Innovatory challenges to get out of the recession

Are key to solving world problems? Tom Shelley asks one of our leading entrepreneurs what he thinks?

One of Britain's best loved entrepreneurs, whose interests touch engineering in so many places, sees the country's present economic problems as a both a challenge and an opportunity.

"It's certainly the toughest economy I have seen in my lifetime," says Richard Branson. "But we need to expand our way out of it."
Despite the downturn, he is pressing ahead with support for Burt Rutan's SpaceShipTwo project. His venture into Space Tourism will see six people at a time taken to the edge of the atmosphere. He sees it partly as the way forward for long distance travel and cheaper access to space, and partly because of its showcasing and developing the greater use of advanced composite materials. But you get the feeling it is mostly for the daring challenge that he has always relished in. "If you dream the impossible with brilliant engineers, you can make the impossible, possible," he says.

When we asked him specifically how UK engineering companies could expand their way out of recession, he says: "Some will be able to do it by working at clever ways of reducing costs. It's great business for engineers. Burt Rutan and Steve Fossett showed that it is possible to build a plane that was completely light and fuel efficient [with the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer]. And our SpaceShipTwo is 100% carbon fibre and the energy it uses is almost non existent compared to the amount NASA use to get men into space, which is hundreds of times greater."

He added that as well as furthering developments in composites he predicted that there would come a time when, "getting a sub orbital flight will cost less than a present day economy ticket from London to New York."

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but this is a much less daft prediction than it might at first sound since a sub orbital flight would mean consuming no fuel at all as the aircraft would be propelled by inertia at an altitude above the bulk of the atmosphere. It would only need to burn fuel to get up there.

The other big problem – getting down again – has been solved by Burt Rutan's variable wing. This turns the aircraft into a shuttlecock to slow it for the return journey. The prototype White Knight Two mother ship has already flown and Branson said that he expected SpaceShipTwo to be flying, "towards the end of this year." adding that, "space travel is where transatlantic travel was in the 1920s."

He then mentioned the Virgle April 2008 April Fool's joke where Google and Virgin Galactic collaborated on a supposed scheme to recruit people for a one way journey to Mars. However, he prophesied, "sometimes such April Fools jokes turn into reality."

The other big opportunity he saw for engineering was green energy. "Sadly, global warming is a reality", he said. "The vast majority of scientists believe it, I believe it. Even if they are wrong, as an insurance policy we need to assume the worst".

He then went on to place the responsibility for solving such problems firmly in the hands of engineers saying: "Engineers have a bigger part to play in this than anybody else."

Talking about the biofuel trial with a Virgin Atlantic 747 in February 2008, he made it clear that the purpose of the exercise was not a publicity stunt but was to establish that the biofuel would not freeze at altitude in a real world flying situation. However, he accepted the criticism that the option tried, burning 80% kerosene with 20% derived from a mixture of babassu nut and coconut oil was not really a sustainable option. "Maybe we can find an algae based biofuel that won't eat into the world's fuel supply. Weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels should have been done years ago. Oil should be left in the ground and only used for things that only oil can be used for.

"Replacing it represents, an exciting challenge. I doubt if [engineers] needs advice on what to do. But if you can develop better batteries, I would greatly appreciate it."

He expressed confidence that the problems of providing green energy would be solved, adding: "I am sure there will be an earth shattering breakthrough over the next three years. It's an exciting time to be an engineer right now."

But he did have one criticism of the engineering profession that he kept remarking on. This was that he observed a lack of women in the engineering profession in general. He kept remarking, referring to a low cost infant incubator based on car parts developed by the fairer sex.

Other Richard Branson ventures with an engineering connection

In 1985, Richard Branson attempted the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing in the "Virgin Atlantic Challenger" which led to the boat capsizing in British waters and his having to be rescued by RAF helicopter. Nonetheless in 1986, in Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, with sailing expert Daniel McCarthy, he beat the record by two hours.
A year later his hot air balloon "Virgin Atlantic Flyer" crossed the Atlantic, the first hot air balloon to do so, reaching 130mph in the jet stream.

In January 1991, he crossed the Pacific from Japan to Arctic Canada in another balloon, breaking the record and achieving 245mph. Between 1995 and 1998, Branson, Per Lindstrand and Steve Fossett made attempts to circumnavigate the globe by balloon. In late 1998 they made a record-breaking flight from Morocco to Hawaii but were unable to complete a global flight.

In March 2004, Branson made the fastest crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle, a Gibbs Aquada, in 1h 40m 6s. The previous record was six hours.

Tom Shelley

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