Archive for the ‘Business & Science’ Category

The incredible story of the “immortal” Henrietta Lacks

Interview with Myles Dungan on The History Show, RTE Radio 1, 22nd January.

The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks based on the book written by Rebecca Skloot in 2010 will appear on our cinema screens this year, with Oprah Winfrey in the role of Henrietta.

But, who was Henrietta Lacks, what was her story, why is her life described as “immortal” and how has it influenced the lives of millions of people around the world since her death in 1951?

henrietta-lacks-pic

Henrietta Lacks, pictured, died from cervical cancer in 1951, aged 31. Cancer cells removed from her body without her knowledge or permission were used to produce the polio vaccine Credit (Henrietta Lacks Foundation).

Old South

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman from the tobacco fields of the state of Virginia, USA, part of the old South.

She has made a huge contribution to mankind, because of the cells she unwittingly gave to the world, so called ‘HeLa cells’ which were taken from the cancer that killed her in 1951 and grown in labs around the world to combat disease, and help scientists develop techniques like cloning and I.V.F.

The cells have been used to produce a vaccine for polio, leading to its eradication in the USA and most parts of the world, but they have also been used to produce commercial revenue. Henrietta didn’t provide ‘consent’ for her cells to be used in this way, but in 1951, consent was not a requirement for doctors to remove cells or tissues from patients for research purposes.

Henrietta was born with the name Loretta Pleasant on the 1st August 1920 in Roanoke, the biggest town, but still a small-ish city, in southwestern Virginia. At some stage, for reasons not clear, she became Henrietta, a name that was shortened to ‘Hennie’ after the death of her mother.

Henrietta’s mother died when Henrietta was 4 and ‘Hennie’ and her nine siblings were sent to live with various aunts and uncles and cousins in the little farming town of Clover, Virginia.

Hennie ended up with her grandfather, who was also trying to raise one of Hennie’s first cousins – David. They lived in a two-story cabin built of hand-carved logs, and held together by pegs that was once the slave quarters of their ancestors.

In 1924 rural Virginia, black people were no longer slaves, but their social, economic and living circumstances, even the actual buildings that that lived in, hadn’t changed much since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on 1st January 1863. This executive order changed the federal legal status of some 3 million black slaves trapped in the Confederate south from ‘slave’ to ‘free’.

Slave quarters

The former slave quarters that Hennie found herself living in with her grandfather and cousin David looked over the family cemetery where Hennie’s ancestors, who were black, but some of whom were also white, including one of her great grandfathers, were buried.

All around the slave house, or ‘home house’ as its residents called it were hundreds of acres of tobacco fields. The area was, and is known as Lacks Town, as many of the people living in and around the tobacco fields were ‘kin’ to Henrietta.

Hennie had honey coloured skin, a round face, and an attractive, welcoming smile. After a time, according to cousins accounts, Hennie and David, who was called ‘Day’ became an item, even though they had been raised like a brother and sister.

Children followed. Lawrence was born in 1935, and Elsie, who was “deaf and dumb”, and ended up later in a home for the Negro Insane, was born in 1939.

In 1941, Hennie and Day got married, and made plans to get out of Clover, forget the tough life of tobacco farming, and join the many black people that were heading for Baltimore and Washington DC to get jobs in the booming wartime shipyards and steel mills.

Hennie, according to accounts, settled into her new life as housewife in a brick city apartment, but she missed the country and would often grab her kids, and pile them onto a bus for a trip back to Clover.

It seems Hennie loved being a mother, and more children came with Sonny born in 1947, and Deborah in 1949. Their fifth child, Joe, was born in 1950.

Henrietta’s illness

A few months after Joe was born Hennie shared a secret with her cousin Sadie, Sadie later recalled. She started bleeding, even though it was not her time of the month, and one morning when she was taking a bath she felt a lump.

Hennie decided to attend the outpatient centre at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore – a renowned centre for medical excellence in February 1951 and the gynaecologist on duty when Henrietta came in was Dr Howard Jones. Dr Jones examined Henrietta and found something remarkable: a glistening, smooth growth that resembled what he called “purple Jell-O” (jelly).

The growth was about the size of a US quarter, and positioned at the lower right of Henrietta’s cervix. The growth bled easily when it was touched.

Dr Jones thought it might be an infection and tested for syphilis, but the results came back negative. He ordered a biopsy and got the diagnosis: sadly for Hennie, it was cancer.

Henrietta came back for treatment 8 days later, and another doctor took another slice off her tumour. Henrietta wasn’t told about this, but, at the time, that was normal medical practice.

Capsules of radium were placed around her cervix to try and kill the cancer cells and she was released from hospital and went home. Henrietta didn’t tell anyone about her illness, and continued with home life as normal.

She came back regularly for treatment, but the cancer cells were growing faster than radium could kill them and it was difficult for her now to hide her pain.

She was admitted to hospital for the last time in August 1951, for what would be the last time. A few months later, on 4th October 1951 Henrietta died, aged 31, with an autopsy showing that she had cancerous lumps in her chest cavity, lungs, liver, kidney and right through her bladder. The cancer had been relentless, and grew and spread at a pace that proved uncontrollable.

Henrietta was buried in an unmarked grave her the ‘home house’ in Clover. Her children remember it as a day when the rain poured from the sky as though heaven were weeping for ‘Hennie’.

Family devastation

The death of Hennie was devastating to Henrietta’s family, her husband Day and their five children. This is apparent, as even all these years later they get upset talking about her death, it seems.

Her death was something of a taboo subject, and no-one was comfortable talking about it, as it affected them so deeply.

Day tried to keep the show on the road by working shifts at the shipyard, while minding his three youngest children. Elsie was now in a home for the Negro Insane and family visits were not as frequent was when Henrietta was alive, as she visited Elsie regularly. Lawrence, the eldest left to join the Army.

Two relatives moved in to live with Day and the three children, one of which was described as ‘evil’ and life became brutal and horrible, with the children being beaten for no reason and having little food to eat.

As the children grew older, they – understandably – wanted to get away as much as possible from the nightmare house in Baltimore and they regularly returned to Clover to work on tobacco, as their mum had done, keeping their abuse a secret.

Elsie died in 1955, aged just 16, and it appears that sadly she had been abused, and she may even have had holes drilled in her head for some kind of human experimentation.

When Henrietta’s children had their own children, it seems that – perhaps sensing something from their parents – they too avoided the subject of their grandmother, how she lived and how she died.

Medical legacy

Henrietta’s family knew nothing until the early 1970s when family members received phone calls from researchers asked for them to donate blood samples. The researchers said that they wanted to find out more about their mother’s genetic make-up.

Naturally, the family members wanted to know why they were interested in this, now, many years after Henrietta’s death. They were then told – and this must have been utterly shocking to them – that part of their mother, some of her cells, were still alive and growing now, more than 20 years after her death.

The Lacks family finally learned that tissue from their mother’s second biopsy in 1951 had been given to Johns Hopkins researcher Dr George Gey, who was searching for a cure to cancer, and had, towards this end, but trying – unsuccessfully – to grow human cells outside the body, so that they could be closed studied in the lab.

Dr Gey’s lab technicians got Henrietta’s cells, but – by now programmed for failure – expected them to do what many previous cell samples had done – live for a short time, a few days tops, then die. Yet, what happened astonished them. Henrietta’s cells multiplied in petri dishes, uncontrollably spreading and piling up on one another.

On the very same day that Henrietta died, 4th October 1951, Gey was appearing on a TV show called ‘Cancer Can be Conquered.” On the show he held a bottle close to the camera, and in it he said was the first human cell line ever grown. This was Henrietta’s legacy.

The cells were called “HeLa cells” by Gey, to acknowledge the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names. He then gave samples out to other researchers around the USA. The idea was that HeLa cells would work enough like normal cells so that doctors could test, probe and unlock their secrets and weaknesses in the lab. This new knowledge, it was hoped, would lead to a cure for cancer.

HeLa cells

The biggest impact, without doubt, that HeLa cells have, so far at least, made on the world is by helping Jonas Salk create a vaccine which has almost eradicated – worldwide – what was a crippling disease affecting children.

Salk infected HeLa cells with the poliovirus – something that could easily be achieved – and studied how they reacted. After a number of years of work, in 1955, he had created a working vaccine.

This received huge attention because polio mainly affects children under 5 years of age, so young children had been dying and the name polio was a terrifying one until Salk came along.

Polio is highly infectious. It kills when some infected children become paralysed and their breathing muscles immobilised. It is still a threat in certain parts of the world, according to the WHO, but the number of cases, worldwide have decreased from 350,000 cases in 1988 to just 74 reported cases in 2015.

It is estimated that the polio vaccine, and, thus, HeLa cells that helped created it, have saved the lives of one million people, many of them young children, around the world since 1955, who would otherwise have died of polio.

In 1952, just three years beforehand, there was a polio outbreak in the USA which killed 3,145 people, including 1,873 children. At that rate, some 192,000 Americans would have died if the polio vaccine had not been available there from 1955.

The HeLA cells were ideal for developing a polio vaccine because they could be easily infected by poliomyelitis, which caused infected cells to die. However, a large volume of HeLa cells were needed to test Salk’s vaccine, and this led to the mass production of HeLa cells from 1953 in a cell culture ‘factory’ at Tuskegee University.

Controversially, however, companies also used HeLa cells to test cosmetics, and to measure the effects of radiation on human cells. They were used to test how human cells responded to other viruses, and were used in a number of cancer trials.

HeLa were the first ‘cell lines’, they stored well, were robust and could be sent out to laboratories all over the world. They replicate very fast, which is useful, but can also cause problems for scientists in terms of contamination of the lab.

HeLa cells have been used to study all kinds of viruses, and helped in the creation of a vaccine to HPV, the human papillomavirus, as well as to act as a testbed for new medications for cancer and Parkinson’s disease. They have also been used to test how certain products, such as cosmetics, affect human cells.

Because some HeLa cells behave differently to others, it has been possible for scientists to isolate a specific cell type, multiple it, and start a new cell line. This method of isolating a cell and keeping it alive is the basic technique behind I.V.F. which is so much part of our world today.

One discovery from HeLa cells has big potential in the fight against cancer. It was found that HeLa cells used an enzyme to repair their DNA and keep functioning when other cells would have died. Anti cancer trials against this enzyme are currently ongoing.

There are some who would say that the importance of HeLa cells in saving lives has been overstated. For example, saving one million lives with the polio vaccine, is small potatoes compared to, say the Measles vaccination, which has saved about 17 million lives since 2000.

Family anger

Henrietta’s family were angry when they finally heard the full story of the HeLa cells. They felt that Johns Hopkins Hospital had removed Henrietta’s cells without permission. The hospital had done that, they didn’t deny it, and neither did they deny that they hadn’t asked permission. Permission to do this wasn’t required back in 1951.

The Lacks family were also confused by all the scientific jargon that started to come their way. I think they their initial reaction was that their mother, and themselves had been exploited by researchers. For instance, they said that they gave blood to the researchers when asked, but the researchers did not bother to follow up with them when results came out or to explain results.

None of the children have developed their mother’s aggressive cancer, so Henrietta left no deadly legacy to her children.

There was a financial issue also, as far as the Lacks family were concerned because biomedical companies in the decades since their mother’s death had been mass producing HeLa cells, like a license to print money, and sending them out all over the world.

Fortunes were being made on the back of their mother’s cells, while they themselves, could even afford health insurance.

They were also apparently hurt that so many people, researchers, scientists and doctors, appeared to know so much about their mother, and that they, her children, knew very little.

Their father Day died in 2002 (41 years after his wife Henrietta) but the family only managed recently to pool together money for a headstone for his grave.

Johns Hopkins have honoured the contribution of Henrietta, and others like her, to their research, but they remain sensitive to criticism of their role in the Lacks’ story. They made the point that the hospital as it was in 1951 can’t be judged by today’s standards, and that patient consent, now a basic standard, wasn’t even considered in 1951.

The HeLa cells, Johns Hopkins state, were given away by their researcher Dr Gey, acting on his own and the hospital never patented the HeLa cells or sold them to make money. Dr Gey, they add was acting with good intent as he passed the cells on in the hope researchers could develop a module from which scientists could learn more about human cell function (and by corally, cancer cell function).

Immortal future?

HeLa cells have today multiplied to the point where they weigh some 20 tonnes, all together, while, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office there are close to 11,000 patents that involve HeLa cells. The cells are so widely available that they can be ordered for delivery on the Internet.

The words on Henrietta’s gravestone, composed by her grandchildren reads:

“In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why are electric vehicles not selling in Ireland?

Broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1, 21-09-2016

tesla-model-s

The Tesla Model S electric cars which are making inroads into the luxury class car market in the USA will be available for sale in Ireland in 2017 [Picture source: http://www.mashable.com]

In 2008, the then Coalition government of FF, PDs and the Green Party, announced a target of having 200,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on Irish roads.

It was an ambitious target, yet eight years later, despite the building of infrastructure to support electric cars, and financial incentives, there are only 2,000 EVs on our roads – that’s a mere one percent of the Government’s original target.

So why is it that sales of electric cars have not taken off in Ireland, compared to some other countries and is this likely to change any time soon?

Infrastructure

The infrastructure supporting electric cars is good, and one of the most advanced in the world, so that’s not an issue.

There  are 1,400 charge points between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These have been set up by the ESB e cars unit on an all Ireland basis. The idea is that with one electric car access card you can use any of the charger access points throughout the country – north or south.

This is a better system than in the the UK where different councils and different regions would have developed their own infrastructure, and there is no inter operability between them. The charger plugs are the same, but the driver of an electric car in Britain would need five or six different access cards to use the EV charge points around the UK.

Each charge point in Ireland has intelligence built in so that information is sent back to the ESB e car charge point management system. This system monitors the availability of chargers, whether they are currently in use or not.

If there is an issue such as a cable gets blocked the system can unblock the cable. The ESB from the start decided to install a standard electric charge point in  every town with 1,500 people or more.

The ESB have realised since that a lot more people are looking for fast chargers than had been anticipated at the start of the infrastructural roll out. There are 22kw chargers with two points in each one –  and the Renault Zoe can charge in an hour off that. Then there are the 50kw fast chargers that can charge a car up to 80% in 25 minutes. There are about 75 of these, and one every 50 km of motorway on the main roads.

The idea is that if you leave your house in Dublin heading for Galway and you drive with a full tank, you can stop, get a fast charge and keep going. Most of the in car Sat Navs on cars are linked into the latest information on the nationwide network of charge points which is constantly updated by ESB e cars.

The ESB has a 24-hour call centre in Cork, and there are maintenance teams, response units if anyone breaks down. The charge points can all be operated remotely now – one card for all of Ireland – and in the near future the plan is to have an app that lets you know not just where the nearest charge points on, but whether it is currently in use.

Turnoffs

The three main turnoffs people cite when it comes to their reluctance to buy EVs come under three headings: performance, range and cost.

There is an idea out there that EVs are slow and cumbersome, like the old milk floats we saw around Dublin in the 1980s, but, I know, from driving a Nissan Leaf, that this is not the case. The performance of the car is excellent, and there is more than enough zip and acceleration to make electric cars ideal around the city.

You could put somebody into the smallest electric vehicle up beside a Ferrari at a traffic lights and the electric car will get away quicker. The high powered Ferrari will catch him after couple of seconds but there is great zip  in an electric car, and overtaking is no problem.

The  latest Model S Tesla electric cars can go from 0-100 in 2.6 seconds if you put a Tesla car onto its so called ‘ludicrous’ mode; better than the most powerful Ferrari with an IC engine.

People are concerned about range, and, while surveys of electric car users show that range issues are manageable, it is still an issue for potential buyers.

The industry experts believe that maximum range, which is around 150 or 160km for many electric cars needs to reach 300 or 400 km before ‘range anxiety’ is no longer an issue. That could happen as early as 2018, the experts tell me.

The range of the current Nissan Leaf, which I drove myself a few weeks ago, is between 160 and 165 km after a full charge at home. The home charge points, which are installed for free by the ESB currently for anyone purchasing an electric vehicle, are 16amp, single phase chargers.

A full charge is, however, not enough to get the car from Dublin to Galway (208 km) so anyone planning that trip, must plan to stop at a motorway charge point for about 20 minutes to get a ‘top up’ charge.  

For range to improve the existing battery technology must be improved. There has been huge investment in this area, in laboratories around the world, particularly in Japan, Korea and the US, but even a little here in Ireland.

The flamboyant US-based science entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Motors, a hugely innovative and dynamic electric car company, is building what he calls a battery ‘gigafactory’ in Arizona. This is due to go into full production in 2020 when it will produce enough lithium-ion batteries, like the ones in our smartphones, to power 500,000 new electric cars per year. All the raw materials required will be brought to Arizona, and when this factor opens it will double the world’s output of lithium ion batteries.

This will provide some of the economies of scale that have been lacking in the electric car industry up to now, and it should be a ‘game changer’. The electric car is more expensive to build than a ‘normal’ car, even without the battery taken into account, because of this issue of economies of scale.

The average car has about 2,000 moving parts, while the average electric has something like 200. The electric car should be cheaper to manufacture!

The prediction is that somewhere between 2020 and 2025, after Musk’s gigafactory opens, the costs of batteries will go down, and the economies of scale for electric will improve so that there will be cost parity.

That is, for the first time, an electric car will cost the same as a car based on the internal combustion engine. This will be a historic moment for e cars.

In summary then, performance is not an issue, and anyone that gets into a modern electric car will quickly realise that. Range is still an issue for some people, but from 2018, it is expected that electric cars with a range of 400 km will be here, so that issue will disappear.

Cost will remain an issue, until cost parity is reached somewhere between 2020 and 2025. In terms of running costs, the electric car is already far ahead of cars powered by the internal combustion engine.

Many people charge their electric car overnight and, at nighttime rates, the cost works out to be between 10 and 15% of the cost of petrol.  Even when people charge at the daytime rate for electricity, it works out to be about 25% of the cost of petrol.

It costs less than €5 to run an electric car for 100 miles. The cost to run the car for 17,000 miles per annum (average mileage for residential car use in Ireland) will thus, be less than €850.

Authorities

There have been difficulties with some local authorities in terms of having the road marked as an e car space reserved for electric vehicle charging. At the moment someone could find a petrol car parked at the e charging location and there is little that can be done about it, unless the local authority has agreed to mark the space as a space set out for electric car charging only – making it an offence for any other car to park there. Some local authorities have done this, others haven’t. Dun Laoghaire has gone further and offered electric cars free parking for up to four hours.

The ESB is trying to sort out all the questions around people booking charging spaces in advance. These are free, so, if electric sales pick up they are likely to become very busy. There are outstanding questions such as how long in advance should people be permitted to book a space? What should the ESB charge for a booking? What happens if someone books and doesn’t show up? What if someone hooks their car up to a charge point, and goes off to dinner, only returning several hours later, or the next morning, blocking up the space for others?

Comparisons

London is one of the leading cities in the world, when it comes to supporting electric vehicles, and certainly Dublin and other Irish cities and towns could learn a lot about what is going on there, and the picture is changing fast.

London is looking to introduce an ultra low emission zone in central London from 2020. This will be in addition to the congestion charge. There is a £10 charge to drive into central London as things stand, and if you are driving a pre-2015 diesel or a pre-2006 petrol car there is another £10 added on top of that. This is to try and reduce congestion and to improve air quality, primarily.  

The London taxi company has been bought out by Geely, a Chinese electric vehicle company, who have built a new factory in Coventry. Geely have invested £300 million on that factory, and this will churn out new London taxis, which will all be plug in ‘hybrids’ – or mixtures of conventional internal combustion engine and electric.

In the UK as a whole there are now 70,000 electric vehicles on the road which is far ahead of where we are, at 2,000 in Ireland, even accounting for the population difference.

The new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is talking about extending the low emission zone beyond central London, while the central government at Westminster has allocated £600 million to incentivise the purchase of EVs, build infrastructure and support pilot projects, such as electric bus schemes. There are grants available for the manufacturers and purchasers of EVs and an Office of Low Emission Vehicles, or OLEV, has been set up under the control of the UK’s Department of Transport.

Meanwhile, in Norway 25% of all new car sales are now electric. The Norwegians are proposing to ban conventional vehicle sales in 2025. The proposal is that from 2025 on, cars powered by an internal combustion engine using petrol or diesel will no longer be permitted to be sold. This is extraordinary for a nation that has built its wealth on oil reserves in the North Sea, and shows that the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered at least here in Europe.

There have been 25,000 electric vehicles sold in Norway so far this year. It is the transport department that has proposed to the Government that the new policy to be announced in the Spring. The report to the Government, which is being discussed in the Norwegian parliament at the moment has recommended that there be a ban on IC vehicle sales from 2025. It hasn’t been decided yet, however.

Supports

There is a grant which takes €5,000 off the initial purchase price of the electric car, and VRT relief up to €5,000. The ESB provides  free home charge point with the purchase of an EV as well, as well as free public charging (public) and a 24 hour backup call centre should problems arise.

But, clearly these measures have not enough to encourage a higher level of electric vehicle purchases in Ireland and more needs to be done if EVs are to move out of the niche market situation here.

The car market has recovered and we are on target for 155,000 cars to be sold this year, which is still down on the 2008 figure of 187,000.

The market, which survived a near death experience, is probably secure enough to look at new technology like electric again, so that’s positive.

A revised target for EVs in Ireland of 50,000 has been mentioned in the National Energy Efficiency programme, but that, experts believe, will not be reached with the current level of incentives for EVs. More is needed.

Ireland could perhaps look at the US where there are 400,000 EVs on the road. The US gives a Federal tax credit of $7,500 per electric car purchased. On top of that certain states add their own incentives. For example, California gives an additional $2,500 grant, while Colorado gives a tax credit of $6,000.

The US moves seem to be working, in some places at least. For example, 6% of new car sales in San Francisco are now EVs.

Some believe that giving executives incentives to buy electric cars here by reducing their Benefit in Kind is something that might kick start things.

Executives in the US are buying the latest Tesla Model S, which is outselling BMW and Mercedes in that luxury class in California.

These executives buy a new car every three years, and are helping to generate a second hand market for electric cars there too.

Future

The Tesla Model S is outselling BMW, and Mercedes in that luxury class in California. This has grabbed the attention of the German car companies. Berlin has been resisting the tightening of regulations in Brussels on the car industry, particularly on non greenhouse gas causing CO2 emissions.

However, they won’t be able to hold the line forever, as more cities and countries move to improve air quality for its urban citizens. The situation where diesel cars are pumping carcinogenic substances into the air, and risking the health of children in particularly, can’t continue. The car companies have woken up to this, and they are all working on hybrids if not full electric vehicles in anticipation of what is to come.

The big picture, however, is even more threatening for the existing car companies, as driverless technology begins to become reality. The Mercedes E class in its latest ads in Ireland talks of a move towards the autonomous, or driverless car

The Tesla Model S already has all the technology it requires to be driverless and in a test on the Stillorgan dual carriageway it changed lanes without a hitch. The vision of the future is that the transport needs of society is built around a fleet of driverless electric cars, which can be called on demand by phone apps.

This will reduce the need for car ownership, and provide disabled, elderly or children with the means to safely call for a car to get from A to B. The huge amount of space in our cities given over to parking can be used for something else, noise will be eliminated, and air quality vastly improved.

Irish ‘bench to bedside’ research improving health outcomes

Broadcast on 29-08-16 on Today with Sean O’Rourke

Medical Research Ireland

Medical research in Ireland, led by doctors and nurses, is discovering new ways of doing things that are improving health outcomes for sick people, and helping prevent illness arising in the first place (Source: http://www.ucd.ie)

The evidence shows that the best hospitals – the ones where patients have the best medical outcomes – are those that are most actively engaged in medical research.

This is the kind of practical hospital based research that saves people’s lives and it is often led by doctors or nurses seeking better ways of doing things, with no commercial motivation.

People at the frontline may have an idea of how a tried and tested way of doing things with certain patients can be improved upon. Then trials or tests are setup to test the new idea.

If the idea works, and an improvement in patient medical outcomes is proven, then changes are made in medical practice to ensure that patients fully benefit from the new knowledge.

It is called ‘bench to bedside’ research where doctors or nurses use science to test out their ideas, and if they work, then the new ways are translated from lab bench to patient bedside.

Evidence

The evidence shows, from decades of work all around the world, that hospitals are safer and generally better where the doctors, nurses and medical professionals are ‘research active’.

Medical practice doesn’t stand still, or it shouldn’t, and there are always ways of making improvements in patient care. Sometimes there is a big leap forward, with a dramatic new advance, while lots of other times, it’s a case of steady, gradual incremental gains.

The important thing is that medical professionals are in a mindset where they are constantly challenging how they do things, and never believe that existing methods can’t be improved.

The research that we are talking about here could be as simple as a better, or more, timely way of delivering a medicine, or a radical new method of performing difficult surgery.

One of the great advantages that hospital researchers have over laboratory scientists is that they can carry out tests and trials on humans, who have agreed to take part in such trials.

The individual patient can be asked to sign up for a ‘clinical trial’ to advance the state of knowledge in a particular field, such as cancer research or cardiovascular disease.

Taking part in such trials offers patients, sometimes very sick patients, the chance to help their fellow man (and woman) that come behind them, who may have the same illness.

But, as well as helping to improve the prognosis for future patients, there is plenty of evidence that an individual has a long to personally gain by taking part in a clinical trial.

The evidence suggests that people on clinical trials in hospitals have better long-term health outcomes that those that aren’t, and have earlier access to new drugs and treatments.

The people on clinical trials are watched very closely by medical staff, and they get the very best of care and attention, so that any issues that arise are picked up quickly and addressed.

There are more and more clinical trials taking place in Irish hospitals and this is a very good thing for our patients there, young or old, as the more trials, the better the health outcomes.

Ireland

All of the major Irish hospitals have significant research programmes going on at this stage, and many people will have been offered the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial.

It was long recognised that Ireland needed to be done more hospital based research, and in 2006 the Irish Clinical Research Infrastructure Network was setup to facilitate this.

Clinical trials, and studies are best done across a number of hospitals, at home and abroad, to increase the numbers that take part, and make the results more meaningful. The Network is now supported by the Health Research Board, the HRB, and the HSE.

There is also a lot more paediatric research taking place in Irish paediatric hospitals such as Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital Crumlin, and around the country, than ever before.

There is also a paediatric research network being set up between medical researchers at Irish paediatric hospitals, and this is very good news for sick children in Ireland.

Generally speaking then, there is a lot more hospital based research taking place in Ireland than there was say, 20 years ago, but we have a long way to go to catch up with the best.

Investigator led

Many people may have the impression that a lot of research done in hospitals is being by pharmaceutical companies who want to test our new drugs and products on patients.

That kind of industry led research does happen, and, in fairness, it can occasionally lead to the development of a wonderful new drug, or to the different use of an already existing drug.

However, the kind of research that is having a more sustained impact on patients’ health is the type of research that is called ‘investigator led’ research with no commercial motivation.

The genesis of this type of research is a doctor, or nurse, physiotherapist, spotting a potentially better way of doing things in their daily work, and setting up a trial to test this out.

This requires a culture to be established in Irish hospitals, where new ideas, or ways of doing things are encouraged, and they don’t always have to come from the consultant.

The important point is that it is not the pharmaceutical industry calling the shots here, it is the medical professionals on the ground, who have no axe to grind but trying to help patients.

The one issue that we have in Ireland, however, compared to the leaders in hospital research is that not enough time is freed up for consultants and others do do research.

In the US, clinical researchers might spend half their time working with patients and the rest of the time doing research. That kind of freedom is not the norm, here in Ireland.

Projects

I visited the UCD Clinical Research Centre last week to talk to some medical researchers about their work. This is just one of many research centres attached to Irish hospitals.

Dr Alistair Nichol, a consultant anesthestist told me about a research project called TRANSFUSE. The goal here is to test out whether using new blood to transfuse patients leads to better outcomes than older blood.

Irish blood products can be 35 to 42 days old by the time they are used for a transfusion, and there is some evidence emerging that ‘using fresh blood is better.

Dr Nichol is testing this out in a study on 5,000 people that receive fresh blood against blood that is ‘standard’ (older). They have gone through 4,000 patients so far.

They plan to publish the results in about one year, and whether the fresh blood is found to be better, or not, the information that is obtained from this trial will change clinical practice.

Dr Nichol is also involved in a study that aims to get Ireland better prepared for the next major flu outbreak, as we weren’t ready for the H1N9 outbreak in 2009 he said.

The idea is to be ready to move fast when the next major flu outbreak happens here, and we are due one he said, by having everything in place to capture information on the flu.

The idea is that the doctors, nurses, and paperwork are all in place so that when people come in with a dangerous flu that UCD is ready to start a trial to capture information on it.

UCD is linked with researchers in Australia and New Zealand, in this major effort to prepare for the next flu outbreak so that information on its first appearance is properly captured.

A flu pandemic hits in waves, so that when the first wave comes through Ireland, the UCD trial will capture the information needed so that it can be tackled on the second wave.

Diabetes 

I also met Professor Carel Le Roux, a South African doctor and researcher now based in Ireland who is doing important work on obesity and diabetes.

The work of Professor Le Roux, and colleagues around the world, has found that there is a gene in some people which means they are always hungry, even soon after a meal.

This genetic link to obesity shows that obesity, and related conditions such as diabetes Type 2 are not due to some moral weakness, but due to measurable genetic differences.

This finding means that for some, it may be better for doctors to try and maintain people’s health at their current weight, as trying to get big weight reductions might not be effective.

It also means that for some, said Prof Le Roux, the best option may be to have gastric bypass surgery, which is a proven method of reducing people’s appetite in the long run.

Children

There is also important research into children’s diseases – paediatric research – happening in Ireland, in areas such as leukaemia, eczema, controlling pain and childhood diabetes.

What Irish paediatric researchers are doing is identifying the very earliest signs of diabetes, or allergies, for example, and this means treatment can also begin much earlier.

The goal in the future is to be able to identify children or infants that are at risk from a condition, or that have a condition, even in the womb and then prevent or treat it.

This preventive approach to medicine which is investigator led is far different from a world where the pharmaceutical industry wants to simply test drugs and products on already sick people.

Silicon chip could be replaced by material made in Cork

Siliconchip_by_shapeshifter

Silicon chips, like the one pictured here, could in future be made not from silicon, but from a new alloy material made by a UCC research group (Source: Wiki)

The silicon chip — the tiny synthetic “brain” inside smartphones, laptops and electronic devices — could eventually be replaced by a material made in Cork.The substance, a mixture of tin and germanium, should allow faster, less power-sapping electronic devices. In the short term it could be used to make “wearable” solar cells to power phones or tablets.

The innovation has been announced by Professor Justin Holmes, a scientific investigator at the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research Centre and professor of nanochemistry at University College Cork.

The tin-germanium mixture has been used by Holmes and his team to make tiny electricity-conducting wires, called nanowires. These control the electrical flow in devices, as silicon does, but use less power.

Low-power electronics could mean that mobile phones need to be charged less often, Holmes said, and could open the way for solar-powered mobile phones.

“Improved power efficiency means increased battery life for mobile devices, which ultimately leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “The charging of mobile electronic devices currently accounts for 15% of all household electricity consumption.”

This research has been funded jointly by Science Foundation Ireland, a government body that uses public money to support research, and IQE, a British company that produces materials for mobile phones and other electronic products.
The creation could challenge the dominance of silicon chips. Silicon, a component of sand, is a cheap and abundant material. Because of its ubiquity and its power to control electricity, it was used in the first chip made at the Texas Instruments lab in 1958.
As computers’ processing speeds have increased, manufacturers have packed more transistors onto every chip. Intel’s 4004 chip, made in 1971, had 2,300 transistors, while a chip the company makes now has 7.2bn.

The technical problem with having billions of transistors in a single silicon switch is that the amount of heat generated has shortened battery life and can lead to overheating.

This prompted scientists including Holmes to look at different materials that could be used in chips. IQE said it hopes the Irish-made material will make silicon chips faster and reduce their power consumption.

“The ability to increase the speed and number of devices on a chip by reducing size is coming to an end. Novel ideas such as nanowires will allow the microelectronics revolution to continue,” it said.

 This article was first published by The Sunday Times (Irish edition) on 21/08/2016.  Click here to view.

 

 

An ‘under the hood’ look at Dublin’s First ‘waste-to-energy’ plant

Covanta Incinerator

The Dublin ‘waste-to-energy’/incinerator plant – as it will look when completed – that will be taking household waste from waste operators in the Dublin region from September 2017LISTEN

LISTEN

This discussion about the science and technology underpinning the plant was broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke on (08/08/16)

Dubliners and visitors to the city in recent months may have noticed a huge addition being made to the skyline with a large structure under construction next to the two iconic chimney stacks at the Poolbeg ESB Station at Ringsend.

This is Dublin’s first ‘waste to energy’ plant, which its opponents, and there are many, would prefer to call an incinerator. According to its operators, Covanta, it will be capable of handling 600,000 tonnes of black bin waste, the vast majority of which will come from the city and the three Dublin county council areas

The plant will begin operating here in September 2017. Covanta state that it will convert waste from the city’s black bins – most of which would otherwise end up in landfill – into electricity for the grid and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

I went along to the plant last week (4/08/16) to see how the construction phase is progressing, and to have a look at some of the engineering and science that will underpin the plant’s operation.

Controversial

The Dublin waste to energy plant, or incinerator, is a highly contentious project. The story dates back to the late 1990s when the plan for an ‘incinerator’ or ‘waste to energy plant – the name depends on your view on it – was first mooted.

At that stage it had become obvious that Ireland needed to be able to tackle its own waste, rather than simply putting it into landfill, or exporting it.

In 2005 Dublin City Council awarded the contract for the plant to a Danish company called Elsam. Elsam was subsequently bought out by DONG energy generation, another Danish company. In 2007 the City Council sent a letter agreeing to engage DONG and Covanta Energy, a US company, to design build operate a Dublin waste to energy plant as a joint venture.

The EPA gave the plant a licence in 2008 and after the Commission for Energy Regulation gave authorizations to allow the plant to generate and supply energy (via electricity) in September 2009 there was a green light to start building.

It didn’t happen, and construction was suspended because the companies were unable to obtain a foreshore license to allow a development to take place on the coastline. The Minister for the Environment at the time, John Gormley, was opposed to granting the license and represented the local Dublin 4 area.

Finally, the license was granted, and Covanta re-commenced construction in 2014. There is significant progress now at the site, with the main structures in place, and it will began to accept waste from the local area in September 2017.

Operator

Covanta, is US based, but has built many ‘waste to energy’ plants on this side of the Atlantic and is looking to expand further into Europe. The firm has about 30 years of experience operating 45 ‘waste to energy’ facilities around the world.

Covanta like to think of themselves as being in the recycling business because they recycle about 500,000 of metals from the residual bottom ash left behind after municipal waste is incinerated or burned.

The majority of Covanta plants are based in the US and the company claim that there facilities there operator up to 90% better than government standards require.

In Dublin, they have an almost exclusively Irish management team, and have been able to easily hire people with the required expertise based here, or to lure back Irish people that have worked on waste to energy plants overseas.

Construction

The Poolbeg site for the plant is currently a hive of activity, with construction workers in yellow safety jackets, and helmets everywhere to be seen, swarming over the site. There is a sense of purpose, organisation and urgency as the company are working to a tight deadline and they are determined to began accepting waste in September of next year from local waste operators as they are required to do.

There are all manner of specialist construction workers at the site, as the piece of this gigantic puzzle are put into place. It is like watching a large football stadium, or a huge cruise liner being built, and it’s fascinating to watch.

Need

Most informed observers agree that Dublin, and Ireland, has a major problem with its waste, most of which is being exported.

There is very little capacity to deal with the large amount of waste being produced in the Dublin region, and Ireland as a whole, as there are just 5 landfills operational here that accept waste, and there is little or no likelihood of new landfills being set up as they are a health risk and no-one wants them.

This has been the situation for many years now, and what Ireland has been doing is exporting its waste, both its hazardous wastes, and the ‘ordinary’ black bin household waste overseas by ship, where plants in other countries burn the waste and recover energy, and dispose of the unusable or dangerous remnants.

The EU wants member states, and regions to deal with their waste in their own area, and this is also a key part of our national and regional waste policies here. That means that Dublin must deal with its own waste in Dublin, rather than the situation where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste are sent to towns like Drogheda and Arklow where they are ‘bailed’ and exported by ship. This is wrong in principle and storing waste like this represent a fire and health risk too.

We currently export about 560,000 tonnes of waste from Ireland each year, and the new Covanta plant has a capacity for about 600,000 tonnes.

Recycling does not appear to be solution to our waste problems, as even if we hit the predicted recycling rate here of 45-50% by 2020 there will still be a substantial amount of waste that has to be dealt with one way or another.

The waste that we produced can, with this plant, be put to good use to produce electricity and to reduce the need to important fossil fuels, such as gas from Russia and oil from the middle east, which are burned to produce electricity.

We need it. If we don’t, then in the absence of new landfill sites, the EU could decide that Ireland is no longer permitted to export its waste on a massive scale in contradiction of EU policies, and our own national policies. The EU have been very patient with us on this issue, going back almost two decades now.

Scale

The plant is huge. Is located at the end of South Bank Road, which is off the roundabout at Ringsend as you head south onto the coast road past Sandymount for those that know Dublin. It is next to the Poolbeg Power Plant, and beside the Irish sea, the river liffey, a sewage treatment plant, and a nature reserve.

The shape of it is very distinctive, it is very sleek and modern, and reminded me of a streamlined version, without the lifeboats and all the extras, of the kind of large cruise liner that we have grown used to seeing in Dublin Port these days.

The footprint of the plant covers about 3 football pitches, and at 52 metres at its highest point, it almost identical in height to the nearby Aviva Stadium, which is 4 metres shorter.

There will be two chimney stacks, which are not yet in place. These will be 100 metres tall, and from which will emerge, the company state, mostly water vapour at the end of the waste-to-energy process. That can be compared to the existing Poolbeg stacks, which stand at 207 metres, more than twice as tall.

The design is a kind of shell-like wrap around design, and the Covanta manager said that about 100 million euro was spent on design, to make the plant better fit in with its surroundings. In my opinion they have done a pretty good job in that, as it doesn’t look like a typical dirty power plant or industrial factory site.

In terms of the materials, there will be an extraordinary amount put into the construction such as 6,000 tons of reinforcing steel, enough concrete to fill about 6,500 concrete trucks and enough vertical supporting piles to run – if all the piles were laid out on the ground – the 64km from Poolbeg to Kildare town.

Waste to energy

When the plant is up and running, it will operate 24-7, although it is not permitted to take waste on a 24 hours basis.

The waste trucks will arrive from around Dublin – the busy time is often the mornings at these plants I’m’ told – they will be weighed and checked in before they go to a tipping hall when they unload their waste in a designated ‘bay’.

The waste will be unloaded out onto the floor and then put into a huge storage pit and thoroughly mixed before being lifted with a big mechanical grabber and put into what are called ‘hoppers’, and from the hoppers the waste travels to the combustion area where it is burned.

In the combustion chamber the waste will be burned at about 2,000F and the combustion a single load of waste from a hopper takes one or two hours. As waste is burned the heat will convert water in the steel tube lined walls that rise through ‘boiler tubes’ where it is superheated.

The steam will turns a turbine driven generator to produce electricity. The electricity produced by the turbine generator is will be exported to the grid for use by homes and business in the immediate Dublin 4, south city area.

Steam from this electricity generating process will be condensed back into water and returned to the boiler tubes, giving a efficient ‘closed loop’ system.

After this process, the volume of waste, Covanta tells me, will be reduced by 90%, with mainly ash and metal remaining. The ash can be landfilled or re-used. The metal such as iron and steel are recovered for re-use.A separate process recovers other metals like aluminium and copper.

The plant has pollution control equipment to ensure, the company states, that emissions are below limits to protect human health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can come onto the site whenever they wish, and they can access Covanta’s emission monitoring computers.

The goal, Covanta say is to have real time information on emissions available to whomever is interested on the company website when the plant is running.

In terms of air pollution, acid gases will be neutralised using lime and a scrubbing, or cleaning, process, and carbon will be injected into the gaseous mixture for better control of heavy metal emissions.

Small particulates – which can cause human health problems, particularly breathing difficulties – are removed as emissions pass through a ‘bag house’. This uses thousands of fabric filter bags to catch and hold particulates.

All gases pass through the bags before leaving the stack. The control room monitors emissions through a real time emissions monitoring system and controls steam flow and other automated processes in the plant.

In Dublin, Covanta are using the nearby Liffey water to act as a coolant in the plant, and they are capturing rainwater and surface water for the same purpose.

Potential benefits

The plant will produce 60 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to heat 80,000 homes, and to provide district (local) heating for 50,000 homes.

It makes use of ‘grey water’ from the nearby sewage treatment plant – which would otherwise require energy to be further treated – to cool the process, which is important, as temperature regulation is central to the safe and efficient operation of the plant.

Most importantly, it has the capacity to take up to 1,800 tonnes of black bin waste per day, and up to 600,000 tonnes per year.

This will greatly benefit our environment, as some of this waste may have been going to landfill, which has health and safety risks attached. It will help us to comply with the EU requirement that we deal with our own waste, and it will mean that waste is dealt with close to where it is produced in Dublin and not stored around the city, or in port towns where it can be a fire or health risk. This was caused by waste storage and it was a dangerous fire.

It should also be remembered that in many places in Europe plants like this are welcomed by ‘green’ political parties as they help move us away from landfill, and promote the idea that waste should be treated as a recoverable resource.

Caution

A note of caution was sounded when it was reported last month by The Irish Times that a Covanta run plant in Canada did not meet emissions targets on dioxins and furans as set out by the Canadian Ministry of Environment.

I asked Covanta, based on that story, how could they reassure people in Dublin that the plant there was safe and would meet emissions targets.

Covanta responded that they had measures in place in the Canadian plant to shut it down as soon as a problem arose on one of two emissions stacks. This ensured that there was no risk to the environment or health of local residents, and that this was, Covanta told me, confirmed and supported by the Canadian authorities.

Furthermore, Covanta said all emissions from the Dublin plant will be independently monitored and verified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Statement in full (for those that are interested) below from Covanta in response to my question about the issue that arose at Canadian plant.

A stack test in May 2016 at the Canadian plant indicated that the limit for dioxins and furans were exceeded on one line. The emissions exceedance for this unit was not representative of normal operations and previous stack tests and engineering runs have demonstrated compliance. Unit 2 continues to operate without issue with dioxin emissions at only 20% of the permitted levels.

While the emissions for unit 1 exceeded the limit at the stack, ambient air monitoring results of dioxins and furans upwind and downwind of the Canadian plant were well below the air quality standards set by the local environmental regulations. Soil sampling was also done and the testing found no elevated levels of dioxin/furans. The testing regime that Covanta had in place in Canada enabled the shut-down of Unit 1 as soon as the problem arose and thus ensured there was no risk at all to either the environment or the health of local residents which was confirmed by the relevant authorities.

The Dublin plant is technically different from the Canadian plant in many ways and the Poolbeg waste-to-energy process provider has successfully delivered 29 new plants across Europe since 2000 – 10 of these in the last 5 years and without any environmental incident. In addition Dublin Waste to Energy has invested heavily in experienced management and staff for the Poolbeg plant which will ensure smooth commissioning, start-up and operations.

The emissions limit values permitted for the Dublin plant have been set out by the EPA in accordance with best practice and EU legislation. In addition, the frequency and testing regime has been set out by the EPA and all emissions (in addition to be monitored by DWtE) will be independently monitored and verified by the EPA. As an indicator of Covanta’s diligence and commitment to the monitoring of stack emissions to ensure continuous compliance to the EU requirements, the plant has a full CEMS (Continuous Emission Monitoring System) as a stand-by to the two CEMS systems which monitor the emissions from the two lines.

Electric cars set to go driverless

Click above to hear discussion broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1, 30th November, ’15

Google Car

Google plans to bring a driverless electric car to market in 2018, and is already road testing driverless vehicles in California (Credit: Google)

Electric cars have been around the late 19th century, but they have never matched the appeal of cars run on either petrol or diesel.

That is all set to change, as the most popular cars on the market in coming decades are likely to be both electric and driverless.

The question is, is Ireland ready for electric, driverless cars, how do they work, are they safe? and how will they potentially make our lives better?

History 

The first commercial electric cars appeared as early as the 1880s and ‘electric drive’ cars as they were called were popular with early drivers.

However, from the turn of the 20th century, there was a growing demand for cheaper automobiles, from the general public.

From the 1920s, petrol was becoming more easily available and cheaper, petrol driven cars had a longer range, had greater horsepower, and the introduction of automatic starting mechanisms in petrol cars increased their appeal to all groups.

Yet, from as early as 1908, when the first Model T Ford’s were mass produced, the popularity of the electric car was waning.

In the mid 1960s the United States Congress introduced the first bills recommending support for the development of a new generation of commercial electric cars to try and deal with the issue of air pollution.

This paved the way for a revival of interest in electric cars in the 1970s, a revival which was further helped following the soar in oil prices following the Oil Crisis of 1973, and the birth of the environmental movement.

It seemed to many back then, 40 years ago, that the time had come for electric cars, but people resisted buying them, due to their cost, so-called ‘range anxiety’ and the daily hassle of recharging their batteries.

The situation stayed like that for the following decades, with electric cars remaining a niche market, but in the last decade two things happened.

Governments, including the Irish government, began actively promoting e cars as a way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, and to reduce reliance on imports of fossil fuels from The Middle East.

In Ireland this mean grants for people buying e cars (there is a 5k grant in place) and tax relief. Allied to that the ESB began building a network of public charging points, and there are now about 2,000 on the island.

The other thing that happened is that battery technology – which has been slow to develop for technical reasons – has started to improve.

Fully electric cars (there are also electric/petrol and electric/diesel hybrids) are totally dependent on batteries, usually lithium ion types.

These batteries, like the ones in our smartphones, are efficient, but the are expensive. This of course, affects the sale price of e cars.

The e car batteries need to be 80 per cent cheaper, some industry analysts say, in order for e cars to break through into mass use, and truly  compete with cars based on the internal combustion engine (ICE).

Some believe it will be possible to make cost cutting improvements to the lithium ion battery, while others say a new battery technology is needed.

Technology 

Electric are based on pretty simple technology, which hasn’t changed all that much since the first electric cars appeared in the 19th century.

One hundred per cent electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, the Ford Focus Electric and the VW e golf all make use of an electric motor.

There is a battery, of a series of connected batteries, that link to the electric motor and provide the power to drive the car forward.

They are green because they are based on electricity rather than petrol or diesel, but, of course, electricity can be produced by burning fossil fuels.

The battery is vital, as it charges the electric motor, and determines how far the car can travel without a charge, and its performance.

The first battery used in any electric vehicle was an old fashioned lead-acid battery which was itself invented in 1859.

The batteries that are, these days, used in electric cars are lithium ion batteries which are light, and have a good ability to store energy.

The problem with lithium ion batteries, as many of us will know from using smartphones, is that they need to be regularly recharged, and that after hundreds of recharges, they can become depleted, and just ‘die’.

So, there is a desperate need for a new battery technology that do not need to be recharged as often, and don’t die with lots of re charges.

From the buyers point of view, the big downside with electric cars is that they have to be recharged for hours, overnight, and that the driver might still, with a long journey, feel that he might needed a top up recharge.

This is something called ‘range anxiety’ and it’s a well known factor that has turns off buyers and that e car makers are trying to address.

Cost

Yes, there are a few competing options. Perhaps the most promising is one being developed in the UK at Cambridge University.

Scientists there last month announced they had found a way to develop batteries that are one-fifth the coast and weight of current e car batteries.

The technology is called lithium air technology and it’s important because it can reduce the cost of electric cars, while also enabling them to match the range of petrol and diesel cars.

Electric cars, based on these, the scientists say, could drive from London to Edinburgh with a single charge, hugely increasing the range of e cars.

This new technology also produces batteries which can store a lot of energy, and can recharge thousands of times without the battery dying.

Yet, lithium ion batteries, as well all know from our smartphones, have to be recharged often, and after repeated charging they can gradually die.

A lithium air battery can create a voltage from oxygen molecules – air – in the vicinity of the positive electrode. It appears to be a big breakthrough.

This all looks promising, but it is just emerging from the lab, is at the development stage, and may be a decade before it enters the real world.

Disappointing

Sales of e cars in Ireland remain disappointing low, despite the efforts of Government to promote e cars through subsidies, grants and tax breaks.

The ESB have been actively promoting the greater use of e cars in Ireland by building a network of public charging points and grants. Grants are of 5k are available from  the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland for buyers of new e cars.

Minister Coveney has been pictured driving a fully electric Nissan Leaf, and the ESB has been busy building infrastructure to support e cars.

Yet, in 2014, Ireland’s Central Statistics Office reported that just 222 electric cars were sold, which, is poor, but significantly up on the 55 cars that were sold in 2013.

The Government has set itself a target of 230,000 e cars being in use in Ireland by 2020. We currently have a little over 10,000 e cars here.

To compare, there were 13,929 petrol cars sold in 2014, and 47,559 diesel cars. So, electric is still very much a niche market in Ireland.

Ireland might use Norway as a comparison, a country of similar size, where 23, 390 electric vehicles were registered in 2014 alone.

The Norwegians have encouraged this through the lack of VAT on e cars, and free car parking, free access to bus lanes and free public charging points for e car owners. Ireland has followed some of these measures.

Barriers 

People are still reluctant to purchase e cars, and one of the mainr reasons is the ‘range anxiety’ already mentioned  as well as the perceived hassle of charging batteries for hours overnight.

People might also enjoy driving, and feel that an electric car, running silently without gear changes, is not what they traditionally enjoy.

For e cars to really take hold here, the Government might have to follow Norway’s lead and allow e cars travel in bus lanes, and park for free.

Allied to that, the cost of e cars needs to come down. I think they really need to be cheaper than existing petrol or diesel cars to break through.

They might also need to have a ‘unique selling point’ that marks them out as distinctly different or superior to petrol or diesel cars.

There are signs that this might happen, as electric cars are set to become driverless, and that this will happen a lot faster than we might imagine.

Driverless 

Hard-nosed analysts of the global car industry are convinced driverless cars WILL happen, and will happen in the near future.

Certainly, companies with huge reputations like Google, and Apple are reportedly investing in developing a driverless, electric car.

Volvo are working on one too, as are BMW, and legislation has already been passed in some US states permitting cars to be driverless.

VW too, who are under huge pressure these days of course, are reportedly work on an electric driverless car of their own.

The people who look at these things closely are expecting that a driverless car will be for sale inside the next five years.

The market potential is huge, according to the Boston Consulting Group, who estimate the driverless car market will be worth $42 billion by 2015.

The Google X driverless car is expected to hit the market in 2018, with Apple’s Project Titan to arrive in or around the same time.

It is very interesting that technology companies like Google and Apple are investing so heavily and secretively in driverless cars.

These giants clearly believe that people will be travelling in driverless, electric cars in future, using the Net, Apps, or whatever else freely.

Inside a Google car, Google have a captive audience to promote all kinds of other technology which people will use freely on their way to work.

Many of the barriers that would have blocking the development of the driverless car are being removed.

The two biggest blocks are legislation and the willingness of people to use them. A lot is happening on the legislation side.

For example, six states in the US have already passed legislation allowing the testing of driverless cars out on the public roads.

The world has already had its first driverless car crash, which happened in July last when a driverless Lexus crashed and three Google employees got minor injuries.

Also, just last week a the Google driverless car had an encounter with the law in Silicon Valley California for driving 24 mph in a 35 mph zone.

The police officer pulled over the prototype car and spoke with the people inside, but no ticket was issued.

Legislation

Irish and UK legislation would have to be substantially changed to allow for driverless cars to operate here, but it needs to happen urgently.

The UK is addressing this in law, and we need to too.

The other legal issue people would have is who is to blame if a driverless car crashes. People don’t want to be held account for something that is not under their control – understandably.

This led Volvo last month to say that it would take liability for any crash of any of its driverless cars – others will probably follow.

But, generally speaking the driverless car will be far safer than a car piloted by a human, who may be tired, distracted, or drunk.

Game changer 

We have had technologies in our cars which are not under our control already for years.

The best example perhaps would be ABS braking. This has been around since the 1980s, where control of the braking is taken from the driver to best ensure that wheels don’t lock, and spin out of control.

There are also systems which help us to park -self parking systems – where sensors guide a car as well as cruise control.

But, the vision for a driverless car goes way beyond these familiar features to a situation where a person, or persons, sit in, type or speak in a destination point, and then sit back and relax, read or work.

The driverless car will be able to sense its surrounding using existing technologies like RADAR, GPS and computer vision.

They will update their maps based on sensory input, and be able to track their position everywhere and adjust to all driving conditions.

Most of the ideas for driverless envisage a person in a driver’s seat, with a cloud, or wifi connection to other vehicles all around them.

The vehicles will communicate each other’s position and destination, and share the sensory input on road blocks,  accidents or weather conditions.

All that intelligence will better get everyone safely from A to B. Dublin might have a swarm of electric vehicles, efficiently moving all of us.

A giant, traffic management system, with zero pollution, and an order of magnitude safer than what have. Safety, and efficiency might drive this.

It is not about breakthrough technology it is about incorporating a range of existing technology into a 21st century vehicle, which has, up to now, been run on an internal combustion engines, born in the 19th century.

 

 

 

Creative thoughts linked to movement; Cynics earn less; Large Hadron fires up again; A wrist band that tells wearer they have had enough Sun

Many people get creative ideas while out walking, and science may have found an answer why (Credit: Rackett Hall Country House)

It is hard to force creativity, just ask any writer that suffered ‘writers block’ or a songwriter looking for a catchy line.

Scientists studying the brain may have found an answer why so many people report that they get their best, most creative, ideas, while out walking or running.

A cynical attitude to life and work is costly, according to new research, which found that cynics earn about $300 less than people who had a better view of their fellow man and were more willing to co-operate and collaborate.

A wrist band that changes colour when its wearer has had enough Sun, has been invented by scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast. It is important that people get some sun, as this helps our skin to produce Vitamin D, which is needed for bone health.

The band was developed by scientists Dr David Hazafy and Professor Andrew Mills and they have set up SunCatalyst Laboratories to commercialise it.

In other news, the Large Hadron Collider has powered up again, after a two year absence. It power levels have been increased, and the hope is that particles will be found that can shed more light on the nature of the Universe.

Listen to a discussion on these topics below, on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

This item was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 4th June 2015.

%d bloggers like this: