March 1998

Tim Radford, Science Editor, The Guardian

The Water Lobby  

There have always been those who thought you could run cars on water. I don't see any sense to that, it would cost just as much to actually split water into hydrogen and oxygen as you would get back, so there's not a lot you can do about it that way. But there are quite a lot of industrial processes for which hydrogen is a by-product anyway. So in a sense, you've got the hydrogen for free, in which case you could invest in bottling it and think about ways to use it industrially. One of those ways is possibly to drive cars.

There is quite a lot of work being done in all sorts of territories on making fuel cells, for instance, much more efficient. At least one bright firm in Vancouver (Ballard Industries) has already got a contract with the city of Chicago to run hydrogen-powered buses, at levels of efficiency which are comparable with petrol driven vehicles.

Now there's not going to be an instant change from petrol to hydrogen whatever happens, because there is just too much infrastructure already invested in distributing oil, so this will happen slowly, it will happen as the price of fossil fuel gets higher and higher, as it gets harder and harder to extract, and as people realise that you could actually use fossil fuels for better things than just burning. One of my favourite lines from the oil industry is "the stuff is far too precious to burn".

The Solar Industry

Jeremy Leggatt, formerly of Greenpeace and formerly of Scientists Against the Verification Technologies, has now formed a thing called the Solar Century, and he is convinced that things really will start to happen in the near future [he is looking at it from a financial point of view, and where the City should be getting involved]. He has always understood that money really does work. You know, one goes around saying some things can't be bought, but it isn't absolutely true. It's obviously true that there are some things you can't buy. It is simply that if there is money in it, it will happen.

There are one or two dreams from the space lobby are beginning to look a bit better – the notion that you could actually have solar collectors orbiting the earth and beaming power down in microwave form to distribution points down here.

But much better for us would be for us all simply to think about how we use power, or perhaps even to think about turning our economy round and considering not in units of money but of energy, that is what we ultimately spend just to stay alive. We have that in common with every creature on earth.

Time Scale

The technology always happens quicker than you thought it was going to, whether it's the astonishing lesson of computing and indeed the astonishing lesson of space, once people have decided to have a go at it, things have happened astoundingly fast.

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