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ScienceWise - Nov/Dec 2008

The Editor's Corner

Sense, science and sustainability

Ten years ago there was still much debate as to whether humans were responsible for the observed changes in the Earth's climate, and indeed if those changes were even real. Today, the consensus amongst scientists is almost unanimous. The changes are real and we are causing them. But even if this wasn't true and burning fossil fuels was all fine and dandy, we can't keep doing it forever because they're beginning to run out.

Whatever your position on climate change may be, it's hard to see a bad side to humans moving towards sustainable energy sources. Even from an economics point of view surely the cost of sustainable energy is easier to incorporate into a business plan than oil, the price of which can change by a factor of three every time the markets hiccup. Something we can literally tap in our own back yard just has to make better business sense in the long run than imports. The sun will shine and the wind will blow much the same regardless of both the US markets and the state of the economies of India and China.

In this edition of ScienceWise we're looking at a selection of scientific projects aimed at bringing about responsible and sustainable energy solutions for the future. Some are concerned with the collection of energy, others with it's storage and use.

Australia is in an enviably strong position to exploit natural energy. We have vast amounts of land on which the sun beats down almost every day and across which the wind blows. We are also one of the most potentially vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change.

However things pan out in the future, one of the big challenges clean energy must face is providing a replacement for petrol and diesel as transport fuels. To some extent we can reduce our fuel consumption with public transport and bicycles but in a big country like Australia with its widely separated towns, I personally believe it's naive and unrealistic to expect cars to just disappear. But that doesn't mean they have to destroy the environment. If we are prepared to devote appropriate resources to research and back that up with government incentives for the motor industry and public alike to buy green, there's no reason why we can't make cars carbon neutral.

Imagine a series of huge bio-solar plants generating hydrogen (and jobs) out in bush. Imagine cars with hydrogen fuel tanks and fuel cell engines that put noting but steam into the atmosphere. Trucks, trains and even aircraft running on "bottled sunlight".

Imagine selling billions of tons of this green generated hydrogen to our Asian neighbours to fuel their growing industrial economies. And imagine using our valuable oil and coal reserves as a source of plastics, lubricants, hydrocarbons and other chemicals rather than simply setting fire to them.

Of course hydrogen isn't the only clean fuel. Solar generated methanol offers another good carbon neutral transport fuel option without placing pressures on the world food production potential in the way bio-ethanol can.

Right now this kind of clean energy technology may sound futuristic and perhaps even unrealistic. But the future has a habit of being upon us before we know it. In Barack Obama's inspirational victory speech he spoke about the changes one 106 year old voter has seen in during her lifetime. From a time with no cars and no aeroplanes to now. Isn't it likely that during our own lifetimes we might see changes at least this big?

Dr Tim Wetherell

Sense, science and sustainability
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