My doctor is an algorithm: ‘Medicine has always welcomed new technology’
With the advance of artificial intelligence, medical practises are being overtaken. Could the GP become a relic of a bygone age
April 13 2017 2:30 AM
‘Good afternoon, the AI will see you now.” This could be the future of family practice medicine as machines become better equipped to do many of the things that traditionally made up the GP’s job description.
Machines have always threatened human jobs, but up to the 21st century they were only a serious threat to repetitive, low-skilled jobs. Times have changed and the higher skilled jobs today are threatened by the advance of artificial intelligence (AI). In the past few years, intelligent machines have begun to perform complex tasks far better and quicker than intelligent, skilled humans.
The ‘good GP’ we know will always know his patients well; their medical history, their personality, details about their family and their foibles, and will retain this background information and call on it when assessing patients. The good GP would know, for example, that Mr Murphy is probably upset, rather than clinically depressed, because his father died last week and he has no depression history.
However, unlike the good GP, who may be overworked, and stressed by the demands of a busy clinic, computers with built-in AI have an almost unlimited capacity to store information in medical records, and to recognise patterns that may have been missed by the GP. They are also excellent at measuring things, such as blood pressure, and analysing results, such as a routine blood test.
In recent years, scientists working in AI made a breakthrough when they developed software based on the working of the human brain, rather than, as was the case before, sticking to a rigid rule book. This software could learn from the environment, making mistakes, and correcting them, like a child learns. The world saw its first artificial ‘self-learning systems’.
There were implications from this for the GP, and other professionals, as suddenly it wasn’t just the old story of machines replacing low-skilled workers; their jobs were on the line too. GPs faced the prospect of being confined to a decreasing number of areas where they are still superior to artificial rivals, or worse still, to become redundant; a charming medical relic of a bygone age.
The role of specialist medical consultants – not just GPs – is also coming under threat too from sophisticated ‘deep learning systems’ which are already outperforming doctors in specialised areas of medicine, says Professor Barry O’Sullivan, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at the Department of Computer Science, in University College Cork, and a leading AI researcher.
“Dermatology is one such field,” he says. “A very recent paper that appeared in (research journal) Nature showed that a deep learning system could outperform human dermatologists at identifying skin cancer by quite a margin.”
Another area where AI is already better than doctors is radiology, adds O’Sullivan. A radiologist can recognise patterns in scans, based on years of experience. However, no matter how experienced the radiologist, he can’t store the amount of scans that AI can, while comparing them to a particular scan in order to assess, for example, the likelihood of a stroke or epilepsy. Meanwhile, there are further reasons for GPs not to be cheerful about the future with plans in the UK, supported by the NHS, to use smartphones to bypass the GP clinic altogether. A pilot scheme, run by private firm Babylon Health is encouraging people to consult a ‘chatbot’, equipped with AI, rather than a human being when they contact the 111 non-emergency line.
Patients key in symptoms, and AI determines how urgent each case is, and whether the user should be told to go straight to A&E, the chemist or simply go home to bed. The AI system makes decisions based on 300 million pieces of information, and the company says trials have shown the system is faster and more accurate than doctors. Certainly, most experts agree the future of medicine is ‘personalised medicine’, with disease treatments being tailored to suit personal needs. This is an area that AI excels, as it is very good at looking at medical data and finding specific treatments for patients which can, in some cases, even save their lives.
“For example, organisations such as Cancer Commons have assisted cancer patients survive conditions that were regarded as fatal in their situations by combining AI with extremely rich and individual-level data,” says Prof O’Sullivan. “The founder of Cancer Commons, Marty Tenenbaum, is one such survivor.”
Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, says: “Computers and electronic diagnostic aids are delivering more and more information every year in medicine. And it is likely that computers and other devices, with their essentially infinite data storage and pattern recognition abilities, will continue to add increasing value to medical care.
He adds: “AI is especially useful in diagnosis: recognising skin lesions, monitoring measurable indices of body function, and identifying known patterns of symptoms and signs.
“It is less useful for other dimensions of medical care: contextualising findings in the context of the patient’s life, moving from recognising a pattern to agreeing a narrative between doctor and patient, and providing reassurance.
“AI is also less useful for picking up on the unexpected elements in a patient’s presentation: noting, for example, that a patient presenting with a lesion on his ear also has swollen ankles. Or noticing that someone with chest pain smells strongly of alcohol at 11 in the morning and might have an alcohol problem (which might or might not be related to the chest pain). Or noticing that a woman who comes to have a prescription renewed brings along her child, whom the nurse remembers has missed a vaccination, and can receive it today.”
Kelly isn’t worried about his job just yet though.
“Medicine has always welcomed new technologies and benefited hugely from them: stethoscopes, x-ray machines, MRI. But these tools amplify the effectiveness of healthcare professionals, rather than replacing them.”
The doctor will still see you now
Dr Mark Murphy, GP, and chair of Communications with the Irish College of General Practitioners, responds:
“It is unlikely that AI will make a meaningful difference in the GP setting, given the significant human factors at play in a consultation.
“There is a requirement for the GP to conduct face-to-face consultation to develop a rapport, to physically examine a patient and read nonverbal cues.”
“AI systems cannot get rid of the complex uncertainty and greyness at the heart of the undifferentiated presentations to General Practice.
“However, AI and machine learning will help with the handling of information in the healthcare system, and may be able to assist with complicated ‘black and white’ diagnostic process, such as imaging or to make sense of the complex genomic factors with rare-disease treatment.”
Irish scientists, episode 3: Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine engine was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 26th November 2016
Charles Parsons’ Turbinia yacht, pictured here, outpaced the assembled British navy at Spithead in 1897 with its steam powered turbine engine (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Charles Parsons is considered to be in the top five of Britain’s greatest engineers of all time, by virtue of his enormous contribution to sea travel, and the shipbuilding industry, and making electricity available to the masses.
Parsons’s huge impact on the world has been far less heralded in Ireland, his native land. Hew grew up and spent his early adult years at his family’s residence in Birr Castle Co. Offaly before moving to England.
The greatest achievement of his stellar engineering career was the invention of the steam turbine engine in 1884, an entirely new type of engine, which extracted thermal energy from pressurised steam in an ultra-efficient manner.
This thermal energy could be converted, through a series of intermediary steps, into electrical energy in such an efficient manner that, it became possible, for the first time, to generate enough electrical energy to make it available to the wide mass of people, not just the well-to-do elite.
Today, 90% of the electricity in the USA is still generated through steam turbine engines.
This engine also transformed the nature of sea travel, as steam turbines could provide the power necessary for large ships to cross the Atlantic far quicker, and for passengers to travel in comfort without rattling, shaking and noise.
The steam turbine was famously put into Parsons’s yacht, the Turbinia, and used to outpace the assembled British naval fleet at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead in 1897.
After this unsolicited, but powerful demonstration of the power that a steam turbine could provide, the British navy decided that it would commission the turbine to be used in its new generation of battleships, the Dreadnoughts (launched in 1906)
This helped to provide Britain with an edge in its naval arms race with Germany in the run up to World War 1.
The Martian landscape as depicted in The Martian, a film by 20th Century Fox (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
Both NASA and China have announced plans to land rovers on Mars in 2020, while a number of ambitious non governmental organisations also joining the dash to the Red Planet. It is anticipated that a manned mission from Earth to Mars and back will take five years, and Irish researchers and companies are part of global efforts to make sure that a manned Mars mission is a success.
The ‘Race to Mars’ has well and truly started, and, it’s about time some might argue, as it is now 47 years since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and those of us around back then might have expected to see more progress by now.
Unlike the 1960s, when the technology was really being stretched to the limit to get to the Moon, there are far less technical obstacles in the way of us reaching Mars, and the reason we haven’t done so is due to US politics and money.
That said the scientific challenges of getting humans to Mars, establishing a permanent presence there, and returning them safely to Earth are enormous. In October, President Obama set a goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s, and commented that he expects to be still around to see it happen.
But, what drove NASA on in the 1960s, of course, was fear of the Soviet Union and the militarisation of space. There is no Soviet Union threatening US existence anymore, but China is showing signs of emerging as viable new rival. The emergence of China as a space rival can only help efforts to get to Mars.
Mars is 34 million miles away, and that is more than 140 times further than the Moon. The entire duration of the mission to the Moon in 1969 was just over 8 days, but getting to Mars safely, spending time there and returning safely to Earth will take in the region of 5 years.
On the journey to Mars, the craft must be designed so that it protects the astronauts from cosmic radiation, while providing them with healthy food to eat, and a means to exercise and stay physically and mentally healthy, and prevent the muscle and bone tissue wastage that will impact astronauts living in microgravity.
NASA are planning to have a habitat module where astronauts will eat a healthy diet from crops grown on ‘green walls’ inside the craft. The air and water will be constantly recycled, and the people chosen will be individuals with a high level of psychological resilience who can endure boredom and are not prone to conflict.
The NASA timeline is that Mars astronauts will spend one year preparing for the launch, one year travelling to Mars, 18 months orbiting and then landing on Mars, and 18 further months on the surface of Mars. They will come home when the Earth and Mars are again favourably aligned to make the return trip home.
This will be a space mission like none in human history requiring a lot of material, some experimental, some to sustain life, some of which would be sent ahead of the crew, such a descent vehicle which would await the astronauts while in Mars orbit, and a shelter on the surface of Mars, assembled by robots.
There are some who doubt that NASA will be able to get humans to Mars by the 2030s, or even 2040s because of some financial realities. It is estimated that the Apollo moon landings cost $140 billion in today’s dollars, while the realistic price tag to get humans on Mars is somewhere around $450 billion.
NASA’s annual budget for human spaceflight is currently around $9 billion, which is a long, long way short. There needs to be another JFK figure to set out the vision, and secure the budget, but the US has little competition, and there is no ‘clear and present danger’ such as the old Soviet Union to give it a push. That said, ‘Red’ China is creeping up again as a threat to the US psyche.
Will it happen? It is probably unlikely that the US taxpayer will be prepared to pay the entire $450 billion bill to do something for the vague good of mankind.
The answer might come from NASA taking on Mars as a kind of joint venture with commercial companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This can help secure private investment and access to potential useful new technologies. For example,
SpaceX are working on cheaper rockets, costing about $1 million to launch.
Some other companies involved are Inspiration Mars, which is a non profit company founded by Dennis Tito the first space tourist. He is planning a trip for a select crew of Americans, who will travel to Mars, orbit, but not land. The plan here is to leave Earth in 2018, or failing that to try again in 2021. The estimated cost of this flyby mission is between $1 and $2 billion.
Then there is the Mars One mission, the one way trip, proposed by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. This is regarded by some as a ‘suicide mission’ as once people are there, there is no way home. Despite that, there were 2,782 applications to be astronauts on the trip, some of which came from Ireland, including Trinity College astrophysicist, Dr Joseph Roche. The plan is that these applicants will be whittled down six groups of four astronauts, and the first crew of four will leave Earth in 2024. Mars One plan to document the trip on a reality TV show, which they hope will provide much of the finance for the trip.
But, Space X is a serious, space exploration company founded by Elon Musk, a billionaire, playboy who has also made a success out of Tesla electric cars. He is working on developing a fleet of reusable rockets, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and back again. He wants to build a self sustaining Martian city of 80,000 people, which could be a bolt hole for humanity in the event of some natural or manmade catastrophe here. The plan is to have a human step on Mars by 2026 (10 years!) and for it to be a round trip.
Musk may charge people as little as $0.5 million for a round trip to Mars.
There are a surprising number of researchers and companies based in Ireland doing work that can help make the mission to Mars a success.
For example, the work of Brian Caulfield, Professor of Physiotherapy at UCD, has led to the design and development of a device that can enable astronauts exercise properly so that their physical and mental health can be maintained on the long voyage to Mars. The work has been funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).
The device stimulates the large muscles of the legs to produce aerobic exercise training and muscle strengthening effects in space. This ‘Neuromuscular Electrical Muscle Stimulation Technology’ has been successfully tested by the ESA and was developed as a collaboration between UCD and researchers at the Galway based Biomedical Research Limited.
Research by Trinity College’s Mary Bourke, and Ulster University’s Derek Jackson has investigated Martian wind patterns and how they shape the giant sand dunes that can be seen on the surface of Mars – like a red Saudi Arabia.
Scientists know that Martian weather can be volatile and potentially very dangerous for a Martian landing as well as for human colonists, with huge sandstorms from time to time, for example.
The research is of potential value to NASA and others planning to go to Mars as it shows how the enormous sand dunes on mars influence the local wind speeds on the planet, and how these wind speeds, then in turn shape the sand dunes.
It is like developing a Martian wind and weather forecasting ability on Earth.
In Athlone Institute of Technology Dr Diana Cooper is working on the effects of microgravity on human physiology. The insights gained from this work could be crucial to developing methods to ensure that humans can survive long periods in space, travelling between Earth and Mars, without their bone tissue being reabsorbed back into the blood, or losing significant muscle mass.
Something less obvious and immediate, but of enormous importance to the success of any space mission to Mars concerns something invented by an Irish mathematical genius in 1843. These are quaternions, which are mathematical equations, which are used to represent the relative movement of 3D objects in space, and the man that invented then was called William Rowan Hamilton.
A few years back, after the NASA curiosity rover landed on Mars, I spoke to one of the mission controllers, a man called Miguel San Martin. He told me that the incredibly precise landing of the car sized curiosity, near an area which NASA believed may show former evidence for life on Mars, was only possible because the precise navigation of curiosity was underpinned by quaternions.
So, incredibly, something invented by a Dubliner, while walking along the banks of the Royal Canal in 1843 with his wife, will be vital to ensure that any future Mars mission lands close to a pre-planned safe, and viable landing site.
There are a number of companies in Ireland who are doing work which feeds to the development of the technology required to get to Mars.
For example, A specific type of engine, called a Mars Apogee Engine is under development at Moog, Dublin, in work supported by Enterprise Ireland.
This engine is a liquid propellant engine capable of providing more thrust, with less fuel, than is possible with existing propulsion systems. The idea is that these new engines will be efficient enough to save 150kg of propellant on a Mars mission, which will make space available for other things, such as scientific instruments, which will give any Mars mission more ‘bang for its buck’.
The Curtiss-Wright Aviation and Electronic company, which has its origins all the way back to the Wright brothers, has a branch in Dublin. The people here are working on launch vehicles that can take payloads into orbit and build the Martian ‘in orbit’ infrastructure that will be required to supply and sustain human missions to Mars. This will build a supply chain if you like.
Curtiss-Wright are also developing technologies to enable the safe re-entry of spacecraft through planetary atmospheres including Mars, as well as technology that will be central to sustaining life & generating fuel for human explorers on the surface of Mars
Danny Gleeson, Chairman of the Irish Space Industry Group, said that development of human missions to Mars will take decades and that it was unlikely that the human mission to Mars will be a single shot but rather a choreographed series of missions that build the necessary infrastructure in Earth orbit and Mars orbit & surface to sustain human missions.
“The good news is that there is a plan to get to Mars and back again and the technologies required are almost all available now,” said Danny.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Tax incentives for those buying diesel cars over the last decade has fueled a move to diesel on Irish roads, with diesel cars now outnumbering petrol cars.
This has been widely regarded as a welcome move, as diesel cars are considered ‘better for the environment’ because they produce less carbon dioxide gases than petrol cars – the gases that have been linked with causing global warming.
However, scientific evidence is emerging which shows that the level of diesel particulates, which are damaging to human health, has increased in line with the growing popularity of diesel and that Irish people are dying as a result of this. The European Environment Agency has, for example, estimated that 1,200 people in Ireland per year are dying as a result of diseases caused by particulate pollution.
Until relatively recently, there has not been a significant amount of research into the impact of diesel pollution on public health, particularly in Europe, but the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal certainly gave it an added push.
The evidence that is emerging from the US primarily – where research has been going on for longer – suggests that there is real reason for concern when it comes to health effects, and environmental effects, or air pollution from diesel engines. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organisation and the UK Department of Transport have all produced reports in the last year or two which point to a real problem here.
As well as pointing to increased emissions of particulate matter (PM) and Nitrogen Dioxide gas, which are known to damage human health, the authorities in Europe and the US have started to make a direct link between an increase in numbers of people dying from respiratory diseases and cancers, and this increase in pollution.
The US EPA, who support a lot of work in this area, has led the way with publication of figures of increased numbers of premature deaths, cancers and respiratory diseases due to air pollution from diesel vehicles. There is a tangible link, a ‘smoking gun’ if you link that is linking cause and effect.
There has been little research into subject in Ireland until this year. In January 2016, a research project began at Trinity College Dublin, with funding from the Irish EPA, which is looking to precisely determine the amount of a certain type of damaging particulate, called PM 2.5 which is produced by diesel vehicles here.
It is a multi-disciplinary research effort, involving experts in air pollution, chemistry and transportation and will take place over 24 months. At the end of it, they say they will be able to determine precisely, using computer software modeling, how many deaths and illnesses here are caused by diesel vehicles.
One of the researchers involved, Dr Bidisha Ghosh, is a transportation expert, and said that the plan is to look at diesel particulates first, and to then to a follow up study where the impact of NO2 is measured and assessed.
The Irish EPA has a number of monitoring sites around Ireland that will be used as measuring points. One of the key challenges – and this is the first time anyone in the world has done this – will be to distinguish the percentage of PM 2.5 (particulate matter 2.5, a size of particulate) that is from diesel cars as opposed to other potential sources, such as sand, or the burning of coal.
The measuring sites will be near to roads as that is where diesel fumes are strongest, and another part of the study will determine how quickly dangerous diesel pollution dissipates as you move away from a busy road.
The researchers will be looking closely at what comes out of the diesel particulate filters that are attached to diesel cars. This is in order to get the chemical composition, or signature of PMs to better identify those PMs that are from diesel cars or other diesel vehicles. This is a difficult task and will involve using specialised machines to look at tiny quantities of polluting chemicals.
Dr Ghosh said that by the end of their project, in the latter part of 2017 they will be in a position to give precise numbers on the health effects of the growing use of diesel cars in Ireland. At that stage, she said they will have precise numbers on how many extra deaths, or premature deaths are being caused or what kind of extra number of lung cancers and other respiratory diseases are happening in Ireland due to us driving more diesel cars.
The calculations are based on knowledge of the car fleet, the type and age of cars on Irish roads, and knowledge of what the standard pollution emission from a certain vehicle of a certain age will be. This makes it possible to do comparison such as comparing the 2000 level of emissions versus the 2015 levels and matching the increase in pollution with the increase in deaths and diseases.
The project will also make it possible to predict, based on a number of scenarios – such as increasing use of diesel cars at the current rate – what Ireland can expect in 2020 or 2030 in terms of death rates from air pollution. This, it is hoped, will produce a solid basis for policy makers to address this problem.
The new new diesel cars on the market have very good particle filters and if you are sitting inside one of these cars you wouldn’t get a whole lot of this PM pollution, and the newer models may not pollute the atmosphere that much. The old diesels is where the big problem lies, and there are still a lot of old diesel cars being driven on Irish roads today, as they have vastly inferior emissions control technology to more modern cars.
It is also true that the bigger diesel car engines are far more polluting. The researchers at TCD, who have access to pollution figures in Ireland between 2010 and 2015 said there was a very significant increase in diesel PMs in those years, and this finding was what prompted a more detailed air pollution study.
The researchers also strongly suspect that the VW scandal wasn’t just a VW issue, and that many other diesel car makers have been cooking the books, in the sense that the emissions reported in the car manual does not bear much resemblance to the real on road emissions. The real figures, I was told, are likely to be far, far higher than what we see in the new diesel car manuals.
The Irish government started to actively support diesel from 20o8, with various tax incentives, in order to help Ireland meet its carbon dioxide ‘greenhouse gas’ targets. In fairness to the Irish government back then, the extent of the public health risk from diesel cars was not widely known.
It was initially thought that certain types of PMs were not harmful, but that thinking has changed, and now scientists are looking at the damage caused by diesel particulates that can remain wedged in the lungs. For example, the particulate, PM 1, is very hard to remove from the lung once in.
The evidence that is now emerging, however, is that not only is diesel bad for public health, it is also, by producing NO2, bad for the environment.
The science around this is all still quite new, and emerging. It is only in 2015 that a report was published by the UK authorities which stated that NO2 can also be very harmful to children, their respiratory development, their lung development and that it can cause irreversible changes.
The initial findings about the problem with diesel took time to emerge, as they didn’t perhaps fit with the green image of diesel, especially in Europe. However, the more research on this that is being done, the clearly the scientific picture becomes, and eventually, governments will have to act on the results.
Nitrous oxide, and nitrous dioxide gases from diesel cars and vehicles are also linked with health problems, and the data can be collected again by using standard emissions and examining the national car fleet. This is likely to be supported by specific EPA funded research in future, which will, like the TCD project looking at PMs, look into NO2 levels at certain EPA monitoring sites, near busy roads around the country.
Aside from being linked with respiratory disease and death, NO2 is known to have a negative impact on vegetation and acts to break down the ozone layer.
There are emerging fuels out there, such as hydrogen gas, which is being made available at existing petrol stations in the UK this summer.
However, experts believe that because the infrastructure and global distribution network is built for diesel and petrol cars, and that huge investment has been made in this system, that it will be impossible to envisage a change to any other fuel or transport type in the near, or even distant future.
Electric cars are still rare in Ireland despite significant government support, as people don’t like some of the unanswered questions that remain on it, such as how long does an electric car last, and what to do should a battery die out?
There is also the fact that a very high amount of energy can be liberated from diesel or petrol, and there is nothing that can rival petroleum on that score.
The solution, some suggest, is to truly move towards a sustainable transport system, where people walk if they can, and only use a car when they have to. Those countries that do this, and that promote public transport have far less emissions from petroleum car engines. It is also very important to think about where we locate our busy roads, as studies have shown that irreversible damage can be done to schoolchildren from air pollution in schools near such roads.
For those that need a car, the advice is to look at getting rid of the old diesel and replacing it with a new one, with better a particulate filter. Also, to avoid buying one of the high performance diesel cars and go for a more modest option.
There is also the issue in Ireland of people removing diesel particulate filters when they start to affect car performance. They can be expensive to replace, and some garages in Ireland are openly offering services on the internet to remove and not replace the filters.
A diesel car can run without a filter, and not replacing a malfunctioning filter can save hundreds if not a few thousand euros. However, from a public health and environmental perspective removing a filter is “disastrous, really, really bad” according to Dr Ghosh.
Actively preventing the removal of diesel particulate filters from diesel cars, and insisting on a high standard of operation of diesel filters as part of the NCT test, might be how the Irish government might start trying to tackle this important public health issue.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.