SOUE News Issue 4

The 31st Lubbock Lecture, 13 May 2005: Less Incrementalism and More Breakthroughs

The 31st Maurice Lubbock Memorial Lecture was given on 13 May 2005 by Dr Robin Batterham FREng FIChemE, entitled:

"Less Incrementalism and More Breakthroughs - thoughts on avoiding the collision between sustainability and our response to climate change"

Dr Batterham is Chief Technologist of the mining company Rio Tinto Ltd, and also Chief Scientist to the Australian Government. He started by pointing out the rapid rate of recent progress in certain technologies, particularly those involving applications of electronics on the one hand, and the science of DNA on the other. He then went on to consider the world's likely future demand for energy. One estimate is that demand will virtually double from 2000 to 2030, but that nearly all of it will still come from fossil fuel sources: coal, oil and gas. Most of the increased consumption is expected to be in developing countries, which indeed will largely take over its supply.

Such an increase in fossil fuel consumption, if allowed to happen, would lead to unacceptable global warming and climate change, and it did not appear that the adoption of known technologies either for increasing the efficiency of energy use, or for non-fossil generation, were likely to do more than slow the rate at which climate deterioration would happen. Quoting from the Economist "those grand aspirations [of the Rio summit] have fallen flat in the decade since the summit. Little headway has been made with ... climate change or loss of biodiversity", Dr Batterham concluded that incremental improvements are not enough. Breakthroughs are needed.

As an example of a relevant breakthrough in his own industry, he described a new way of smelting iron ore, "HiSmelt Technology", which reduced the emission of CO2 to 1 tonne per tonne of steel produced, compared with 1.9 to 3 tonnes using standard blast furnaces. Iron ore and coal in powdered form were injected into a hot (1200°C) blast of air. Droplets of molten iron were thrown on to the walls of the furnace, and ran down into a bath below.

Completely new ideas like this were called for, to get carbon emissions down rather than just rising a little less than they might otherwise do, and it was engineering science that would have to come up with them, and make them work.

The main lecture was preceded by two shorter talks by members of the Department on sustainability issues:

Guy Houlsby on "Offshore Wind Power", and

Alistair Borthwick on "Is the Lower Yellow River Sustainable?" [See Alistair's article in this issue, which of course cannot include the remarkable film he showed of the river starting to flow again after a no-flow period: a cascade of rapidly-moving yellow water with the consistency of liquid concrete!]

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