Climate change warriors find an ally in radical technology

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The best solution to the environmental crisis facing us today may not be to cut back on our usage of water and electricity (which we should be doing anyway) but radical technology, Professor Richard Williams, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, said on Wednesday, ahead of his lecture at the Dubai branch of the university in Academic City.

Professor Williams’ ventures in radical technology include: Xeros, a domestic washing machine that doesn’t use water; car-engines fuelled by cold air, and imaging without nuclear sensors. According to him, radical or ‘disruptive’ technologies are thus labelled for their disruption of existing businesses, “because what’s good for the environment and society may not be good for businesses”.


He says that one of the problems radical technology often encounters is the disbelief it arouses.

“When you first hear an example of radical technology, you almost laugh with disbelief,” he said, “and that makes it one of the hardest types of technology to acquire money for.”

This was the main obstacle Xeros, which uses 95 per cent less water and 35 per cent less energy than a conventional washing machine, faced when Prof Williams attempted to have people buy it for domestic use. The technology is now being used in dry-cleaning establishments in London and hotel chains in California. Even the British royal family used the technology at one point.

Xeros was invented by a student and a professor at the University of Leeds in the UK. Prof Williams was involved as a pro-vice-chancellor for enterprise, responsible for patenting the invention and securing funding. The technology, he explained, works by tumbling polymer beads with the clothes. Grime and dirt is then soaked off clothes by the beads.

“When we started talking to people, telling them how Xeros worked, 80 per cent raised their hands claiming to want one,” he said, “but when it actually comes down to buying it, people shied away. There was a disconnect between the emotion and the heart. People couldn’t believe it was possible to wash clothes in their homes without copious amounts of water. As such the business couldn’t go forward, so we readapted it for the commercial market.”

Prof Williams said that when the patent was filed in 2007, a whole host of companies wanted to buy the patent for a large sum. “But when we asked them why they wanted to buy it, it became obvious that they wanted to lock it away. Which goes to show again, what may be good for the environment and society is not always good for businesses.”

Prof Williams thinks that the technology will quickly catch on as a global concept, “and to think it all started with a student and a professor.”

Prof Williams’ own research has led him to technology that permits storing energy in air.

“The problem with renewable energy, such as solar and tidal power, is that you get it at the wrong time, so we thought if we could capture the energy and store it and move it, thus overcoming the critical problems of renewable energy.”

The technology uses a liquefying process, which converts air into a liquid through a series of compression cycles. “Once it is stored, you just have to keep it cool, there’s no need to keep it pressurised,” he said, adding that to use the cold air as energy, “you only have to heat it up again.”

The air thus stored, when heated, expands to a volume of 700 times, which then drives a turbine. “The end-to-end efficiency is 62 per cent, which makes it on par with some batteries, but with one-tenth of its price. Batteries are costly on the earth’s resources, the world really cannot afford to store its energy in batteries.”

When asked why this wasn’t thought of before, Prof Williams said “because it’s so simple.”

The technology can be used to operate a car. When heated by a car engine, the cold air expands thus driving the pistons and operating a car. “The process has one-fortieth the caloric content of petroleum,” he said.

“The only thing that comes out of the exhaust is cold air,” he added.

The technology is currently on trial in the UK as the Dearman Engine. Prof Williams said the technology’s major market is refrigeration and refrigeration trucks, where you often see the refrigerating engine mounted at the top between the cabin and the tow. “That refrigerating engine is 29 times more polluting that the main engine in the vehicle. What’s so surprising is that there are no regulations for it in Europe.”

The Dearman engine hopes to replace the refrigerating engine on most trucks, while operating the car itself.

During his lecture at Heriot-Watt University, Prof Williams said he hopes to encourage students to think for themselves, value their own thoughts and devise creative ways to address the problems facing the world. He also hopes to change the way courses are taught, advocating a more inter-disciplinary approach

“As I said, a student had a pivotal part to play when the Xeros was invented. Students must get out of their comfort zones and think beyond just grades and academic standing,” he said, adding that an interdisciplinary curriculum will prompt students to see beyond their own major and achieve more.