It’s June 8th: please go and vote

Dear non-British readers: apologies, this may not be very relevant to you. But it’s important, so I’m writing it anyway. I’m sure you will forgive me just this once. I promise normal service will resume once all the fun and games are over.

Right, who’s still with me? Brilliant. Here we go.

Thirteen years ago, the late Sir Terry Pratchett wrote in his novel, Going Postal:

“What kind of man would put a known criminal in charge of a major branch of government? Apart from, say, the average voter.”

Like much of his writing, it’s hilarious with an aftertaste of tragic. Because, well, you don’t need me to tell you because. But everyone should read Going Postal, and then its sequel, Making Money (published in 2007 and therefore written before the stock markets crashed) if for no other reason than to marvel at Pratchett’s apparent prescience.

Anyway, why am I bringing this up? I’m bringing this up because it’s election day in the U.K. today – June 8th 2017.

Unlike Pratchett’s fictional Ankh Morpork (where there is famously a “one man, one vote” democracy – Lord Vetinari is the man, and he has the vote) in the U.K. everyone has a vote. Well, more or less. Everyone over the age of 18, who’s previously registered to vote and… (etc). Nearly everyone, anyway. Probably everyone reading this.

But weirdly, a lot of people don’t use that privilege. In 2015 just two thirds of people who were eligible to vote actually went and did it. If all, or even most, of those people voted for one particular party, it actually could change the outcome of an election.

Turnout amongst 18-24 year-olds was particularly low. In 2015 it was 43%, whereas turnout for people over 65 was 78% – approaching double.

And this, if you’ll excuse the phrase, is really arse-backwards, isn’t it? Because it’s those younger people who are going to have to live with the consequences of whatever decision is made for the longest amount of time. They absolutely SHOULD have their say.

So, this is my point: please, GO AND VOTE. I don’t care what you have to say, I just want you to have a say.

And finally, in case it’s helpful, here’s a really quick summary of the key scientific and technology-related policies of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, which I’ve condensed from this page at (do go and read the whole thing). The party names at the start of each bulletin point link to their respective manifestos:

  • CONSERVATIVES – more spent on research and development, especially batteries and electric vehicles. New police infrastructure to deal with cybercrime. By 2020 every home and business will have high-speed broadband, with 5G rolling out by 2022. There will be new institutes of technology in every major city in England. The UK’s shale gas industry (i.e. fracking) will be developed and legislation created for plans to extract the gas. Emissions will be reduced by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050.
  • LABOUR – A “science innovation fund” will be created with a specific aim to protect the environment. Labour will “reintroduce effective judicial oversight” of surveillance powers” (i.e. the IP Act). Plans to roll out “universal superfast broadband” by 2022 and create “uninterrupted” 5G coverage. Fracking will be banned, renewable energy technologies will instead be favoured. Air pollution will be addressed by means of a “Clean Air Act”.
  • LIBERAL DEMOCRATS – Will fight to retain academic grants from the EU and protect science budgets. “Supported investment” for energy storage and other technologies. Surveillance powers to be rolled back. All properties in the UK will have 30 Mbps download speed by 2022 and an upload speed of 6 Mbps, with an unlimited usage cap. New centres for innovation will be created. Diesel cars and small vans will be banned from sale by 2025. Will oppose fracking. Greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 80% by 2040, net greenhouse gas emissions to be zero 10 years later.

GO AND VOTE (have I already said that?)

See you on the other side. Here’s a picture of a cat. Cats are nice.

Low on battery?

2001 a space odyssey

It’s 2015. Where’s my spaceship?

The other day I was reminded of something that happened, if my memory serves me correctly, in 2001. It seems like a long time ago doesn’t it? Strange to think that it seemed so futuristic to Arthur C. Clarke in 1968 that he named his classic science fiction novel with that date. Time is funny like that.

Anyway, back in 2001 I went into a mobile phone shop to get a new phone (yes young people, they did exist 14 years ago). I was shown one of the smaller, lighter phones on the market which was still, certainly by today’s standards, a rather blocky piece of kit. The salesman told me that phones just wouldn’t get much thinner than the model he was trying to convince me to sign up for, because that was the thinnest the batteries could be made.

How wrong was he? Perhaps not quite wrong on the scale of Bill Gate’s infamous (and since strenuously denied) “640K ought to be enough for anybody” line, but pretty wrong. Just a couple of years later lithium ion batteries became widely available, and everything changed.


Argh, my battery is down to 5%!

These days the only time most people think about batteries is when they’re cursing them for running down too quickly and scrabbling about looking for a charging cable. They’re part of modern life; something we take for granted. I’m writing this on a laptop that’s running on a battery. Pretty much everyone has a mobile phone with a battery. Lots of other devices in our households have batteries, either as their primary power source or as a backup to mains electricity. Electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, run on batteries, and scientists are even investigating the possibility of putting large storage batteries into our houses to store any excess power generated from solar panels on our roofs.

And the majority of those batteries are lithium ion. Stop and think about that for a moment. Smartphones, tablets, eReaders and the like have changed our lives hugely over the last few years and yes, of course, they are the sum of lots of different strands of technology, including touch-screens and increasingly tiny processors. But the fact remains they probably just wouldn’t exist without the humble lithium ion battery, which provides a lightweight, thin and long-lasting (it is, really) source of captive electricity.

Lithium really doesn't place nicely with water.

Lithium really doesn’t play nicely with water.

Lithium batteries were first proposed in the 1970s, and the first ones actually contained lithium metal. Now, even if you’ve forgotten everything else you did in your school chemistry classes, you probably do remember your teacher dropping lithium, sodium and potassium metal into water and watching them suddenly burst into red, orange and purple flames respectively. It’s bad enough accidentally dropping your phone in the loo, imagine if didn’t just stop working but actually exploded. That really would spoil your day.

Lithium reacts spectacularly with oxygen too, so although nice in theory it was ruled out pretty much straight away on safety grounds. Researchers quickly started investigating lithium compounds, and lithium cobalt oxide, LiCoO2, was next up. As a general rule, very reactive elements produce much more stable compounds – and lithium cobalt oxide is much easier to handle than lithium metal.

Unfortunately it does still have poor thermal stability. Which means it has a nasty habit of blowing up if it gets too hot. A bit like that beltric acid stuff in Superman III, only without the turning into strawberry jelly and causing supercomputers to go rogue thing. At high temperatures lithium cobalt oxide starts to generate oxygen, and although oxygen itself isn’t flammable (we all knew that, right?) it does make everything else burn really, really well. Like, say, the plastic cover on your phone, or your curtains. So, that was a problem.

nissan leaf

The Nissan Leaf runs on lithium ion batteries. Big ones.

Not to worry: it didn’t take too long before Rachid Yazami found a way to reversibly insert lithium ions into graphite. The fact that the process is reversible is important: as you charge the battery the lithium ions are absorbed into the graphite, forming LiC6, and as you use it they are slowly released. The electrode that he discovered is still one of the most commonly used ones in commercial lithium ion batteries. These batteries are safe and affordable. The graphite does break down over time, in a process called exfoliation (not the facial wash type). There are ways to reduce this but as we all know from experience, while most lithium ion batteries can happily survive a few years worth of charge cycles, they still don’t last forever. It probably comes as no surprise that there are plenty of researchers out there working on new battery technologies. One of the newer types is the lithium vanadium phosphate battery (LVP), which is increasingly being used in electric cars.

Speaking of cars, we all learned at school that crude oil (the source of petrol and diesel) is a non-renewable resource. This is true, but there are alternatives to producing fuels from crude oil. Bioethanol is relatively easy to produce, diesel vehicles can run directly from plant oil fuel, and there are types of algae which can produce fuels. These alternatives also have the advantage of absorbing carbon dioxide as the plants or algae grow, so reducing the total amount of carbon dioxide that ends up being released into the atmosphere. That’s good, because pretty much everyone agrees now that global warming is a Bad Thing (even Republicans).

If you think about it, no metal is renewable. We can’t make metals (well, beyond a few atoms in a supercollider), and often there’s no really good alternative to using a particular type of metal. Having said that, scientists are working on sodium ion batteries, but they’re not commercially viable just yet. So right now, to feed our desire for new laptops, phones and even cars, we need lithium. Lots and lots and lots of it.

lithium triangle Salde Vida Map

The lithium triangle. Where batteries mysteriously disappear (not really).

Because lithium is so reactive it’s never found in its pure state; it has to be extracted from its compounds. Most of the world’s supply comes from a small group of places colloquially known as the ‘lithium triangle’, which includes the Atacama Salt Flat in Chile (generally considered to produce the best quality lithium in the world) and the Hombre Muerto Salt Flat in Argentina. Most of it, some 40-50% of the world’s reserves, is thought to be in Bolivia, where mining only began a few years ago.

It takes 750 tons of brine, and 24 months, to obtain just ton of lithium from these salt flat locations. The energy cost is high, although lithium itself is still relatively cheap (right now). It can of course be recycled: 20 tons of spent batteries can also provide one ton of lithium. So be good and recycle your phone responsibly. And next time you’re cursing your battery, just stop for a second and think of all the time and energy that went into making it. Pretty amazing, really.

The Salar de Arizaro. Beats a wet January in the UK, that's for sure.

The Salar de Arizaro. Beats a wet January in the UK, that’s for sure.

And if you’re a student thinking about career options, spare a thought for chemical engineering. Our demand for metals is only going to increase and someone needs work on more efficient ways of getting at them. You won’t be short of a job, and you might even get to visit some pretty nice locations along the way.

Now funnily enough, and I swear I’m not just saying this for artistic licence, my laptop battery has just hit 7%. Where did I leave my charging cable…?