is about incorporating a range of existing technology into a 21st century vehicle, which has, up to now, been run on an internal combustion engines, born in the 19th century.




The diesel engine – a nineteenth century invention – remains the world’s most widely used engine, but does it have a future?

Click above to listen to discussion on the diesel engine, past, present and future, above on Today with Sean O’Rourke

Click above to listen to discussion with Ann-Marie Donelan, presenter of The Grapevine show, on CRC 102.9 FM

The diesel engine was designed more than a century ago, yet it remains the engine that, more than other, powers our 21st century world.

The diesel is used everywhere from mines, cars, trains, ships and lorries, yet it has changed little since it was invented by Rudolf Diesel in 1892.

There are many remarkable aspects to the  history and development of the diesel, still the world’s favourite engine.

VW Passat Diesel

A Volkswagen Passat CC car is tested for its exhaust emissions at a testing station in London (Credit: John Stillwell/PA)


Diesel engines are in the news because it is a diesel engine that is at the heart of the Volkswagen pollution emissions scandal, which is still playing out.

The background to the scandal is the tightening restrictions by the US, the European Union and others on emissions of certain gases in cars.

There is a dual demand on car manufacturers to produce cars that perform well, run smoothly, are fuel efficient, and ‘clean and green’.

Car manufactures must deliver both, because if they don’t, they their cars will be taxed heavily, and people don’t want to buy ‘dirty’ cars.

The problem is, according to some engineers, that our law-makers were essentially asking VW and the other car makers to do the impossible.

We can’t have our cake and eat it, the engineers say. We can either have clean, green, fuel efficient cars, or we can have high performing cars, we can’t have both.

People buy diesel cars in particular, because they want to buy a car that is cheaper to run, reliable, fuel efficient, and performs well.

The noose has been tightening around the necks of VW and others because the regulations on emissions have been steadily tightening.

At some point, a decision was obviously made that the only option – faced with the impossible – was to cheat the regulator’s tests.

It was relatively easy to cheat the tests, as EPA car tests in the US are standard, and done on machines. Who else is doing this we must ask?

Diesel Engine 1906

A 1906 diesel engine built by MAN AG (Source: Wikipedia)

How does a Diesel engine work?

Diesels work by converting chemical energy in diesel fuel into mechanical energy which is put to use by the engine.

The energy in diesel is released following an uncontrolled explosion when it comes into contact with very hot, pressurised air.

This ignition, or explosion occurs when diesel, which has first been atomised is sprayed by fuel injection into the compressed air.

This creates energy which initially drives a linear motion, up and down, of a piston, which is transferred to a rotary motion of the crankshaft.

Because the diesel ignition is uncontrolled, it is not smooth like a petrol engine, and the cylinders must be contained inside a heavy engine block.

The energy from the ignition pushes the piston down, inlet valves open, and fresh air is allowed into the engine from the outside.

The diesel engine effectively takes an ‘in breath’.

When the energy is expended, the piston moves up again, the ‘second stroke’ of the engine, and the fresh air is compressed.

The inlet and exhaust valves are closed so that the air cannot escape and is compressed. The temperature and pressure of the air rise to a value that is higher than the self-ignition value of the diesel.

This means the diesel ignites immediately on contact with the pressurised air. The air is circulated by a bowl (during the compression stroke) at the top of the piston which ensures an even spread of fuel.

Each engine cycle requires two strokes, breath in, and breath out if you like. However, many diesel engines are four stroke so that the energy produced is more evenly spread, and there is less shaking.

There are different amounts of energy produced by the uncontrolled explosion of diesel via each stroke. The more strokes, the more even the energy spread.

In a four-cylinder engine, with 4 driving pistons, there can be 4 power strokes happening at the same time, so the power stroke is always present in the engine.

The more cylinders a diesel engine has, the smoother it will operate. A heavy flywheel (timing belt) also helps to smooth out non uniformity of power, as do various weights applied to the crank shaft.

The operation of a diesel engine is all about producing high temperature and high pressure air continuously.

GERMANY - JUNE 06: In 1892 Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) patented a design for a new type of internal combustion engine. In 1897 he produced a 25 horsepower, four-stroke, single vertical cylinder compression engine, the high efficiency of which, together with its comparative simplicity of design, made it an immediate commercial success. Subsequent royalty fees brought great wealth to its inventor. He was lost overboard from the mail steamer 'Dresden' during a trip to London in 1913 and was assumed to have drowned. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine (Source: Wikipedia)


It was invented by German engineer Rudolf Diesel, who took out patents on a diesel engine in 1892 and 1993.

Diesel became famous and successful very quickly, as his engines went into production all around the world.

In 1897 the American brewery magnate Adolphus Busch acquired a license to make the machine for about one million marks, or about $50,000.

Soon the Busch Diesel engines were being built in the USA and Canada for locomotives, factories and ships.

Diesel now became primarily a salesman for his engine, and he moved with family moved into a palatial mansion in Munich.

From there, he spent much of his time taking legal action to prevent patent applications, by other engineers seeking to improve on his engine.

This cost him a lot of time and nervous energy. It was mostly a waste of his effort, as he wasn’t usually successful. in court.

Overworked, stressed by patent trials, and pressurised by his family’s expensive lifestyle, Diesel got sick, and his fortune was gobbled up, without his knowledge.

When he became aware that his fortune was gone, it took it very badly. In 1913, Rudolf Diesel vanished from the ferry, the S.S. Dresden, as she sailed to England.

The date of his death is marked in his diary by a cross. Suggests Diesel chose to take his own life by suicide.

Diesel versus petrol 

Diesel fuel is far less refined than petrol. It is a mixture of hydrocarbon molecules produced by the distillation of crude oil.

Petrol is far more explosive, and will light instantly when a match is put to it. Petrol is volatile even at room temperature and lets off fumes, and the vapour is flammable, so it is a dangerous fuel to have in an engine.

Diesel engines are based on a design where fuel is atomised and sprayed onto a compressed chamber of air, which results in small explosions.

This provides a lot of power potentially, but it is also means that the engine can be subject to shaking, and needs a hard body to contain it.

The petrol in petrol engines are ignited by spark plugs which light a fuel that has been highly refined and premixed before entering the engine.

The petrol engine, because it uses a more refined fuel, and because its ignition is less explosive, tend to be smoother running than diesel.

Both engines convert chemical energy present in the fuel into mechanical energy, which does useful work in driving the pistons up and down.

Diesel engines are better at converting more chemical energy into useful work, so they are said to be more efficient engines with less energy loss.

So, in most petrol engines, petrol and fuel are pre-mixed before being compressed. This was done in the ‘old days’ by a carburetor, but in cars today there is electronically controlled fuel injection.

In a diesel engine, the fuel is injected into very hot air, which has been compressed, at the end of a compression ‘stroke’ and self ignites.

Diesel is a thicker, heavier fuel than petrol, which works best in an engine going at a constant speed, and can solidify at low temperatures.

Big Diesel Engines

The world’s biggest and most powerful engines, like this one built for a supertanker, are invariably diesel engines (Source:

Why is the diesel so important ?

Diesel is crucial because it is the workhorse of industry. Diesel engines are reliable, powerful and safe, as they don’t use flammable fuel.

They are used everywhere, particularly where a lot of power is required such as trains, boats, lorries, submarines and tractors.

They are also used in cars, where they are touted to provide power, performance, as well as low emissions of pollutants.

No other engine still today is so versatile and is used in so many applications. The vast majority of the world’s commercial, industrial , agricultural, mining and military vehicles are diesel powered.

It is remarkable that a 19th century invention is still the most important engine in the world in the 21st century. Diesel engines power the world.

What kind of pollutants do diesel engines emit? 

Diesel exhaust emissions contain toxic air contaminants some of which listed as cancer-causing.

Diesel cars, emit around 20 times more so called NOx (nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide) as a result of their combustion design, than petrol engines, as well as small amounts carbon monoxides.

NOx is formed when nitrogen and oxygen from the air are combined – under heat and pressure. More heat and pressure gives you more NOx.

Diesel also contains sulphur, which can be hazardous to human health. Exposure to diesel particulate matter (or dpm, such as soot particles)

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that even short term exposures to NO2, of 30 minutes, can result in airway inflammation in healthy people, and worse effects for those with asthma.

Exposure to NO2 linked with increased visits to A&E for respiratory issues. NO and NO2 are together often referred to as NOx and both are potentially harmful.

People living near roadways have been shown exposed to 30 to 100% higher concentrations of NO2 than those living away from roads, the US EPA says.

When nitric oxides are subject to heat and sunlight they react with volatile organic compounds to produce Ozone, which is also linked with all kinds of respiratory problems.

What did the ‘real world’ tests on VW diesels show up?

The hidden damage from these 11 million VW vehicles affected could equate to all of the UK’s NOx emissions from all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture.

The EPA tests have known practices and profiles. In many cases, the test vehicles are put on rollers and run at a certain speed for a certain time, then at another known speed for another known period.

The car’s central computer can detect whether inputs match those expected in test conditions.

A non governmental agency, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), performed independent – and crucially on-road – emissions tests, on the VW Passat, the VW Jetta, and a BMW X5.

The Jetta was found to be emitting up to 35 times the allowable limit of nitrogen oxide and the Passat up to 20 times.

These tests followed five routes on similar lines to the EPA simulations: highway, urban, suburban and rural up/downhill driving.

The emissions performance of the Volkswagen, but not the BMW, cars was so much worse than expectations that the ICCT ran further tests on a dynamometer.

In these circumstances, the cars passed with flying colours. It was at this point that the ICCT contacted the EPA.

Merdes Bens Diesel

The first diesel powered car was the 1936 Mercedes Benz 260D (Credit: Zoltan Glas)

How has the engine improved over the years?

Before World War 1, submarines were built with diesel engines, which were not as flammable and dangerous to the submariners.

After World War 1, where the diesel was widely used, the engine was adapted for an increasing number of peacetime usages.

The first big improvement was the move away from the cumbersome air blast injection system for diesels.The fact that a large compressor had to be attached to the engine prevented it being used in many situations.

Then in the 1920s, engineers developed. something called the Jerk type pump. This pump measured out a  precise amount of fuel to be delivered as a spray to the engine at the precise moment it was required.

This fuel injection technology got rid of the need for an air compressor, and allowed for smaller, lighter diesels to be built and widely used.

Only on the roads, was the diesel engine slow to come in, and it was not until 1924, that MAN and Daimler Benz built the first diesel lorry.

It took even longer, until 1935, until the first diesel powered car appeared, the Mercedes Benz 260D.

The traditional design for the diesel engine was too noisy and heavy for road vehicles. However, in the late 20 century that engineers gave diesel cars better ‘road manners’.

Achieving this, however, was, it the expense of the environment. The more efficient combustion of diesel engines meant that the soot particles in diesel car exhausts became smaller and smaller, and more harmful to health since they could be inhaled more easily.

Engineers came up with a particle filter under the car, which collects and burns the soot particles. This type of filter is used in race cars and light aircraft.

The diesel became the engine of choice for military equipment on the ground and at sea during World War 11.

After the war, it was adapted for use in construction machinery, large tractors, most large trucks and buses.

Ultra-reliable diesel engines came into use in hospitals, telephone exchanges, and airports to provide power during power outages.

What happens if I put gasoline into a diesel engine?

Diesel in a gasoline engine will not even cause ‘firing’ because diesel is less volatile and will not mix with the air properly-sparking will not initiate combustion.

But, if you put gasoline in a diesel engine, you are putting a highly volatile fuel into a chamber of highly compressed and hot air.

This will lead to detonations, rather than smooth combustion, and eventually the engine components can get damaged!

Why is it so hard to develop clean diesel engines?

Diesel fuel is full of long hydrocarbon chains, and a gallon of diesel fuel contains more energy than a gallon of petrol.

The problem is that when diesel is burned in an uncontrollable way it is hard to control the waste products, which often include sulphur.

The old diesel cars, such as the 1979 Oldsmobile in the US spewed lots of tiny sulphur-containing particles into the air.

These days diesel car makers are good at trapping this kind of emission and the use of ultra-low sulphur diesel fuel helps.

However, it has proved more difficult for car makers to deal with the NOx gases, NO, NO2, and NO3.

These form at naturally at high temperatures, which are essential for a diesel engine to work. The react with sunlight and form ozone, which is O3.

Ozone is an irritant and bad for human health. It makes our yes water, our throat hurt, worsens asthma and causes heart problems too.

Diesel cars produce far more NOx than petrol cars.

The problem for engineers is that the temperatures and pressures under which a diesel engine runs best (in terms of pep and fuel efficiency) are also the conditions which will convert the maximum amount of oxygen and nitrogen into NOx.

With spontaneous ignition of diesel it’s not easy to keep track of what compounds have formed, and then to clean them up.

Also, it should be noted that in Europe, where about half of all cars run on diesel, there is less regulatory focus on NOx than greenhouse gases.

Does the Diesel engine have a future?

Many engineers believe the diesel has a bright future. It’s an engine that can run on peanut oil, and other biodiesels as Diesel himself showed.

There is no cheaper or more environmentally form of power today than combining a diesel engine with plant oil. If eco fuels catch on, it will be the final fulfillment of Rudolf Diesel’s dream.

Fancy a holiday on Mars?; the science behind the VW scandal; what Snowdon got wrong about aliens; rechargeable solar/ wind roof batteries

Click above to listen to the discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

HD's Vista Set

The discovery of water on Mars means that holiday makers this century could see sights like this  (Credit:

The discovery of water on Mars has increased the chances of it becoming the ultimate holiday destination. Martian water, although salty, could be made drinkable, used to generate electricity and as a rocket fuel.

The VW diesel emissions scandal only came to light when diesel VW’s cars were subjected to a random test, in ‘real’ road conditions. This revealed that nitrous oxide emissions were up to 35 times higher than what was permitted.

Edward Snowden, in a rare interview from hiding, commented that alien messages would be likely to be so heavily encrypted as to render them invisible. Alien hunting scientists quickly stepped in to contradict his remarks.

Cheap, reliable, rechargeable batteries, which could store energy from the sun or wind, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, store it, and release it as required, have been developed by Harvard University scientists.

[The item above was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 1st October 2015.]

Battery technology has changed little since Volta, but are longer lasting batteries finally here?

The discussion above was broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke on 14th September, 2015

Volta's Battery

Battery technology has changed little since Alessandro Volta’s stacked battery of 1799, here being demonstrated above to Napoleon. But, a technological breakthrough may finally be on the way (Source: Jean Loup Charmet/ Science Photo Library)

We take batteries for granted, but it is hard to imagine a world without them. Think about it for a moment. Almost everything that requires power, makes use of battery power.

The list includes cars (electrical and fuel powered), children’s toys, bicycle lights, recording devices, hearing aids, and, of course, our beloved laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Batteries have, however, become a limiting technology, and for years have been acting like a brake on the development of ever faster, more powerful electronic devices and gadgets.

Whereas, the power of a microchip – the brain of our electronic devices – has doubled every two years or so, since the 1970s, battery power, upon which they rely, hasn’t kept pace.

While the microchip has been doubling its power relentlessly every couple of years, engineers have struggled to get an extra 30 per cent of power from batteries over the same time frame.

The remarkable thing is that until recently, the technology upon which batteries are based hadn’t changed much since the first working battery designed by Alessandro Volta in 1799.

Yet there are many new technologies in development which could provide the long sought breakthrough that would provide us – at last – with batteries that can provide power at a high enough level and long enough to suit our needs.


In 1791 Luigi Galvani noticed that an electrical circuit created with two different metals, when touched on two ends of the leg of a dead frog, would cause the frog’s leg to twitch.

The two metals were creating an electric current within the frog’s leg, causing its muscles to contract. This was a transfer of chemical energy into electrical energy – a primitive battery.

The first simple, working battery, as we would recognise it today, which became known as the Voltaic pile, was built by Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist in 1799.

Volta’s battery was not the first device created by humans which could produce electricity, as the famous ‘Baghdad Battery’ dates back to about 200 BC.

These batteries were discovered by an archaeologist called Wilhelm Konig, outside Baghdad in 1938. They were small jars, which held an iron rod contained in copper.

Tests on the batteries indicated that the jars had been filled with some kind of acidic substance like vinegar or wine, leading researchers to theorise that they were ancient batteries.

However, the Volta battery was the first to produce a steady, lasting electrical current.

Volta’s battery had two electrodes. An electrode, to explain, is something which exists to create a connection between an electric conductor and a non electrical conductor.

So, a lamp that is connected to a battery would be connected by an electrode, which would carry the electrical current from the battery, to the lamp, via safe, non conduction materials.

The electrodes in the Volta battery were circular disks of zinc metal and copper metal, separated by cardboard paper in between them, which was soaked in salty water.

An electrolyte is something either liquid, or molten, which is full of ions, or negatively charged atoms, which are the basic building blocks of electricity. Volta’s electrolyte was salty water.

Chemical reactions in the electrolyte led to a positive charge being created at the zinc electrode – the anode – and a negative charge created at the copper end – the cathode.

The electricity in battery flows from towards the positive cathode, because electricity by its nature is negatively charge, and in Volta’s battery this flow could not be reversed.

One problem with Volta’s battery was there was a buildup of hydrogen gas, a by-product of the chemical reactions,which formed a barrier between the electrolyte and the electrodes.

Thus, the effectiveness of the Volta battery diminished over time. Furthermore, when more acidic electrolytes came into use, batteries could often be dangerous to handle.

Another problem was that because the Volta battery was built in a stack, the weight of the stack would, after a certain height, begin to squeeze the brine out of the cardboard.

Model T Ford

The 1926 Model T Ford, pictured here, was the first mass produced car to have an automatic starting key. This was possible by using a battery designed by Irish priest Fr Nicholas Callan in 1837 (Credit:

Fr Callan’s Battery

One of the key researchers in what scientific historians call ‘the electric century’ – the 19th century – when electricity was harnessed and made widely available – was an Irish priest.

Fr Nicholas Callan was a 19th century battery pioneer and Catholic priest, based at at what was then part of The Catholic University of Ireland (now called Maynooth University).

He built some of the most powerful batteries and magnets that had ever been built in his workshop at Maynooth, and he spent long hours there, immersed in his researchers.

Callan, unlike scientists today, did not publish his findings, but when he had mastered some aspect of knowledge, he simply moved on to the next topic that he was interested in.

This meant that he did not get credit for the extent of his contribution to the development of the battery, and to the widespread availability of electricity until relatively recent times.

One of his inventions, called the induction coil, was a quantum leap for battery technology when he invented it in 1837. It was the first immensely powerful battery ever invented.

Our modern cars can be started by a simple turn of a key, thanks to a battery designed by Irish priest in the 19th century, and put into a Model T Ford in 1926.

Up until the 1920s, cars had to be started by manually by turning a hand crank. This was physically demanding, and people that were not young and fit often couldn’t manage it.

Callan developed an induction coil in 1837, almost a century before, which provided a way to massively ramp up the electrical power available to a small Model T car battery.

The 1926 Model T Ford, was the first car that went into mass production with an electrical starting mechanism, and this meant anyone, regardless of age or health, could drive a car.

The technical trick that Callan uncovered was to repeatedly break the electrical circuit in a battery by dipping copper wires in liquid mercury cups.

Callan found that the more rapidly he could break the current, using his ‘repeater’, the more intense the flow of electricity produced would become.

He was a quiet intense man, who spent hours in his laboratory at what is now NUI Maynooth. HIs fellow clerics wondered at his interest in science, and regard his lab work as useless.

Daniell Cell

Around the same time Fr Callan was working, in the 1830s, a British scientist John Daniell, developed an improved version of Volta’s battery which was called the Daniell cell.

The so-called Daniell Cell was made up of two metal plates, one of copper and one of zinc, and two solutions, of copper sulfate and zinc sulfate, all in a simple glass jar.

Copper sulfate is denser than zinc sulfate so it sank to the bottom of the glass jar and surrounded a copper plate. The lighter zinc sulfate floated on top of the copper sulfate and it was surrounded by a zinc plate. The zinc plate was negative and the copper the positive.

This worked well for stationary applications, such as powering doorbells, and early telephones, but it didn’t work for mobile applications such as powering a flashlight. But, it worked.


The principles of what happens when you put a battery into your remote control or flashlight today, in September 2015, is similar to the early batteries, going back more than 200 years.

Basically, chemistry is being used to generate electricity, and move it from one part of the battery to the other, and then into the device where the electrical power is consumed.

In simplest terms, the chemical reactions in the anode, or negative end of the battery, creates electrons, which are the basic units of electricity.

These electrons are transferred in the electrolyte substance, which is liquid of some sort, often an acid, from the anode, to the positive end of the battery, the cathode, via a current.

At the cathode chemical reactions occur which essential absorb the electrons, and their energy, to produce electricity, which is transferred to a device running on battery power.

The battery will continue to produce electricity until one, or both, of the electrodes, run out of the substances which are needed to produce and absorb electricity respectively.

Modern batteries are still based on using chemistry to produce, absorb and transfer electricity. We have got better – somewhat – at manipulating the chemistry to make better batteries.

There are zinc-carbon batteries, alkaline batteries, lithium ion batteries and lead-acid batteries in common usage today.

The lead-acid battery, which is used in a typical car battery has electrodes made of lead oxide and metallic lead, while the electrolyte is a sulfuric acid solution.

These are dangerous to handle, and an environmental nightmare, but they produce enough electricity to get a car started in the morning, and that is what we all ultimately want.

The alkaline batteries, are the kinds of batteries we buy in shops, to put into children’s toys, for example. The cathode here is a manganese dioxide mixture, and the anode a zinc powder.

It gets its name, however, from its potassium hydroxide electrolyte, an alkaline substance..

Acids are often excellent electrolytes, because they strongly ionize in solution. They can produce a lot of ions when put into solution, whether they are positive or negative.

ither way, acids don’t form stable molecules when put in solution. The create ions, which are highly mobile in solution, and facilitate the conduction of electricity.

Rechargeable batteries

In the modern era it has become important to develop decent rechargeable batteries, such as mobile phone charges, which can be plugged in and recharged on the move.

However, rechargeable batteries have been around a long time. In fact they date back as far as 1859 when Gaston Plante, a French physicist invented the humble lead acid battery.

We know that lead acid batteries in our cars can run out, hence the jump leads we carry in the boot. The jump leads are used to re-charge the battery from another battery usually.

The difference between a rechargeable battery and a non-rechargeable one is that the chemical reactions producing electric current in a rechargeable battery are reversible.

As the world, a became increasingly mobile, it was vital to invent a powerful, rechargeable battery. Along came the lithium-ion battery in 1991 (by Sony and Asahi Kasei)

In this battery, charge could be reversed, and the products that were in the battery were not going to be used up rapidly, or diminished in power with multiple weekly charges.

The lithium-ion battery, which goes into so many of our devices, is one such rechargeable battery. These are high performance batteries, which often used lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode and carbon as its anode. These materials, lithium, and carbon, are also very light.

owever, lithium ion batteries still need an electrolyte, typically lithium salt, which is in solution. So, these high technology batteries are still limited by the need for a liquid solution.

The future

There are many competing technologies working to develop the breakthrough that will move batteries on to the next stage.

There are solid state batteries, and solar batteries, and even batteries, which scientists have recently proposed, which could be based on thin air?

Solid state batteries will be made of solid electrodes and solid electrolytes. They can be easily miniaturised, and long shelf lives. They also are not prone to reduced performance due to temperature like liquid electrolytes, when exposed to near freezing or boiling conditions.

The technical problem with solid state batteries, however, is that it is proving difficult for engineers to get high electrical currents moving easily across solid to solid surfaces.

Solar batteries are another technology being explored, as the next big thing in batteries, and these are based on converting the energy in sunlight directly into electrical energy.

The materials used are those that change their electrical characteristics in response to sunlight. They work in a similar way to solar panels, but they need to be smaller of course.

Wind batteries 

Tesla Motors, from the US, meanwhile, are developing industrial scale batteries, which can be used to power the home, they say, or to store energy from renewable sources like wind.

In May Tesla and an Irish company Gaelectric announced they were going to work on a large utility scale battery power project in Ireland.

The plan is to demonstrate that Tesla batteries, can store energy from the sun and the wind, which there is plenty of in Ireland, and release in quantities sufficient for utilities to use.

Tesla also wants to enable business and homes to be able to store renewable energy from the Sun, and wind to manage their power needs, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

However, when it comes to our electronic devices, it seems that a workable solar battery, which is powerful and cheap, and reliable is still no-where in sight.

Solar powered batteries can be sluggish on start-up when they are cold, and they don’t have enough power, of the type that an iPhone requires, for example to do the job.

Their role maybe to have a solar battery on the iPhone as a back-up to use in an emergency when the battery is running low and there is no electrical socket in sight.


Future iPhones could run on hydrogen refuelled via the headphone socket. Intelligent Energy, a British firm behind the breakthrough, expects there’ll be a gas cartridge slot (Credit: iFixit)

Intelligent Energy says it made an iPhone 6 with a battery which creates electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen – that means air! – to last the phone for a week.

The bonus is that the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, produces only small amount of water and heat as waste products.

This announcement has been shrouded in secrecy as it correct this will be a massive breakthrough. The company said its fuel cell system was incorporated into the current iPhone 6 without any alteration to the size or shape of the device.

The only difference, compared to other handsets is that there are rear vents where a tiny amount of water vapour waste is allowed to escape.

Intelligent Energy, who are reportedly working closely with Apple, said they are considering what price to sell their cartridges at, so it’s not going to be part of the iPhone per se.

It’s likely the cartridge might sell for just the cost of a latte, company executives said, and even so, a 300 billion Sterling market per year could open up.

DNA-based computers set to replace silicon

Click above to listen to discussion with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke, broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on 27th August 2015

DNA Computers

DNA-based computers have already been built and they look set to replace silicon computers in coming years (Source:

We love our electronics, or most of us do, and every year or two, when we go to buy a new phone, computer or laptop we all expect to buy a faster, more intelligent device.

The microchips inside our electronics are ‘the brain’ of the device. They  are currently made up of silicon, an abundant material found in sand.

However, some time soon, perhaps very soon, silicon-based chips will no longer be able to provide devices with the extra speed and functionality that buyers demand.

The big question is, if electronic devices are not based on silicon, as they have been for decades now, what will they be based on?

It might come as a surprise to some to learn that DNA, the genetic material inside every human cell, is a leading contender to fill silicon’s shoes.


In a way, it makes perfect sense to use DNA for computers.  DNA is brilliant at storing and processing information, and is made up of  a simple, reliable code.

Yet the idea of using DNA in computers didn’t emerge until as late as 1994.

That was when Leonard Adleman, of the University of Southern California showed that DNA could solve a well-known mathematical problem.

The problem was a variation of what mathematicians call the ‘directed Hamilton Path problem. In English that translates to ‘the travelling salesman problem’.

In brief, the problem is to find the shortest route between a number of cities going through each city just once.

The problem gets more difficult the more cities are added to the problem. Adelman solved the problem,using , for seven cities in the US.

Thing is, it is not a hugely difficult problem, and a clever enough human using paper and pencil could probably work it out faster than Adelman’s DNA computer.

The importance of what Adelman did was to show that DNA could be used to solve computational problems – what we might call a proof of concept today.

He used synthesised DNA strands to represent each one of the seven cities and other strands were made for each of the possible flight paths between the cities.

He then performed a number of experimental techniques on the DNA strands to get the single answer that he wanted. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

It was slow, but he showed it could be done.

The question now was, what else can we do with DNA?

Purified Silicon

Purified silicon, pictured here, is sourced primarily from sand and is an abundant element in the Earth’s crust (Source: Wikipedia)


The most important element is silicon, pictured here on the right, which is the material used to make the microchip; the brain of our phones, pads and laptops if you like.

The first silicon chip was made in 1968, and it became the material of choice for the emerging computer industry in the years and decades that followed.

It is an abundant material, found in sand, and in rocks like granite and quartzite, and this abundance means it is cheap, and easy to find, all over the world.

It is also a semiconductor, which means it conducts electricity, although badly. It is halfway between a conductor, such as metal, and an insulator, such as rubber.

It would be very hard to control electricity, in terms of switching transistors on and off, using a material that conducted electricity or block its flow entirely.

This semiconducting property makes it easier to control the flow of electricity in a silicon microchip, which is crucial to success of the microchip technology.

Other materials

Aside from silicon, there are plastics, which make up a lot of the weight of many devices and laptops, in the body, circuit boards, wiring, insulation and fans.

These are plastics like polystyrene, a common one, are made up of carbon and hydrogen, two of the most common elements in nature.

There are metals, but usually light metals, such as aluminium, which is popular because it is light, and strong and has a sleek, modern appearance.

Aluminium comes from bauxite mining, and a lot of energy is spent in extracting the ore aluminium from the bauxite rock in big producer nations like Australia.

There is some steel for structural support and for things like screws, and copper is still used in wiring on circuit boards and to connect electrical parts.

The battery is key, of course, and typically it is a lithium-iron battery these days. These batteries also have cobalt, oxygen and carbon.

Rare earths

There are also small elements of rare materials, or rare earths such as gold or platinum, or neodymium, which is used for tiny magnets inside tiny motors.

electronic devices, including iPhones and other devices. This,has proved controversial as the process that extracts those rare earths from the ground is environmentally risky, some believe.

Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets inside the iPhones to make speakers vibrate and create sound.

Europium is a material that creates a bright red colour on an iPhone screen and Cerium is used by workers to polish phones as the go along the assembly line.

The iPhone wouldn’t work without the various rare earths contained in it. Ninety per cent of the rare earths are mined in China, where environmental rules are slacker.


There is a human price to be paid – elsewhere – for our shiny, fast, new devices.

For example, a centre of rare earth mining is a place called Baotou, in Inner Mongolia. The town has dense smog, and a radioactive ‘tailings’ lake west of the city, where rare earth processors dump their waste, described as “an apocalyptic sight”.

Radioactive waste has seeped into the ground, plants won’t grow, animals are sick, and people report their teeth falling out, and their hair turning white.

The people that risk their lives mining for  the rare materials that need to make make the electronics we love, usually live far away from Europe or North America.

China is a major centre for such mining, and Australia is significant too.

DNA is ‘clean’ 

When scientists built a computing running on DNA in Israel in 2003, it contained none of the silicon, metals or rare earths used in our devices today.

It could also perform 330 trillion operations per second, which was a staggering 100,000 times faster than silicon-based personal computers.

A DNA computer would be much ‘greener’ and more in keeping with our 21st century ideas of sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint.

DNA computers don’t need much energy to work. It is just a case of putting DNA molecules into the right chemical soup, and controlling what happens next.

If built correctly, and that is where the technical challenge likes, a DNA computer will sustain itself on less than one millionth of the energy used in silicon chip technology.


There have been a few important milestones since the pioneering work of Adelman in California opened the door to DNA computers back in 1994.

A lot of the progress has happened in the Weizmann Institute for Science in Israel, a world class institute in a country even smaller than our own.

Between 2002 and 2004, scientists there produced a computer based on DNA and other biological materials, rather than silicon.

They came up with a DNA computer which was, they said, capable of diagnosing cancer activity inside a cell, and releasing an anti-cancer drug after diagnosis.

More recently in 2013, researcher stored a JPEG photo, the text of a set of Shakespearean sonnets and an audio file of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech using DNA.

This proved that DNA computers were very good at storing data, which is something that DNA has evolved to do over millions of years in the natural world.

DNA computers are on the way that will be far better at storing data than existing computers which use cumbersome magnetic tape or hard drive storage systems.

The reason is simple. DNA is a very dense, highly coiled molecule that can be packed tightly into a small space.

It lives in nature inside tiny cells. These cells are only visible under a microscope, yet the DNA from one cell would stretch to 2 metres long if uncoiled and pulled straight.

The information stored in DNA also can be stored safely for a long time. We know this because DNA from extinct creatures, like the Mammoth, has lasted 60,000 years or more when preserved in ice, in dark, cold and dry conditions.

One of the few advantages of our Irish weather is that it is makes it an attractive place for high technology companies to base their data store centres here.

It was a factor in the announcement by Google last week that it was to locate a second data centre in Dublin.

Silicon Chip (Source

Many industry experts believe the days of the silicon chip, like this one, are numbered, and some believe DNA will replace it as the material of choice in our future devices (Source:

DNA chip

A DNA computer chip – if we call it that- will have to be far more powerful than existing silicon chips to establish itself as a new technology.

This will be ‘disruptive’,and a lot of money is invested in manufacturing plants like Intel in Leixlip, which have been set up and fitted out to make silicon chips.

But, regardless of the level of investment, and Intel have invested something like $12.5 billion in their Leixlip plant since 1990, silicon’s days are numbered.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, came up with a law governing the production of faster and faster computing speeds, which has proved accurate.

He said that the number of transistors on an ‘integrated circuit’ – the name given to chips before silicon became the material of choice – would double every two years.

This doubling has continued every two years since 1965, but engineers say that they are fast reaching the point where they have exhausted silicon transistor capacity.

The need for something to replace silicon is becoming urgent, and this is why a recent breakthrough in DNA computing in the UK is especially timely.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia have just announced they have found a watch to change the structure of DNA – twice – using a harmless common material.

The material is called EDTA and it is found in shampoo, soaps and toiletries to keep their colour, texture and fragrance intact.

The scientists used EDTA to change DNA to another structure, and the, after changing it, to change it back into its original structure again.

In silicon, the transistors switch between ‘on’ and ‘off’ states and this provides the means of controlling the way that the silicon chip works.

Similarly, this breakthrough has shown, for first time, that scientists can now also switch DNA between two ‘states’ or forms.

The research was just published (17th August) in the journal Chemical Communications.

The fact that the structure of DNA can be changed twice means that it is possible to create DNA ‘logic gates’, like those which are used in silicon computers.

A logic gate, by the way,  is something that is capable of performing a logical operation based on more or more logical inputs, to produce a single logical output.


DNA computers can take us to a new level of computing which wasn’t possible with Silicon.

DNA computers, the size of teardrops, will be constructed in the future, using nanotechnology; will will be as powerful as the supercomputers of today.

This size will be important as we are entering an age when many things will be connected to the internet in our homes and offices, all talking to one another.

These devices will have artificial intelligence, and they will be capable of rapid processing of data, and making decisions to benefit mankind.

We come home, and some wearable device detects we are sweating, and the hot water is put on for a shower, while a cold drink is made in the kitchen.

We will have a lot of devices, and if they are based on DNA technology, we’ll need a lot of DNA, but that is no problem, as we can now make it ourselves.

There are no toxic materials required to synthesize DNA and it can provide us with the technology we crave, without something else paying for it with their ill health.