MEETING THE MAN ON THE MOON

A Rendezvous with Buzz Aldrin

The Real Rock Star

AA0005

I have interviewed the world’s richest men, have grilled the chief executives of some the country’s biggest companies and peered at test tubes with many of the world’s leading scientists – but my family have never been excited by the prospects of what I was going to do until I told them I was off to meet a man who walked on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the lunar surface. In fact only 12 people have shared that adventure in the whole history of mankind.

It’s taken some time to set up this interview and despite offering to fly to wherever he was, it turns out that the most convenient time for him to meet me is when he is in London.

Buzz is 86 years old but he walks into our room like a rock star – which of course he is in a very literal way. He wears a short leather biking jacket and his fingers are covered in chunky rings. He has some large bracelets and star spangled braces. He drapes his leather jacket over the chair to reveal a trim body and a tight black tee-shirt.

He must have told his stories thousands of times but his eyes remain bright and he’s full of an energy that belie his 86 years.

I wanted to meet him not so much to talk about the adventures of his past but of his ideas for future space travel and in particular his designs to enable astronauts to travel to Mars.

Mars is roughly 225 million kilometers from earth. In a Jumbo Jet it would take more than 30 years, one way. With our current space technology we’re talking six to eight months.

To get round the problem of having to carry huge amounts of fuel to power the long journey to Mars – the Aldrin-Cycler spacecraft would use the gravitational orbit of earth and Mars to help keep a vessel on a continual orbit between the two planets.

Earth bound astronauts would then only need a rocket to leave Earth and join the Aldrin Cycler on which they are hitching a ride. Once the Cycler gets near to Mars they would then use their rocket to jump off and make a relatively small journey down to the Red Planet.

The Cycler relies on the right alignment of planets, so it couldn’t be used on a whim. And it would still take more than 5 months to get to Mars – nuclear propulsion –  which in theory uses a series of nuclear explosions to create thrust – could be much faster at around 30 days.  The Florida Institute of Technology, in the United States is working with Buzz to develop his ideas.

His idea, he says, is being taken seriously but I asked him whether it felt rather old fashioned to worry about putting people on Mars when robots could do the job as well. Wasn’t this idea a but stuck in the philosophy of the Apollo missions of old.

Not old fashioned and not silly, he says. Buzz talked about how we already built 2 Mars Rovers. In the space of 5 years he says they did the work  that an astronaut could have done in 1 week. Humans are still better than machines.

As Buzz’s family and assistants start looking like they need to move him to his next engagement, I asked how confident he was we would eventually land a person on Mars.

Getting there is the easy part, he says. It’s getting back that might be more difficult. With that he was rushed off to meet a party of school children at the Science Museum’s space exhibition.  With that, Buzz and his leather jacket bobs off into the distance followed by a comet-like tail of fans, family and advisors.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Second Life

Dame Ellen McArthur

Dame Ellen MacArthur wants to change the world. She became famous for breaking the world sailing record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. The boat she did it in was a little shorter than a tennis court. The circumnavigation took her 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes 33 seconds.

When you are alone in a boat in the middle of the ocean you have to be independent. The resources you carry with you are all you have. There is no popping to the shop to refresh supplies. So you fix, re-use and re-cycle as much as you can.

That make-do approach is the philosophical driving force behind a charity she founded when she hit shore, it’s called the Circular Economy Foundation.

The Foundation believes the take, make and dispose society, is no longer sustainable. It believes there is a new way of designing the world and the things we produce in it.  It believes everything should have a second chance – a second life, if not a third and a fourth.

On the morning I’m due to meet her, I wake up to the old world clatter of a big lorry and men at work. The men who pick up the recycling rubbish at my house come later than the men who pick up the throw away rubbish – so on a Monday you get a double loud visit of banging bins, hydraulic crushers and big engines.

I’m careful about what I buy and I certainly believe I’m a conscientious consumer and yet each week the pavement outside my house testifies to the amount of stuff I throw away.

I’m not alone. The world produces a lot of things. Global use of raw materials, from energy to minerals and metals will reach 140 billion tonnes a year by 2050, three times what it was in 2000[1] and so much of it is thrown away.

I was due to meet Dame Ellen at the Royal Thames Yacht Club overlooking Hyde Park. Much of the crew’s early morning preparations are trying to get the builders next door to agree to stop banging for half an hour during the interview and thoughts about whether I should keep calling her Dame Ellen. I think it sounds much too formal but I don’t want to be disrespectful so I try a strategy of not mentioning her name very much at all and just smiling a lot.

Dame Ellen is not at all formal, even in the rather old world atmosphere of the Yacht Club. In fact, we get chatting about a school we both know where she came to give a speech. The school were clearly expecting a much more traditional kind of Dame. But this particular one came in jeans. She was helpfully told by the Head they had a room in which she could change into something more formal. The only problem being – she didn’t have anything – she came dressed as she was.

Her casual, friendly approach should not be mistaken for any lack of seriousness in the task she thinks lies ahead of us.

“We’re in a world where we need answers.” She tell me. Today our economy is predominantly linear. That is to say that we take a material out of the ground, we make something out of it, and then ultimately at the end of its life that product gets thrown away.”

Within a circular economy, you build an economy which is cyclical rather than linear in nature. So by design that product is provided in a way that enables it to be remanufactured, enables it to be disassembled, enables components to be recovered.

She says he approach is “based on hard economics. We live in a world that has more volatility in raw material prices than we’ve ever seen before in history. We’ve got three billion new middle class consumers entering the global marketplace. We have a growing population. We have finite resources. We’re using them more and more quickly. The moment you go circular, you unlock a different form of growth. A form of growth that keeps products, components and materials within and at the highest value and utility at all times.

And that is driven by hard economics and it’s driven by profit for business. And all of that is decoupled from those resource constraints.”

There was no way I was going to attempt a circumnavigation of the world to test her approach but I was prepared to take a budget flight to The Netherlands to see how it was operating in practice.

I arrived at the trendy offices of a company called Fairphone in a converted warehouse loft in Amsterdam, which has developed a smart phone which share the principals of the circular economy.

Adam Shaw with Bas van Abel the CEO of Fairphone in Amsterdam

Rather than just throwing it away each time there’s a model update, this company has designed the product so each element can be replaced. If you want to upgrade the camera or the speaker, you don’t need a new phone, you just pop in a new element.

The CEO, Bas van Abel offers me his phone and says I am welcome to pull it apart. I can open the back and take all the elements out, dismantle the electronics and pop out the camera. It might make for good TV I say, but I tell him I once tried to replace the element in my toaster and ended up destroying the device and had myself a mini breakdown and I didn’t think he should trust me with his phone.

Phone

The point he says is that they’ve made an architecture on the phone that people can actually replace the parts themselves. He’s confident I won’t break anything. True enough I dismantle the phone and can put it back together.

The phones are not cheap – they cost around 500 euros and they want to compete with the best of Apple and Samsung.

There is also something curious that happens when you fix something yourself or when you upgrade your own handset. Van Abel says “If you repair something, you start to love that thing more. And you start knowing the stories behind it. And I think that is also an important aspect, a psychological aspect of people wanting to use that phone longer.”

There is even a message on the home page of the phone reminding you how long you have had it. Many companies might want this reminder to jog you into an expensive upgrade. Fairphone believes it reminds you how proud you should be to have kept the phone so long.

The notion of recycle and re-use is being investigated by many different organisations around the world. Another is the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in the U.S.A. I visited their labs to meet Professor Marion Emmert who is helping pioneer a new industry of Urban Mining.

The idea is that we are surrounded by precious metals and materials that are imbedded in the products we often throw away. Rather than dig down deep into the earth to find new metals – we could mine them form the products we already have around us but no longer find useful. In particular, this urban mining approach could be useful in re-using rare earth metals.

They are the seventeen rare earth elements or metals. Our need for them is escalating, yet our ability to source them is limited.  These vital elements are increasingly needed in electric cars, mobile phones, even medical imaging devices, because they’re good at conducting electricity.

At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Professor Marion Emmert has developed new ways to extract them.

With the help of her students and colleague, Professor Emmert is taking old motors, demagnetizing the elements and shredding the metals.  They add diluted acid which dissolves the material which contains the rare earths. They then selectively precipitate the rare earths to isolate them ready for re-use.

At the moment it’s about 20 percent more expensive to get the material from this process than digging it out of the earth. But Professor Emmert says they are actually in negotiations with several companies thinking about how they can scale it up and make it really commercially feasible.

Marion Emmert and Adam

Professor Emmert let me have a go. She’s a stickler for safety and I have to wear two pairs of glasses – my own and some safety glasses on top – which makes me look like a dotty professor but ensures my eyes safety from all the acid I’m using. After s fairly simple set of processes I manage to extract some rare earth metals from a small electric defunct motor which would otherwise have been thrown away.

I’ve seen examples of the way industry could change to benefit the planet and even help economics. From phones in The Netherlands to Motors in the USA – we are seeing the development of new ways to imaging the way industry can work.

Let’s not pretend that is about to suddenly change the way we live. My rubbish bags remain full – despite my best efforts to cut down on waste. But serious thought and research effort is starting to be focused on a way of re-imaging the world.

A sailor’s journey around the world may well end up helping to change it.

 

Footnotes:________________________________________________________

[1] http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/50244/publications/Poster3-Decoupling-FinalScreen.pdf http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/50244/press%20release/Decoupling%202%20Press%20Release%20English.pdf

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Abundant World?

Voila_Capture 2016-05-13_11-23-21_am

As the world’s population grows and gets richer, so is demand on the world’s resources. If we’re going to supply enough food, clean water and energy for millions more people, we are going to have to re-think a lot of our approaches to industry and technology.

So I’ve come to a place where they are trying to re-imagine the world. It is the Singularity University based at the NASA Ames campus in California. I’ve come to meet Peter Diamandis who along with Ray Kurzweil founded the University which aims to help people think differently about the world and how it can be shaped by a new era of technology.

Peter and Ray have a long list of honours and achievements. Ray is Director of Engineering at Google but he also invented the world’s first CCD Flat Bed Scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano. Peter Diamandis is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the X Prize. The prize was created to run a $10 million competition to create private passenger-carrying space craft. It’s now a foundation with many prizes to encourage technological innovation in lots of different fields.

The Singularity university is the focus of some serious attention by some very serious minded organisation and is supported by Google and Cisco amongst others.

We set up filming in one of the University Labs next door to a lecture theatre in which Peter Diamandis was presenting to a group of business leaders. He is a man in demand. He ran in for our interview between a number of meetings and whilst we took some publicity shots, he was also continuing a meeting with someone who had followed him from the lecture.

Peter is a man who likes to paint big and bold pictures of the future. His best-selling book called ‘Abundance-The Future Is Better Than You Think’ encourages its readers to think differently about the world – to think of it as a world of plenty. He believes technology is taking what used to be scarce and is making it abundant. His Book called ‘Bold’ drawers parallels between the modern world and the one which saw the end of the dinosaurs. Just as an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth and made way for small furry mammals, a new wave of planetary disruptions is about to occur., he says. This new asteroid is called “exponential technology.” Peter’s view is that this tech astroid is going to wipe out industries in a similar manner to the rock which fell on Earth during the Cretaceous Period. It will create a new era of opportunity and abundance.

Such optimistic visions of the future make me sceptical. In a world where millions suffer from basic shortages and regular crisis, his is certainly a revolutionary notion but it’s one he is convinced of.

Take knowledge for example, Peter says “The President of the US 20 years ago and a kid on the streets of Mumbai with a smart phone today – have access to the same level of knowledge and expertise.” Technology, he believes, has made knowledge abundant. It has democratised information.

But it’s not just Google searches which are now available to everyone. Peter also says “We used to think of energy as being scarce. But technology is driving new revolutions. Solar cells are becoming ubiquitous. Oil used to be available in just a few places but now technology is allowing us to go 5,000 feet below the ocean surface to find more and more.”

Peter is certainly an engaging character. He speaks with enthusiasm and commitment and he is taken seriously by a large number of people and businesses.

But the notion of us all living in an abundant world still jars with what I see on my travels. In many ways I think his view is a First World view of problems. Millions of people in the developing world don’t experience abundance at all. They are time poor, money poor, energy poor and food poor. The abundant world Peter describes is not the experience of their lives.

I put those concerns to Peter but he believes things are changing. He says in Africa a billion people will soon have access to cell phones which gives them access to the world’s knowledge. Yes in comparison to the rest of the world they are still poor, but the world is being transformed by these devices, he says and that change is coming to the poor as well as the rich,

He believes that technology is changing the nature of the world to “create abundance at scale”. The number of people solving problems is exploding and the tools they have to help solve these problems – is also exploding.

On our travels around the world for this series of Horizons, we have certainly seen an explosion of ideas aimed at tackling the world’s biggest problems. Whilst many of these ideas are coming from the globe’s biggest corporations, big business doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. Many of the most interesting ideas come from unusual and unheard of businesses,

Petra Wadstron is the CEO of a company called Solvatten which my colleague on Horizons – Alex Forrest visited in Sweden. Petra and her company are trying to solve the problem of unclean and dangerous water supplies which blight the lives of millions in the poorer parts of the world.

She has invented a water carrier that sits in the sun and absorbs light to power a filtration process that can take dirty river water and turn it into something safe to drink. The solar powered system breaks down the cell membrane around potentially dangerous micro-organisms. The UV destroys the bindings in the DNA and makes the water safe from bacteria, virus and parasites. It also creates hot water of up to 75 degrees – meaning it can provide warm showers and baths to those who have no powered heating water systems. Her Solvatten system is already being used by 40,000 families with hopes it could expand to millions more.

The system costs around $100 a unit but it lasts for up to 10 years. One of its users is Nancy Wamaitha Njuguna. She spoke to us on the bank of a river in Kenya where she scoops up water for her family. The system, she says, is changing her life. She used to go for firewood several times a week to heat up her water. She also used to have to pay out of a very limited wage for typhoid treatment for her family- something she no longer has to do.

Voila_Capture 2016-05-13_11-33-02_am

Petra points to examples like those of Nancy and her family and says this is not just about a technology solving a practical problem, it’s about energy and dignity.

In this first programme of the series another colleague of mine on Horizons  -Sharanjit Leyl, saw how in Singapore technology is coming to the rescue of food scarcity. Due to a shortage of land in this city state, almost all of its fresh vegetable has to be imported. Only 7% of fresh vegetables is grown there. The city state wants to improve its food sustainability by producing more locally.

Jack Ng has taken farming to new heights by creating Sky Green. It’s a farm in a building in which tiers of food are in motion to the top of the building and down again – regulating the light they get. It produces 1 tonne of vegetables a day. It’s part of a worldwide investigation we have seen in many countries to try to re-imagine the world of farming – making it more efficient, more sustainable and producing food closer to the markets and people that consume the product.

There are certainly examples of the kind of innovation that Peter Diamandis thinks will change the world. Some of the ideas you will see in this series of Horizons have taken billions of dollars to create and have involved the support of some of the world’s biggest companies and countries. Some have been created by individuals with few resources other than a big idea, optimism and drive.

We are living in an age of innovation where technology is driving change at an unprecedented pace. However millions do not live in a world of abundance. Millions risk their lives travelling away from disasters, uncertainty, insecurity and shortages to find a life where these things do not exist. But Peter Diamandis says: “When I think about creating abundance, it’s not about creating a life of luxury for everybody on this planet; it’s about creating a life of possibility.”

Investigating the world of possibilities is certainly what Horizons is all about. I hope you enjoy the series.

You can follow our exploits at @adamshawbiz and @horizonsbiz

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Horizons

SAVING LIVES

It was a bit like a boy band gig gone wrong. The boy was on stage, the largely female American audience were on their feet, there was much clapping and wooping, but the women doing the wooping were in their 30s and 40s, far older than the normal boy band fan group.

The boy on stage was Jack Andraka and the women in the audience were generally mums who had come to a talented children conference in Baltimore Maryland USA

Despite the nature of the gathering the vibe was very much like a music gig. Jack would speak and the audience would holler their appreciation, stand and applaud and at the end gathered round him for photos.

To add to the rock star image – I was told that Jack was tired from being on the road doing a lot of these kind of gigs and so before he spoke to me, his mother said he would need a short rest. He lay down on the floor between the aisles of chairs and grabbed 40 winks.

Jack Andraka and Me Giving the Thumbs Sign - but I can't remember to what

The fuss around Jack stems not from his music but from an invention of his that, he claims, may be able to spot early signs of cancer. The noise around this possible development is given an extra frisson because Jack is only 18 years old.

He was motivated in his research by the death from pancreatic cancer of a close family friend, which made him feel there must be a way of spotting such cancers early and thereby giving people a chance for more effective treatment.

Andraka said the idea for his pancreatic cancer test came to him while he was in biology class at High School. He then contacted 200 professors at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health with a plan, a budget, and a timeline for his project, hoping to receive laboratory help. He received 199 rejection emails before he got a positive reply from Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology, Oncology, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

It’s the sort of story they might make a film of, indeed to some it sounds a bit too Hollywood-like. Some in the field are not convinced of the effectiveness of his approach. But either way it is an inspiring story that might develop into something very useful.

In our programme on the science of saving lives, his story stands out partly because most of the work in this area take millions if not billions of pounds to develop and is dominated by big industry, big academic institutions and big money. But amongst the big boys of science and medicine, it is good to see a small boy showing that the large institutions may not be the only ones with something to contribute.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Underground Food Movement

 

I am standing on a busy corner in South London. Cars are hooting at each other, people’s heads are down as they walk quickly to an office or home and barely anyone notices a padlocked gate to an off round building set slightly back from the road.

But it is here that a revolution in farming is starting that could help bring agriculture from the leafy countryside right into the heart of our noisy cities.

There is no obvious bell to ring – so I shout and a friendly face pops out from a Portacabin. The face belongs to Steven Dring, who together with Richard Ballard has built a farm 33 metres below street level in the dark and damp tunnels of an old municipal bomb shelter. Their company is called Growing Underground.

We pull open the metal doors to the stairwell and take the long walk down the spiral staircase. It looks like a disused railway station but Steve tells us it was a shelter for VIPs during the war. The locals got annoyed that they couldn’t use it and persuaded the authorities to open it to everyone. However it took so long to build, no one is sure that it was ever actually used.

At the end of one of the tunnels they have constructed a tent in which they can control the lighting, hearing and circulating water supply. To the background sound of the rumbling tube trains which seem to be all around us, they are growing salads for use by restaurants. One of their backers and customers is Michelle Roux Junior – the Michelin starred chef and owner of the restaurant La Gavroche – which sits the other, distinctly more upmarket, part of town.

We have lots of filming to do, Steve says there is a phone linked by cable to the surface, so we can call him if we need to find our way out. With that, he leaves us to our own devices whilst he heads top-side to sell more salad.

We wondered around with the square LED battery light we use for filming and occasionally turn it on under me face to add to the ghoulish feel of the place. It wasn’t long before we got lost. Every tunnel looked the same. Endless damp tubes seemingly leading to no-where.

Getting lost was funny then it was worrying. I can get lost when I’m in central London and can jump on a bus to get me home – so down here with no obvious way out – it was clear I should never have gone far from the phone connection to the surface.

The crew were more confident of finding our way back and did eventually get us back to the tunnel being used to grow salad. I picked up the phone to say we could do with a guide to find our way back to the exit stairs – only to find that wasn’t working.
Well at least we wouldn’t starve. We had a tunnel full of salad to keep us going until someone noticed we were missing.

This underground farm is a curious world within a world. A world of opposites – dark, damp and un-light brick tunnels hosting a brightly light tent, smelling of fresh herbs and the sound of filtered water being pumped round.

But this underground farm isn’t meant to be just a novelty. Food miles accounts for a huge amount of wasted energy in the food industry. Transporting food from farm to fork involves a lot of transportation, packaging, pollution and waste. Bringing food production nearer to where it is consumed can help dramatically cut the waste and pollution.

The company I’m visiting, claims its food can be picked and in a kitchen within 4 hours of being picked and packed. By using the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology, their crops can be grown year-round in the perfect, pesticide-free environment.

Because it has total control over their environment, they can create a consistency that helps quality control.

Their hydroponics system, they say, uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, and because all the nutrients are kept within the closed-loop system they say they run no risk of contributing to agricultural run-off.

Bringing food production closer to the market is serves is an appealing notion. Whether it can be a significant contribution to world agriculture, is another matter. But who knows, maybe one day the cities will be home to hundred of underground farms where city inhabitants need only reach below their feet to pluck a carrot and a nice sprig of rosemary.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Rise of The Robot Surgeon

The robot Surgeon is a phrase, which conjures up a clinical foreign future. But it’s wrong to think of it like that for a couple of reason.

Firstly it’s not really the future; it’s already with us. Secondly, the surgeon is no more robotic than they are now – but the tools they are using are becoming more advanced and robotic-like.

To understand the future of surgery I went to a low-rise building just off one of the main roads in Sunnyvale California. The town is home to the headquarters of Yahoo and sits in the centre of the high-tech Silicon Valley. That’s no coincidence – this is a technology company as much as it is a medical one.

Globally the market for medical robots and devices is growing. It’s already worth more than five billion dollars – and is set to be worth nearly 14 billion dollars by 2018. [1]

The company I was visiting creates a robotic surgery technology called the Da Vinci system.

Da Vinci robots operate in hospitals worldwide, with an estimated 200,000 surgeries conducted in 2012, most commonly for hysterectomies and prostrate removals.[2]

However the Da Vinci robot is thought to cost around $2 million- so while the technology is around – it’s not around much as cost prohibits its widespread use.[3] At least the Da Vinci machines cost a lot less than many of the real Da Vinci paintings.

The Da Vinci robots look a little like the robots that build many cars. Articulated arms swivel from a central joint. However there is no welding going on here, it’s a much more precise kind of operation.

To see how precise, I was allowed into their training facility to become surgeon for the day.

No patients were harmed in the making of this film and so I was operating on a tiny display of rubber bands and rubberised sticks. They were only a few centimetres high and my job was to pick up the tiny rubber band and hook it over the tiny stick.

The surgeon, or me, sits across the room from the patient and looks through a video panel at a display, which is magnified many times. I controlled the robotic arms via a few joysticks and foot pedals which allowed me to turned my large imprecise hand movements into very controlled small movements around the rubber bands.

It takes about half an hour to get the basic feel for it – and by then I was getting so confident I felt I could really have a go at a patient. There were no volunteers amongst the crew though so I stuck with the rubber bands.

Technology likes this of course enables surgeons to conduct very precise surgery. But it seems to me the full advantages haven’t quite been reached.

I was sitting just a few feet away from the operating table – but there is no real reason why I couldn’t have been sitting at home controlling the operation thousands of miles away in California.

If that happens, it would open a future in which patients around the world could benefit from surgical skills, not of robots but of human surgeons in different countries, delivered to them by robotic arms but very much dependent on a human surgeon’s skill. That, I think is the real future of the robotic surgeon and his very human skills.

 

[1] http://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/medical-robotic-systems.html

[2] Babbage Science and technology (18 January 2012). “Surgical robots: The kindness of strangers”. The Economist. Retrieved 21 February 2013.

[3] “The Slow Rise of the Robot Surgeon”. MIT Technology Review. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2013.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rubbing Along – The Secret of Power

In the last 40 years we have more than doubled the amount of energy we use.[1] In the last 95 years petrol consumption in the US has risen by more than 1200%.[2]

We have long since lived in an age of energy dependency. People power very few things and almost everything we need to do: work, travel, build and entertain ourselves is now reliant on energy generation. Even the simple act of writing is now largely computer based and reliant on electricity.

The future of energy generation and supply is one of those fundamental forces that will shape our societies.

In search of what that future will be, I went to see both one of the most important men in the global industry and someone who at the moment – few will have heard of – but may be hearing more about in the future.

I began on the South Bank of the Thames in London at the headquarters of one of the most influential energy companies in the world to speak to their boss. I had come to Shell headquarters to meet the chief executive Ben van Beurden.

In a very open and honest conversation he talked about the failure of the industry to get engaged with the energy debate. He also believes society does not recognise the role that energy plays. He thinks that the global industry has now to invest $2 trillion a year or £150m every 2 hours to try and create an energy system to fuel the 21st century.

In a world in which, he says, energy demand will double in the first half of this century he claims we can’t image the scale of innovation that will be needed to safely fuel the energy hungry planet.

Well imaging the future is what the Horizons series is all about – so we took that challenge from one of the biggest names in the global energy business and went to see how it is being answered by a professor in China who few outside his specialised area will have heard of, but who is working to create a technology which might go some way to the re-imagining being called for by Ben van Beurden.

In the regularly smog filled capital of China, I went to Chinese Academy of Science to meet Professor Zhong Lin Wang.

He and his team are working on a form of electricity generation called Tribo Electricity. The word comes from the Greek word Tribein meaning To Rub.

Sitting in his laboratory he wanted to show me how he could create electricity. He showed me a piece of copper and a piece of plastic and rubbed them together. Nothing at all happened. In the grand scheme of scientific demonstrations it didn’t rank very highly. Or so I thought at first.

Although I wasn’t able to see anything – something dramatic had happened. At a microscopic level, the pure action of rubbing these two materials together had caused electrons to pass from one to the other. It has also caused a positive and a negative charge. The action of running them together and pulling them apart had created the tiniest electric current.

This Nano electricity generation wasn’t in itself going to change the world but what if we all wore generating materials in our clothes – of if our shoes hitting the streets or shopping mall walkways, could create a small charge. The millions of feet that pound city street or shopping centres would suddenly create quite significant bits of electricity. One square meter of his material, he said, would be enough to power an oven to cook my dinner.

His team of students showed me how you could generate electricity by imbedding the materials in a computer mouse – so every time I clicked I created electricity. They imbedded them in doormats and perhaps more significantly, showed how you could create huge amounts of energy by putting floating balls in the sea and generate power every time the waves bounced the balls off each other.

Professor Wang claimed a 200km by 100km stretch of sea would be enough to generate the same electricity as created by the controversial 3 Gorges Dam in china.

The professor believes this is exactly the sort of innovation that could change the world. You haven’t heard of it yet, he said, but he’s only been working on the project for 4 years and is still trying to persuade the government and investors that this has potential. This energy revolution, he says, is only just beginning.

[1] Source: IEA – Key World Energy Statistics, as per 2014. Source in Wikipedia.

[2] US Energy Information Administration at http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=10

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized