It is well-accepted that we need to find new, renewable sources of energy such as wind or geothermal, but UEA scientists have taken it a step further in putting what are essentially tiny solar panels onto microbes. This £800,000 project, undertaken in conjunction with the University of Cambridge and University of Leeds, and funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), creates an artificial photosynthesis reaction, exploiting the energy from sunlight and generating hydrogen. Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, which is already being used to drive London buses, as well as transport in many other European countries. Many people envisage a clean, hydrogen-based future, where the only emission from vehicles and fuel is water. Currently, hydrogen production technology is limited to being made mainly from fossil fuels, but with advances in technology such as this, renewable generation of hydrogen is becoming increasingly possible.
The project was inspired by natural photosynthesis, with scientists attempting to replicate it. Chlorophyll pigment absorbs light and energises an electron that creates sugars via chain reactions and with the help of catalysts. By using miniscule solar panels, the team aim to “harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, from which the technologies to release energy on demand are well-advanced” says Prof Julea Butt, from UEA’s school of Chemistry and school of Biological Sciences.
It is expected that the technology will be more efficient than existing solar converters – top end solar photovoltaic panels (PV) have a laboratory efficiency rating of only around 17%, which falls even lower once installed outside optimum lab conditions. There is enormous capacity for renewable energy, but a vast amount of it is unrealised, mainly because of the difficulty in converting solar energy into useful forms that can be used for transport, electricity, or heating, for example. The scientists in the team have high hopes for their budding technology, however; they “imagine that our photocatalysts will prove versatile and that with slight modification they will be able to harness solar energy for the manufacture of carbon-based fuels, drugs and fine chemicals”. It may take a while before we are seeing houses powered by microbes, but this is certainly and exciting step in the right direction.
It could be said that the UK has a lot of ambitious commitments on its plate – about aid, ethical sourcing, climate change… Meeting the target of sourcing 15% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 is looking incredibly ambitious, so much so that even the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has admitted it. In 2009, the figure stood at an uninspiring 3%. It’s looking pretty dire in comparison to the leading examples of other European countries like Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Spain, whose fuel mix includes between 11% and 47.9% (Sweden) renewables. These countries will no doubt make more of a contribution to the EU’s target of 20% of overall energy consumption to come from renewables. There are certainly problems with renewable energy, but a lot of these are derived from the UK industry’s unwillingness to invest in new technology that would make renewables cheaper and increase uptake. Most small renewables such as micro-wind power, solar heating systems or small-scale hydro are financially unviable in the current economic conditions, which are of course partly manufactured by companies (un)involved in the industry. Some technologies have more potential than others – solar photovoltaic (PV) for instance, is pretty unsuitable for the UK, with its low solar exposure, but there is an enormous amount of wind energy waiting to be exploited – ask any wind-blown, vitamin D- deficient Scottish farmer. Where there is more space, there is undoubtedly more scope for renewables – farmers can be easily persuaded to erect a turbine on their land if it brings in revenue and provides free energy. The problem arises more in urban areas where planning permission is nigh on impossible to obtain, and NIMBYism is even more of a problem than in quaint rural villages. Here, it makes more sense to employ other methods, such as reducing consumption, and making efficiency savings. New, efficient houses are readily being built, such as the Thames Gateway development, but to replace all the inefficient housing stock in the UK will take quite some time – for now many people are stuck in inefficient, poorly insulated and single-glazed houses where you can see your breath inside (something I’m sure many people can sympathise with). Options like combined heat and power (CHP) dramatically reduces energy consumption because waste heat from electricity generation is used as direct heat instead of being lost – this is only valuable if there is a heating demand nearby, however, and there are very few power stations located near, well, anything. To achieve those targets, a fair few more district heating and CHP facilities will need to be built, paying as little attention to the NIMBY lobby as possible. Decentralised renewables can be incorporated into this rosy picture, providing extra energy on top of, say, gas electricity generation. It all sounds great, and starts to look a bit like the idyllic Scandinavia, where houses barely need to be heated in the Arctic winter, aside from a few problems; 1) although the technology exists, there is too little investment and motivation in this country to enable a mass roll-out, 2) political lifetimes are short, and investing in unpopular (expensive) policies is likely to deter most politicians, 3) it is going to be very hard to modify the National Grid to be able to handle renewables, which are notoriously unreliable at the wrong times, like when the whole country needs a cup of tea after watching England lose at penalties. The infrastructure can’t cope with the intermittency of wind/solar/tidal/wave power as it stands, so it will take further investment to strengthen it. Added to this, is the growing global demand for energy – as well as growing national demand. Efficiency savings are of course essential, but as soon as they are made, it encourages people to increase their use because their energy bills get cut, and they can leave the TV on standby for 3 more hours without worrying about the cost. Although very few people are advocating a regression to the dark ages or some kind of nation-wide Stalinist hippy commune, it will be necessary to reduce the amount of energy we use as well as boosting our renewable contribution. The need to cut consumption goes hand-in-hand with renewables, which is unfortunately the unpalatable truth.
As valid and elegant as some of the elements of the Gaia hypothesis are – its intricate simplicity is fascinating – there are several points which leave me feeling very averse to James Lovelock himself. I accept that it was written at a time where writers and scientists were allowed to be shamelessly sexist and narrow-minded, but in the subsequent revisions of the text, I would have expected some kind of change. Despite emphasis on the female ‘Gaia’, Lovelock clarifies early on that even this pronoun is to be taken in the same way as that of a ship, i.e. that it is an unimportant idiosyncrasy. Lovelock’s continual male-centric writing is subtle but still abrasive – perhaps it is just me, and I am hypersensitive. I have never taken to Lovelock or many of his ideas, which probably pits me against him from the outset; the fact remains, however, that his masculine perspective annoys me. This feeds into the cocksure way he presents everything, as if there is a smug little grin on his face the whole time – it’s the same whenever I see him speak – as if he thinks there is no way he could be wrong. To be fair, there is an acceptance that there could be other ways of doing things, but it seems limited. His background also influences his politics somewhat – the number of references to warfare and ‘just’ war reveal a pro-war sensibility. I am always loathe to support or agree with anyone who believes there can ever be such a thing as a ‘just’ war; in Lovelock’s case it seems to stem from an early twentieth century upbringing and employment in a politically conservative industry. This American Liberal Republicanism appears to underlie the book, with Lovelock seemingly reluctant to accept any other perspectives other than his own. In discussing the “recent heresies of humanism and Marxism”, and “Anarchists” who would seek to destroy technology via “destructive action rather than constructive thought”, his conservative nature becomes abundantly clear. I find it difficult to reconcile the image of a scientist who believes in the ‘magic’ of nature, and this apparently blinkered individual. The notion of a self-regulatory at unconsciously intelligent system has become less radical in current science, as long as the distinction between conscious and Godlike regulation and pseudo-intelligent feedback loops, cycles and processes is made, it is now more accepted. It is one of those theories that have to be read if you are interested in environmental science or any related discipline, and I’m glad I finally did, even if it only serves as ammunition. I found the bulk of the ideas to be interesting, well-founded and thought-provoking, and mainly presented in a lucid and convincing manner. As ever, it was nuances that really irritated me, so on the whole it is worth a read.
This was the 2009 reprint of the latest edition of “Gaia: a new look at life on Earth” by James Lovelock, Oxford University Press, 2000.