Mechanical power and ‘artificial’ lighting are intertwined facts of our industry’s history, as everyone knows. The incandescent lamp, and the centralised power supply for its multiplying manifestations, were brought to civilisation by such giants as Edison, Swan and Ferranti, but most notably by Edison, the greatest inventor of his time. Now (and perhaps alas) a hint of mortality has touched the story of the wonderful age they ushered in.

The generation of electricity, and the supply of that product to users, both live on. The incandescent bulb, on the other hand, has been condemned to death: it is unfortunately too good at emitting heat as well as light. Its phasing-out has begun in some countries and is expected to become worldwide. Other and more efficient types of electric light already take market shares, and newcomers promise possibly fierce competition in the future.

An interesting – one might even say illuminating – effect of this historic shift is the resistance it is meeting. There are people who have discovered that they like the effulgence of incandescent bulbs better than the radiation that they get from rivals. These good souls are so overcome by their feelings that they are banding together to preserve stocks and to exert public pressure for conservation of the species.

The quality of the lamplight is usually what is given as the rational explanation for this behaviour, although there are also objections on aesthetic design grounds, but in many cases the old incandescents seem just to have become comfortable and natural to have around. Those battling pioneers of electric ‘artificial’ light – Edison, Swan etc – must be grinning in their graves

.Blinding with (too little) science

The fuel cell has been on the horizon for so long that I have begun to wonder whether it is there for keeps. However, from time to time something raises hope that this fascinating type of galvanic cell will indeed become a power to be reckoned with, even if more probably for vehicular propulsion than for running things on the spot.

The principle of the fuel cell has radiated promise ever since William Grove invented it in 1839. Around the turn of that century electrochemists were thinking of fossil-fuelling batteries of cells for power generation without the interposition of heat engines. But little happened until a well-engineered hydrogen fuel cell was chosen to provide on-board power for last century’s American lunar spacecraft. That expensive success started a surge of effort to make fuel cells work economically too.

Continued faith in fuel cells’ prospects was shown recently by Intelligent Energy, a firm spun off by Loughborough University in the UK. Proprietary technology developed by this offshoot of academe has demonstrated the fuel cell’s potential for motor-cycling and aviation. The company’s latest headlines have been won for showing that its mass-market ambitions are alive and well: thirty million dollarsworth of backing have been raised for further development.

The lustre of this announcement may have been affected for some people, however, if they sought a glint of technical or scientific explanation in one highly respected international business newspaper that featured the story. They read there that fuel cells ‘of the kind made by Intelligent Energy make electricity quietly and without harmful emissions by breaking down hydrogen’. I wonder, would only purists judge those last four words to be excessively simplistic for the explanation-seekers? Or, indeed, for anyone else?

Electric motoring begins to take hold

During those very dark but not very long-gone days when General Motors, the US carmaker, teetered on the edge of extinction, there were some of us who wished fervently for that great conglomerate’s survival, simply to save its electrically powered project, the (possibly Chevrolet) Volt. (Readers may remember, while preferring to forget, my musings on the science of this in MPS, February 2009, p34.) My hunch is that GM may have started

something with its launch of this new ‘halo’ vehicle. We may be in for many more electrically powered automobiles with ‘electrical’ names. GM has double-kick-started the trend by calling an overseas-made Volt version the Ampera, and the idea seems to have caught on. Volkswagen of Germany has followed by dubbing a forthcoming car the E-Up!, an exclamation which quaintly summons mental images of equestrian times, while Peugeot of France has boarded the bandwagon with an appellation that sounds more appropriately electrochemical – the iOn. Can it be long before our motor shows glitter with models sporting such badges as Coulombine, Farad-Vanced, Killerwatt, Terrormeeter, Picomini and beyond?