“This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind,” said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”
I’m getting a little jaded with ‘gee whizz’ stories promising cheap abundant energy, but this kind of ‘water splitting’ technology does seem to be potentially the most efficient (and cleanest) path to getting us off fossil fuels. The process involves using solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, both good sources of energy. ‘Water splitting’ used to be prohibitively expensive, but scientists at MIT have found a way to get more ‘bang for the buck’. More power to them! Read more about it at the MIT site.
This could be big. The world is facing a water crunch, at least when it comes to the stuff we can drink. Salt water covers 80% of the planet, but making it potable costs a bundle in energy; either to boil seawater (to release freshwater steam) or force it through inefficient filters to remove impurities. So far, only rich countries like Saudi Arabia or Singapore can afford desalination plants to do the job. That could change. Some years ago, researchers at Manchester University discovered they could create layers of Graphite only one atom thin, called Graphene. Scientists at MIT then discovered that Graphene is potentially a highly efficient water filter, one that requires very little energy to force the water through. This could mean that poorer countries will be able to afford desalination plants, which could in turn convert large arid regions into fertile farmland.
A little off-topic, but I have a side-interest in Peak Oil. For the Peak Oil worriers out there, there is a glimmer of good news. Only about 5% of world electricity production comes from oil. Since there’s still a fair bit of coal and gas in the ground (which accounts for 60% of electricity), hopefully the lights won’t go out any time soon. Now the bad news. A lot more power stations will have to be built, because we’re likely to be using electricity in cars and trains when peak oil hits the pump. For economic reasons, most of those power stations are going to be coal-fired. Which contributes to global warming.
“This is definitely not in line with a safe climate scenario – it would put us on a really dangerous trajectory,” said the WRI’s Ailun Yang, who compiled the report, considered to be the most comprehensive in the public domain. But she said new emissions limits proposed in the US and a voluntary cap on coal use in China could begin to turn the tide. “These policies would give really strong signals about the risks to the future financial performance of coal of climate policies.” [from The Guardian]
Obviously, global warming isn’t a generally good thing. But there is another glimmer of hope. If temperatures don’t rise too much, climate change is likely to have a relatively small quantitative impact on global food production (but will have a massive regional impact, as food production declines in the South and rises in the North).
The latest IPCC report predicted improving conditions for food production in the mid to high latitudes over the next few decades, including in the northern USA, Canada, northern Europe and Russia. Conversely, parts of the subtropics, such as the Mediterranean region and parts of Australia, and the low latitudes, could experience declining conditions. For example, across Africa, yields from rain-fed agriculture could decline by as much as 50% by 2020. Beyond this, if global temperatures rise by more than about 1–3°C, declining conditions could be experienced over a much larger area. [From The Guardian, my italics]
It’s that’s last line of the quote that’s bothersome, “if global temperatures rise by more than 1-3%…”. Firing up more coal-powered stations is not going to help with avoiding that outcome.