What caused the Grenfell Tower fire?


Grenfell Tower fire, London (photo: Natalie Oxford)

We do not yet know how horrific the death toll will be, but questions are already being asked about the Grenfell Tower fire. As there should be – a disaster of this scale should never have happened.

There are allegations that the cladding added in a recent renovation was flammable, that the renovation reduced the number of fire escapes at the lower levels (see plans here), that some residents had obstructed access by dumping rubbish, and that bad evacuation advice was given to residents. Hopefully there will be a full investigation, and enough policy changes to stop something like this from happening again.


Australia is waiting for the World Solar Challenge teams

Australia is waiting for contestants in the 2017 World Solar Challenge, the premier world contest in sustainable vehicle technology. The average maximum October temperature in the town of Katherine, on the Stuart Highway, is 37.7°C. Road trains are a frequent hazard on the highway, and past races have had to deal with fire as well. Sometimes things go wrong with the car. But it’s still an absolutely fantastic experience!


World Solar Challenge: lighter and lighter

The chart above shows car weights (in kg) for the World Solar Challenge Challenger class, since 2001. In spite of the increasing safety standards and the shift from 3 wheels to 4, weights have trended steadily downwards, which says something about the strength-to-weight ratio of modern composite materials.


Which is the best World Solar Challenge team?

Recently, I saw that someone had asked on the Internet which the best team in the World Solar Challenge was.

For the WSC Challenger class, this is not a difficult question. Nuon Solar Team owns the race, and has won six times out of eight this century (although “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”). The more interesting question is: who is second? There are four main contenders for that honour.

A few years ago, I would have placed Tokai University second. They won the race in 2009 and 2011. However, unless they can reverse the trend, their star seems to be falling.

Michigan are very definitely the best US team. However, they have pointed out themselves that they suffer “the curse of third,” and thus far lack the je ne sais quoi that it takes to win (of course, when they find it, Nuon had better watch out).

The star of Solar Team Twente is rising. They worked their way up to second place in 2015. They could win this year.

Finally, the Belgian team from KU Leuven is also moving up, and I expect them to do very well this year also.

In the WSC Cruiser class, “best” is a fuzzier concept. However, Eindhoven, Bochum, and UNSW/Sunswift have all done consistently well, with Eindhoven winning the last two races.


World Solar Challenge progress

Across the world, solar car teams are beginning to finish their cars for the 2017 World Solar Challenge, the premier world contest in sustainable vehicle technology. Michigan has shipped their famous semi, while MDH and Iowa have revealed their cars (photo memories from MDH Solar Team, Iowa State University, University of Michigan, Bochum, and Kogakuin). Meanwhile, the road from Darwin to Adelaide is waiting.

See here for an updated team list.


When the towers fell


The World Trade Center towers (photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

I continue to see bizarre and ill-informed conspiracy theories on the Internet about the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers (above). This is in spite of the detailed investigations of, and voluminous reports on, the event.


Steel softens at temperatures well below the melting point of 1400°C

In fact, it has long been known that structural steel buildings like the World Trade Center can collapse due to fire. In 1967, the structural steel roof of McCormick Place in Chicago collapsed because of softening due to a fire. This collapse began only about 30–45 minutes after the fire was reported.


The World Trade Center under construction (photo: Eric Shaw White)

In the case of the World Trade Center, this fundamental problem with structural steel was combined with building-specific design flaws. Still, in my view, concrete construction is simply safer. Concrete resists fire far better than steel, and locating fire escapes inside a thick concrete core assists evacuation, should that be needed. The 9/11 conspiracy theories are just silly, though.


A concrete tower under construction in Australia (photo: Erin Silversmith,)