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Technologists put science into practice


The car-friendly guide to fixing human-made greenhouse emissions.

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Technologists put science into practice

 I've been thinking about a couple of articles in the latest GNS Globe and Nature Materials.

Scientists usually have to convince science funders that their research is somehow relevant to civilisation. They’re not very good at it. Often, they’re rubbish at telling the world about the practical implications of their research.

GNS Globe says a team led by Jocelyn Turnbull and Liz Keller demonstrated, “an independent technique to verify self-reporting of greenhouse emissions by the operators of large industrial plants.” True. But it’s way more interesting than that.

Meanwhile, this month’s Nature Materials has a paper by Hyoungjeen Jeen (and 10 others) that begins: “Fast, reversible redox reactions in solids at low temperatures without thermomechanical degradation are a promising strategy for enhancing the overall performance and lifetime of many energy materials and devices.”

Creative use of supercharging at the 2012 Port Road DragsCome on guys: This is seriously fun. Why don’t you make it interesting?

They don’t because they can’t. Sussing out practical applications requires a combination of engineering modelling and wide-ranging imagination. You have to combine hard scientific data with speculative analysis. Most of the scientists I’ve met consider it unethical to comment on subjects outside their areas of expertise. In their world, it’s unethical to speculate on things that might or might not happen.

That’s where technologists come in. It’s their job to re-invent the world according to their wildest dreams.

GNS Globe dramatically undersells Turnbull and Keller’s carbon-dating system. Climate science clearly shows that emissions from burning fossil fuels must stop. There might even be a case for restricting carbon dioxide emissions from cement production. In any case, the world will need a policy such as Myles Allen’s “SAFE Carbon” proposal. This, or any other practical solution requires a measuring device capable of distinguishing between fossil, mineral, and biogenic carbon. Fuel quality regulators in future will want to measure the proportion of fossil and biogenic carbon in samples of petrol, diesel, and jet fuel. Diplomats will want to know how much fossil carbon each country is pumping into the atmosphere. Turnbull and Keller have demonstrated a technology that will be vital to the future of Western civilisation. I think that’s pretty exciting. Most readers won’t get excited about the story in GNS Globe.

Hyoungjeen Jeen’s paper also undersells its own importance. One of its most exciting potential applications is solar crude oil production. If you’ve read From Smoke to Mirrors you’ll know that existing technology is good enough to fully demand for crude oil from solar fuel facilities covering a tiny fraction of the world’s land area. It’s expensive, though a holistic analysis shows that solar petrol and diesel in 2080 will be more affordable than conventional fuels, today. My grandson loves cars. If he were old enough to understand what I’m on about, he’d be very excited to know that the situation could be even better. That’s not the only application of this research. The materials could also drive down the cost of carbon-neutral electricity, by improving a process called chemical-loop combustion. This is a method of burning fossil hydrocarbons while producing a stream of pure carbon dioxide, ready to be pumped into permanent underground storage.

Still, petrol and diesel are way more fun than electricity. And with Bathurst only a few weeks away, it’s rather nice to stumble upon a new strand of development leading to better motoring, boating, and aviation. In today’s political environment, scientists and technologists are under intense pressure to try to make carbon-neutral fuels cost-competitive with fossil fuels. This seems grossly unfair: Technologists have to make crude oil before they can make fuel; Nature makes crude oil for free. Still, technologists are making good progress, improving their processes and driving down the future cost of driving.

Speaking of Bathurst, Lower Hutt composites manufacturer Racetech are hard out recovering from last week’s fire. If you plan to watch Bathurst on the telly, keep an eye out for the Racetech logo.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Technologist who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your communication requirements: hello {a}

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