Politicians and eminent businessmen are at last beginning to take the approaching age of climate change and energy insecurity seriously. High time too.
In the past, surges in the price of oil have usually been occasioned by short-term interruptions in supply, as for instance in 1973 or 1979, because of the endemic crises of the Middle East. That source of trouble is not necessarily going to disappear, but it has been joined by a far more certain long-term reason for steadily rising prices: an inevitably increasing level of demand. And that in turn is because of the economic growth rate of not only China and India, but many other societies of what we used to call the Third World.
The world is putting on population at a very rapid rate, despite the massacres and the pandemics. By the middle of the century, China and India together will run to about three billion people, and the rest of Asia to another billion. So Australia will have about 4,000 million Asian neighbours.
Most of the people of those societies will still be quite poor, but their economic growth rates will mostly be faster than those in the West, and they will be creating middle classes able to buy life’s little luxuries, like cars and foreign travel. So the pressure on the world’s resources, especially energy resources like oil and gas, will be rising fast. And so will the level of pollution.
The reaction to the resulting prospective future oil shortage, all over world, has been, obviously, a renewed interest in the advantages of nuclear power, which undoubtedly has the merit of somewhat reducing the otherwise inevitable rise in greenhouse gases and thus perhaps delaying the dangers of global warming.
I have no doubt that those dangers are real and serious, for Australia among other countries, and that therefore a cost-benefit analysis of the case for following that pathway is necessary. But there is a better case for exploring also an alternative pathway on which Australia could be much more important as a pioneer: hydrogen as a source not only of fuel for cars but for power-generation as well.
My suggested model of the Manhattan Project (which delivered the atom bombs which precipitated the surrender of Japan in World War II) is that, in both cases, the scientific principles which underlay the technology were quite well-known, but the technology itself was exceedingly complex. Nevertheless, an intense research effort delivered in four years the required result. And perhaps it could again.
One major advantage of hydrogen as a fuel is that it is non-polluting: the only by-product is water. Nothing could be more ideal in our present circumstances than a process which produces only electricity and water, especially as it is based on a substance, hydrogen, which is literally infinite, being the most abundant element in the universe. Moreover, it can be generated from resources which are universally available, including water and every sort of hydrocarbon. So, unlike uranium, there are no prospective problems of either long-term waste storage or depletion.
But its decisive advantage over nuclear power is in the fields of strategy and diplomacy. If the world takes to nuclear power generation in a big way, most governments, like Iran at present, will want to get into the technology of nuclear enrichment.
For electricity, you only have to enrich uranium to 3 or 4 per cent: for weapons to 90 per cent. But, once you have the centrifuges and know-how for that first small percentage, you are well on the way to the weapons-level capacity. That is why the United States is putting on so much pressure to keep Iran away from that technology. The problem would multiply itself 20-fold if the world in general took to nuclear power.
Hydrogen-based energy is not just an academic pipedream. Some of the smartest entrepreneurs in the biggest businesses in the world are already investing in its prospects. BP has for years been interpreting its acronym as “Beyond Petroleum”, and is reported to be building a hydrogen-fuelled power station in Scotland. Shell now has a hydrogen division. General Motors (US) has a hydrogen-fuelled “concept car” which does away with engine and transmission as we know them: its wheels are driven by four little electric motors, and its body can be any kind the customer wants.
Even the US Congress is beginning to get in on the act: the House of Representatives has voted (416 to 6) for prizes totalling $52 million over 10 years for advances in “production, storage, distribution or utilisation” of hydrogen, or $4 million for breakthroughs in hydrogen-powered vehicles. (Australian physicists please note: a bright idea could make you a fortune.)