Let the sparks fly!


Electricity (Photo credit: elycefeliz)

If there is one thing that’s bound to bring out my patriotic and jingoistic side, it’s the design of the good old British electrical plug. There is something deeply satisfying about the solidity of the design. It slides home into a socket with a hefty thunk and all the nasty dangerous bits are nicely hidden away. To make things doubly safe, there is normally a switch and to make things safer still, there is a fuse and most devices have an earth cable.

As far as I can see, there are only two flaws with the design. Firstly, if you really wanted to be picky, they are a bit big. Probably more importantly, they can inflict serious damage on any poor soul who accidentally steps on an upturned plug. But compared to the overseas competition, the good old British plug is a masterpiece.

There is always a fear at the back of my mind that I am going to be electrocuted every time I plug in an electrical device into a foreign socket. They never seem to quite fit properly and tend to hang apologetically from the socket. More often than not, there will be some crackling, fizzing, the smell of ozone all accompanied by a small flash of light.

But the trouble with plugs is the sheer multiplicity of devices that need them. I’m sitting in my lounge typing this on my trusty macbook. The TV is on, fed by the Sky box. Beneath the TV set, there is an Apple TV box, a Nintendo Wii and a home theatre system. If you add to that the charger for my phone. That’s seven devices. I hope there are no burglars reading. On the other side of the room, you have the cable modem, a time machine, a phone and another laptop – four more devices.

The way that electricity is generated and supplied to the devices that need them is all a bit nineteenth century. Starting with generation – in order to produce electricity, we have a few windmills and the odd oxymoronic controlled nuclear explosion, but for the most part – we burn stuff.

In order to produce power, we burn various different forms of carbon based fuel to heat water. The water turns to steam which turns a turbine. The turbine generates electricity which we then pump into the national grid (which contains a vast plethora of devices that convert electricity from one form to another). Eventually after passing over loads of ugly pylons and through a substation to your house, it arrives at plugs. Unless your house has been rewired in the last five years, you won’t have enough of them and they will be in the wrong place.

If it sounds inefficient and archaic – it is. There simply has to be a better way. There is some promising research going on. Firstly, by using induction – you can eliminate plugs by placing specially adapted devices onto inductive plates to charge. There are even some commercial devices available. The other field that is showing promise is the transmission of power through microwaves.

I’m not sure I fancy being an early adopter for any of this stuff. The thought of my cat disappearing in a puff of fur because she happened to stand in the wrong place sounds a bit scary to me. But I am glad the research is going on. I also welcome any kind of initiative which removes our dependence on fossil fuels, but that is a really long journey.

And if you ever need to plug in a device in some far away land, hold it firmly, give a good solid shove and think of England.


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