J B S Haldane was an early pioneer for renewable energy

Contributed by Glen Davis

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, known to his friends as Jack, was a biologist and geneticist in early 20th century England. Haldane was influenced by Marxism, seeing the achievements of socialism in the then Soviet Union as a source of great inspiration.

Haldane had seen the horrors of fascism firstly with the Spanish Civil War, then the outbreak of the second World War, where the socialist Soviet Union led the struggle against fascism. Haldane himself subsequently ran for the British Parliament as a Communist Party candidate.

Beyond his politics, Haldane is famous in the realm of science. His areas of interest were broad, including genetics, biology, and physiology.

J.B.S Haldane (left) with Aldous Huxley (centre), and Lewis Gielgud at Oxford in 1914

An interest of his concerned about sustainable energy sources, and this fits in well into our contemporary time.

Way back in 1923, Haldane, aware of the limits of coal and other fossil fuels, spoke to an audience at Cambridge University about a future, where hydrogen based renewable energy isa major player in meeting society’s power needs.

One of his ideas was rows of windmills producing electricity. This would provide the energy assisting in turning water into oxygen, and hydrogen. It would be stored, then put in oxidation cells to produce further electricity as required.

J.B.S. Haldane in the laboratory, c1920-1930

Hydrogen is the most common chemical in our universe. It can be produced as a gas or a liquid, with many uses, such as fuel for heating and/or transportation, and applied to industrial processes.

Haldane predicted that 400 years into the future, Britain would be dotted with ‘metallic windmills’ producing and meeting society’s energy needs.

Well, we’ve not reached that 400 years into the future yet. But almost a century after Haldane’s talk at Cambridge, the world is floundering with a climate crisis, and struggling to transfer to new sustainable energy sources.

In some ways progress is made with Haldane’s ideas in electrolysing hydrogen. It is being taken up in several countries.

A hydrogen economy premised on the use of hydrogen created from water as a low carbon fuel, releasing water, with no CO2 going into the atmosphere is becoming a more popular option for phasing out fossil fuels.

Maybe Haldane’s vision is getting closer.

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