Outbreaks make more international effort necessary

I try to avoid sobering thoughts, especially during leisure time, but they are hard to escape while I am at work. Disrespectfully, I suggest that one sobering thought I have been thinking ought to be occupying the minds of people whose work is much more important than mine.The thought is that, among the greater sources of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions, are coal fires that do not get to raise steam in power stations, or indeed get to release beneficial energy of any kind. What the IEA Coal Research Centre calls ‘a significant global impact’ is being made by the worst of these: they are runaway fires that have been started by spontaneous combustion in coalfields and spoil heaps.

According to the Centre, which has been a collaborative undertaking of the International Energy Agency since 1975, these outbreaks are so serious that more international effort is necessary to tackle them. Like nuclear accidents, oil and gas explosions, dam collapses and other disasters more or less connected with energy industry, the fires are events that do not have to be traced to supernatural causes. Spontaneous combustion can be prevented, and it can be detected if it does occur, and it can be controlled in outcome if everything is done that should be. Most of the uncontrolled fires that do break out are indeed of small consequence, except perhaps locally, but the abnormal big ones can be big global polluters.

How many environmentalists and energy policy-makers are as aware of all this as are alert to, and mighty tough on, power generation peccadilloes? Unaware people could begin to remedy their deficiency by reading the report, Uncontrolled fires in coalfields and spoil heaps, published by IEA Coal Research.* The author, Simon Walker, examines the causal chain from spontaneous combustion mechanisms through industrial practices to environmental impacts, using case studies to make important points.

The report should at least provide interesting distraction for responsible parties satiated with press and pressure-group coverage of power suppliers’ sins.

Tailored power will come again

New Millennium Man and Woman will be festooned with personal electronic gadgetry – simple cassette players, mobile phones and pocket computers will be overtaken by even more mind-sapping artefacts, some no doubt surgically implanted or genetically engineered into the body.

Prophets tell me that the power for all this apparatus will have to be obtained by plugging into a new public infrastructure of mains outlets and/or by drawing on body-borne batteries of a more or less conventional kind. But a hint of a more elegant solution has come from some research done by Dr David Fishlock.

Well known as a prolific science writer, as the some-time science editor of The Financial Times and as an enthusiast for nuclear power, Fishlock possesses what has been described as ‘a wicked taste for the more outré uses of electricity’. I quote those words from the journal in which he has reported this particular investigation. The journal is The Erotic Review and his article in it is about electric corsets.

The electric corset was a garment sold by smart entrepreneurs when they claimed therapeutic properties for electricity in the nineteenth century. In the course of his inquiry, which was prompted initially by a university student’s request for help in connection with a thesis, Fishlock discovered how the ladies used to ‘energise their underwear’.

He found that they did not have to tuck heavy and maybe protuberant batteries into their clothing. Instead they draped inconspicuously about themselves an undergarment carrying cell components – copper and zinc disks – that worked happily in the natural ambient electrolyte, which was of course perspiration.

Could it be that, even before the New Millennium properly starts on 1 January 2001, a unisex modern version of such a perspovoltaic undergarment will become essential wear for us all? Pharmaceutical and cosmetic firms may already be on the scent, racing each other to develop pheromone-enhanced electrolyte-boosters.