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Promises, promises, promises!

28 June 2013

The science and engineering cornucopia proffered by the Chancellar last Wednesday made for compelling reading; but was it just an early pre-election gambit?

The timing sort of gave it away - it's very much jam tomorrow, with a two-year hiatus before we see any of this promised investment in research, infrastructure and workforce skills programmes getting off the starting block.

Setting aside the scepticism, industry representatives were generally upbeat in their appraisals and warmly welcomed the proposals made in the Chancellor's Spending Review. CBI chief policy director Katja Hall, for one, believes it is the kind of bold, ambitious package which businesses have wanted for years. However, she warns the time for grand announcements is over. Ministers now need to follow through urgently on their promises or they risk the private sector growing even more frustrated.

With the news that heavy industry may be asked to reduce their electricity consumption significantly during the peak Winter hours, the energy plans outlined by Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander to Parliament on the following day represent ‘a big step forward’, according to Ms Hall, and one that should unlock the private investment we need to keep the lights on and costs down.

Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) chief executive, Terry Scuoler thought the overall numbers came as no surprise and that the settlement was as good as could be expected. But at least the EEF thinks the government is on target to prioritise spending in those areas that will deliver that all-elusive growth.

The EEF also welcomed the additional funding earmarked for the Technology Strategy Board – perhaps a clearer indication that the government really does believe that supporting science and innovation equals growth for the economy. And Research Councils UK was, perhaps not surprisingly, gleeful at the prospect of the Review’s promised £1.1bn in capital investment for science and research – a community that has already seen very real reductions in terms of its investment over the current spending review period.

Let’s go a-fracking-o!
The British Geological Survey (BGS) has completed an estimate of the shale gas reserves lying beneath a part of central Britain - in an area between Wrexham and Blackpool in the west, and Nottingham and Scarborough in the east. It reveals a level of gas-in-place (not to be confused with recoverable gas) considerably higher than originally thought.

The estimate ranges from the conservative to the downright optimistic - from 822 trillion cubic feet (tcf) to an upper estimate of 2,281 tcf. The BGS suggests a more sober midpoint estimate for the resource of 1,329 tcf – still a staggering reserve, the recoverable gas from which might meet the UK’s needs for decades to come.

The BGS points out that the proportion of gas that it may be possible to extract is unknown. Somewhat euphemistically, this august institution says the final figure will depend on the ‘economic, geological and social factors that will prevail at each operation’. Nonetheless, these measured terms are hardly likely to dampen the enthusiasm of the energy industry for what it believes is going to be an energy bonanza for the UK.

Earlier this month, Centrica bought a 25 percent, £160m stake in the Bowland shale exploration licence of Cuadrilla, a company that has been working hard to demonstrate Britain’s shale gas potential. That’s no mean investment, and one that would suggest the UK energy sector is poised to take full advantage of the resource, no matter what planning hurdles and public disquiet lies ahead.

The final frontier
Data from Voyager 1, now more than eleven billion miles from the sun, suggest the spacecraft is closer to becoming the first human-made object about to reach interstellar space. 

Scientists have seen two of the three expected signs of interstellar arrival: charged particles disappearing from the solar magnetic field and the detection of cosmic rays from far outsid the so-called 'solar bubble' (heliosphere). They have not yet seen the third sign, an abrupt change in the direction of the magnetic field, which would indicate the presence of the interstellar magnetic field. 

It is uncertain how far Voyager 1 has to go to reach interstellar space. The estimate is it could take several more months, or even years. The heliosphere extends at least eight billion miles beyond all the planets in our solar system. It is dominated by the sun's magnetic field and an ionised 'wind' expanding outward from the sun. Outside the heliosphere, interstellar space is filled with matter from other stars and the magnetic field present in the nearby region of the Milky Way. 

Voyager 1 and its twin spacecraft, Voyager 2, were launched in 1977. They toured Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune before embarking on their extraordinary interstellar mission more than twenty years ago.

Les Hunt

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