How do we keep the lights on without destroying the world?

Someone once asked me if chemistry’s disproportionately low profile in public life was due to its lack of obvious ’big questions’ to answer. Physics has the birth of the universe to figure out; biology has the secrets of life to unravel. Well, let’s be clear about our big question - how do we keep the lights on without destroying the world? 

The way that we currently produce our energy - for light, heat and transportation - is clearly unsustainable, largely because of our reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting fuels. The most realistic solutions all rely on chemistry. And if the consensus of opinion amongst climate scientists is correct, we need low-carbon technologies immediately. Yet sometimes the range of options can seem bewildering. Should chemists pour their efforts into capturing the free energy that streams from the Sun? Or building better batteries to store that energy? Perhaps hydrogen or methanol would make better energy carriers? 

The need for quick answers, and a pragmatic view about the nature of business and politics, enables us to narrow our choices. The hydrogen economy probably won’t help much: storing the gas is proving tricky, its distribution infrastructure would turn a trillion-dollar industry upside-down, and we still lack a commercially viable means of producing hydrogen without creating more CO2 in the process.

Fusion power is often held up as a great hope, but despite the progress of the £6.5 billion ITER experimental reactor project, a working fusion power station is at least decades away.Why capture the Sun in a magnetic bottle here on Earth when you can keep the unruly plasma at a convenient distance of, say, 150 million kilometres? Solar photovoltaics should be the obvious solution to our energy needs, but high costs have stopped them from penetrating the market. Only substantially cheaper photovoltaic materials - developed by chemists - will swing solar power into the mainstream. 

Nuclear power offers the most realistic short-term alternative to fossil fuels - but as governments around the globe have found, it is essential to secure the approval of the voting public by offering clear evidence of safety. Yet in a report released on 21 September, the Royal Society warned that the UK’s 100 tonne plutonium stockpile poses severe risks from accidents or security breaches. Ideally, we should convert the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for use in a new generation of power stations. It’s a goal which relies on chemistry - yet there is still no clear political strategy to address the issue.

On the same day, the UK government announced that a new Energy Technologies Institute, backed by £550 million of government investment over 10 years, would be based in Loughborough and involve energy giants such as BP, Shell and E.ON. It’s a step in the right direction, but little of this science will make any difference without legislative support. Breaking the fossil fuel habit needs more than technological innovation - it needs an economic revolution, and it’s simply not going to happen overnight.

That’s why technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) are so important. CCS is a fundamentally chemical problem - how do you deliver a relatively pure gas stream from a messy mixture? Solving this would mitigate fossil fuel burning and give longer-term technologies time to come to fruition. Chemistry really can save the world - but scientists must be canny about selecting the most commercially realistic ways of achieving that. 

Mark Peplow, editor