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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

“But the payback is extraordinarily quick. When oil is at $140 a barrel, the payback is 100 days. In terms of payback, it’s a no-brainer. Often you find that there would be bottlenecks, and you could find you spend a lot less”.

Another factor overlooked, he points out, is that Middle Eastern producers run their fields at much lower flow rates, to sustain the plateau of production for longer. Rather than plateau for five years, with a twenty year tail, the operator will sustain the plateau for ten or twenty years. This is so that effects of making geological wrong turns – drilling in the wrong place – are less catastrophic.

“Fields are very complex. If you can run things very slowly, and still make a lot of money by running a good field, it’s far better to really plan where you put your wells,” he explains.

Renewables and chemistry

So Pike thinks oil will last longer than most outsiders suppose, but doesn’t dispute that it’s a finite resource.

Long-term, I suggested, energy is probably the least of our problems – there’s so much of it about: Geothermal, fusion, and solar for example.

He agrees, but says a massive amount of international co-operation is needed. No economies are yet geared up for electricity as a direct heating source, or as automotive fuel, or for hydrogen storage.

So what, I wondered, were Pike’s bets for future energy sources?

“My own view - and it’s shared by a lot of people in chemistry - is that solar will eventually be the way ahead. Artificial photosynthesis hasn’t been cracked yet – it’s the idea you use sunlight, the CO2 in the atmosphere, and water, and you make simple molecules like alcohols that you can then burn as a fuel.”

“A lot of the science is there. . But a lot of the advances are going to be in putting things together on a grand scale which requires some very good leadership, because we’re in a position where some of these decisions are not made by individuals or individual companies. It's going to require a lot of collaboration.”

Is our children learning?

As big a problem, he suggested, was scientific ignorance – amongst politicians and the public.

“I have to admit, although the science is there, there aren’t enough people who readily appreciate the science.

“We’ve been out in the street here and discovered that two thirds of people think it’s smoke that comes out of a cooling tower. It’s steam! Only one per cent of people know what cooling towers are actually for. So you’ve got this terrible lack of scientific literacy amongst the public."

Only one percent of MPs have a scientific background. And it isn’t helped by what’s going on schools, he adds.

This summer, the Royal Society of Chemistry drew attention to the level of questions being set to 14 year olds on science courses. Pupils were set questions such as “what powers a solar powered snail?” and “what part of the anatomy does a riding hat protect?” There are more examples here.

The course material is often comprehensive, Pike notes, but the examinations barely skim it – and are almost fail-proof. “Kids need to know 16 things such as force and pressure, and how they interrelate. The exam only touched on four, and four of the simplest: Length, temperature, mass and volume. There’s no mention of speed, or amps and volts and power. I find that extraordinary.”

Without better education, the next generation of policy makers is as likely to be as scientifically illiterate as this one. The cycle needs to be broken. ®

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The Royal Society of Chemistry

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