An answer to the problems of global warming by fossil fuel burners

How the rising generation sees rising generation

1 October 2007

Concealing an ulterior motive (which I shall mercifully keep concealed) the precocious son of one of my friends used a social occasion to feign interest in what I do for a living. He even pressed me to show him a specimen of my work. I offered a randomly chosen copy of MPS.

It happened to be one of the issues in which I quoted Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of the big, internationally ramified, French energy group, Total. De Margerie’s words seemed to imply that the world’s energy choice these days is just threefold – hydrocarbons, renewables or nuclear – and hinted that his company would venture from hydrocarbons into nuclear because renewables will not measure up.

My schoolboy interlocuter read my report and gave me a bemused look. ‘What about electrochemical cells?’, he demanded. He expressed faith in fuel cells but admitted that they can be tucked into de Margerie’s three categories at least to the extent that their fuels are derived from hydrocarbon sources or from water electrolysed by either hydroelectric or nuclear power stations.

Hesitantly, I muttered some reservations to the boy wizard. For instance, that although primary electrochemical cells are fine for ‘batteries’, they are not truly competitive for power generation above their traditional low levels. But he merely reminded me that secondary electrochemical cells can be and often are essential to large-scale power systems.

His coup de grâce was an offer to write – in French – to de Margerie, suggesting that Total urgently include electrochemical energy sources in its plans. I could only whisper that perhaps the company had already thought of that.

Try an elixir

What exactly is green tea? One of my dictionaries (British) assures me that it is made by drying tea leaves with steam, ‘as opposed’ to fermenting them. Another dictionary (American) also brings steam into the story but says that the vapour is used to prevent fermentation of the tea, which, after the steaming, is rolled and dried.

In this instance I prefer a less lexical authority. I turn to Jacob Weisberg, who perceptively interprets the world for readers of such organs as The Financial Times and, of which latter he is editor. ‘To US commercial culture’, Weisberg has explained in the columns of The FT, ‘green tea is yoga in a bottle – or in a can, candy bar, candle, lotion, soap, perfume or pill ... paradoxically at the red-hot intersection of New Age philosophy, health mania and industrial chemistry’. He goes on to mention manifestations in China and Japan, as hot drinks in small cups, but lavishes his wit on green tea’s numerous American roles of the panacea and/or fashion accessory class.

But the ‘implicit bargain’ of these products, Weisberg reveals, is that green tea renders its consumers morally superior. Partly, he points out, it does this by ‘sensibly’ having the word green in its name. He is not entirely sure how it resists climate change, but he is certain that ‘serene, grounded green tea sippers ... emit only minuscule quantities of carbon’. He savours recollection of the several cups he himself has just drunk, and concludes triumphantly, ‘I do believe it’s working’.

One can scarcely deny that, as an answer to the advertised problems of global warming by fossil-fuel burners (including modern power systematists), green tea compares agreeably with some of its competitors.

Can this be true?

Countries around the Arctic ocean have quickly followed Russia into a scramble for sub-marine mineral rights, with an especial eye to potential hydrocarbon riches. The dreaded greenhouse effect, thus far seen as destructive of (among other things) polar icescapes and habitats, suddenly seems to offer access in the same regions to fossil fuels and other goodies hitherto frozen out of reach. What delicious irony! Global warming could help to postpone the end of the very hydrocarbon age that is believed to have accelerated it, and could thereby give us more time to re-energise and refit civilisation.

More power to everybody’s elbow†

Moving effortlessly with the Zeitgeist (which seemed to be readying itself for a renaissance of nuclear power) our sister journal, Nuclear Engineering International, recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its own birth. No whit abashed by juniority, MPS brought out its 25th anniversary issue in January 2006. And now, with equal shamelessness, MPS recalls the debut, in its October 1982 issue, of a regular feature that (despite sporadic changes of title) has survived to this day.

Yes, you’ve guessed. The column whose foot you have reached is now a quarter of a century old.

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