Aitchtopia may be over the horizon

1 October 2003

I have been accused of mocking the 'hydrogen economy' so beloved of many contemporary energy idealists, but regular followers of this page know that I have been even-handed over the long haul. Of course I have welcomed growing official interest in the hydrogen ideal. As MPS readers know, the powers that be in the USA, the EC, Iceland and other political entities, as well as such concerned organisations as the World Nuclear Association, have been looking seriously at hydrogen and fuel cells as keys to future energy and transport policies both nationally and internationally.

Concurrently with news of some major initiatives in this field a while ago came the announcement from CERN, the esteemed multinational European nuclear physics organisation, that some of its researchers had achieved the world's first controlled production of large numbers of antihydrogen atoms* at low energies. The team had made the so-called 'cold' antihydrogen in what CERN's director-general, Luciano Maiani, described as 'unexpectedly abundant quantities'.

Do you suspect that there is a mad gleam in my eyes as I fantasise about the possibilities for an antihydrogen economy? After all, the hydrogen atom is (according to one CERN description) the most completely understood of atomic systems, while the antihydrogen atomic system is almost completely unknown. CERN's advance has made that ignorance potentially remediable. Perhaps a great deal more probing will reveal merits in antihydrogen ­ and in antimatter generally ­ that will persuade humanity to create, if not a parallel universe as conceived by cosmologists, at least a parallel microcosm of antimatter. Is there not an even chance that, in such a microcosm, things will by and large work better than they do with hoary old anti-antimatter? Surely that is a beguiling thought, despite the little snags that one can sense as obstacles to creation of a utopia out-utoping the orthodox hydrogen economy. One notes, for instance, that, in the CERN apparatus, the atoms of antihydrogen are annihilated on leaving the safety of their magnetic cages and meeting a container wall made of everyday matter.

But the difficulties are there only to be overcome. I look forward with glee to an age in which genetic and other biological engineering will have brought into existence power station operators, humans made of antimatter, to energise the super-efficient antihydrogen economy of the future. I relish the notion that, were dispute to arise between a parallel microcosm and any surviving old-style hydrogen economy, the problem would almost certainly be solved without anything as messy as war. The threat of instant mutual annihilation on contact should bring peoples and antipeoples to their senses at least as effectively as did the assurance of mutual destruction by the primitive atomic weapons of the twentieth century's 'superpowers'.

This tale has stings in it Whatever happened to the plague of aggressive bees that threatened to spread from South America into the USA a decade or two ago? There were terrifying tales of the swarms' sometimes fatal attacks on livestock and people. But terror this century seems to be caused less by ferocious insects than by ferocious humans.

Indeed, there is now a possibility that bees could supplant sniffer dogs for the detection of terrorists (the human sort) that seek entry into places such as power stations. Researchers have found how to train a captive bee to stick out its proboscis in response to scents that it would ordinarily ignore: the effluvia of explosives, for instance. A suitable transducer can react to the protrusion with a signal setting off an alarm or other emergency action.

Bees so trained can make extremely sensitive detectors but their Pavlovian conditioned reflexes do have to be refreshed, so routines are necessary for keeping the harnessed insects in trim. You may therefore expect vulnerable power stations to employ specialised security apiarists in due course. Their hives, inside the perimeter fences, may well yield a sweet, nutritious and possibly profitable by-product for the stations.

But surely I cannot be the first to wonder whether those payroll bees might be trained for yet another useful purpose ­ after being crossed with that aggressive strain from South America?

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