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Further thoughts on science (and engineering)

Image: The Independent/EPA

In previous blogs I have said that I have a generally positive attitude toward science and technology and that I am not anti-science as such; a sceptic, yes, but not a complete Anti. However, given that a few of my earliest blogs have gone on at some length about some worrying lines of scientific enquiry, such as my concerns over the so-called de-extinction of species, readers might have got the impression that my Pro-science credentials are a bit thin. Therefore, it gives me great satisfaction to report and pass on some very encouraging developments in alternative energy technologies.

The British press has recently acknowledged two potentially ground-breaking developments… ‘Scientists have harnessed the principles of photosynthesis to develop a new way of producing hydrogen – in a breakthrough that offers a possible solution to global energy problems’ – according to this article in The Independent by Emily Dugan (@emilydugan) on 15 April 2013. This follows on from the encouraging news of possible advances in carbon capture announced in the same source on 19th October 2012 by The Independent’s Steve Connor (@SteveAConnor)… ‘Pioneering scientists turn fresh air into petrol in massive boost in fight against energy crisis.’

Now I have no way of judging whether these British initiatives will actually work on an industrial scale or be truly cost effective or whether they were premature announcements by over-excited science correspondents keen for a ‘good news’ story, but it is encouraging to note that the search is well and truly on for new, clean, safe and renewable sources of energy and that Britain is once again in the van. You may, then, have just had early notification of one (or two) of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in human history, breakthroughs which may signal the end to the disastrous fossil-fuel economies that are slowly but assuredly destroying our beautiful planet. So, watch this story and ‘All hail the chemists, I say – potential saviours of Humankind and all other planetary biota.’

Generally worried and pessimistic (realistic?) about much that lies before us, as a species, I am actually optimistic about our future energy production – despite short-term developments in the dash for gas, fracking and the reckless opening-up the pristine Arctic to oil and gas exploration. Why? Because Humanity has shown itself to be extraordinarily inventive in this regard and the imperatives of searching for a green and almost endless energy source is driving some incredibly clever research (as above); furthermore, the economics indicators are increasingly favourable or moving altogether in that particular direction. Only vested interests can possibly screw this up and we all need to keep a close eye on them and lobby hard to stop them.

And then, from The Guardian newspaper in this article, there’s one more bit of good news to end with… In 1986, in direct response to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Gerhard Knies, a German particle physicist, was the first person to estimate how much solar energy was required to meet humanity's demand for electricity. He scribbled down some figures and arrived at the following remarkable conclusion: in just six hours, the world's deserts receive more energy from the sun than humans consume in a year!

So, if only a tiny fraction of this energy could be harnessed – an area of the Sahara about the size of Wales, say (it’s always Wales for some reason) – then, in theory, such a massive solar array could power the whole of Europe.

Knies later asked whether "we are really, as a species, so stupid" not to make better use of this resource. Thankfully, such an array is now well under construction, by a German-led international consortium and others are soon to follow – provided they can be well-defended of course!

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