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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

03.02.2017
Twenty years ago, genetic modification was a big issue across Europe. A single large, US-based multinational, Monsanto, had successfully tweaked soy bean plants to be tolerant to its ubiquitous herbicide, Roundup (brand name for glyphosate), found that American farmers were eager to save costs by growing Roundup Ready varieties, and saw no reason why European consumers should have any concerns about GM soy turning up on ingredient lists on supermarket shelves. How wrong they were. It turned out that consumers needed little prompting to be concerned about potential dangers lurking in their...
27.01.2017
A decade or so ago, cars of the future were to be electric, powered either by batteries or by fuel cells, using hydrogen. Major car manufacturers produced hydrogen-fuelled demonstration models, some hydrogen-powered buses were put into service and a handful of hydrogen filling stations were built. More recently, however, it seemed that batteries had won the race to provide motive power for the next generation of vehicles, as technology evolved and range became more respectable. But that doesn’t mean that the alternative technology doesn’t still have its supporters. One is Toyota, the world’s...
20.01.2017
Today sees the inauguration of America’s 45th President, Donald Trump. Before November 11, few people expected to hear those words, and a good number of people apparently still refuse to accept the fact. A series of protests are planned on inauguration day, but that is the sign of a free and democratic society. No matter how unpopular President Trump with some groups, he will be in office for the next four years and even opponents will have to live with that. The real question is what he can achieve in that time. Inevitably, political leaders cannot do everything they intend to or all their...
13.01.2017
Two common sources of renewable energy – wind and solar – are non-despatchable. That is, they do not necessarily provide a useful output when it is needed (on the other hand, they can be productive when the electricity is not needed). This is not necessarily the case for all renewables; biomass is an exception, but its use on a large scale is controversial and it has limited potential. Hydroelectricity falls somewhere between the two. In the right circumstances, it is fully despatchable, but only while there is sufficient water left in the reservoir to drive the turbines. Two other sources of...
06.01.2017
Apart from not having to go to work, the great thing about the Christmas and New Year holiday is that pretty much everyone else is away as well. That means coming back to a (relatively) clear desk, without new things having piled up as they tend to when we are away from our desks any other time of the year. There is an inevitable settling-in period of a few days at the beginning of January as we get up to speed and try to remember why certain things seemed so important in December. This break in the normal routine also gives us an opportunity to take a step back and look at important issues...
09.12.2016
Air pollution is a high-profile issue. Half a century ago, coal was still the main source of domestic heat and electricity. City buildings were covered in a permanent layer of soot deposited from the air, the rest being breathed in by residents and workers. In London, the Great Smog of 1952 was but the worst of a pattern of such events, but it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956. Since then, air quality in the UK capital and other major cities in the developed world has improved enormously, but pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone, as well as microscopic particles (PM2.5...
06.12.2016
2016 has turned out to be quite a year politically. The move towards what is loosely referred to as ‘populism’, evident in the surprise (to some) referendum vote for Brexit, the even more surprising (to some) election of Donald Trump as US president and the less-surprising rejection of Matteo Renzi’s attempt at Italian constitutional reform, seems set to continue. This may have far-reaching consequences for society and political priorities. The old categories of Left and Right have to a large extent been turned on their heads. The British Labour Party, set up to champion the rights of the...
02.12.2016
As average life expectancy continues to increase and everyday life for most people in the developed world is safer than it has ever been, the pressure to eliminate remaining hazards has not abated. Now that infectious diseases are no longer the mass killers they were, our expectations of a safe and healthy life have grown. For example, we have seen stepwise tightening of the EU regulatory system for plant protection products (or pesticides as most people will continue to call them). While undoubtedly done with the best of intentions, there has never been any evidence that the group exposed to...
25.11.2016
A decade ago, we were all being encouraged to buy diesel cars to reduce CO2 emissions. More recently, reports of the health toll caused by urban air pollution – much of it down to older generations of diesel engines – together with VW’s infamous ‘dieselgate’ scandal, seemed to mean that the days of diesel were numbered. But perhaps we should think again. A Bloomberg story this week suggests that Tesla shock means global gasoline demand has all but peaked. The basis of the headline comes from the latest report on the future demand for energy: “The International Energy Agency forecasts that...
18.11.2016
In a recent posting, McKinsey offered some thoughts on how global energy use will develop up to mid-century (Energy 2050: Insights from the ground up). They used available data and historical trends to model patterns of use based on a business-as-usual scenario, that is, with no major changes to technology or trends in energy use or efficiency. As for any projection forward for several decades, the only thing we know for certain is that this will be wrong, but at least we can get at flavour of what steady progress would result in, ignoring the inevitable unforeseen factors and events. The...

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