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Tomorrow s World Today
Hydrogen fuel cells in cars, human brain stem cells grown in dishes and yet it seems they can stll do nothing about Jackie Healy-Rae s hair!
Eamonn McCann, 26 Oct 2000
As I write, some vague mollifications are being attempted in Palestine. They re unlikely to quell the anger of the Palestinians and the fears and biblical fantasies of the Israelis. The whole region is suffused with hatred, anger, loss, zealotry and weaponry.
The Israelis bring the Holocaust to the table, and two millennia of persecution at the hands of Christians in particular. The Palestinians bring fifty years of despair, of poverty, of dislocation, of defeat, of defiance. The cancer of fundamentalism threads its way through all sides. These people accept and even desire martyrdom. The rest of us may not be much different betimes, but all we can do is watch in horror.
Of course, we have self-serving reasons to care as well as compassionate ones. Like oil. Once again it s being talked of as a weapon. The ghost of decades past rises, and with it the fear of inflation, recession and Margaret Thatcher 2 this time it s personal.
So, many will have been interested by what Bill Ford (of the Ford Motor Company) told the Greenpeace Business Conference in London. Basically, he talked of the coming era of petrol-and-pollution-free motoring when the petrol-driven internal combustion engine will be replaced by the hydrogen fuel cell. And soon.
Ford was speaking to an environmental brief, so his emphasis was on the pollution benefits the hydrogen fuel cell emits no pollution at all so it helps reduce the build-up of greenhouse gases. But he might as well have been speaking about the global economy. Hydrogen power would free the world from OPEC.
On the environmental front, Ford accepted that cars had a serious negative impact and that the industry had played down the threat from global warming. He also suggested that in the future people might not need to own cars. Instead they would own access to mobility . Whatever that might turn out to be.
Finally, he said that climate change was the most challenging issue facing the world and that anyone who disagreed was in denial . You can quote that, next time someone says there s no threat
Of course, your next question is how does a fuel cell work? Like a car battery, basically. It creates energy by an electro-chemical process. Hydrogen and oxygen react together and produce electricity and water vapour. And it doesn t run down or need re-charging, working as long as the hydrogen fuel is available.
According to Michael McCarthy of the Irish Independent, every major car company is throwing huge sums into developing the technology. All the main manufacturers have prototype fuel-cell running and there is a race to bring them to market .
On the demand side, Iceland may be leading the way it has decided that all cars on the island will be hydrogen-fuelled by 2020. Easier for them, with their small population, strong social consensus and emphasis on planning. But these are issues we should be addressing here too. After all, like Iceland and the UK, we have most to lose from climate change. All the models indicate that it will get a lot colder here, not warmer.
It s true. The reports and analyses keep coming, and the predictions are as before, that as the polar ice caps melt, the Atlantic will lose its deep water currents and the Gulf Stream will weaken and be pushed south. It may even switch off. We ll be left with a climate like Newfoundland. Ports will be inaccessible for months in the winter and icebergs will be commonplace. Crops won t grow much. Storms will be more common and a lot rougher. We ll fish through holes in the ice.
Actually, some say this process is already in train. Certainly, the recent toll from two stormy periods would suggest that the sea is now more responsive to bad weather; it s rougher even when the winds are only force 9 or 10. This would also be consistent with a less salty water. Less wind whips it up more. Hence, perhaps, the loss of two trawlers off the west coast recently, the An-Oreint from Brittany and the Arosa from Galicia, with a combined loss of twenty fishermen.
Hydrogen-powered cars are just the start, though. The 21st century reveals itself day by day. As another example, writing in the Observer recently, Robin McKie reported that scientists have discovered how to grow human brain cells in the laboratory. They ve isolated neurones from several key areas of the cortex and plan to transplant them into patients suffering from epilepsy and strokes as well as Parkinson s and Alzheimer s diseases.
Previously, this had been achieved using neurones from aborted foetuses. But now they can grow them. But how?? I have no idea. In fact, I can t even tell you what a neurone is! But here s what happens: the brain cells are immortalised in culture dishes. The neurones are bathed in chemicals that switch on a gene that keeps the cells dividing indefinitely . The isolated cells come from various parts of the brain. When neurones die in these areas, they produce Huntingdon s disease, Alzheimer s, strokes and epilepsy, Parkinson s disease. The new approach replaces the dead cells with the cultured ones.
Dr. George Foster of Cardiff University, who has made the breakthrough, says that they could satisfy the demands of every Parkinson s patient in Europe and the US with cells grown in one small laboratory.
Three things strike me immediately. The first is that this offers a wonderful escape from some of the most awful diseases known to humanity, and to terrible, confused and appalling deaths. And that s good.
The second is that he is quoted with reference to Europe and the United States. Probably just a slip of the reportage that Africa wasn t mentioned. Yet, when we look at the treatment of AIDS there, you d have to be concerned.
And the third? Um between the fuel cell and the neurone cell, I don t suppose there s anything they could do for Jackie Healy-Rae s hair?