The O in BOC – those familiar initials of the worldwide industrial gases group – stands, of course, for oxygen, though nowadays that element is but one of the organization’s products.

I see in BOC Technology, a handsome periodical published by the group, an acknowledgement that the standard oxygen cylinder is ‘a mighty nuisance’. The cylinder’s 50 kg of awkwardly shaped steel, says the writer of an article in the magazine, holds a mere 10 kg of the gas, so minds have been focused on the problem of lightening the vessel.

He reports that a BOC expert has come up with an attractive answer. Oxygen, the writer states, is magnetic, and modern rare-earth magnets are very strong. So the expert has proposed use of a simple rare-earth magnet in a plastic container. The magnet would attract contained oxygen so powerfully that the steep pressure gradient between the container wall and the magnet would leave the former unstressed. The compressed core of gas could be controllably released from the container by bringing in another magnet to modify the field.

I wonder whether the BOC expert drew his inspiration from the magnetic bottling employed to keep plasma away from vessel walls in thermonuclear fusion reactors? Might this bit of spin-off from fusion power research have been prompted by BOC Technology’s publication manager, Wendy Peters? She it was who edited the UK’s official nuclear power journal, Atom, in its heyday; and before that she was the deputy editor of our own dear MPS.

No such provenance is admitted in the article, which firmly attributes the genesis of the magnetic oxygen bottle idea to the expert, who is named mysteriously as Doc BOC.

The writer does not intimate whether this is a sobriquet conferred for commercial security or for other dark and weighty reasons. His readers, well nourished with serious information in the rest of the magazine, no doubt assess the gravity of those reasons with due accuracy and enjoyment.

Which is not to say that magnetic containment in tokamaks is a joke. There are numbers of fusion power researchers with long, hard experience (involving rather more than one or two rare-earth magnets) to tell you that it is not funny at all.

Automate your customers

Pardon this reverie. It has been brought on by a conjunction of two press releases, both from big names in our industry.

One of the releases is from North America. It says that it is about ‘a joint venture to provide digitally-based, intelligent energy management systems and services to electric utilities and industrial users that automate and integrate power systems for optimal efficiency. These state-of-the-art, information technology systems also enable electrical producers and users to better capitalize on opportunities to buy, sell and manage power in a deregulated market’.

The joint venturers promise to supply a billion-dollar global market to ‘help utilities identify the most cost-effective method of dispatching power, track power quality, simulate outages and recommend timely actions to optimize operations’.

The second release comes from the other side of the Atlantic. It tells of a European joint venture that aims to sell to the world’s utilities ‘a complete business solution’ comprising systems in exactly the same genre as those portrayed in the first release.

One of the European venturers is, like its North American counterpart, a supplier of energy management systems. It is an enterprise that claims already to provide something defined as ‘a total customer management system’.

The latter turns out to be less alarming than it might seem at first sight in these days of manipulation by spin doctors, sales psychologists and robots.

It is a system that does allow truly total management but not (yet?) of customers, only of their billing.

There is no mention of any direct action on customers by constituent parts of the system. But development to permit such action cannot be far away. It is implicit in the definitive wording I have quoted.

Ideally, I suppose, the customer managers of the future will exercise their professional skills, with the aid of heaven-knows-what artefacts, on cloned consumers. All in all, the prospects look chillingly bright for what the business world calls captive markets.