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Newsletter 30th March 2007

-Energy sources of the future -Cooperation on drought-resistant -This is real pollution... -Return of the 5-year freeze?

Energy sources of the future

Last week, as the European Union was about to mark its first half century, the International Herald Tribune published the results of a survey of people’s expectations for the next 50 years. Much of this focussed, not unexpectedly, on issues such as the future of the euro (expected to be the standard European currency in 2057), enlargement (significant numbers of respondents expecting Turkey and even Russia to be members by then) and even the very existence of the EU (thought highly likely by a significant majority, even 62% of Brits). However, one topic of particular interest to us in the Scientific Alliance is that of energy. And here, we seem to be entering something of a Looking Glass World.

A majority of respondents in five of the six countries in the survey (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the USA) thought that wind and solar power would be the primary sources of energy in fifty years. Only in Britain did nuclear come top of the list, with 48%, but even there 38% thought that wind and solar would predominate. Surprisingly, in nuclear-dominated France, 48% voted for wind and solar energy compared with 46% for nuclear.

These figures betray a basic lack of understanding of the realities of power generation. Wind power is a relatively proven technology and currently requires less subsidy than alternatives, hence the moves to erect increasing numbers of wind turbines, to the dismay of many. But also proven is their inherent unreliability. In December, much of the UK had several days of both the coldest and calmest weather of the winter. At a time of peak demand, wind turbines were contributing nothing to the National Grid. Even ardent supporters recognise that backup generating capacity must be available at all times. And, if conventional stations are on standby in any case, there is little justification for expanding the contribution of wind power above a rather modest level.

As for photo-voltaics, current costs are significantly higher, and solar power represents a tiny fraction of generation capacity in most countries. The exception is Japan, where energy costs are in any case very high. Germany has also installed a significant capacity, by dint of offering large financial incentives. In the longer run, as the efficiency of current cell types increases and new technologies are developed (thin-film cells, for example), solar may indeed become a realistic contributor to energy needs.

However, not only will power output be reduced in cloudy conditions, but no power at all can be generated at night. In northern latitudes, where peak electricity demand is in winter, this is doubly inconvenient. Even in summer, solar power could only contribute to 24-hour baseload if high volume, high efficiency battery or other storage capacity was to become an economic reality. Perhaps the daytime output could be used to produce hydrogen, which could then be used to generate power overnight. Nothing is insuperable, but the question this surely raises is “why not rely on nuclear until something better comes along?”

And other technologies undoubtedly will come along. Nuclear fusion has now at last reached the stage where it is realistic to expect it to become commercial within the timeframe of the IHT survey. Other emerging technologies may also make a contribution. A group from the University of Berkeley recently published a paper in Science on their work in the field of organic thermo-electricity. The majority of the heat used to generate electricity or any other useful form of power is wasted. In principle, heat engines could be used to extract more useful energy, but the waste heat is generally at too low a temperature for them to be used. An alternative is to make use of the Seeberg effect: the generation of a voltage between metal plates held at different temperatures. Unfortunately, this is both inefficient and requires the use of exotic metal alloys. However, Prof Majumar and Dr Reddy, the two authors of the paper, have now demonstrated the Seeberg effect in organic molecules coated on gold electrodes. Small beginnings, and a long way to go, but if human ingenuity is given free rein there are surely more such developments over the horizon.

Cooperation on drought-resistant crops

Monsanto and BASF last week announced their intention to work together on yield increase and stress tolerance in a range of crops: maize, soya, cotton and oilseed rape. The two companies will continue with independent trait discovery programmes and then nominate specific genes to be used in breeding work by Monsanto. Development work will be jointly funded, up to an envisaged level of €1.2bn over the duration of the agreement. The first products are expected to reach the market in 2011: a very optimistic timescale given the safety testing and regulatory hurdles to be crossed.

On the face of it, this is a simple commercial deal, which will bring products to market earlier than otherwise, for the benefit of both parties. However, on another level, it is important as a clear demonstration that large biotechnology companies are actively pursuing targets beyond the current, enormously successful, herbicide tolerance and pest resistance traits. Agricultural biotechnology is here to stay, and looks set to make an increasingly important contribution to the future of farming. Drought resistance, in particular, could be of enormous benefit to a wide range of farmers in both industrialised and developing countries.

This is real pollution…

It has become commonplace to talk of carbon dioxide as a pollutant and emissions reduction plans in terms of reducing pollution. Carbon dioxide is a trace atmospheric gas which is essential for plant growth and hence for our own existence. All animals, including ourselves, breathe it out constantly. It is not a pollutant.

This illogical stance is very evident in an article in the Guardian on 26th: Fighting for air: frontline of war on global warming. This joint report from Linfen in China and New Delhi describes the truly appalling air pollution in both places. Such pollution was common in western Europe a generation ago and in eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall. Air quality has improved beyond recognition in industrial towns, partly because we have far less heavy industry than before, but also because flue gases are now scrubbed of sulphur dioxide and other pollutants. But this has nothing at all to do with the level of carbon dioxide emitted.

But to quote the article: “What Linfen symbolises is the cost of development in China and the other most populous country: India. Both economies are growing explosively, leading to a rapid expansion of their middle classes. This in turn has seen a growing appetite for power - one sated by the building of dirty, inefficient coal-fired plants that are slowly cooking the world's atmosphere.” The implication is that reducing CO2 emissions is as important as cleaning up the air to improve people’s health. Reporting as misguided as this is cause for concern.

Return of the 5-year freeze?

Finally, George Monbiot, in his Guardian column this week, proposes a 5-year freeze on bio-fuels because of the environmental devastation apparently caused by crops used to produce them: cutting down Indonesian rainforest to plant oil palms, replacing rare scrubland in Brazil with sugar cane, and ripping up the Amazon forest to grow soya. Admittedly, bio-fuels are no panacea, but a campaign to stop their use (at least until fuels from biomass are an economic option) seems a little extreme. For those of you with any knowledge of the early GM crop debate “5-year freeze” will have a familiar ring. In Monbiot’s own words: “GM crops give big companies unprecedented control over the foodchain. But most of their effects are indirect, while the devastation caused by biofuel is immediate and already visible.” Are environmental activists now even recycling campaigns?