Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Climate change: Saving the planet?

People concerned about climate change tend to fall into two camps: those who think technology is the problem, and those who see it as also being a solution. Those in the former camp see coal-fired power plants and fossil-fuel dependent cars; those in the latter also see wind farms, wave farms, solar towers, electric and hydrogen powered vehicles, and the (always twenty years away) promise of fusion power.

That list of technologies focuses on hardtech. But there's a source of energy all around us, which harvests sunlight at low efficiency - far less than a modern solar cell - and turns it into energy. That source is plants, and they do it by photosynthesis. Now, a group of scientists have succeeded in recreating that process in the lab:

Scientists have made a fundamental breakthrough in their attempts to replicate photosynthesis – the ability of plants to harvest the power of sunlight – in the hope of making unlimited amounts of "green" energy from water and sunlight alone.

The researchers have assembled genetically modified viruses into wire-like structures that are able to use the energy of the sun to split water molecules into their constitute parts of oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used as a source of chemical energy.

If the process can be scaled up and made more efficient, it promises to produce unlimited quantities of hydrogen fuel, a clean source of energy that can be used to generate electricity as well as acting as a portable, carbon-free fuel for cars and other vehicles.

The importance of this cannot be underoverstated. If this technology works out - and they expect to have a commercial prototype within two years - then we have a clean, solar-based, storable energy source, able to operate whereever there is sunlight and water. Effectively, an artificial plant which will produce hydrogen we can use directly.

Unfortunately, that leaves us with the real problem: implementation. As the list at the top of this post shows, we already have technologies - some of them quite cheap - capable of generating electricity cleanly and so reducing our carbon footprint. The problem is getting people to use them. That requires active, interventionist government policy, and it harms established and powerful interests tied to dirty technologies - both of which are anathema to our current government, and indeed to governments all over the world, both right- and left-wing. In other words, the real problem isn't so much technological, but political.