Power Up: QEPrize Ambassador launches new energy book!

Yasmin with her guests at the book launch

Photo credit: Yasmin Ali

29 April 2024


Power Up: An Engineer's Adventures into Sustainable Energy by Yasmin Ali, chemical engineer and Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Ambassador.

A review by David Adkins, electrical engineer, Head of Transformation Strategy at National Grid Electricity Transmission, and Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Ambassador.

I loved reading this book, it delves into the personal journey of one of our own Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) Ambassadors - Yasmin Ali - a passionate engineer and great communicator. It traces her lifetime across continents working in multiple energy sectors creating a ‘dashboard view’ of the whole energy system. Yasmin grew up in Baghdad, Iraq where unreliable energy supplies and poor resource management laid the foundations for a future in energy innovation. From the fossil fuel reliance in her homeland to advocating for sustainable energy solutions, the book treads a pragmatic and hopeful line intertwined with deep personal experience. It is a book of many levels. I have had a career in energy and learnt a lot from this book and my non-engineering friend understood alternating current (AC) power for the first time. I have earmarked pages and will be coming back for the simple yet accurate descriptions of some tricky concepts.

The book is structured in three sections – Get it, Move it and Use it – explaining clearly, and with obvious passion and joy (including a bit of industrial tourism), how energy is made or extracted, transported to where it needs to go and then how it is converted to the useful energy forms we need (movement, heat or light etc).

Fossil fuels have fuelled progress, wealth and living standards and they will still be required as part of the energy transition to cleaner fuels but how we manage this, and the pace of change is what engineers can influence. We have used fossil fuels for thousands of years; in China they were extracting oil 200m down as far back as 350 CE, but our reliance on them has come at the cost of our current environmental issues. Even in London in 1659 it was described as ‘hell upon earth’ due to the pollutants and thick coal smoke across the city. Yasmin is pragmatic throughout the book and explores the trade-offs we have to make throughout.

'Nuclear' contrasts the initial fear associated with nuclear power against its potential as a sustainable energy source. Yasmin demystifies nuclear energy, explaining its evolution from a weapon of mass destruction to a beacon of green energy. Did you know there is two to three million times the amount of energy in uranium than in fossil fuels? Chernobyl, Fukushima, and other public impacts are all discussed as well as the fact that a thousand more people die delivering fossil fuels to us than delivering nuclear, wind and solar energy. How we balance these risks is a question for generations to come.

‘Solar’ is revisited through nostalgic memories of Baghdad’s sun-drenched days. It is an amazing thing to take energy in many forms from the sun directly heating us. From the first rooftop solar photovoltaic system in 1884 (New York) to amazing solar cooling systems keeping people and crops cool without sustainable power supplies (a concept that baffles me). With improvements in long-distance transmission and storage solar could become a key energy export for countries traditionally reliant on oil exports.

‘Wind’ describes a visit to Denmark’s iconic Tvindkraft wind turbine (one of the world’s first) and shows the potential of wind energy when communities engage and take ownership of renewable projects. The sheer scale and size of modern turbines, and the fact these enormous structures are now floating on oceans, is an amazing engineering story which is set to change the energy mix around the world. 2024 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Laureates, Andrew Garrad CBE and Henrik Stiesdal, are a testament to the passion and progress here.

The later chapters address the complexities of global energy systems and infrastructure such as pipelines and electrical grids, crucial for the movement and distribution of energy including the enormous 3,324km, 12GW overhead lines in China (approximately one fifth of the UK electricity demand). We still have thousands of ships moving oil and super-cooled gas around the world and the amazing skill of those on board who navigate the world to satisfy our hunger for energy; interestingly these now are being partly powered by wind sails. An old solution to a current problem. The 'Pipelines' chapter brings a macro political view of the many gas and oil pipelines across the world, where any issue can lead to dramatic price changes. A closer to home example is the UK’s efforts to modernise its Victorian gas pipelines, which could potentially transition to transporting hydrogen, a future fuel and way to store energy.

'Energy Storage' and 'Heat and Cool' chapters show the technical and practical challenges in storing energy effectively and examples of urban heating systems. Heating and cooling are areas we need to improve to reach climate targets. Yasmin shows us how technical advancements can solve real-world problems as well as practical issues with using pipes, including the story of detecting and repairing what became known as ‘Yasmin’s leak’ on a London heating pipe.

The book does not shy away from the darker aspects of energy consumption, particularly in the 'Industry' chapter where the author’s relocation to Istanbul serves as a backdrop for a discussion on the heavy environmental toll of industrial activities like fertiliser and concrete production. This showcases the truly interconnected nature of the food we eat, the cars we drive and the buildings we live in. All use energy and create pollutants in some form so it is more important than ever to think of this systematically, a true challenge for new engineers.

Transport is a passionate topic for many of us on our transition to more sustainable ways of moving around (range anxiety and the true sustainability of electrical vehicles is common discussion now). We have become accustomed to the flexibility of our petrol cars and cheap air travel. Yasmin reflects on her own experiences with various modes of transport, from cars in the deserts of North Africa to the potential of emerging technologies like electric and hydrogen vehicles and sustainable aviation fuels. An area we need sustained engineering to ensure we can live comparable lifestyles into the future.

Yasmin touches on the transformative impact of the internet on her family's communication habits, which evolved from infrequent international calls to constant online connectivity (where would we be without our phones!). This transition not only highlights the personal benefits of technological advancements but also brings a new, modern dimension, showing not just the broader energy costs associated with digital technology but also the savings such as online Teams meetings over driving to work.

Overall, the book successfully balances technical detail with accessible language, making complex energy concepts understandable and engaging for a general audience. It not only informs but also inspires, urging the next generation to pursue innovation and sustainability across all areas of the energy system. Through personal anecdotes and global insights, the book illustrates the interconnectedness of energy, technology, and human experiences, making it a compelling read for anyone interested in the future of energy and our planet.

As Yasmin says “How we choose to use these resources will determine the path of our planet and its people into the future”.

Details about the author

Yasmin Photo

QEPrize Ambassador Yasmin Ali. Photo credit: Geir Engege

Yasmin Ali joined the QEPrize Ambassador Network in June 2014 and is a chartered chemical engineer in the energy sector. From working in conventional fossil fuelled power generation and oil and gas, Yasmin progressed to managing government innovation funding for low carbon energy projects, before moving to green hydrogen project development at RWE.

In addition to being an award winning engineer, Yasmin is an author. Her articles have featured on the BBC and in Metro, and her radio and television appearances include ’Ten Mistakes that Sank the Titanic’ and ‘Food Factories: How They Work’. She regularly gives live talks about engineering and energy to students, teachers, parents, engineering professionals and members of the public. In recognition of her public engagement work, Yasmin has been awarded and shortlisted for multiple industry awards, including the 2020 Women’s Engineering Society’s Top 50 Women in Engineering: Sustainability.

Yasmin’s book launch at the Royal Academy of Engineering

Yasmin Ali book launch

QEPrize Ambassador Yasmin Ali. Photo credit: QEPrize

The QEPrize, had the honour of hosting Yasmin’s book launch at the Royal Academy of Engineering on 22 April 2024. It was a truly special evening, and we couldn’t be more grateful to everyone that attended as we celebrated the release of Power Up: An Engineer's Adventures into Sustainable Energy.

The lively discussions, captivating readings, and profound insights shared throughout the evening undoubtedly left a lasting impression, inspiring and engaging all who were present.

You can see more images from the book launch by visiting our Event Gallery section of our website here.

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