A team from the University of Bristol has found a way to turn nuclear waste into long lasting diamond batteries. The method, presented last week, could be used not only to eliminate radioactive material, but also to generate clean energy in the form of batteries that last for an eye-watering 5,000 years.
Researchers had a Eureka moment when they realized that heated carbon blocks cause radioactive carbon to turn into a gas. Collecting that gas and compressing it yields a diamond that can generate a small electric current – with no moving parts or maintenance.
In an age when we face a bewildering array of global environmental, public health, and energy issues, these kinds of discoveries can turn out to be either much-needed game-changers – or disappointing flashes in the pan.
Given this host of issues, and the limited amounts of funding with which to investigate possible solutions, it is vitally important to know which initiatives to back – and which ones might do nothing more than disappoint.
The question is, how many preliminary initiatives will end up making a tangible difference in the world? How to know which to pursue and support?
Scientists, foundations, government institutions, and activists are frequently confronted with these kinds of questions. The array of promising new scientific initiatives can be overwhelming, with a constant stream of potential game-changers emerging from universities, expositions, and conferences around the world.
TED Talks have been a platform for launching new technologies – some revolutionary, some just one-hit wonders. For example, the first TED included a demo of the CD, the e-book, and cutting-edge 3D graphics from Lucasfilm, while mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to map coastlines using his developing theory of fractal geometry.
Often, the first time that a product is showcased it is impossible to know where it will end up going. Perhaps the destination should not be the sole point of focus: even if a product like the diamond battery ends up going bust, the research that went into its creation might lead to another, completely unexpected discovery.
A competing set of awards set up by two members of the United States Congress illustrate this point. From 1975 to 1988, Senator William Proxmire issued monthly “Golden Fleece” Awards, which targeted federal spending Proxmire considered wasteful. Unfortunately, the awards often targeted federally funded scientific research and unfairly exposed them for ridicule. Science that sounded odd or obscure was easily singled out, but the awards reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works, and how such research can turn out to be extremely important regardless of whether it makes sense to non-scientists.
In response to Proxmire, Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee conceived the Golden Goose Award to recognize the tremendous human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.
For instance, a serendipitous discovery resulting from rat massage experiments performed by 2014’s Golden Goose Award laureates led to a momentous change in how premature babies are cared for. The infant massage therapy that was developed on the basis of these experiments has saved as much as $10,000 in healthcare costs per child and $4.7 billion in overall savings since the initial experiments were carried out on rat pups in 1979.
In a similar vein, scientific conferences and world expos of years past have showcased their fair share of bizarre products. At the same, many of these events have served as the stage for introducing some of humanity’s most useful inventions.
For example, the zipper was introduced to the public for the first time at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Thomas Edison oversaw the opening of the Palace of Electricity at the 1904 exposition in St. Louis. The first mobile phones were shown at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka. Next year’s Astana EXPO 2017 is expected to showcase a number of groundbreaking green products and technologies. These include a solar-powered airplane, a project for creating light from the bioluminescence of marine microorganisms, and a paving technology that uses the power of footsteps to generate electricity.
Channeling the spirit of COP21 and COP22, the Astana expo will be focusing on the emissions-free energy sources of the future and how access to electricity can be extended to all—one of the world’s most pressing development challenges. The hope is that some of these technologies can contribute to that goal.
Of course, the exhibits at world expos are not always necessarily useful for humanity. Take the electronically animated giant baby that loomed over Spain’s pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. But these types of exhibits, and even seemingly frivolous research initiatives, should be encouraged and cultivated, and their results should not be judged too soon.
Even if a seemingly promising discovery like the nuclear diamonds does not pan out, the research process might lead circuitously to another, game-changing finding. The diamond might turn out to be a dud, but it might also signal the arrival of new technologies to address climate change and other looming global challenges.