Sunday, April 18, 2010

'Unlimited Energy' Promised, This Time Through Photosynthesis

Remember those Fifties movies on atomic power, "too cheap to meter," providing "unlimited energy" to all of us? At the time, only one teeny-tiny problem remained to be solved; remember how that has worked out? Well, here we go again:
Published on Tuesday, April 13, 2010 by The Independent/UK

Breakthrough as US Researchers Replicate Photosynthesis in Laboratory
GM viruses offer hope of future where energy is unlimited

by Steve Connor

Scientists have made a fundamental breakthrough in their attempts to replicate photosynthesis - the ability of plants to harvest the power of sunlight - in the hope of making unlimited amounts of "green" energy from water and sunlight alone.

The researchers have assembled genetically modified viruses into wire-like structures that are able to use the energy of the sun to split water molecules into their constitute parts of oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used as a source of chemical energy.

If the process can be scaled up and made more efficient, it promises to produce unlimited quantities of hydrogen fuel, a clean source of energy that can be used to generate electricity as well as acting as a portable, carbon-free fuel for cars and other vehicles.

Replicating photosynthesis - in which plants convert sunlight into a store of chemical energy - has been a dream of the alternative energy business for decades. ...

Oh, indeed, it has. And... forgive me if I offer a prediction... it will remain so for decades, along with cold fusion, clean coal, and of course safely disposable waste from ordinary (fission) nuclear power plants. How many times must I say it: nothing... no political process, no scientific discovery and no feat of engineering is going to save us from ourselves. We must do it on our own, probably in small, incremental steps. I'd love to be proved wrong, but the only breakthrough in power generation I expect to see in my lifetime is when Uncle Stumblestep, attempting to put up solar panels, breaks through the weak patch on the roof.

I wish them luck. The process may provide unlimited energy, or it may not. (Where will all that energy go? how will it dissipate once it's released as heat after it drives a motor or a light for a while?) But it will not solve all our problems, and we need to rein in our media-driven expectations, focus our energies (so to speak), and institute some serious conservation measures.


  1. Ah, yes, Hydrogen. I'm sure that the people on the Hindenburg were thrilled that when it exploded the only by products were water and trace elements from all of the people who were incinerated.

    Hydrogen tends to explode, is difficult to store, is dangerous to handle, etc.

    Now they want every neighborhood gas station to store more hydrogen than was in the Hindenburg in tanks that have to be gas tight, not just liquid tight, and will be under pressure.

  2. Bryan, you're right: one could argue against hydrogen/oxygen-powered individual vehicles on safety grounds alone; no additional technological or scientific reasons necessary. But I'm talking about the inevitable quirk, the thing no one expects when the particulars of a process are not yet well-understood... what do we do with radioactive waste from fission reactors? how does one sustain the Dog-awful energy levels necessary for fusion (outside fiction, I mean)? how do you scrub the air after burning anything except hydrogen? There's surely a problem like that lurking behind photosynthesis power, and we haven't done very well historically at coping with such problems. Must we make a new crisis for 30 years from now?



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