Banker warms globally to coal

22 January 1998

The market predicted for clean coal technology up to 2010 is in excess of £500 billion, worldwide but mostly in developing countries. Coal, according to Karl G. Jechoutek of the World Bank, will continue its dominant role for as far ahead as we can usefully foresee, and aspirants such as renewable energy sources will need helping (financial) hands even to get a look-in. Greenhouse gases and global warming are just risks that have to be factored into our calculations.

Jechoutek, a divisional chief in Washington, USA, criss-crosses the oceans in his promotional efforts for the World Bank's 'clean coal initiative', and he likes to plug what he calls 'forgotten' pulverized fuel technology. Competition from upstart fluidized bed combustion and integrated gas combined cycle and the like has led engineers to tweak p.f. steamraising processes to such good effect, argues Jechoutek, that they are now in the 'clean coal' frame.

An economist by calling, Jechoutek ruminates on the perpetual flux of things as sagely as did any ancient philosopher. He recalls looking down on the oceans during his crossings of a decade or so ago and contemplating the maritime traffic of carbonaceous fuels. But nowadays, he says, when he gazes down on the briny expanse, he marvels at it as a colossal carbon sink.

Parts that SI units cannot reach

'Would you measure temperature with a pressure gauge?', challenges Lene Henriksen of Ametek Denmark A/S, addressing my Editor. Henriksen is in this act wearing his marketing managerial hat and seeking to promote his company's latest portable pressure calibrator, but his point is good. Ametek claims that temperature drift is often a neglected failing of portable calibration gear and 'might cause a four to ten times reduction of the accuracy'.

Lateral thinking puts me in mind of another field in which assessment of a measurand is distorted by drift. Economists and politicians rely very much on monetary measures of value. Oscar Wilde remarked famously of such people that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The trouble is that, compared with measuring standards for mass, length, time, electric current, temperature and so forth, money criteria are about as stable as chewing gum.

And the instability of money criteria can cause troubles far worse than mere drift, as the current turmoil in Asian economies has been showing. What were the 'tiger' economies of the Pacific Rim seem to have become paper tigers, as shaky in economic gales as the paper currencies by which their prowess is measured.

But engineers and scientists cannot justifiably preen themselves on the superiority of their methods over money counting. Compensation for 'drift' in value assessment is much harder than it is in pressure gauging, and it has defeated everybody so far, even (in my opinion) the enthusiasts who have argued earnestly that energy should be the universal basis of economic valuation.

Sorry about the scribble

'The West' is culturally not nearly as homogeneous as some suppose. Differences between the USA and Europe, for instance, abound.

There is the way almost any two American strangers become instant buddies, on forename terms at their first encounter. This custom has made strong inroads in parts of Europe but has not yet taken universal hold. In Europe great store is still set by status titles such as Dr, Drs, Dr-Ing, Herr, Ing, M, Mr, Ms.

Variation in cursive script is quite marked too, but that may not add much to the difficulty of intercourse between Westerners. I say this because those who must resort to handwriting – medical doctors for prescriptions, waiters for bills, all of us for signing letters and other documents – have a long tradition of illegibility anyway.

A no-doubt well intentioned US reader has revealed to me how problematical is my own signature. He is a highly qualified engineer who has sent me a cordial and interesting letter to enlarge my understanding of a technical matter I have raised on this page. His salutation is of course – and no less acceptably for that – in the American instant buddy idiom. But I guess he is unfamiliar with the European title, Ing (for a professional engineer), because he addresses me, delightfully, as Dear Jug.

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