18.05.20 A British biologist’s uncanny clairvoyance Dariush Jones • 6 min.

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Summary

On January 9, 2020, the Independent, a U.K. newspaper, ran the headline: “2019 saw the rise of wind power and the collapse of coal.” The accompanying story reported that wind provided more than 20% of Britain’s electricity last year, coal just 2%. Debate.Energy can add a historical footnote: a British scientist already foresaw wind’s rise and coal’s collapse almost a century ago. And like H.G. Wells foreseeing laser technology in War of the Worlds, he also predicted that renewable energy’s ideal complement would be hydrogen.

On February 4, 1923, British biologist J.B.S. Haldane delivered a lecture on the future of science to the Cambridge Heretics Society, whose guest speakers over the years included Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Haldane (1892–1964), a pioneering professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University, would later crack the genetic code of hemophilia and colorblindness and coin the term “clone.” His lecture’s main subject that day was the possible benefits of selective human breeding. In an aside, however, Haldane made an off-the-cuff prediction about Britain’s future energy system. He started by pointing out that the domestic supply of coal and oil must necessarily be exhausted within a few centuries. Hydroelectricity would be insufficient to replace fossil fuels in Britain, Haldane believed, although he conceded its viability in places like British Columbia (where today it does indeed provide 95% of electricity).

J. B. S. Haldane

J. B. S. Haldane

The answer, he said, lies in “intermittent but inexhaustible sources of power, the wind and the sunlight” and a “cheap, foolproof, and durable storage battery” that will transform the wind’s intermittent energy “into continuous electric power.” In short, Haldane predicted the inevitability of the renewables transition, named the two key technologies (wind and solar), identified their primary drawback (intermittency), and proposed a solution for it (efficient batteries).

Metallic windmills and oxidation cells

And he was just getting warmed up. Post-fossil Britain, Haldane continued, “will be covered with rows of metallic windmills working electric motors which in their turn supply current at a very high voltage to great electric mains. At suitable distances, there will be great [industrial facilities] where during windy weather the surplus power will be used for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen…. In times of calm, the gasses will be recombined in explosion motors working dynamos which produce electrical energy once more, or more probably in oxidation cells.” Another bullseye: Haldane accurately foresaw the prevalence of wind power and the use of surplus output to run electrolysis equipment to produce zero-carbon, green hydrogen. He even recognized that fuel cells (which he called oxidation cells) would be a more promising application than combustion engines (“explosion motors”) for reconverting hydrogen to electricity.

But Haldane still wasn’t done. He went on to say that underground hydrogen tanks will “enable wind energy to be stored, so that it can be expended for industry, transportation, heating and lighting, as desired. The initial costs will be very considerable, but the running expenses less than those of our present system.” Here, he identified not only what industry insiders now call “sectoral integration”—the integration of the power sector with the transport, industrial, heating, and cooling sectors through the use electricity, hydrogen, and other energy sources—but also the chief hurdle facing green hydrogen: the high initial cost of establishing the necessary infrastructure.

Is Haldane’s future finally almost here?

On March 20, 2020, the EU Commission presented its new European Industrial Strategy. It includes a Clean Hydrogen Alliance, whose purpose is to accelerate the use of green hydrogen to decarbonize European industry. Perhaps it, in Haldane’s words, can help transform a “thing that has not been” into a “thing that shall be”: an EU-wide hydrogen economy powered by renewable energy.


Note: the full text of Haldane’s lecture—“Daedalus; or, Science and the Future”—is available here. Bertrand Russell, who found Haldane’s vision of the future too rosy, felt compelled to write a dissenting response (which, however, addresses Haldane’s main points, not his vision of the energy future).

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