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Technology Group

For further information about Newtown U3A or any of the groups please contact: secretary@newtownu3a.co.uk

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Members of U3A are all welcome to join the activities of  the groups.  Contact details of leaders are given in the Programme of Events.

We define technology in broad terms as 'the application of science for the improvement of our lifestyle, both historical as well as cutting edge'.
As a group we meet once a month when a member gives a presentation of a subject of their choice followed by a discussion of the topic.

If you have an interest or some topic that you would like to know more about, please join us.

Meetings held

Once a month on a Thursday, stariting at 10 am.

Next Meeting:

There will be no meeting in  June, the next one will  be on July 14th at Nick's house, Abermule

There was a meeting in April but no notes were prepared, the May meeting at the Friends Meeting House started with the sad news that member, Tony Lake died on 25th April.  Paula provided samples of ground elder for the members to cook and try.  We then heard about Keran's hot compost bins that some members of the group had seen on a recent visit.  They are working well and producing good compost and liquid at temperatures up to 50C.
Mike talked about the UK research project aimed at making commercial aircraft carbon neutral by changing construction materials from aluminium and titanium to composites with graphite fibre and metal matrix composites.  These approaches will reduce aircraft weight but will need hydrocarbon sources, need energy to produce and are difficult to recycle.  
Keran showed us the failed key to her 2004 Citroen C4.  She has been repairing it over the years but has finally bought an expensive replacement.  The group thought that the original key could still be repaired with superglue.  
Nick told us about geological 'blobs'.  These are areas of magma under the Pacific that have diffferent compostion to other materials coming out of volcanoes even though the mantle is global.  The theory is that the source was an impact in the early stages of earth's formation and their composition is similar to that of the moon.  Nick also recommended a book on the origins of quantum mechanics, "Helgoland" by Carlo Rovelli.
Tim told us the fascinating tale of the Coventry Watch Movement Manufacturing Company who made quality pocket watches in the 1800's.  They changed their working practices in 1840, standardizing and simplifying but failed to update when America and Switzerland started producing cheaper watches of different designs.  Tim drew parallels with industries such as motor bikes, cars and vacuum cleaners.  
Keran told us about the growth in car clubs, supported by the Welsh Government in which people use communal cars rather than owning individual vehicles.
The March meeting was held in our new meeting location at the Old Friends Meeting House, courtesy of Tim.  Nick started the meeting with a talk on Long Covid, it's symptoms, causes and mechanisms.  It's become very wide spread and persistent and all the members present knew at least one person suffering with it.  This led on to a discussion on lung scarring and ways of breathing.  Also to yoga and laughing yoga.  
John followed this with an item of the incredibly energy hungry production of fertilizer, illustrated by a report on the Dangote plant in Nigeria.  John told us about developments of fertilizing plants with microbes that are able to convert nitrogen into ammonia after spraying on to the seedling in situ.  This is much more efficient, less wasteful and with less risk of contamination of water courses.
Keran told us about the health properties of Japanese Knotweed that is used in some countries to treat a number of ailments and conditions.  All parts of the plant are effective to some degree and a typical use in Korea, for example, is to treat plaque in dentistry.  While most of us knew of the damage the roots of this plant can do to houses and flood defenses, the benefits were news.
Tim talked about diet and, specifically, on it's effect on Diabetes.  He quoted the UK Government's web site on the subject, Eat Well.  This advises a large proportion of carbohydrates, without reference to things like health condition or activity levels.  The basis of these recommendations seems to be studies  by the food industry.  Tim has controlled his diet to reduce sugars and carbs and has successfully reduced his blood pressure and general health.  Other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, offer much more focussed advice on diet and health.

The meeting in February was at Neil's house in Kerry and was well attended, including a potential new member, Richard.  Nick opened the meeting with a suggestion that perhaps members could take a research topic and give periodic, short updates.  Most felt that teh current, random contribution by members was a good model and should be continued.
Paula gave us a fascinating talk on the new subject of exposomics.  This is the study of the effects of external factors such as pollutants, chemicals, particles, etc on our health and longevity.  This is part of the Human Genome project.  It engendered a lively debate on such things as micro plastics, small particle air pollution and asbestos.  
Rod told us about the history and current state of the electric vehicle use.  He talked about the problems of cost, lack of charging points, possible shortage of electricity and the need for rare earths in their construction.
Tim gave a summary of the current state of money and finance.  He noted that for centuries a fair interest rate for both lender and borrower has been 5%.  The artificially low interest rate we currently have has been caused by governments printing money leading to inflation and excessive investment in property.  We also talked about the role of gold and Bitcoins and the burden of death duty.
Mike followed on from Rod's talk on EVs and talked about the use of rare earths in electric motors and batteries.  Heavy rare earths are very expensive, in short supply and environmentally damaging in their extraction and refining.  Car manufacturers are exploring alternatives that do not need rare earth metals but so far they are less efficient.
Nick talked about the use of hydrogen for energy production.  There are processes that produce hydrogen by hydrolysis of water using renewable energy when available, storing the hydrogen then using it to produce electricity when needed.  It was agreed by all that the challenge of electricity production needs serious, targeted investment by governments.


The December meeting was at Mike and Paula's house in Newtown and was well attended.  Keran started the meeting with a description of compost toilets based on the book about a low impact roundhouse by  Tony Wrench.  The use of compost toilet is good for the environment on a number of levels, not for everyone but could be used more.  Nick followed with a description of the way that the formulation of cement is being changed to make its production  less carbon intensive.  The replacement of fly ash by such things as kaolin or volcanic ash reduces the heat needed to produce cement while producing an acceptable product.  Time, a water mill owner, told us about a company, Rotorheat, who have developed technology in which the rotation of a water wheel could be used to produce large quanttities of heat.  With all the streams in Wales it is technology that could be used for cheap local home heating. .Mike talked about the use of renewable energy around the world and the way that some countries, fro example Norway are producing the majority of their energy from renewable sources.  The UK is doing reasonably well with wind but has phased out the use of coal in power stations to be replaced by heavily subsidised imported wood pellets at, for example the Drax station.  Paula finished the meeting by telling us about the latest thinking on the start of the Covid pandemic.  The current view that it did origiinate at the Wuhan market not by some release from  a laboratory. 

The break during the meeting included tea and coffee with some of Paula's excellent rhubarb cake.  This started a discussion on cake and the use of stored or frozen fruit.  

The November meeting was held in the old Friends Meeting House in Newtown, hosted by Tim. Thid delightful old building was moved from Dolgellau years ago and is reputed to have been one of Owain Glyndwr's parliament buildings. 

Rather appropriately the first talk was by Tim who discussed wood burning fires and stoves.  He described the reports of the dangers of wood burning due to micro particle emissions.  There is little scientific basis or evidence for this concern.  If wood burners are properly used with suitable timber they are unlikely to cause harmful emissions. 

Paula then talked about the changes that have occured in humans over the last 100 years.  Humans now are taller, fatter and live longer, with notable geographical variations.  These changes are due to medical, cultural and technological innovations.  This fascinating presentation led to some lively discussions on nutrition and diet including the micro biome and the information available on the Zoe web site. 

Mike then talksed about the total cost of ownership of electric vehicles compared with internal combustion ones.  This comparison is strongly influenced by taxes, subsitied and the cost of petrol and electricity.   A 2021 study in Europe, USA and Asia by the Nickel Institute concluded that smalll and medium electric vehicles are cost competitive with conventional vehicles in all the areas studied. Luxury vehicles often do not have lower total cost of ownership, depending on the country and mileage travelled.  

Kieran discussed the possibiliy of installing a highly efficient composting system in her cellar and piping the heat generated around her house.  While this sounded an attractive proposition the group raised concerns about the generation of potentially dangerous CO2 and methane gases.  Maybe safer to install out of doors and pipe the heat in. 

We ran out of time at that point, Nick and John will start the next meeting.

The July meeting was held in the garden and conservatory at Nick's house on a glorious hot day.  Tim started the meeting by telling us about gain on function which describes the process of adding features on to a virus to enable it to pass to other species.  This process was apparently being researched at Wuhan so led to speculation about the source of the Covid pandemic and a discussion about Chinese objectives in the world.  

Rod gave us a summary of the fitting and use of stents to deal with blocked arteries around the heart.  

Nick raised the subject of quantum computing and talked about the increased power it will provide in, for example, interpretation of medical scans. He also told us about his electrical car, solar panels, heat pump, battery and smart meter technology.  He has spent a lot of money on this installation but now has a very cheap to run house. 

Mike told us about an Italian project that is making 60 square metre houses by 3D printing a slurry of local mud.  He also talked about the problems of plastic particles in the ocean, some derived from tire wear on the roads but a lot coming from the use of old tires in fishing.  Also much derives from lost or discarded fishing nets, pots, etc. which make up 46% of the 79,000 t of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Developments are under way to use other polymers for these items to make them biodegradable. 

Paula ended the meeting by talking about solar flares and the effect they can have on satellites, power systems, communicationes, etc and the effect a large flare would have on all aspects of modern life.  There is a solar observatory in the US that is monitoring sun activity with the intention of predicting dangerous flares giving perhaps 18 hoursnotice to allow the shuting down of satellites and electrical distribution networks, liable to be damaged.   Paula also expressed the view that at future meetings participants should come with prepared short presentations rather than topics for discussion.  The group agreed that we would revert to this original format. 

After a long period without meetings we held an outdoor one today, 24th June.  This was suggested by Keran and was held in her garden in Llanidloes.  Nick started the meeting with a vote of thanks to Keran for suggesting a meeting and providing the venue.  Keran talked about the Fermi Paradox which is about the lack of evidence of extraterrestial life and the Drake equation which calcullates the number of likely planets with life on them.  

Paula gave us a topical talk on the changing face of the Covid virus.  She told us of the survey work done using the ZOE app which collects data from as many people as possible. They have found that the symptoms have changed with the delta variance and now resemble the common cold. Paula suggests that we all sing up for the ZOE app to increase the data size and get updates on this virus.  https://covid.joinzoe.com/

Mike talked about the use of hydrogen for trains.  Trains are a more likely candidate for hydrogen propulsion since, unlike cars, they have central depots, defined routes and are big enough to carry stores of hydrogen.  While hydrogen is more expensive than electric of diesel propulsion it is a good option for mainline trains.  A hydrogen train developed by the University of Birmingham has completed mainline trials and is due to go into service soon.   

Tony posed the question 'is our species likely to survive?' He said that AI, gain of function and global warming represented a serious threat to our long term survival.  The group agreed that survival is unlikely but not necessarily due to the reasons listed by Tony.  Tony suggested that gravity would be a suitable topic to explore at a future meeting.

Nick started a discussion on hydrothermal vents.  These are the deep sea vents where lifeforms exist that do not depend on energy from the sun, as on land, but instead use sulphur from the vents to maintain life.  We speculated whether the early life forms on Earth might have been similiar or, indeed, used other elements as an energy source.

The group decided to hold another meeting in  a month's time at Nick's house.

In March we met at Tony's house. Tim started the meeting with a fascinating explanation of dry rot in buildings.  He illustrated it by describing the situation in a house in Welshpool which had been insulated and effectively sealed to conserve energy which caused a major damp problem leading to extensive dry rot attack.  Tim mitigated the problem by removing all the damaged materials and ensuring an adequate air flow through the underfloor and affected walls.

Ralph told us about the seasonality and the effect on the timing of the seasons caused by the tilt of the earth.  He also talked about the molecule in plants, called Messenger RNA, that react to the length of daylight and affect the formation of buds and flowers..

Tony told us about an interesting project that he had been involved in that involved putting 2D or 3D images inside blocks of glass using by pulsing and focussing a laser.  Tony had bought machines to make these items but found that they were not commercially viable.  They are interesting and unusual objects though.  

Nick finished the meeting by talking about  meat being cultured from muscle cells to produce an alternative to meat from living animals.  Another interesting investigation, one that produced a $300,000 hamburger in Holland in 2013 but not curently practical.  Research continues to find an acceptable alternative to conventional meat.__________________________________________________________________________________________________

The December meeting was at Neal's house in Kerry. We talked about the UK steel industry and the new technology that is keeping it alive; organic food production and vegan diets;  planet number 9 that is thought to be out there but has yet to be detected; and heat pumps both air and ground types.  Inevitably, since this was election day, we also talked some politics.

The November meeting at Mike and Paula's welcomed a new member, Karen Simms.  We started with Karen telling us about her background in various science subjects and her interest in envivonmental issues.  She is particularly interested in the efficient home heating method of rocket mass heating (see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwCz8Ris79g ).  She also talked about a neighbour who is conducting experimental archaeology by setting up a neolithic homestead.  The group would like to visit this at some future date.  The rest of the members present gave a short summary of their backgrounds and interests.  Nick gave us a talk on flying rivers, the name given to the phenomenon of transpiration of moisture from trees and forests and being distributed by the atmosphere.  It has been calculated that this form of distribution of water is more important than movement of the oceans.  It is also possibly a more important reason to prevent deforestation than its effect on climate change.
Alan told us about the Schiehallion experiment carried out in 1774 in which scientists studied the effect of this mountain, one of the Munro's in Scotland, on gravity.  This study was used to calculate the mass of the earth and subsequent more sophisticated equipment has shown that their results were remarkably accurated.  
Tony told us about the company, Lanza Tech, which is pioneering methods of cleaning industrial waste gases to produce ethanol.  This process uses a consortium of bacteria to convert the carbon compounds in the gases to ethanol which can be used to fuel planes, cars, etc., and at the same time reduce emissiongs.  Plants have been set up in a number of countries around the world to prove the process.
Nick mentioned the transport event that will take place on Sunday 17th November at the Metropole Hotel, Llandrindod Wells starting at 2 pm.  There will be all manner of electric vehicles there and experts to talk to.  No need to book, all welcome.
Finally, at the December meeting we will discuss possible group visits for the spring/summer and possible winter visits if anyone has any good suggestions.

In September we went to CAT in Machynlleth on a nice sunny day.  We enjoyed the visit but were a bit disappointed that a lot of the technology is rather dated and not very advanced.  It was still nice to do the walk up to the old quarry and have a good lunch in the cafe there.  Some of the hands on displays were also amusing and informative.


The June meeting was at Sheena's very interesting house at Bontdolgadfach.  Most of the meeting was taken up with a lively discussion on environmental and climate issues as a basis for setting up an action group within the Newtown U3A.  Tony is willing to lead such a group and has already contacted similar groups in other U3A branches.  There was general agreement that this is a good idea and Nick will circulate notes to the Tech Group as a starting point.   We also had an interesting talk by Norman on the methods being used to generate hydrogen which led to a discussion on the feasibility of using hydrogen to fuel vehicles.

The April meeting was a fascinating visit to Tim's in Pontolgach to see the working water mill which still provides power to the original wheelrights/carpenters workshop. Tim demonstrated how the mill works and showed us around all the original features of the house, workshop and mill. He also showed us a hand made copy of an early motor car that he bought from the maker. It looks lovely but is not easy to drive without power steering or syncromesh gearing. Tim's enthusiasm was infectious and we all got a great deal of pleasure from the visit. The rest of the meeting was taken up with a presentation Nick on the amazing migration of the Painted Lady butterfly from Britain to the Saharah and the return by their offspring by a different route. Tony talked about the development of planes and space craft, highlighting the problems that have been encountered. He left us with the question of whether we think driverless cars should be controlled by computer or by drivers with computer back up. Finally Paula gave us a summary of the gender gap in Science and Technology where women are disadvantaged from the beginning to the end of their career. This provoked a lively discussion, split largely along gender lines. Freshly made refreshments were provided by Sheena.


The March meeting at Alan's started with an introduction to new member Norman Simmonds who gave us a brief summary of his working background.  Starting as an electrician he eventually became involved in control technology living in the US for some years and travelling worldwide. The first talk was by Alan on the cheery subject of smallpox which has officially been eradicated . The last death was of a medical worker who was exposed in a medical lab in Birmingham.   This medical technician was a friend of Sheila who was working in the same lab at the time. Tony told us about the possible dangers of theft of keyless cars and recommended that anyone with such vehicles keep their keys in a Faraday box.  He also talked about other innovations coming such as automatic speed control.  Paula talked about the 5G mobile phone system which is being developed.  It has a number of advantage, such as speed, but will need more low level transmitters and won't be able to penetrate walls. Nick told us about the techniques being developed or tested to deal with drones flying near airports.  The most promising one he menioned was a defending drone fitted with a capture net.  No agreed answer has yet been found so while many airports have banned drones enforcement is a problem.  Mike talked about black boxes on aircraft, topical given recent crashes.  They are now greatly improved and can monitor many more factors on an aircraft and analog recording is now used to replace the original tape recording.  While they are not indestuctible they can withstand severe exposure to pressure, impact and heat.  The meeting finished with each member giving a short summary of their working backgrounds for the benefit of the new member but also as a useful reminder to the rest of the group.

The February meeting was at Ralph's house and was very well attended.  We only managed to cover three topics though, since each provoked lots of discussion.  First was Tim who told us fascinating things about clocks and clockmaking illustrated with a reproduction 16th C lantern clock.  Mike then went through a report from Policy Horizons Canada which described developments in energy technology in the categories of storage, smart grid and generation.  Paula finished with a report on the way we are all being manipulated by social media and the difficulties of detecting fake news.  Ralph served the excellent scones, thoughtfully pre-buttered for us.  All together a pleasant and enlightening morning.

Five of us made it through the mist in November to visit the River Simple factory in Llandrindod Wells and had a very instructive visit to he works and office of this innovative company. For ten years, they have been designing and building concept cars driven by Hydrogen fuel cells and we were guided by very enthusiastic managers who talked about the future of the hydrogen economy with its zero pollution. The car they have working at the moment can travel at 60 mph and 300 miles on a tank full of hydrogen. Unfortunately the limitation is fueling points which are nowhere close to us in mid-Wales.
Their intention is to lease out cars, rather than sell them. Monmouth county council is setting up to have them as pool cars. We need to get behind the idea of a hydrogen economy and firstly get some fueling point.


In October we met at Tony's house in Van. Tony started the meeting by talking about hydrogen fuel cells in connection with transport.  The Hydrogen Council has an aim to get transport decarbonised by 2030 and a number of companies are actively looking at hydrogen fuel cell cars, including the local company River Simple, due to be visited by the group next month.  Paula talked about the energy requirements of some of today's technology, particluarly artificial intellingence devices and computers.   Computers use an estimated 5% of generated power world-wide.  Mike talked about global warming and the UK government's plan to hold a Green GB week to celebrate the UK's achievements in tackling global warming.  But, while CO2 emissions are falling in the UK emissions from transport have increased by 4% since people are buying bigger cars since the fuel duty incentive for low pollution hybrids has been removed.  The plan for zero carbon homes has been scrapped and  home insulation and solar panel grants have also been removed.  The government is still also supporting expansion of Heathrow.  It seems likely that the global warming target of 1.5 or 2C will now be missed and a new target of 3C is likely.  At this increase in temperature many areas of the world will flood and many millions of people will have to relocate.  Nick talked about the vast sums of money being spent in London, particularly on the new London Bridge station.  The group agreed that the money spent in London should be more evenly spent across the country.  Ralph talked about the new Hong Kong to Macau bridge, the longest in the world.  Part of this road traffic route is a sub sea tunnel to allow shipping to enter the Pearl River delta.  The driving time will be only half an hour.

TheSeptember meeting in Newtown followed the usual short presentation format.  It started with Alan giving us some startling facts about livestock farming for meat and the adverse effect this can have on the environment and availability of land for other crops.  Some land, of course, is best suited to sheep farming but the general point is that meat eating will have to be drastically reduced in the future.  Ralph told us about the amazing role played by carbon in life and it's formation by fusion reactions with hydrogen in the stars.  Without carbon and oxygen, life would not exist.  Mike talked about the progress that has been made in harnessing fusion reactions on earth for power.  There are still many obstacles to be overcome but many countries have shown the feasibility of producing electricity from fusion of deuterium and tritium, largely brought about by improvements in magnet materials.  Tony warned of the potential dangers of smart tvs.  These are the only type of tv that will be available soon and although the multiple suppliers all have different technology they all will be able to access more information about the user than the current internet.

Topics previously discussed:

  • The Black Death
  • Wind turbines
  • The Sterling engine
  • Solar panels
  • The Marshal group
  • Articulated locomotives
  • Tracing inheritance through genes and mitochondrial DNA
  • Homes with passive heating 
  • Iron, steel and stainless steel - history and  technology
  • Achievements of IK Brunel
  • Oceans & Climate
  • Chemical Plants
  • Lasers (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation)
  • Visit to Blist's Hll Victorian Va#illage and Ironbridge
  • Short discussions on various topics let by group members
Links: Welshpool U3A          The Virtual U3A (vU3a)