It's a cosmic power shower

21 May 1998

One of the simplest of pressure relief valves is the sort that has a ball held onto its seat by a weight or a spring. Here is news of a fresh role for balls in pressure relief.

A report in The Japan Times, of which I have an English copy, intimates that Chuba Electric Power Co uses tiny steel balls 'to ease water pressure on the walls of its nuclear reactors at its plant in Hamaoka, Shizuoka Prefecture'. No, these balls are not lifted off tiny seats when pressure becomes excessive. I quote again from The Japan Times: 'The company sprays the walls with 1-millimeter-diameter stainless steel balls that make tiny indentations and relieve the pressure of the water'. Amazing!*

Another technological advance of which you may wish to hear is announced in New Europe, which is described by its publisher in Athens, Greece, as a global independent weekly. The story is of a fundamentally new electrical generator that has been demonstrated in Belarus, a formerly Soviet state. According to the reporter a lamp glowed when it was connected to the generator during trials witnessed by Belarus Radio Engineering University researchers in Minsk. Vladimir Leonov, the inventor of the generator, claimed that, scaled up, it would produce electricity at one seventieth of the cost incurred in a nuclear power station.

Leonov's new technology stems from his 'radically new view of the nature of space', says New Europe. For the inventor has 'developed a theory which postulates that the surrounding space of the Universe is not void, contrary to the general view, but should be seen as electromagnetic substance'. His generator uses that substance but the substance is not a fuel. The 'invention promises to produce unlimited cheap energy without any fuel input'.

New Europe does not tell how Leonov's potent electromagnetic substance is contained but I am comforted by the thought that its escape could almost certainly be prevented by spraying tiny steel balls onto the vessel wall.

Learn ledgerdemain Pebblecounters dearly love to occupy the corporate driving seat and they tend to believe that their right to it is better than that of technical persons. Some automatically blame any engineers there may be in top management if their businesses falter or fail. Engineers, it is fashionable in these pebblecounters' circles to imply, use the wrong sort of measuring sticks to succeed in running firms – even engineering firms.

Another current (or perhaps I should call it recurrent) fashion, is to expand abroad. That is no bad thing, and I watch with interest as generating corporations as well as plant suppliers seek to emulate those other energy undertakings, the oil majors, and become multinationals.

Among the latest is Veba, Germany's fourth-largest industrial group and one of the biggest power utilities in the world. Veba has followed Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Telekom and other compatriot commercial giants in having its shares listed on the New York stock exchange. Veba's chairman, Ulrich Hartmann, has reportedly described the listing as a symbol, a signal of his organization's need for overseas growth.

Veba is said to have worked hard to prepare for the listing. I read in the financial press that the group was careful not to follow Daimler-Benz in the way the latter heralded its 1993 listing. Apparently D-B thought it politic to defer to American pebblecounting standards. It published half-year results that stated its profit, on German accounting principles, to be DM168m, and it derived a corresponding figure on US principles that was rather different – DM949m – but that differed in sign as well as in magnitude: it was a loss. That did not go down well in the US business community.

A technical man, accustomed to assessment in terms of SI, MKS, imperial or other firm units, might be unsurprised by that sort of thing from people whose possibly arbitrary evaluations are anyway in terms of wobbly monetary units. Engineers' measuring sticks are of course more reliable than those of pebblecounters, but their indications cannot be as easily understood by lay persons as can 'the bottom line'.

Happily, in Hartmann's reported words, the bottom-line differences between American- and German-style results in Veba's case 'are completely insignificant'. That hard preparatory work paid off.

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