Episode 9: How far have we come?

Revisiting pioneers of science and technology

Food Food

Adam's Weekly Blog

5 years on the road

5 years on the road

Five years ago we set off on a journey across the globe. Our aim was to seek...
Five years ago we set off on a journey across the globe. Our aim was to seek out new science and technology which could revolutionise our lives, our homes and our economies in the decades ahead.

Over that period our team has been to more than 40 countries. We've conducted around 400 interviews and visited 300 companies and organisations.

We’ve spoken to some of the world’s most influential opinion formers – from chief executives and entrepreneurs to scientists and academics

Bill Ford and Bill Gates have told us what they think the future will look like. I flew in a helicopter with Howard Buffett, a member of one of the world’s richest families and grabbed him as the door flew open mid flight. I’ve drunk water we deliberately polluted with dog poo to see if a filter worked. I’ve been stuck in an experimental transport tube in China, stuck on a Velcro wall in the USA and stuck on an unruly camel in Israel.

One of the striking problems we have investigated, is that of water shortages. Roughly one in ten of the world’s population live where water is scarce, in 43 countries. By 2025, the number of people in this situation is expected to double.

Our episode which look back at 5 years of highlights, begins close to home in Essex in the UK – where one man’s invention to provide safe water to people has been changing the lives of millions people since we last saw him – unfortunately my first visit sticks in my memory for all the wrong reasons!

To prove the effectiveness of his Life Saver water bottle filter, Michael Pritchard scooped up some dirty water from the local pond, added some dog poo from his pet and made me drink it. Just the idea of it made me feel sick – but I had to admit the water itself tasted fine.

Pritchard’s view was that when disasters strike a country, aid is often focussed on getting the water infrastructure working again. It takes time and huge amounts of money. His invention, he claims, provides much faster relief at lower cost since you can use almost any water around you and just filter it.

Whilst that might be one of the most memorable personal events we've filmed – two other films we made on a different subject - could, I think, have the biggest impact on our lives in the future. They were from filming trips we made to the USA and Spain where we featured the problems of renewable energy.

The ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have used magnifying glasses to concentrate the sun’s rays to light torches. In 1767, the Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure was credited with building the world’s first solar collector, later used by Sir John Herschel to cook food during his South Africa expedition in the 1830s. Since then there have been significant advances, which allow solar power to be used on a commercial scale.

But the biggest stumbling block is that solar power might work fine when the sun shines, but it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot when the sun goes down.

Whereas so much of our attention has been focussed on how to generate renewable energy, I think the most significant contribution to the energy issue will be the team that invents a clever way of storing the energy.

The big prize will not go to the generators but the storage experts. 5 years ago we visited a huge field in Spain filled with mirrors. They were all angled to reflect the light on a single spot on a large tower in the centre of the field. So strong was the light beam – that dust particles that floated into the beam, exploded into puffs of smoke.

The tower itself was filled with salt. As the directed sunlight hit the tower, the heat became so intense that the salt melted. Molten salt is a good reservoir of heat and at night the heat and steam in the huge vats of liquid salt was harnessed to drive turbines to create electricity. Hence you had solar power generating electricity when the sun was down.

One of the great things about our globe trotting Horizons series is that you can see how an idea in one part of the world connects to scientists in another part of the world who try to tackle a problem in a different way.

Back in 2012 I visited Harvard University to see how an artificial leaf could possibly help the global energy question.

Professor Daniel Nocera looked to nature for inspiration and found it in a leaf. Plants convert sunlight into energy and store it in their leaves to help the plant to grow. So he tried to copy the idea.

Called the artificial leaf, he created a fuel cell which takes sunlight, converts it into energy and uses that to separate Hydrogen from water. The hydrogen is a gas we already know how to use in energy generation and so, at least on a laboratory scale, he has created a way of storing the energy from the sun in a way that can be used later.

We live in an age of science and technology. We have come to rely on experts to solve our problems like no generation before. The irony is that, as science becomes so much more important to us, we understand less and less about the mechanics of the technologies which power our lives.

We increasingly see science solutions as a black box which offers us great advantages but whose secrets are hidden from us. What’s great about the Horizons series is that it opens that box and aims to explain the fun, excitement and importance of the work scientists are doing around the world to help us all achieve better, more fulfilled and longer lasting lives.
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