It is science that must take the wheel

1 Fuel:

Controlling emissions is priority, but people seem to believe science will find a way, and we can go on consuming and creating waste. Be that as it may, it certainly points out the job for science – find a source of clean fuel!

The energy consumption of the world is about 16 billion Kilowatts, or the energy of about16 billion tonnes of coal in a year. About 14 billion tones worth is from fossil fuels, the rest is equally from hydro and nuclear sources, wind and geothermal being negligible. The earth’s reserves of fossil fuels are the equivalent of about 1,427 billion tonnes of coal. At the current rate of consumption, of 14 billion tones a year, this can last a hundred years, but that is not the issue. To save the environment a reasonable portion needs to be replaced by clean fuel.

About a billion tonnes equivalent, out of 14 billion tones, comes from each of nuclear plants and hydro power. While the scope is limited for increasing hydro-electric power, even a five-fold increase in nuclear plants, in 20 years, may not be effective even if it were feasible. Wind, tidal and geothermal sources are then the remaining areas, where a breakthrough in the next ten years is a reasonable expectation.

2 Scrubbing the air:

The world pumps 27 billion tones of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. This is about twice the capacity of various mechanisms to absorb CO2. The result is that there is net addition of CO2 to the atmosphere and increasing global warming. But green cover is vanishing and CO2 levels in the sea, which is the largest absorbing agent, are rising. This sets a task for science – to draw CO2 out and turn global warming around! These are the areas vital for life to go on in the way that we have known for two millennia. Even if these are provided, there is need of other technology, even academic advance, which would be the concern of science in the coming decade.

3 Superconductivity:

A state of matter which transmits electricity without loss is routinely feasible, but at exceedingly low temperatures, which are not practical. The next few years may see new materials that are superconducting at reasonable temperatures, which is even that of liquid nitrogen. This would impact many  devices, from transmission lines to powerful electromagnets to computer memories.

4 Information technology: With high speeds of computation and storage capacity already at hand, it is through software that positive aids to managing the planet would emerge. It has been observed that in the past, computers were used for massive computations, beyond the capacity of the humans. Today, computations are routine, the challenge to computers is in image recognition, which, for humans, is routine! With complexity rapidly growing beyond human capability, it is machine capability that will see rapid increases. New memory devices that allow computers to shut down and restart without delays would make significant reduction in the power consumption by computers, and would rapidly take over and optimise the use of resources, including computer resources.

5 Genetics:

A changing and overpopulated world needs many hands to run. Genetic engineering capability would get sophisticated and allow harnessing of life forms for different roles, carbon sequestering, converting solar energy into clean fuel and agricultural developments being possible areas.

6 Nanotechnology:

This upcoming area would mature, not just for miniaturisation but to make use of atom level assembly and manipulation that becomes feasible. From communications and electronics, chemical processes, lightweight materials, ‘nano’ may be the important, new technology of the century.

7Cancer: Medical research would touch new heights – cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS may see cures and prevention. Every area of technology impacts medicine. Longevity and productivity would increase, raising challenges of rising and ageing populations and further stresses for the community.

8 Exoplanets:

While science mulls around tackling problems on terra firma, rapid progress has taken place in identifying planets around distant stars, where there could be life like ours, or where we could relocate! The idea or utility is pure fantasy, as the nearest star is several light years away and there is no conceivable way to reaching any habitable planet, even if one is found. But space research advances basic science and enables maturing of technologies that find application

9 High-energy physics:

The frontier of physics, which may be pushed back in the next decade may be with the discovery of the links between quantum mechanics and the General Theory of Relativity, through the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN, Geneva. This arrangement, through brute force collision of sub-atomic particles accelerated faster than ever before, seeks to produce the energies that may have existed in the first few moments of the Big Bang. Dr Spenta Wadia of TIFR, Mumbai, says the experiments are likely to clarify the models of the elementary particles and increase our understanding of the mysteries of the universe.

10 Turbulence of fluids:

At a more practical level, Dr Wadia says we need better understanding of the turbulence of fluids. The subject is multidisciplinary and may lead anywhere, but Dr Wadia sees its value in understanding weather and climate.

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