The Future of Renewable Energy


I'm gonna talk about scale today. Scale from the very large, our universe, and everything around it. And I'm also going to look at the very, very small; all the building blocks that made the universe. Because, you see, a few years ago we reached a milestone. A milestone where seven billion of us are now living on this earth, and we use one and a half Earth's worth of resources to be able to provide us what we need. In thirty years, we'll be using two and a half worlds' resources to provide what we need. And the last time I checked, there's only one of those. This is a difficult concept to think about. Seven billion of us! How do you think of seven billion people? If they're in the line in front of us, behind us, on top of me, down below, all seven billion of us will fit in a cube, a cubic mile. One mile deep, one mile wide, one mile high. A cubic mile.

Seven billion of us will use three and a half cubic miles of energy to sustain our lives. Now, we get these three and a half cubic miles, one from oil. We get one from coal, a little bit from natural gas, a little bit less from hydro, bit of nuclear, bit of burning wood. Three and a half cubic miles. We get almost nothing from renewables. Let's not forget, 35 years from now, we'll be needing seven cubic miles. And the question we should all be asking: that next three and a half cubic miles, where are we gonna get it from? Now, we can do more of the same, and burn up our environment, as we do so, that's an option. Or we can try and get it by adding… cubic mile at a time, we could decide, well, let's build a hydro plant. We're gonna have to build a hydro plant, one every quarter for 50 years. We're gonna have to think about nuclear, we could do that, one a week, every week, for next 50 years.

We could do it from solar panels, we could do it from windmills, we could put 250,000 panels on homes every day for the next 50 years to get one cubic mile. Three and a half more cubic miles. Oh, my goodness! Seems impossible. We faced impossible circumstances before. Back a little turn of the last century, if you looked at London, London had horses everywhere. It had 11,000 cabs, it had 50,000 buses. Each bus was being pulled by 12 horses. Such that, wherever you looked in London, it was seething with horse-drawn carriages. Of course, we know horses produce something else. That something else is waste. 12 soccer balls a day from every single horse, such that the streets of London were covered with this stuff. A commentator writing in the London Times at that moment said, "In 50 years, the whole of London, the whole of New York, and every major city in Europe, would be covered in nine feet of waste." It appeared, humanity was doomed.

But of course, we know it wasn't, because somebody invented the car. We're facing a similar kind of doomsday. Buckling under the weight of seven billion of us, well, soon to be ten billion of us, that appears impossible to solve. Now, for many years, we've been told that space is expanding and it's expanding outwards, but at some point, it's gonna stop. Gravity is gonna get hold, and it's going to put us all back, and that'll be some Friday, a few months from now maybe, that space collapses back on itself, and we're squashed into nothingness. That's what we've been taught. Few scientists, recently, looked at this, and actually, when they did the calculation, they found that actually space isn't slowing down, it's speeding up. getting faster and faster as it goes.

This is incredible. This is like picking up an apple and throwing it up, and it keeps on accelerating out there, getting faster as it goes. Now, the implications of this is that it means gravity isn't the dominant force in our neighborhood. And in fact, it's something else, something else that makes up 96% of everything around us. It's completely invisible, we call it dark energy and dark matter. And based on the technology that we have today, we cannot see it, have a hard time even thinking about measuring it, which is something the scientists in the fifties intuitively understood, Richard Feynman. and maybe you go very deep and it looks smaller and smaller, it's only small in dimension. As far as the universe is concerned, it's all encompassing, it's universal.

So, it's a tremendous adventure, yet, apparently important, it's the result of curiosity, it's impossible to stop. "Impossible to stop." This is in the time of the fifties, he'd sitting at an after dinner talk, and he's describing the concept that space isn't actually out there, it's here. He goes on to describe in this talk, how one day… we would be able to take all the Encyclopedia Britannica, and write it on the head of a pin. Anybody at the dinner that night must have thought he was being… absurdly ambitious. But what he was talking about, was being able to get hold of the building blocks of the universe, rearrange them slightly, change their structure, maybe add an atom or take one away. Because what, you see, he intuitively understood, was that if I take the atoms in coal, rearrange them slightly, I get a diamond. So, if a good place we should start looking maybe is in the thing that powers all the stars; hydrogen. And try and do it here, on earth, in a fuel cell, that takes water to turn it into energy, in a cycle that is completely renewable, with 80 to 90% efficiency.

Hydrogen, but, you know, what do we do with hydrogen? We do hydrogen reformation. Fancy word for saying that we take water with methane at 700 degrees to 1,100 degrees Celsius. A very disturbing process, a process that actually makes dirty hydrogen. What we actually want to do, is something that nature does; split water into its constituents. Now, if you want to split water, we are going to do it with electrolysis. And to make water split, we've got to put something in; and we got to put something in, one of which is a catalyst. Now, we can't use carbon. Why can't we use carbon? A very abundant material. We can't use carbon because we have been taught in chemistry at university, that carbon materials are no good for this. The red box – this is from the definitive text by Kim Kinoshita.

In the red box, what it says there is that the over potential we need to have carbon do something… Now, over potential, another fancy word for oomph; oomph to split something. He's saying here, carbon is no good cause you need to put too much oomph in to split. And if you go on to read the second underlined part, what it's saying is you gotta put something else on the carbon, and it says, platinum and palladium. Which is expensive, which is why we do hydrogen reformation and not electrolysis. Now, at the macro scale, mister Kinoshita is absolutely correct. At the nanoscale, he is 100% wrong. Let me show you. Here we have two carbon electrodes. Communal garden carbon. The same carbon that is in your pencil. The carbon electrode on the right, we've changed its structure at the nanoscale. I'm now gonna pass electricity through it.

Focus your eyes, please, on the right hand side. Passing a little bit of current, carbon is now producing high-grade hydrogen. The one on the left, nothing's happening to. Communal garden carbon. Turn up the voltage a little bit, hydrogen is now streaming off. Again, carbon that you have in your pencil, where we've tweaked the structure. It takes quite a lot of oomph, to get normal carbon to start making hydrogen. This should make us question everything that we have been taught about, about catalysis. It also leads our scientists to want to question everything. When we make cement, it's a pretty dirty process, that involves, really, taking down a mountain, breaking it up into powder, taking it out to the job site in a package, adding water, fizz-fizz, turning that same mountain back into something that now looks like a building. As we do this, for every ton of concrete we make today, we release a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere. Concrete making accounts for 5% of the world's CO2 manufacturing. Scientists decided to try and do something different, employing the same kind of thinking I've just shown you, about hydrogen.

And hear what they said was, we make lots of electricity by burning coal, the byproduct of burning coal is fly ash. And what we do with this fly ash, is we put it in the dumb. And that dump, at some point, leaches out, and what's in fly ash… any word ending in "ium", you don't want to drink. But ultimately, it gets into our water supply, and we have to figure out then how to take it out. But if we look at fly ash at the nanoscale, it looks like these little ball bearings, these are aluminum silicates, very hard, and these scientists thought, "What if I could rough up the edges," they call that word functionalization. Rough up the edges, making sticky like Lego box. Could we stick them together and make a super hard concrete? You can. This concrete…

is as strong as other concrete, releases almost no CO2. But it costs 40% more than existing concrete, which is why we don't do it today. So here we have a solution, a solution at arm's length reach, that we don't do cause it's too expensive. And without government support, or government rules and regulations, to encourage the transfer from a polluting economy to a non-polluting, a green economy, we're gonna have solutions like this at arm's length. Nature has a beautiful way though of making us pay attention when we don't want to. 10% of the world's population lives within 50 miles of the sea and will be directly affected by rising sea level. The next 30% are going to be affected by the storms that have greater magnitude that destroy the local environment. We can go build see barriers at $19,000 a square meter. That's one way to solve the problem. If you look at what nature does, nature has lovely reefs, these reefs dissipate 97% of a storm surge.

And we're destroying these as we go. Our scientists, rather than leaving this technology on the bench, wondered, "What would happen if we took sand, and actually roughed up the edges? Could we make a sand dune with the compressive strength of concrete that looked like a sand dune, and be able to create a natural sea barrier?" It is innovation like this the pauses your mind to think of: I must look at the world differently. And that is, how do we give scientists some tools to think of the world differently. You see, we know what all the elements are. And we know, mostly, what one or two of them make, when you mix them together. But if I've gotta go looking for more things out there, 3, 4, 5 combinations, I know virtually nothing about what they make. In fact, I've got a quadrillion possibilities to go through to find the next great thing. Which means, there is innovation just around the corner, that none of us know about, and it's coming. The question is, how can we get there quicker. It takes a long time, mixing a bit of this, a bit of that in the laboratory.

Do a bit of this, find out what it makes, nothing? Let's start all over again. What if we could speed up the process? And so we started to create a database, that we're calling Magenta. Let's say I wanna make a new material that is blue, electrically conducting, and as hard as titanium. We can translate that into a set of equations, and it'll go and tell us, where would you look in the elements to find that combination. Forget everything else, it's irrelevant if you want blue. It'll even come up with the recipe book for you, and model your crystalline structure, all at the end of your fingertips without making a single thing in the lab. Our progress is actually quite good at this point. These are blades, turbine blades, that are uncoated, how quickly they erode. This is the material, titanium alloy, that is used in every jet engine. First crack, looking for five new materials, five in five months, all better than what's being used at the moment.

We feel a tool like this will greatly help our scientific community, go and find things that completely change society. But we've gotta give the right environment for our scientists to want to do this. And this is what's known in the Islamic World. This is… think back to the Golden Age of Islam, this is where we got everything in science; we got our first physicist, our first chemist, we got medicine, anthropology… Everything that we have came out to the Islamic world on which the rest of society was built. So, its home territory for us here. We need, though, also to be able to provide the funding for scientists to want to do this. And funding means that we've also got to think about, sometimes things don't go quite as planned. Most of Science, the world over, is funded by grants, and if you are a scientists 8 or 9 out of 10 of your grants that you apply for are turned down, to get the 1 out of 10.

And if you then start to do the work, and it doesn't quite work out the same way, and if you're actually honest, that it's actually not working out quite the same way, and you put your hand up and say, "It's not quite working." The rest of your funding stops, and you have to go back and start all over the process again, which is crazy given what we're facing. I want you to think back, and I'm gonna take you back in time to between WWI and WWII, we're sitting in a basement lab in London University, and we're sitting opposite Dr. Fleming, who's got mold in a petri dish. And we tell Dr. Fleming, "I want you to make a grant application. I'm so sorry, 9 out of 10 of your grant applications are gonna be turned down." And we gonna say, "What you gonna make?" And he says, "I don't know, it's mold." "How long it's gonna take you?" "Sorry, don't know." "How much money you gonna need?" "Don't know." "How many people you gonna need?" "Don't know." "What might it be?" "Don't know.

" And yet, the story on penicillin was 10 million dollars, 50 scientist, 10 years, and it changed the world. So we've gotta be bold, we've got to embrace the desire to do things that change tomorrow, today. Does that mean we gotta find the one or two exceptional people that are out there? As Ken Robinson would say, they're not actually that hard find. When we were in kindergarten, we all had the ability to think like that, all of us in this room. Remember when your cardboard box was a spacecraft to the distant world? And your dog your trusted co-pilot? Somewhere along the way, maybe it's our focus on how we focus on exams, we lost this capacity to imagine. And I would urge all our government officials to be apart and embrace the desire to start a new generation of science. People who want to be able to explore. Like Mishkot in Riyadh, build centers that people wanna come and embrace the science.

Like the Museum of the Future that I saw outside. These are the things that we need to engage our children of today to discover the things of tomorrow. I remember my grandfather talking about when his parents woke him up, to take him down to Dover, to see Bleriot's craft, that he had just flown 26 miles across the English Channel, in 36 minutes. Within sixty years, my granddad saw black and white pictures coming back from the moon of man's first step, having flown there, in this impossible looking craft, where the walls were as thin as a coke can. I wonder what you will be able to say to your grandchildren if you can embrace the sciences, and be able to create tomorrow's inventors by doing things today that encourage them to want to do this. Thank you..