The globalisation of our industry remains immature

Hooliganism spoils competitive sport

1 August 2007

I doubt whether any country lacks national, tribal or other group targets for jokes. The witticisms may range from affectionate (sometimes) to malicious (more often). They may include expressions of such universal appeal that they could be formulated with blanks in place of group names and then applied in different countries or internationally.

One chestnut in this category is the remark made to put down a sceptic by comparing him to an ‘Exwhyorzeddian professor who always says that an innovation may be fine in practice but who asks whether it will work in theory’. This sort of comment gives vent to the speaker’s xeno- or other phobia and proclaims his allegiance in the everlasting battle between empiricists and theoreticians.


Why does that battle persist? Experience shows that, after inspiration has struck an inventor or designer, and after he has shown that his idea or concept works, the incremental development of that idea or concept depends on the availability of adequate predictive theory. The history of prime movers – upon which power generation still largely depends – demonstrates how practice and theory have alternately helped each other along.

More generally, even apparently enlightened modern power systematists are not always above making unworthy national or tribal wisecracks about competitors. The globalisation of our industry remains immature. But what a dull old world our earth would be without banter between rivals!

Who fantasises about power?

Yet another limelight-shunning reader has attacked me. He demands my concealment of his identity but he assails me for filling a page with what he calls ‘academic fantasising’. This I am charged with having done in last February’s issue of MPS.

I should not have thought it possible for anybody justifiably to describe this column as academic, but there you go. In our reader’s opinion I committed this crime at inordinate length, venting my spleen (he says) on the internal combustion engine because of its historic triumph against electrical motive power for automobiles.

But I have to admit that he has a case. He contends that the fuel cell, which is so much touted as the modern electrical power systematist’s answer to the conventional fossil-fuelled motor-car engine, is not altogether what it is cracked up to be. Look at the whole range of reference material, challenges my correspondent, whether it be web-enabledly wondrous, shelf-bendingly encyclopaedic or augustly lexicographic, and you will discover more or less subtle disagreement over the nature of the fuel cell. For while what occurs in the cell is generally recognised as oxidation it is not infrequently also described as combustion.

This failure to differentiate rigorously is not confined to ‘popular’ literature. In evidence my tormentor quotes from an English-language dictionary of energy technology.† This book was brought out in the early 1980s by highly reputable Anglo-American science publishers. It was the work of well respected academics. They defined a fuel cell as an electrochemical cell that utilises the energy of a spontaneous chemical reaction such as ‘the combustion of a carbonaceous, hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuel by oxygen from the air’.

Now nobody quarrels with references to computers as ‘engines’, observes my critic, so why shouldn’t we describe electrochemical cells as engines too? For then, unobjectionably, your fuel cell can become an internal combustion engine: and when you power an automobile with it you no longer have such a simple story to tell as the one in February’s column.

Up to a point I yield to this assault. But cars propelled by electric motors that are supplied with electricity by fuel cells are incontrovertibly electric cars. They do not depend on the conversion into mechanical work of heat from a chemical reaction commonly termed combustion. No heat engine has to mediate between a fuel cell and an electrical transmission.††

Perhaps my anonymity-craving correspondent and I are both, if not actually academic, at least inclined to be academic fantasists. Please may I now cry quits?

1 1

Linkedin Linkedin   
Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.