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Sun, 16th Sep 2012

How can chemistry contribute to human wellbeing?

Aaron Page

Aaron Page is a sixth form student at Highcliffe School in Dorset. He won the Academy Excellence Awards, chemistry essay category, with this submission...

When thinking about how today’s chemistry can help solve tomorrow’s problems, we must face the horizon with open eyes and careful hands. We can craft tomorrow with the tools we have today, whilst repairing the chaos we created yesterday. Considering a future shaped by the chemical technologies of today is no straightforward task, but I believe the best way in which I can do this to describe to you a future day. This will demonstrate how we can continue to use chemistry to advance our wellbeing on a personal, community, national and even a planetary level.

A peek at the possibilities of the year 2050

Waking from a dream could be the only thing that would compare with waking up in an age almost unrecognisable from the one you lived in 40 years ago.

Hydrogen CarOpening your eyes, after yet another perfect night’s sleep, the silence is strange. No longer do you hear the unpleasant roar of engines and barbaric machines, though you still live where you always have, just east of the A21. What's changed is that the monstrously noisy vehicles of yester-year have evolved into quiet, sophisticated pieces of apparatus powered by noiseless hydrogen fuel cells. In these cells, hydrogen is pumped into a reacting chamber along with oxygen from the air. The hydrogen and oxygen react to create only one end product: water. This is possibly the cleanest form of energy, achievable due to the use of ice storage canisters that can hold hydrogen at a respectable density of 3.8% [1]. This means no high pressures or temperatures are needed to reach the required density, keeping prices down. Warm in your bed, you find it hard to understand how you managed to sleep with the constant discord of fossil-fuelled traffic.

Getting out of bed, you go to take a shower. The soft stroke of the warm water slowly caresses your skin. All this hot water you are using would once have cost a fortune, but now the use of solar thermal panels means it’s all completely free. Even now the water flowing endlessly down the plug is causing nanogenerators to move, creating a small electrical current [2]. Your home system of nanogenerators isn’t nearly as powerful as the hydroelectric generators now used in streams, rivers and out at sea, but together they generate enough power for your first cup of tea. Nanogenerators work by placing tiny, piezoelectric wires onto flexible substrates, with the ends of the wire in contact with a gold film electrode. The movement from the environment, such as flowing water, causes the nanowires to compress, making electrons flow towards the gold conductor. With successive compressions an electrical current is produced. This simple system helps to recapture some of the energy you would otherwise waste.

Leaving the shower, there is a subtle smile upon your face as you realise you are now living completely ‘carbon neutral’. Nature calls before you are able to go down stairs to turn the kettle on, and you take a place upon the toilet. Whilst sitting there you contemplate how your waste will be used to create either fertilisers or biofuels [3]. As a biofuel, waste will be used at nearby power plants to create electricity. Though initially the concept of using your own waste to help make power for everyone seemed strange, it had a powerful effect on the cost of energy. Prices were kept reasonable whilst making no difference to your daily routine.

After using your hydrogen cooker to make yourself breakfast you head out to your car to go to work. After turning on your car you realise that you are running low on hydrogen, so you stop off at a refuelling station on your way to work. The station takes the waste product of water, and puts it under the reverse reaction of electrolysis. By sending electricity through it they are able to make hydrogen and oxygen again. As this full process takes some time the water is simply drained out of your car first and fresh hydrogen is pumped into the tank. Both of these processes require energy to move the concentration gradients past the equilibrium; this must be done to reach the maximum hydrogen density in the hydrogen fuel cell. The energy for this comes from the roads you have just been driving on; energy from the sun’s rays and friction with tyres can be harvested to heat up water to turn steam turbines. This, combined with solar power cells [4], generates enough power for this refuelling process.

You leave the refuelling point and continue on your way to work. Even inside your car the sound of your engine is but a whisper in the breeze. However, this is shattered as you pass the local airport and hear the loud roar of an aeroplane engine preparing to take off. Though technology has moved on, using hydrogen based engines at higher altitudes has possible safety implications, as the hydrogen would need higher safety activation energy and so is harder to control. Instead, algae farms out at sea have been set up to generate organic material for biofuels efficiently, without encroaching on agricultural land [5,6].

As you near your place of work you notice the new LED (light emitting diode) street lamps, which are powered by a nuclear fusion reactor that also provides power to all homes in the country. Nuclear fusion is a process that happens naturally in stars; the nuclei of atoms are forced together to form a new heavier nucleus which releases huge amounts of energy, enough power to operate all the fixed devices in the country. Unlike the old nuclear fission that was still in use at the beginning of the century, the 2050 alternative of nuclear fusion produces no radioactive waste products that need to be very carefully disposed of.

Arriving at work you know that you could never go back to life as it used to be, with the pollution, economic inflation due to oil prices, and the serious issue of global warming.

So what does this look into the future prove?

My look into the future shows that the chemistry of today already has the potential to do most of these things; hydrogen cars are currently being developed, and universities all over the world are researching how to make algae biofuel farms viable. Perhaps most excitingly of all, the future may also be able to offer us the ultimate source of power, nuclear fusion. Realistically, it would be very difficult and expensive to replace our current infrastructure which is heavily centred around fossil fuels with one single alternative, nuclear fission. But in the future, we are going to have to make use of every source of power we have available to us, and make them work around our current infrastructure.

The fact is, we will never be able to eliminate our need for hydrocarbons fully because they are needed to make plastics and certain medicines. But we need to tackle our addiction to fossil fuels, so that we can continue to use them for the most important applications, and use alternatives wherever possible. We are quickly running out of fossil fuels, and they will not be able to fulfil our high demands for much longer. However, research has shown that crude oil can be derived from pig and cow manure is exposed to high pressures [6]. Still, the race to create a better source of power continues, and may well continue until the point that we can perform safe nuclear fusion on earth...

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