Science Future

News from the future, in which I report on an alternative world that has chosen to go down a science-based route to a sustainable future.

Apr 192012

Shock heath claim: eat more salt!

19 April 2062

Food Web News

Stung by criticism from the UN that iodised salt was rarely used in the UK, the Minister for Health, Dame Kylie Smith, has replied that not only will all salt be of this kind in future but that an extra trace element, selenium, would be added as well.

“That way we will protect both the unborn child and boost the sperm that is needed to produce them” she announced when she opened the conference ‘Essential Elements: Our Children, Our Future’ organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Although iodised salt has been available in the UK for more than 70 years it currently represents less than 2% of the salt sold in supermarkets and a recent survey commissioned by the RSC Food Chemistry Group found many of those questioned were unaware of the need for pregnant women to get more iodine to ensure proper brain development of their baby, or in the need for prospective fathers to take in more selenium because of its role in sperm production.

Leading supermarkets are now stocking the new SexI salt which contains both elements despite claims by some doctors that this will undermine a long-running campaign against salt.

Our Science Correspondent writes

Lack of selenium in the diet of European males was not a problem when most wheat came from the USA because its selenium content is high. European grain has much less of this vital element and this resulted in lower sperm counts for European males. (Selenium is particularly rich in the part of sperm which connects the head to the tail.) When men with low sperm counts were given selenium supplements they quickly doubled their output of viable sperm. Men need 75 micrograms per day of selenium whereas women need only 60.

When it comes to iodine the requirements are reversed: a woman need more than a man, and especially when she is pregnant or breast feeding. A lack of iodine can lead to brain impairment in her baby and even cretinism which manifests as an IQ of less than 85. The lack of iodine in the diet mainly affected women in developing economies but this was targeted by the United Nations in 2000 when it persuaded all countries of the world to add traces of either potassium iodide or potassium iodate to salt which they did in the early years of this century, and with noticeable benefit to children in those countries like India.

Iodine is an essential part of human metabolism as the hormone thyroxin which governs several processes such as brain development in babies, growth in young children, and body temperature in adults. The amount that the average person needs each day is only 70 micrograms but a pregnant or nursing mother need twice this level.

Apr 052012

Sunny day for mobiles and iPods

Daily News TV

5 April 2062

Yesterday saw the launch by the Minister for Climate Change, Winston Patel, of a new range of solar powered summer clothes, which includes the now compulsory large-brim sun hats. The range has been designed by leading stylists and voted for by viewers of the popular TV programme ‘Off with those clothes!’

Given a minimum of one hour in direct sunlight, the clothing can generate and store enough power to keep mobiles and iPods fully charged for up to a week. Solar clothing for children is also being launched and these will enable parents to follow their movements on a home screen via SatNav.

“An unexpected benefit of global warming is that we now enjoy Mediterranean type weather, and it has had the effect of encouraging parents to send their children out to play after school throughout most of the year, rather than spend their time in energy-consuming activities within the home”, said Patel.

The hats, shirts, shorts and dresses incorporate a new photovoltaic material which can even store surplus electricity to be downloaded onto home-based devices. The company behind the new clothes is based at the aptly-named Port Sunlight on Merseyside where its head of research, 30-year-old chemistry graduate Emma MacDonald, praised her fellow scientists for their work in making the new solar convertors entirely from organic chemicals and entirely free of metals.

Our science correspondent writes

Backpacks with solar panels attached first appeared 40 years ago but they relied on expensive metal-containing semiconductors including indium, stores of which are now almost exhausted since lead mining was banned in 2020. It was from this toxic and environmentally damaging metal that almost all the world’s indium was extracted.

The new solar photovoltaics use organic semiconductors, which were discovered in the UK. At first these had energy conversion efficiencies of only 2% but further research pushed this up to the 10% necessary for commercial exploitation, and more recent research in China has increased it to 25% and this is where the flexible panels are now manufactured for the world market. The wiring and energy storage cells built into the new clothes are also organic and made from carbon nanotubes.

Mar 082012

Laundry tablets go green all over

India TV News

8 March 2062


Boxes containing a year’s supply (100) of the new detergent capsules, Green Clean, will soon be on sale in supermarkets across India and are made entirely from renewable resources. Research chemists at IndiaChem, Bangalore, have finally solved the problem of making all the ingredients this way.

“The most difficult challenge we faced was finding a chemical that would neutralise the calcium of hard water”, said Donald Patel, their head chemist, “but in the end we returned to using sodium tripolyphosphate which can be manufactured from the phosphate extracted from sewage works.”

Dr Patel pointed out that although this chemical was once accused of causing river and lake pollution, its removal from waste waters no longer made it a threat and it is recycled as raw material for the chemical industry.

The other ingredients, the surfactants, the dirt solubilisers, the dye stabilisers, the whitening agents, the fabric softeners, and even the bleaches are now made from chemicals obtained from crops, including straw and bark, or from the minerals got from sea water.

“Green Clean works at room temperature, and using a minimum volume of water” added Patel, pointing out that last year saw the launch of a new washing machine for India in which the rinse water from one wash is disinfected and stored to be used for the main wash next time. “We can now boast that washing clothes is as environmentally friendly as it is possible to be” he said.

The various ingredients in the new detergent are microencapsulated in coatings which ensure that they release their chemicals at the right time, and the whole 50 gram of detergent is sealed in a water-soluble polymer, polyvinyl alcohol, which is also produced from plant materials.

Our science correspondent writes

Detergent tablets are some of the most sophisticated household chemicals, with up to a dozen ingredients. They contain alkali and surfactants to remove grease, and enzymes to remove food residues (mainly carbohydrates and proteins) and from all kinds of surfaces (crockery, plastics, cutlery, and glass), plus something to bleach tea and coffee stains. They also need to include a water softener, because most domestic water in the UK is hard and ion exchangers are no longer and integral part of dishwashers, and zinc additives to protect glass, which they do by replacing leached-out sodium ions. Finally there has to be a rinse aid so that the final rinse water drains off completely and does not cause ‘spotting’. Until a few years ago it seemed unlikely that all these ingredients could be made from renewables. Now they can.

The chemistry is also complicated in that the new tablets contain ingredients that are chemically incompatible and so have been microencapsulated in coatings which not only isolate and protect them but which ensures they dissolve and release their contents in a controlled fashion and at the right time. They are all sealed in the water-soluble polymer, polyvinyl alcohol, which is also produced enzymatically from plant crops.

And how is the final rinse water sterilised? This is done by subjecting it briefly to pressures high enough to burst the membranes of any bacteria it contains.

Feb 262012

Sunshine city switched on

The Ghana Sun

23 February 2062

At a special ceremony attended by dignitaries from all over Africa, the President of Ghana threw the switch that connected solar panels on the roof of the capital’s parliament buildings to the Accra Solar Energy Board, thereby completing the scheme to generate all the city’s electricity from solar sources.

“Accra is now the first city on Earth with more than a million inhabitants that is totally powered by sunlight”, he said. “The city has one of the best electricity storage systems in the world and this can store up to a week’s supply of power. Although many thought it would be impossible to meet all of Accra’s electricity demands from solar energy this has been achieved thanks to a concerted effort by residents in all localities who fitted solar panels to their roofs and outbuildings. I thank them all.”

Public buildings, shops, factories, warehouses, and office blocks have undergone a massive window replacement programme, and even north-facing surfaces have been fitted with dye-sensitised panels, which can generate electricity even when not in direct sunlight. The cost of the ten-year programme was funded from a levy on cocoa and palm oil exports which are the main source of the country’s wealth. Home owners were able to claim 75% of the cost of installing solar panels from the levy.

Feb 092012

New village with zero energy bills

Global Times News

12 February 2061

The new Dolphin retirement village at La Gomera, in The Canary Islands, was officially opened by the Minister for the Environment yesterday who praised the fact that it was entirely self-sufficient in energy. All cottages are equipped with fitted kitchens and entertainment facilities and are fully air conditioned thanks to SuperGlass windows and roofs.

SuperGlass adjusts to the level of sunlight falling on it, allowing light and warmth to enter when the weather is cool but when the weather is hot it generates energy which can be used to work air-conditioning – and the new glass is also self-cleaning.

Dolphin village generates enough electricity to power all its buildings plus a desalination plant that provides its 500 dwellings with two million litres of water per week, enough to supply all that is needed for washing, cleaning, and toilets, as well as irrigating the large gardens and fruit trees, which are mainly oranges and avocados, growing on its terraced hillside overlooking the Atlantic. The village also has cafés, bars, heated pool, leisure club, shops, health centre, and golf course.