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Moving to low carbon energy provision - do we have a choice?

Geoff Maitland

13 Jan 2014

Prof Geoffrey Maitland of Imperial College London treated the Cambridge and Great Eastern Group to an excellent talk on 28 November 2013 at the Pfizer Lecture Theatre, Cambridge.

The talk started with the premise that anthropogenic climate change is a reality and examined the options available in the context of how expected energy needs will evolve over the next few decades, in combination with the associated issue of the carbon mitigation mechanisms.

The various technology options for energy production and carbon mitigation currently available were outlined, as indeed were the economic and political issues that need to be addressed if we are to achieve the goal of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

The lecture was focused on the technological, financial and political challenges of meeting projected energy demands over the next 30 years without increasing global carbon emissions. A wide range of renewables will need to keep developing (their costs will come down as their scale increases). Solar has by far the greatest potential for meeting global needs in the longer term. Nuclear as a low-carbon form of energy will continue to be an important resource.

However, fossil fuels (which currently provide 75% of global energy) will still be required over the next 50 years at least to meet the legitimate aspirations of the developing world and so methods that minimise atmospheric carbon must be developed.

Key elements to achieving this are to replace coal and oil by gas wherever possible and to mitigate the release of greenhouse gases. Mitigation methods include carbon capture and storage at power stations and large industrial facilities (cement and steel making, in particular).

Carbon dioxide can be used as a key agent to enhance the recovery of lower-carbon fuels (light hydrocarbons, such as methane, especially from unconventional sources such as shale and coal). The importance of the effect of local geographic differences on the energy mix of every country was highlighted.

Of course, the easiest, cheapest and most important priority is to reduce energy usage, by methods such as improved insulation, reduction in car journeys and better fuel economy, and improved power station efficiency. A long-term commitment is required where political leaders (in democracies, different parties must work together) and the various energy industries work together.

The areas where chemists and chemical engineers can contribute were reviewed and it was noted that, for chemists, power storage and solar energy are particular opportunities.

In all, the speaker had prepared a lecture which was rational, informative and sound in its data, observations and conclusions. This was a very informative and insightful lecture. All of us who attended will have left it much the wiser but perhaps a little more frustrated at the general standard of debate in the media and political circles.

About Prof Maitland
Prof Maitland started his research career in Chemical Engineering in Imperial College London, followed by 20 years of industrial research in Schlumberger before returning to Imperial, where he is Professor of Energy Engineering and Director of Qatar Carbonates and Carbon Storage Research Centre at the Department.

His research interests have included fluids engineering, rock-fluid interactions, chemical characterisation of multicomponent fluids, the development of new hydrocarbon recovery processes, and the application of biological processes to oil recovery.

Andrew Howe
Cambridge and Great Eastern Group

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