Energy and Health-Related Technological Improvements

Energy and climate change became news again with the recent attention to the article by Drew Shindell and his colleagues, published in Science. The media’s attention has mostly focused on the scientists’ contributions to modeling the role of methane and soot on climate change.  But I would like to draw attention to the role that new technology can play in improving our health in the face of global dependence on an increasing supply of energy and the particulates associated with the use of energy.

The issue of soot caught my attention, not because of its impact on climate change, but because of the ongoing scientific work associated with the impact of particulates on health.  When I read the article I was reminded of my Mom’s requirement that I sweep the large soot particles from our front porch in Kingsport Tennessee nearly every morning.  I grew up in that small industrial town in northeast Tennessee in the fifties and sixties when soot was a considerable nuisance.

Today, we increasingly understand the link between atmospheric particulates and a variety of health issues. In this case, particulates refer to a variety of microscopic substances, including solid bits of dirt, ash and soot.  The impact of microscopic particulates comes from their ability to lodge deep inside our lungs.  A reminder of the health issues of particulates came in the 2008 Summer Olympics with photos of the masked face of cyclist Mike Freedman as he arrived in Beijing with some apparent anxiety about the quality of the air there.

That air quality can have an effect on our health is drawing increasing scientific research attention.  Scientists from the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences at Colorado State University are finding a relationship between atmospheric particulates and a number of diseases, including ischemic heart disease.  Scientists at Arizona State University have found similar relationships with the incidence of asthma.  Maria Eugenia Monge and her colleagues from Lyon’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique reached the conclusion that soot photochemistry may well be a key player in urban air pollution.  Light appears to prevent surface deactivation of soot.

In their recent Science article, Professor Shindell and his colleagues modeled a number of measures related to reducing the emission of soot.  They included targeting emissions from incomplete combustion, the use of clean-burning biomass stoves, brick kilns, coke ovens, and high emission vehicles.  Already there is considerable work in areas like cleaner burning stoves, primarily used in developing countries; Shell Foundation has partnered with Colorado State University’s Engines & Energy Conversion Laboratory to introduce a new design for a simple cook stove.  Exxon Mobil is taking serious the role that new technology can play in developing cleaner energy; Senior Vice President Andy Swiger addressed the company’s support for new technology in a speech he made in Dubai a little more than a year ago.

We are an energy-dependent 21st century society.  We are also a society where science is increasing our understanding of the relationship between health and the particulates associated with incomplete combustion of fuels.  While policy changes may well improve our health, it is the new technology on which we will fundamentally depend for solutions.

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