All posts by Andrew Shorthouse

Research into Neurology: Bedside to Lab and Back Again — Nick Verber — 2nd Nov 2020

Nick Verber is a research regis­trar work­ing for his PhD at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience Institute (SITraN), University of Sheffield. He gave an excel­lent talk, very suc­cess­fully over­com­ing the tempta­tion of many medics to litter their lec­tures with clin­ical jargon. It was clearly delivered and easily fol­lowed by a large Zoom gath­er­ing of 44 Probus mem­bers.

Although there is a long way to go before there is a cure for motor neuron dis­ease (MND), the Institute here in Sheffield, led by Dame Prof Pamela Shaw, is a world leader in clin­ical and sci­entific research into this and other chal­len­ging and dis­tress­ing con­di­tions.

Nick began with a typ­ical case his­tory which illus­trated the pro­gress­ive nature of MND over a two year period, although there is a great deal of vari­ation in the rate of pro­gres­sion from patient to patient. MND is cruel to patients, rel­at­ives and their friends. It affects all vol­un­tary muscles through­out the body and the case his­tory illus­trated how it pro­gressed from minor weak­ness of the limbs to slurred speech, dif­fi­culty in swal­low­ing which can result in saliva, food and drink going down into the lungs, and breath­ing prob­lems.

Cause of MND

This is com­plic­ated and not fully under­stood. The vast number of nerves con­trolling vol­un­tary muscles become dam­aged and cease to func­tion prop­erly (in con­trast to sens­ory nerves bring­ing sig­nals to the brain about touch, smell, sight, pain etc. and to auto­nomic nerves which con­trol the gut, bowels, water­works and sexual func­tion, all of which remain unaf­fected in MND).

Dr Weaver’s amaz­ing dis­sec­tion — for details see last para­graph

These motor nerves carry sig­nals from the brain to muscles involved with move­ment, pos­ture, speech, swal­low­ing, laugh­ing, and coordin­a­tion of eye move­ments. Eye and facial move­ments are affected much later. Poor strength in the head and neck leads to deformed pos­ture, as seen in the famil­iar wheel­chair pos­ture of Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking. Note the effect of wast­ing of head and neck muscles and fail­ure to sup­port the head

As muscles pro­gress­ively weaken, mental fac­ulties usu­ally remain uncom­prom­ised, caus­ing immense dis­tress and frus­tra­tion. But patients are often prag­matic and pos­it­ive, and are keen to par­ti­cip­ate in, and raise funds for, research.


MND is rel­at­ively rare, with 5000 people having the con­di­tion in the UK. It has the same life­time risk as the more common mul­tiple scler­osis (MS), but there are sub­stan­tially fewer people with MND due to the poor life expect­ancy.


Successful treat­ment is indi­vidu­al­ised and patient focussed, led by a team of spe­cial­ists, nurses, physio­ther­ap­ists, dieti­cians etc. who make the dia­gnosis by clin­ical exam­in­a­tion and invest­ig­a­tion with blood tests, brain MRI, lumbar punc­ture. Treatment centres around indi­vidu­al­ised mul­tidiscip­lin­ary care with pro­vi­sion of social, psy­cho­lo­gical and diet­ary sup­port.

Medication has lim­ited use­ful­ness but Riluzole may slow nerve deteri­or­a­tion. Other inter­ven­tions include diet­ary sup­ple­ments, homo­gen­ised food, gast­rostomy (feed­ing tube inser­ted through the abdom­inal wall into the stom­ach), physio­ther­apy, splints, highly soph­ist­ic­ated wheel­chairs, assisted vent­il­a­tion, occu­pa­tional ther­apy, mobil­ity and cut­lery aids.

Mobility and Cutlery aids

Speech and lan­guage ther­apy is import­ant, and voice bank­ing is avail­able. The inab­il­ity to swal­low saliva (nor­mally 500ml per day) and drool­ing is dis­tress­ing and helped by simple med­ic­a­tion. Approximation of voice with regional accents has recently become pos­sible, over­com­ing to some extent the imper­sonal Dalek sound of the com­puter. Communication prob­lems as speech and motor func­tion decline can be addressed by eye sig­nals facil­it­at­ing com­puter typing.

The main aim of treat­ment and long-term mon­it­or­ing is to allow the patient to retain inde­pend­ence and qual­ity of life.


Nick touched on how MND research is con­duc­ted, using bio­mark­ers

Biomarker research

to assess change in patient con­di­tion, with the aim of provid­ing evid­ence to guide appro­pri­ate treat­ment. Blood tests, nerve con­duc­tion stud­ies, MRI and con­stant mon­it­or­ing of dis­ease are all part of this pro­cess, and are par­tic­u­larly import­ant for assess­ing pro­gress during clin­ical trials

Research is expens­ive. Identifying a useful bio­marker is cru­cial for attract­ing research fund­ing. Charitable fund­ing is helped by high pro­file patients such as Doddy Weir and Rob Burrows who make a pos­it­ive con­tri­bu­tion towards dis­ease treat­ment through research.

MND com­prises sub­groups of patients with sim­ilar but dis­tinct dis­ease pro­files. One research aim in Sheffield is to improve defin­i­tion of these sub­groups in order to improve their treat­ment and avoid any inter­ven­tion found not to work. Some bio­mark­ers differ between MND patients, or between patients and healthy volun­teers.

Skin biopsies are simple, quick, pain­less (fol­low­ing local anaes­thetic admin­is­tra­tion) and read­ily access­ible (with patient con­sent). Fibroblasts are present within them. These are imma­ture cells with mat­ur­a­tion poten­tial to develop new skin or scar tissue (in the case of trauma). Another research strategy in Sheffield is to give genetic inform­a­tion to these fibro­blasts to con­vert them to nerve tissue in a labor­at­ory set­ting. This over­comes a major prob­lem in neur­o­lo­gical research of being unable to access live brain or nerve tissue for exper­i­ment­a­tion.

Nick con­cluded by giving his grat­it­ude to the patients and volun­teers that have donated their time and samples to his research.

If anyone has any interest in volun­teer­ing for research, then please get in touch via his email address at the bottom.


Couldn’t resist this one! Dr Weaver’s amaz­ing dis­sec­tion of Harriet Cole’s nervous system (its huge com­plex­ity is illus­trated by the fact it took from 1888 to 1893 to com­plete the dis­sec­tion, which can still be seen in Philadelphia) (Barton M. The Nervous System of Harriet Cole. Past Medical History. Aug 18, 2018)

Correspondence address:

Those of you who were impressed by the work that Nick and his col­leagues are research­ing can make a dif­fer­ence by donat­ing by copy­ing and paste this into your search engine.




How the Internet Changed the World — Past Present Future — Peter Ivey 5th October 2020

Peter Ivey gave a suc­cinct over­view to a Zoom record of 45 mem­bers on how the inter­net works, and a very useful talk as most like me were fairly clue­less; bits, bytes, HTML, 5G are famil­iar words ban­died around but never quite sure exactly what they all mean.

Peter’s back­ground includes a phys­ics degree at Bristol, BT labs, chair in Electronics and Electronic Engineering in Sheffield, then his own com­pany con­sult­ing on micro­chips.

The inter­net concept began in 1960 when JCR Licklider envis­aged a system of massive inform­a­tion stor­age and retrieval shared by centres and indi­vidual users.

JCR Licklider

At around the same time, Paul Baran (RAND Organisation) poin­ted out the vul­ner­ab­il­ity of US Government com­mu­nic­a­tions and pro­posed a decent­ral­ised net­work that would solve the prob­lem.

Paul Baran

These ideas led in 1969 to the first internet-like net­work (the Advanced Research Projects Agency net­work – ARPAnet), which was developed by Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA, and others, for shar­ing data between uni­ver­sit­ies in California and Utah for research.

Leonard Kleinrock

By 1973 ARPANET had expan­ded across the USA, and by 1975 to London., From this base the net­work has expan­ded across the UK and sub­sequently it has become a huge net­work extend­ing right across the World.

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web (www), was work­ing at CERN and was frus­trated by his dif­fi­culty in access­ing the inform­a­tion he needed. He cre­ated a new com­puter lan­guage HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) which remains the stand­ard format of most web pages today. Hypertext allows you to get a doc­u­ment by click­ing on a coded word or phrase. He also developed the tech­no­logy for trans­fer of data across the web; HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), URLs (web addresses), a web browser and web server soft­ware. He pub­lished the first ever web­site which is still avail­able on the inter­net.

CERN res­isted the tempta­tion to patent, with amaz­ing foresight made the WWW public domain and widely avail­able so it could develop and expand as rap­idly as pos­sible.

The first web browser to become pop­u­lar with the gen­eral public was MOSAIC in 1993. TimBL was knighted in 2004.

Tim Berners Lee

WWW is soft­ware and a means of using the inter­net, which itself is the infra­struc­ture facil­it­at­ing it and mainly hard­ware. There are layers of hard­ware and soft­ware as shown:

The inter­net works by shift­ing binary inform­a­tion. Basic require­ments are a machine plus elec­tri­city and a means to send and receive inform­a­tion. A bit con­tains a single binary value of 0 or 1. Other than defin­ing “True” and “False” it has little other use. 8-group clusters of bits are “bytes”. At least one mil­lion bytes per second are required, for example, to down­load a song and achieved by increas­ing the band width for faster down­load. All com­mu­nic­a­tions over the inter­net  are “splintered” into pack­ets which can be routed along dif­fer­ent chan­nels, then recom­piled into the cor­rect order at the receiv­ing end

To com­mu­nic­ate over long dis­tances light beams are trans­mit­ted via fibre-optic cables, which can send mul­tiple bytes sim­ul­tan­eously at the speed of light with very little signal loss. Radio sig­nals are cheaper than fibre-optics, so 1s and 0s can be con­ver­ted into radio waves by WiFi for con­ver­sion back to fibre-optic and/or copper cable at the receiver end.

The inter­net is vast, with an aver­age of 7 con­nec­ted devices for every human in the world e.g. phone, smart TVs, Sky boxes, Alexa, routers. Telehouse North is one of four data centres in London dis­trib­ut­ing to the whole of the UK and con­tains a huge net­work of optical cables, tidy in front, chaos behind.

Global net­works are con­nec­ted both by sub­mar­ine cables and satel­lites.

If the unthink­able happened and the inter­net went down, it would be impossible to return to the pre-internet days of the 1960s.

Mobiles wouldn’t work, land­lines would be swamped, traffic lights would seize, hos­pital data couldn’t be accessed, cash machines and credit cards would stop, shops would run out of stock and, heaven forbid, Amazon would fail!

It would be an extremely unlikely event in peace­time but is a poten­tial threat in war. Cyberwarfare is a real­ity: the Middle East and India in 2008, Stuxnet worm in 2010, and ter­ror­ism e.g. sab­ot­age of under­sea cables, satel­lite attack but also acci­dent­ally by solar flares.

The “Internet of Things” (IOT) is a hot topic and defined as “the inter­con­nec­tion via the inter­net of com­put­ing devices embed­ded in every­day objects, enabling them to send and receive data”. Examples are remote con­trol of cent­ral heat­ing, mon­it­or­ing chil­dren, pulse oxi­metry, Alexa, trans­port, driver­less cars, logist­ics, agri­cul­ture, indus­trial util­it­ies and smart cities (e.g. park­ing). The IOT is on the way to match­ing the import­ance of inter­net com­mu­nic­a­tion and inform­a­tion e.g. WhatsApp, Google.

5th Generation Cellular will make a massive dif­fer­ence. Peter was def­in­itely not a fan of Huawei. 5G net­works are cel­lu­lar. The ser­vice area is split into small geo­graph­ical areas called cells, access­ible every­where. Devices are con­nec­ted to the inter­net and phone net­work by radio waves through an antenna in the cell, with the bene­fit of greater band­width and much higher down­load speeds. The all too famil­iar 4G video buf­fer­ing on Zoom or Facetime will become a thing of the past.

The Aberfan Disaster of 1966 — Prof Dave Petley — 13 July 2020

Dave Petley gave a superb talk to 41 mem­bers, guests, and an unknown number of wives and girl­friends. It was the second highly suc­cess­ful Probus Zoom present­a­tion since COVID-19 lock­down (thanks to Peter, Graham, Richard and Jacko).

Dave is Vice President for Research and Innovation, University of Sheffield. His research focus is inter­na­tional land­slide mech­an­isms and he advises the Hong Kong Government, blogs with the American Geophysical Union and is a Council member of the Royal Geographical Society. He has a great gift for put­ting over dif­fi­cult con­cepts clearly and con­cisely.

There were seven large spoil tips rising up the hill­side and close to the vil­lage of Aberfan, where 116 chil­dren at Pantglas school and 28 adults lost their lives in the infam­ous land­slide of the morn­ing of 21 October 1966 (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Aberfan land­slide 1966

A prim­it­ive rope­way led to a crane at the top, where there had been loose tip­ping for sev­eral years. The tip­ping gang (Fig 2) arrived at the top at 7.30am and found it had sub­sided overnight.

Fig 2 Ropeway and tip­ping gang on the spoil heap

Finding that the tele­phone to the pit below wasn’t work­ing, one of gang walked down to raise the alarm. The crane driver stayed at the top and saw its tip move again, but rising up ini­tially. The solid mass, as it broke free, rotated and “bull­dozed” ahead, caus­ing the ini­tial rise then the down­hill slide. Rotation pulled away solid blocks which then frag­men­ted into a 40000 ton flow onto the vil­lage

Landslides result from a grav­it­a­tional effect on loose spoil, sat­ur­ated by under­ly­ing nat­ural springs within weak gla­cial depos­its. Solid spoil con­verts to a flow of water, sludge and debris, and a rota­tional slide between loose spoil, gla­cial depos­its and under­ly­ing solid bed­rock occurs (Fig 3).

Fig 3 Mechanics of land­slide form­a­tion

The NCB knew of the Aberfan springs (Fig 4), making no earlier attempt to divert the water and fail­ing to anti­cip­ate, mon­itor and rec­tify

Fig 4 Pre-spoil heap topo­graphy of Aberfan and adja­cent hill­side with the springs circled.

They were aware of sim­ilar tips with land­slide poten­tial. Furthermore, uncon­trolled tip­ping on top of loose layers pro­gress­ively weakened the base to facil­it­ate a slide. There were earlier land­slides in the area at Abercynon (1939), Aberfan (1944 and 1963), and Rhondda (1965). The NCB, nation­al­ised in 1946 and headed by Lord Robens, chose to ignore the danger.

The school was inund­ated and the chil­dren at the rear of the school had no chance. Classrooms at the front remained intact and some sur­vived. Parents, many of them miners, attemp­ted to rescue their own chil­dren and others before the more formal rescue effort could begin.

The Tribunal was con­duc­ted by Lord Justice Edmund Davies, who had sen­tenced the Great Train Robbers. He was highly crit­ical of the NCB, in denial until day 65, but par­tic­u­larly its chair­man Lord Robens, whose invest­it­ure at the University of Surrey was coin­cid­ent­ally and cyn­ic­ally on the night of the dis­aster. He chose not to go to Aberfan. However he even­tu­ally made amends by set­ting up the Health and Safety Executive, a world leader.

Removal of tips was recom­men­ded after the Tribunal but the NCB pleaded it would lead to bank­ruptcy. £150,000 was cov­ertly sequestered (!) from the £1m+ dis­aster fund by the NCB. This was even­tu­ally repaid into the dis­aster fund by the Blair Government, but without interest, until Gordon Brown finally repaid in full. Compensation was capped at £500 for each family, Lord Robens claim­ing that they “wouldn’t be able to cope with a larger sum”.

There was another land­slide at Tylorstown in February 2020, due to rota­tional spoil heap fail­ure. Spoil heaps now have mixed own­er­ship and are not neces­sar­ily well-monitored. Degradation and cli­mate change is renew­ing interest in future poten­tial land­slides in Wales.

Landslides are a major prob­lem around the world. Loss of life is rising with time, con­firmed by evid­ence from Dave Petley’s own data col­lec­tion from 2004. Tibet, Brazil and recently Myanmar have had dis­astrous rota­tional land­slides, in the latter case pre­cip­it­ated by unem­ployed jade miners scav­en­ging and dis­turb­ing spoil heaps.

It was a sur­prise to learn there is no book writ­ten on the Aberfan dis­aster, des­pite the emo­tional memor­ies linger­ing on and a detailed sequence in Netflix series “The Crown”. Dave’s retire­ment pro­ject maybe?

Those inter­ested in more of Dave’s work can access:

Twitter: @davepetley   Blo:

Beware the cliffs!




The Lost Railway –Woodhead Tunnel Part 2–10th February 2020 — Stephen Gay

Stephen Gay by  Sheffield’s Great Central Railway war memorial is a series of panels within a wooden frame — upon the panels are the names of those who fell in World War I. It is on dis­play out­side the Crowne Plaza Victoria Hotel — the ori­ginal hotel to the Victoria Station.

This won­der­ful talk about east of Woodhead Tunnel, was the second in a series of three (see John Abel’s blog 15th February 2019) and was lib­er­ally illus­trated with tra­di­tional slides, stuffed with anec­dotes from the folk he’s met walk­ing along the line over the years, some of it now form­ing part of the Trans Pennine Trail. The Woodhead route of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway linked Sheffield Victoria and Manchester London Road Stations and was open between 1845–1981.

Townhead, Dunford Bridge There are four rows of rail­way cot­tages now filled with ex-Oxbridge vet­eran eco-warriors, includ­ing Swampy (AKA Daniel Hooper and well worth a read in Wikipedia). Stephen met Ashley Jackson, the famous Yorkshire artist, there on a walk and after chat­ting him up, thought he might be in for a cheap paint­ing of the cot­tages. “How much?” “£13000” “I’ll take post­card!”

The elec­tric loco­mot­ive 26020, designed for use on the Woodhead Line finally elec­tri­fied in 1954 is the only engine left of its type and rests at the rail­way museum in York.

There were prob­lems due to lack of space during line elec­tri­fic­a­tion. Arches were blown up and replaced with a con­crete gantry. But Woodhead remains with EUR load­ing gauge so and might one day accom­mod­ate Eurostar.

Hazelhead Station closed in 1950 from lack of use. The wait­ing room on the Manchester side remains as a house. The owners have made a bob or two from cold drinks in the summer and with an eye for the main chance, hot drinks in winter. It got a Best Station award in 1949, which is a ser­i­ous busi­ness and any­thing but friendly rivalry. The post box just out­side and seen on the tele­graph pole on the A616 had Hazelhead Station on it, even 50 years after clos­ure.

Barnsley Council got a grant to demol­ish the arched bridge at the sta­tion, only real­ising after­wards that the A616 would be opened up as a “race track”, just where there’s a nasty dip in the road.

Signal box at Bullhouse Colliery There were rail crashes on the line in Victorian times partly due to the steep gradi­ent whose summit lies within the east­ern end of the Woodhead tunnel. There were four fatal train crashes in 15 years. The first one killed a cow.

The worst fatal dis­aster was the Bullhouse rail crash in 1884 which involved a derailed coach derailed by the buckled line and pulling the other gas-lit coaches 16 feet down an embank­ment into a road (double page spread in the London Illustrated News).

Shawhall Lane Crossing: The ori­ginal rail­way lines can still be seen at the cross­ing.

Richard Branson and Virgin trains are weigh­ing up whether to reopen Woodhead which would be very bad news indeed for the cross­ing keeper’s cot­tage. Health and safety would inev­it­ably lead to demoli­tion because an express run­ning inches from your bed­room car­ries issues. Incidentally this photo at the cross­ing keep­ers cot­tage was Stephen’s only known selfie (shadow bottom left).

Thurlestone Signal Box This is where the Trans Pennine trail splits to York Chesterfield and Leeds.

Penistone The goods shed and office date from 1845. Coal drops are still there (wooden bodied wagons dropped coal down from the arches). The stone work is grade 2 listed and the plan is for res­tor­a­tion with fac­sim­ile wagons above. It’s in a a poor state of repair at present how­ever. Bring back the birch?

The owner of one of the new houses seen behind the coal drop was unaware of the his­toric rail­way (he did know how­ever about the Trail, thank good­ness. He remains bliss­fully unaware how­ever that Richard Branson still has eyes on the place.

Penistone Station used to be very busy with 7 plat­forms and 100 employ­ees in its heyday. The Trans Pennine Trail lies behind the sta­tion where there are now small busi­nesses.

Thunder, Stephen’s German shep­herd, found a sink hole where an unspoilt old sta­tion subway went, sealed up since Jan 1970 with wooden hand­rail and green glazed tile work. A local came by as Stephen was coming out of the hole. Only Barnsley could quip “Thars missed last train then?”

Penistone single line. The signal box is high where the double goes into a single track but was des­troyed by van­dals. Originally there were 100 levers reduced to 6 by the time it closed. Camel Laird steel works was nearby. A rail­way tunnel ran under the steel­works, the main line and sid­ings. It’s obscured by hous­ing and an indus­trial estate now, amaz­ingly called “The Sidings”. This area used to be Huddersfield Junction, but was renamed Penistone. Occasionally there are trains. Interesting Victorian iron work can be found.

Rail work­ers were buried at Penistone, includ­ing a sta­tion porter who fell off the plat­form with his barrow and killed by an express.

Romtickle via­duct (won­der­ful name). This is iconic and exquis­itely beau­ti­ful, stretch­ing high above the Don and Cheese Bottom (won­der­ful again!) Valley.

A stone block once hit a navvy below — one William Crawshaw. His stone- carved epi­taph, dis­covered in the 1980s, was then embed­ded within the bridge stone­work. A cherry picker checks it and the rest of the via­duct from time to time. There’s a sign about it on top of the via­duct for walk­ers.

Thurgoland Tunnel Electrification for twin tracks was impossible so a new tunnel was built for the down line. A retired rail worker used to check the tunnel each morn­ing (alone!); “when I heard rails singin’, get thee-sen intut recess… were I glad to get t’ t’other end so I could get ta light me wood­bine”. It was 370 yards long, built by LNER in 1947 and fin­ished off by BR in 1948 and is almost unique in being built by two com­pan­ies.

Wortley Station dis­ap­peared in 1955. The Earl of Wharncliffe had own private wait­ing room. Stocksbridge bypass was built in the 1980s dis­turb­ing a burial ground so it’s haunted around there. The line to the steel­works sur­vives, passing Wharnecliffe Crags. The old signal box at Stocksbridge became a main­ten­ance office but van­dals wrecked it. Deepcar plat­form is still there.

Oughty Bridge sta­tion (cor­rect spelling) is now a grade 2 listed grit­stone house but without its plat­form coping stones. Stephen ori­gin­ally wit­nessed white van men trying to steal them. They scattered down the track unaware a 60mph train was about to meet them. The stones dis­ap­peared per­man­ently later on. What about the poor old train driver? They do react dif­fer­ently after fatal­ity. Some carry on work­ing, others can’t cope.

Wadsley Bridge Station saw the last foot­ball spe­cial in 1984 when Notts Forest were play­ing Sheffield Wednesday, which was a great way to end a great talk

As a post script, if I’ve got this right, Stephen met a Wheel Tapper, who’d been doing it for 30 years but had no idea why he was doing it. How did he manage only being able to tap one side with the train in the sta­tion? Simple! Wait for it to come back then do the other side.

(The embed­ded links are cour­tesy of Wikipedia)




Redifining Carbon in a Circular Economy – Prof Peter Styring — 2nd Dec 2019

John Laurie said, and it was said again by Peter Jackson at our meet­ing, “We’re doomed, we’re all doomed!” Here in Sheffield it’s really scary with a pre­dic­tion that Millhouses Park, as well as East Anglia, Lincolnshire, north­ern Germany, the Low Countries and many other low lying lands around the world will be part of the sea bed by 2100. Stumperlowe should escape, how­ever.

So some­thing drastic needs to be done. There’s a lot of elec­tion noise here at the moment, and indeed at a much higher level at the immin­ent G20 about tack­ling carbon emis­sions. Do our politi­cians have a handle on the scale of the prob­lem and what to do about it?

Peter Styring, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, is such an inter­na­tional author­ity on the sub­ject that politi­cians and industry are taking him and others in the field very ser­i­ously. Peter is Director of the UK Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation and has his own com­pany (CO2Chem Media & Publishing) and has estab­lished the Styring Group. He is look­ing to set up a Brussels office. He has pub­lished the influ­en­tial “Carbon Capture and Utilisation in the Green Economy” and “Carbon Dioxide Utilisation: clos­ing the carbon cycle”. He delivered a stun­ning lec­ture to us, but at a cost of a met­eoric rise in carbon diox­ide (CO2) in the room and con­firmed by the num­bers on his pocket gas­o­meter at the end. Despite wor­ry­ing levels of such a narcolepsy-inducing gas-filled air, every­one stayed awake.

Global warm­ing is asso­ci­ated with increas­ing carbon diox­ide levels. Coral reefs are dis­ap­pear­ing. Fisheries at low lat­it­ude around the world are being lost. Arctic regions are melt­ing. There’s more water and heat in the atmo­sphere caus­ing weather extremes. Rising water levels lead to coastal flood­ing. Here in Sheffield, there’s already sig­ni­fic­ant heat related mor­bid­ity and mor­tal­ity res­ult­ing in 500 to 700 deaths, largely from par­tic­u­late matter in the air.

We’re now at the tip­ping point, so every­one needs to be acutely envir­on­ment­ally and eco­nom­ic­ally aware. To avoid cata­strophe, at cur­rent emis­sion rates, and to limit a global warm­ing rise of 1.5 degrees C by 2055, global carbon diox­ide emis­sions must by then have reached net zero, start­ing now. Radiative factors such as meth­ane, nitrous oxide (not a laugh­ing gas matter) and aer­o­sols need to reduce by 2030.

Perversely, wind tur­bines are not low carbon at all, emit­ting five per cent of the SF6 (sul­phurhex­a­flu­or­ide) which leaks from its casing and is dan­ger­ous! SF6 from tur­bines emit 24000x carbon equi­val­ent of CO2. It’s used as an insu­lator which pre­vents arcing.

Internationally (and many coun­tries are drag­ging their feet), industry must be will­ing to engage. Carbon cap­ture util­isa­tion (CCU) and stor­age (CCS) is the only solu­tion. A global carbon price is essen­tial there­fore it must be taxed. CCU must be prop­erly sub­sid­ised on a level play­ing field. Vast sub­sidies to pro­tect jobs are already made to the oil and gas indus­tries. The same is true for CCS pro­jects, yet CCU does not yet attract sub­sidies. There will need to be a gradual (rather than sudden) trans­ition as a “calmer” to the pet­ro­chem­ical industry.

It was encour­aging to hear from Peter that Unilever is now taking CCU all very ser­i­ously, with home care products ini­tially but now with a ripple effect on their whole industry.

So what exactly is CCU? This is carbon cap­ture without the need for geo­lo­gical stor­age. Carbon diox­ide from power sta­tions, factor­ies and the atmo­sphere can be used for the pro­duc­tion of fossil oil sub­sti­tutes, feed­stock for farm anim­als, plastics, sur­fact­ants, con­crete, bio­fuel, and avi­ation fuel. The whole pro­cess is carbon neut­ral and depends on algal pho­to­syn­thesis (energy from light). Drax use it with their waste water. Another method is con­ver­sion into hydro­car­bons which can be stored as energy or con­ver­ted into fuel or plastics. Chemical inter­me­di­ates from CCU can be pro­cessed into phar­ma­ceut­ic­als, health care and con­sumer products.

The gov­ern­ment claims it is com­mit­ted to deploy­ing CCU, cap­tur­ing carbon and stor­age on a long-term basis, but any delay after 2030 will not achieve its aim of com­ply­ing to a limit of a 1.5 degrees C rise by 2050.

© co2chem

Government plan­ning is short on detail about removal of green­house gases and action on CCU and CCS. Neither adequate private invest­ment nor research fund­ing is in place. Clarity is needed. Brexit takes pri­or­ity at the moment, at the expense of social justice and account­ab­il­ity. For instance, Manchester has prom­ised CO2 emis­sion reduc­tion of 49% by 2025 by means of a Clean Air Zone, more elec­tric vehicles (EV) and CCS. The prob­lem is that EVs are not zero emis­sion and their plans for CCS facil­it­ies are unclear. Biomass is not the pan­acea. It is not carbon neut­ral. The UK energy mix cur­rently falls far short of the ideal (com­bined cycle gas tur­bines 56.2%, open cycle gas tur­bines 0%, oil 0%, coal 5.9%, nuc­lear 16.7%, wind 9.7%, pumped stor­age hydro 0%). If we’re not at net zero by 2029 it will be the tip­ping point, so the politi­cians need real policies to back up their polit­ical state­ments. This is a long term game, so ser­i­ous cross party think­ing and decisions are urgently needed. “The world will not evolve past its cur­rent crisis by the same think­ing that cre­ated it” (Einstein — para­phrased)

The Lansing tri­angle sums up where we need to be — in the green bit at the top, avoid­ing fossil fuels unless care­fully man­aged. Worst of all is CCS and land­fill. Sheffield’s pro­posed Clean Air Charge is flawed. It cleans up the city centre but defers the prob­lem to the sub­urbs. The worst emis­sions are cur­rently already owned by the Station, Abbeydale Road, Ecclesall Road and Broomhill. These will get worse. Other examples of our City Council’s wisdom are the diesel gen­er­ator for the Ferris wheel at ground level, pois­on­ing all the kids around. Old pol­lut­ing diesel taxis and buses are a major prob­lem. The solu­tion is an urgent need to “reduce and reuse”. We were advised to hang onto our old dies­els as tech­no­logy is on the way to make them carbon friendly. In the mean­time, get a bike.


For the future, e-fuels from CCU are per­haps the most import­ant. CCU isn’t new. The first CCU plant was built by Joseph Priestley at the Leeds brew­ery in 1772. He inven­ted fizzy drinks (as well as other things).

Carbon found in any­thing can be extrac­ted as CO2 to util­ise it and make it carbon neut­ral, for instance in extrac­tion of iron from its ore. There are count­less syn­thetic sub­stances which con­tain carbon. Any of these can be sourced from CCU.

Sustainable agro­chem­ic­als can feed the world. Blue urea pro­duc­tion has excit­ing poten­tial as a fer­til­iser and is truly carbon neg­at­ive. Furthermore, there are plans to pro­duce it in ship­ping con­tain­ers on site at farms where it’s needed. This is a great example of CCU as a renew­able commodity-based tech­no­logy with the capa­city to use carbon diox­ide emis­sions in remote loc­a­tions where there is no oppor­tun­ity for geo­lo­gical stor­age.

In the Footsteps of Shackleton — Martin Thomas — 9th September 2019

Martin Thomas is a retired vas­cu­lar and thyroid sur­geon, keen sailor and a very old friend. He came all the way to Sheffield from where he lives in Bosham, Sussex, espe­cially to deliver this talk. He was a com­modore of the Ocean Cruising Club. He has sailed to the Antarctic twice and then seven years ago, with a group of retired sur­gical col­leagues from St Thomas’ Hospital, he sailed across the Southern Ocean from the Falklands to South Georgia and back, tra­cing the exact route of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic “Traverse” in 1916 across the massive, unex­plored and uncharted moun­tains and gla­ciers from Peggotty Bluff in King Haarkon Bay to the other side of South Georgia at Stromness. There Shackleton knew he could summon help from the Norwegians in the White House at the whal­ing sta­tion to save the other mem­bers of his Endurance crew marooned on Elephant Island and at King Haarkon Bay

In the first part of this fant­astic, superbly delivered (not one um or ah!) and beau­ti­fully illus­trated talk with dra­matic video clips, Martin gave an account of Shackleton’s exploits com­par­ing them with those of Amundsen and Scott, in order to give a detailed insight into the very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters of each.

While Roald Amundsen was hugely suc­cess­ful, and the first to reach both Poles, he was so driven and force­ful in achiev­ing his ambi­tions but at the expense of the well­being of his men and dogs, slaughter­ing the latter for food. Scott believed in naval dis­cip­line, was irrit­able and not the best man man­ager, but his rel­at­ive fail­ing, in con­trast to Amundsen, was his reluct­ance to use dogs and skis, rely­ing on less effi­cient man­power to drive the sleds along, and using up 7000 instead of 4000 cals/day. Shackleton (Fig 1), on the other hand, led his men by example, was much less formal, knew how to get the best out of them.

Sir Raymond Priestley in 1956 said of Shackleton “Scott for sci­entific method, Amundsen for speed and effi­ciency but when dis­aster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton”. He became a role model as one who, in extreme cir­cum­stances, kept his team together by incred­ible lead­er­ship. One of many examples was Shackleton’s fixing of the lots drawn for the better fur-lined sleep­ing bags, making sure his men got them instead of him­self.

His first exped­i­tion was with Scott and Wilson to a record lat­it­ude of 82 degrees South in 1901–4, fol­lowed by Nimrod in 1907–9 to 88 degrees South  just 97 miles from the South Pole. Amundsen won the race to reach the South Pole in 1911. Shackleton then raised funds for a coast to coast cross­ing of Antarctica via the South Pole. Disaster struck when Endurance was trapped, drift­ing for months in the ice flows and even­tu­ally crushed in pack ice in the Weddell Sea (Fig 2). Martin showed Hurley’s dra­matic video of Endurance dis­in­teg­rat­ing and sink­ing. The crew escaped (Fig 3) with pro­vi­sions, even­tu­ally reach­ing Elephant Island, 346 miles from where Endurance was lost, and where they were marooned. It was the first time in 497 days that they could stand on solid ground but the chances of rescue from here were zero. Shelter was made by upturn­ing two of the three boats and con­struct­ing upper and lower floors – the “Snuggery”. They sur­vived on ele­phant seal, pen­guin meat and albatross. The chicks were a real del­ic­acy.

Notables amongst the crew were Frank Worsley (cap­tain), Frank Wild (second-in-command), Hussey (met­eor­o­lo­gist), McIlroy (head sci­ent­ist), Tom Crean (head dog hand­ler), McNish (car­penter), Frank Hurley (pho­to­grapher), Alexander Macklin (one of the two sur­geons), Marston the artist and Mrs Chippy, the cat, who was shot (act of com­pas­sion as she could not sur­vive the con­di­tions and needed feed­ing).

The only course of action for sur­vival was to risk a 720 mile open-boat jour­ney to South Georgia. The James Caird (Fig 4) was adap­ted by Harry McNIsh the car­penter to raise its sides to allow rock bal­last for sta­bil­ity, strengthen the keel, seal the joints with a mix­ture of artist’s oil paint and seal’s blood and to create a deck. Those chosen to make the jour­ney with Shackleton were Frank Worsley (nav­ig­ator), Tom Crean, two strong ABSs McCarthy and Crean and the car­penter McNish. The latter had been insub­or­din­ate and mutin­ous when stran­ded on the ice flow (see the excel­lent 2002 film “Shackleton” with Kenneth Branagh) and it was a stroke of man-management genius on Shackleton’s part to take along McNish, in order to sep­ar­ate him from Vincent, all for the good of those left behind on Elephant Island. McNish was trouble but if he declined to come, Shackleton threatened to shoot him. In any case, McNish’s car­pentry would prove indis­pens­able.

They trav­elled light, with pro­vi­sions for just four weeks. Success came from Shackleton’s lead­er­ship, Worsley’s mag­ni­fi­cent nav­ig­a­tional skills, much of it by dead reck­on­ing, sex­tant, naut­ical almanac (which was almost des­troyed, “shed­ding its pages so fast” from the ele­ments), a  chro­no­meter, only an occa­sional glimpse of the sun and stars in the extremes of appalling weather and the prob­lem of get­ting bear­ings, and the need to be con­stantly baling out. The ever-optimistic McCarthy was a huge sup­port to Shackleton and the others: “it’s a grand day sir”. They were very cold, inad­equately clothed and con­stantly wet. Thirst and exhaus­tion was very ser­i­ous prob­lems, but all over­come by the sheer will to sur­vive. It was endur­ance to the extreme, through superb seaman­ship and dis­cip­line.

After defer­ring land­fall to avoid the real risk of destruc­tion on the South Georgian rocks in a gale, they back­tracked, then entered King Haarkon Sound (Fig 5) the next day but faced a gruelling 51km trek across the moun­tain range (Fig 6), scal­ing 9000ft and totally inad­equately kitted out. Screws were inser­ted into their boots (which leaked) to act as make­shift cram­pons. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean made the jour­ney armed with min­imal tackle such as rope, rations, tobacco and primus, to travel “light”. Picking fair weather to set off, there were trial ascents into a series of moun­tain gaps and forced des­cents and re-ascents before finally reach­ing a pre­cip­ice… and over they went, blindly and roped together, as there was no altern­at­ive. “I was never more scared in my life than for the first thirty seconds…the speed was terrific…that hair-raising shoot into the dark­ness” (Frank Worsley: Shackleton’s Boat Journey. 1940. Hodder & Stoughton – an abso­lute must-read for Probus). And so to Grytviken and rescue.

They turned up totally filthy and unre­cog­nis­able in Stromness (Figs 7 and 8), unwashed and unshaven for months. The Norwegians were very hos­pit­able, offered baths and food, and they returned to pick up the other sur­viv­ors. Elephant Island was a chal­lenge with four attempts over four months and in four ships before they could be evac­u­ated and repat­ri­ated

Martin’s voyage on Pelargic Australis (Fig 9) and tra­verse of South Georgia in Shackleton’s foot­steps was cer­tainly a chal­lenge for men in their 60s. There was fit­ness train­ing and cre­vasse man­age­ment in the Alps. Mountaineering and skiing exper­i­ence was vital. They were all old like-minded med­ical friends who got on together and they had to be in peak con­di­tion. There was also the risk factor: no emer­gency facil­it­ies in South Georgia! Evidence of life lost in more recent times was seen with a heli­copter wreck en route from an attemp­ted SAS rescue during the Falklands War. Martin fell 600ft and, as he put it, “a very silly thing to do”, thank­fully with only minor scrapes. But, at worst, they risked not sur­viv­ing. Extremely unpre­dict­able severe weather (Fig 10), which changes quickly, makes for a very hos­tile envir­on­ment. But what a hol­i­day!

Fig 1. Ernest Henry Shackleton CVO OBE FRGS FRSGS1874–1922 aged 47.  Born County Kildare. Educated Dulwich College. Died GrytvikenSouth Georgia

Fig 2. Endurance trapped in pack ice

Fig 3. Across the ice flows after Endurance sank

Fig 4. Launching the James Caird from Elephant Island 1916

Fig 5 King Haarkon Bay, South Georgia

Fig 6 South Georgia moun­tains – the chal­lenge for Martin’s group

Fig 7. Grytviken whal­ing sta­tion (by Frank Hurley)

Fig 8 Shackleton’s grave at Grytviken

Fig 9. Martin’s chartered yacht Pelargic Australis

Fig 10. Martin and co. pitch­ing camp at Trident Ridge