Sensational chemophobia and the problems with biofuels
‘Are you scared yet?’ This is the title of See Arr Oh’s post on Just Like Cooking but could equally serve as the unspoken subtitle of the news report he’s blogging about. First highlighted on ChemBark the investigative report from US TV channel Fox29 is about “unlocked chemistry labs and the ease with which a terrorist could steal hazardous materials”. So far, so serious. But, as ChemBark says, “the underlying point of securing labs is a valid one, but the presentation is way Way WAAAAAAY over the top”. See Arr Oh takes the presentation to task more than ChemBark, giving us some random quotes that illustrate the chemophobic sensationalism of the report, which breathlessly reveals the presence of 0.1 M HCl and ether. He counted “26 mentions of the word ‘chemical’ (or once every 14.4 seconds)” – mostly “preceded by a sensationalist adjective”. We can’t deny that lab security is an issue for serious discussion, but perhaps it deserves better reporting than it got from Fox29.
When Nobel Laureates talk, people listen — and when they write provocative editorials, people read closely. So when we spotted the editorial in Angewandte Chemie by Hartmut Michel (1988 Laureate) titled ‘The Nonsense of Biofuels‘, we sat up. And so did Ash Jogalekar at The Curious Wavefunction, where he took us through the photosynthesis expert’s arguments. First among these is the lack of efficiency of photosynthesis itself — a 4% upper limit — which is exacerbated by the energy needed to grow, harvest and transform the biomass into useful fuels. Finally, when it comes to fuelling transportation, only 20% of the energy produced by a combustion engine is used to propel the vehicle. Michel suggests that either photosynthesis needs to be improved, or photovoltaics and batteries pursued with more vigour — solar cells are around 15% efficient, and vehicles can usefully use 80% of the battery’s energy.