Archive for January, 2014

January, 2014

Is poverty inevitable?

Karen Rowlingson


Poverty kills and harms but if we want to do something about it we need, first of all, to understand the causes of poverty.  About a quarter of the general public (23 per cent) in 2010 thought that poverty was caused by individual laziness or lack of willpower.  This is the image of poverty we often see in the media, whether it is on the hugely controversial Benefits Street or programmes about benefit ‘scroungers’.  Perhaps it is surprising then that virtually the same number of people in 2010 (21 per cent) thought that poverty was caused by ‘injustice in our society’.  Not everyone buys into the media stereotypes.  Perhaps more alarming, however, was that 35 per cent thought that poverty was just ‘inevitable’.  So what are the causes of poverty and is it possible to reduce it?

The public are clearly divided as to whether poverty has individual or structural causes and the academic debate also revolves around the role of individual agency versus structural factors.  It is clear that children born into poor families have much lower life chances than children born into wealthier families but is this because of material deprivation (structural issues) or poor parenting and a ‘poverty of aspiration’ leading to cycles of deprivation (individual factors)?  There has certainly been much policy and public attention paid to the issue of parenting and aspiration.  There has also been much research which has highlighted the complexity of the issues here.  For example, children from poorer backgrounds (especially white boys) do have lower aspirations than others but even where these children have higher aspirations, they still did not achieve as much as children from better-off backgrounds.  So it is not enough to raise aspirations unless the structural barriers are also tackled.  Studies also show that some interventions which aim to raise aspirations do help children to do better, such as mentoring schemes, extra-curricular activities and increased parental involvement.  But the success of these interventions is based on the work they do to support children and change their behaviour.  This then changes their attitudes.  So focusing on giving children from poorer backgrounds more support is the key rather than simply focusing on changing attitudes in themselves.

So aspirations may play a role but it is a minor one.  Material factors matter more.  Research at the University of Loughborough asks members of the public to consider, in great detail, what people need to maintain a ‘minimum standard of living in Britain today.’  They define this as ‘including, but more than just, food, clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.’  Following intensive consultation and research, a weekly amount is identified to cover different family types.  The researchers then compare this with benefit levels and find that while pensioner couples on means tested benefits in 2013 generally had enough to meet a minimum standard of living other groups certainly did not.  A lone parent with one child living on means-tested benefits received only 57 per cent of what she/he needed to meet the minimum income standards.  A couple with two children received only 58 per cent and a single person with no children received only 38 per cent. It is no wonder that people’s opportunities are so limited when they are struggling to make ends meet on so little and these figures will only worsen as the benefit cuts introduced in April 2013 take hold.

So what can we do?  Or is poverty inevitable?  Poverty is certainly not inevitable.  Levels of poverty change over time and vary across countries.  In the UK, pensioners had by far the highest level of poverty in the late 1990s – reaching about 40 per cent.  The Labour government decided to tackle this by increasing Pension Credit and introducing other payments (eg Winter Fuel Allowance).  Pensioners now have the lowest risk of poverty, closer to 10 per cent.  Child poverty was also reduced from the late 1990s onwards through a combination of policies including increases in means-tested benefits for parents out of work and additional support for parents in work.  Such policies clearly cost money and in a time of austerity there is relatively little support for increasing benefit levels.  But the human cost of poverty is also extremely high.  Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2004, and famous for his ‘prudence’ in relation to financial matters argued that: ‘Child poverty is the scar that demeans Britain. When we allow just one life to be degraded or derailed by early poverty, it represents a cost that can never be fully counted’.  Poverty is not inevitable.  It can be reduced, if not eliminated, if we have the public and political will to do so.

January, 2014

Financial education for children: new challenges for UK schools

Jessie Sim

Research Fellow, CHASM


Financial problems are usually caused by low income rather than poor money management but given our increasingly financialised world, the importance of providing financial education for children from primary to secondary schools in the UK has been emphasised and lobbied for by many (e.g. All Party Parliament Group on Financial Education for Young People, 2011). One of the main reasons is to improve children’s financial capability so that they are better prepared for financial decisions as they enter adulthood. Financial education can provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills needed to make informed financial decisions. It can also shape attitudes. For instance, children are taught budgeting and saving methods, which in the long run, can increase their propensity to save and be more cautious about spending money. Also, children come from various family backgrounds and have different experiences with money, so schools become a common platform for children to learn and discuss about financial issues which they might not be aware of.

In the UK, the most notable and recent victory for financial education in 2013 was that the DFE (Department of Education) mandated the provision of financial education in the National Curriculum.  Surveys of schools in 2001 and 2005 showed that when financial education was not a compulsory subject, the provision varied greatly between schools and majority allocated only one to two lessons per month for it (FSA, 2002; FSA, 2006). Another survey by the FSA found that about two-thirds of adults felt that they had learnt nothing about personal finance in school while only one-tenth felt they had learnt a lot (FSA, 2004). It is therefore hoped that by making financial education mandatory, these problems can be overcome.

It is likely that most children will be looking forward to receiving compulsory financial education. According to statistics by PFEG (Personal Finance Education Group), 54% of teenagers are interested to learn about saving and 51% would like to learn how to control their spending (PFEG, 2013a). A recent research revealed that 88 percent of adults in the UK would like financial education to be taught in schools-the highest percentage amongst twelve European countries surveyed (PFEG, 2013b). However, along with the new mandate, there will be challenges to overcome. For instance, compared to core subjects like English, Maths and Science, the time allowed for financial education would still be relatively lesser. This would require some monitoring of how much can be taught in the allocated time and given the constraints, which topics deserve more attention. Also, financial education will be taught mainly in Mathematics, Citizenship and PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education). This requires careful coordination efforts so that children can acquire knowledge and accumulate skills over time. The teachers involved in financial education should also know where to seek training and teaching resources. Overall, there would be new challenges in making sure that such a mandatory financial education curriculum will achieve maximum impact desired by policymakers.

Another two related issues would be to ascertain what should be taught in financial education and determining how to assess the impact of financial education. With regards to what should be taught, PFEG is advising the DFE on this and being the UK’s leading financial education charity, confidence in this area is high. To assess the impact, there needs to be a strong support from the research community especially from the academics in the field of educational assessment. Besides testing knowledge and skills using objective tests, children’s attitudes could also be assessed using surveys, interviews or class observations. Views of financial educators could be sought as they would have first-hand knowledge about teaching content and experience in delivering various personal finance topics. Given that curriculum time is limited, assessment results would be beneficial in highlighting areas of weaknesses and these would then be given more priority for the next batch of students.

In summary, these new challenges for schools in terms of implementing a compulsory financial education curriculum are likely to emerge in the near future. However, they can be overcome with continuous monitoring and refining of the financial education curriculum with the concerted efforts and support of external organisations together with other financial education experts so that hopefully the next batch of school leavers would be more confident and able in making informed personal financial decisions.


All Party Parliament Group on Financial Education for Young People (2011) Financial education & the curriculum. UK: All Party Parliament Group on Financial Education for Young People.

Financial Services Authority (2002) Personal finance teaching in schools. London: Financial Services Authority.

Financial Services Authority (2004) Financial Capability: consumers’ views on developing their financial capabilities through schools and workplaces. Financial Services Authority.

Financial Services Authority (2006) Personal finance education in schools: a UK benchmark study. London: Financial Services Authority.

Personal Finance Education Group (2013a) [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 21 January 2014]

Personal Finance Education Group (2013b) UK demand for financial education in schools is the highest in Europe. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 21 January 2014]

Further useful links:

Personal finance education group

Discounting financial literacy: Time preferences and participation in financial education programs

Financial Education: Lessons Not Learned & Lessons Learned

Financial Education and the Debt Behavior of the Young

Financial Literacy and Planning: Implications for Retirement Wellbeing

Raising Household Savings: Does Financial Education Work

How to teach financial education

Image Source :

January, 2014

Can credit unions help to tackle the high cost lenders?

Ricky Joseph


There have been heated debates over recent months about the impact the high cost payday lending sector was having on financially vulnerable consumers and neighbourhoods.  Payday loans are relatively small, short-term, uncollateralised, high interest rate loans that borrowers must either repay or renew by their next payday. They are considered as alternatives or additional means of accessing credit for borrowers with limited access to bank credit. These loans are even used by people with high credit ratings. Other high cost lenders include pawn broking outlets, weekly payment stores, log book loans, on line and the doorstep credit market.

The rapid growth in this sector has reinforced concerns that it has moved into the vacuum left by high street banks and building societies. Some critics have accused the ‘mainstream’ financial sector of abandoning consumers who are considered high risk or low profit. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and a former banker, recently called for the sector to be put out of existence. At the same time he argued that greater support was needed to promote credit unions (CUs) and other not-for-profit affordable lenders. His call symbolised a growing sense of anger over a sector that has mushroomed in size during the recession and at a time when a growing debate on the cost of living crisis were being articulated by Labour Leader Ed Miliband.


So how is the CU sector responding to these challenges? There are around 400 CUs of various shapes and sizes in the UK, some staffed by volunteers, while others employ highly experienced staff. The sector retains strong cross-party support and is benefiting from the Department of Works and Pension’s (DWP) Credit Union Expansion Project. This funding pot of £38 million is intended to expand the sector, enabling it to recruit 1 million more consumers by 2019, modernise CUs and help them be more financially sustainable.

CUs, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) and other community-based lending services  have made a significant impact on the city of Birmingham in the past 4 years, resulting is a doubling of loans to local residents and adding an estimated £50m a year to the local  economy.  Credit unions are seen as solution to many of the issues facing the 9m adults in the UK who do not have access to suitable banking. Surprisingly, these membership-run financial institutions are the only financial organisations in the UK that have an interest rate cap, which is why on a like for like basis, credit unions loans are priced below the mainstream banks and other lenders. With no arrangement fees or exit fees, it is not hard to see why more people are starting to find CUs offer a genuine alternative.

As Chair of Citysave, a leading CU, I can see at first hand the really positive impact CUs can make. A good example of this is an innovative partnership with Birmingham City Council (BCC), Moneyline, Advance Credit Union and Street UK to open a pop up loans shop in a prominent position in the city centre in the run up to Christmas.  The cabin was located in the midst of a number of high cost lenders, in fact 14 of these were estimated to be within 100m of the cabin.  The funding for the cabin was provided by BCC’s Illegal Money Lending team through the proceeds of crime recovered, and is matched by resources from Citysave.

This innovative partnership is part of a much bigger campaign to challenge high cost lenders and ensure that Birmingham residents are able to access fairly priced and ethical financial services. BCC launched its Birmingham Fair Money Manifesto which set out its four key commitments: a call for better regulation of high cost lenders; to support the growth of credit unions and responsible lending; to engage with banks so that they widen their services to residents and to seek powers that will enable BCC to manage the growth and operations of high cost lenders across the city’s neighbourhood.

Further useful links:

Waiver helps UK credit unions take on payday lenders

Credit union modernisation and the limits of voluntarism

A dynamic theory of the credit union

Towards the future: Ireland’s credit unions in the 21st Century 

Image Source :

January, 2014

Payday Loans: tackling the underlying causes as well as the symptoms

Jodi Gardner Research Fellow, Centre on Household Assets and Savings Management (CHASM)

Payday loand

The current economic and political conditions have created a ‘perfect storm’ in the explosion of payday lending in the United Kingdom. Economically, the country is experiencing the longest depression in over 100 years, wages have stagnated or are lowering, unemployment has been rising, and the cost of living continues to increase. Politically, a Coalition government has decreased access to welfare, created a universal benefits cap and dismantled the Social Fund, which was widely considered the ‘lender of last resort’ for vulnerable consumers in desperate need of funds. It is therefore no surprise that increasing numbers of people are turning to payday loans, both on-line and in person, for short-term injections of much-needed cash.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) reports that the market was worth approximately £2-2.2 billion in 2011/2012, and that between 7.4 and 8.2 million new loans were given during that year. Whilst the interest rates for these short-term loans vary, rates as high as 16,000% APR are not unknown, particularly for low-income consumers with impaired credit ratings. Additional regulation is therefore urgently required to prevent desperate individuals from being exploited. In April 2014, the consumer credit jurisdiction will be transferred from the current regulator, the OFT, to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). The FCA recently published detailed proposals on what it envisions the consumer credit regime will look like under its control. The current proposals are strongly based on the existing protections available, complemented with increased supervision and enforcement powers. The considerable problems currently experienced in the payday lending industry have been recognised, and there are specific proposals directly aimed at removing the most harmful aspects of these credit products. These include:

  • allowing for a maximum of two rollovers of the loan amount;
  • allowing for a maximum of two unsuccessful attempts at Continuous Payment Authorities (CPAs) to pay off the loan in full;
  • a prohibition on the use of CPAs for part payments;
  • requiring a financial warning to be included in payday advertisements; and
  • requiring lenders to provide borrowers who rollover a loan with an information sheet including how to access free debt advice.

The FCA is also required to cap the cost of credit by 2015, and a consultation on this process will start shortly. These are useful steps forward in the fight against unfair lending practices, but it is not enough. Attention must also be paid to preventing the need for these types of potentially harmful loans in the first place.

This can occur in a number of ways including provision of alternative credit products, encouraging a savings culture and state provision of necessities to lower-income families. Firstly, it is important that there are robust, efficient and widely available alternative credit products for low income consumers, such as a strong Credit Union sector, funding of Community Development Financial Institutions and an increased role for the Social Fund. Many consumers turn to payday loans because of a shortage of savings and lack of ‘savings culture’ in the UK. Recent figures paint a disturbing picture; Now: Pensions reports that 28% of people have stopped saving since the recession, 32% of people have less than £500 in savings, and as many as one in five have no savings at all. The need for promotion of savings, especially with low-income individuals, was identified by the previous Labour Government and in response the Saving Gateway Accounts Act 2009 was drafted. Under this legislation the government would give people earning less than the threshold amount 50 pence for every £1 saved up to a total of £25 each month. Unfortunately, this legislation was cancelled when the Coalition Government came into power and instead the amount allowed to be saved tax-free in an Individual Savings Account was increased. The latter initiative is directed at middle-income consumers who are paying tax, and therefore does little to help those who most need access to savings.

The UK is a developed welfare state and there is an expectation that the government will provide a minimal level of support for vulnerable and low-income citizens. The current explosion of demand for payday lending by low-income consumers to pay for necessities is calling into question whether mainstream society is failing low income consumers. In a welfare state with a social security system, it is unacceptable that such a large number of people are forced to turn to payday loans just to get by every month. Let’s remember to address the cause of this issue, as opposed to merely removing some of the most harmful aspects of a potentially dangerous financial product.

Useful links:

Payday Lenders- Heroes or Villains

Landscapes of Predation, Landscapes of Neglect: A Location Analysis of Payday Lenders and Banks

Which? challenges payday lenders over high missed payment fees

Payday loan danger day could hit thousands

Payday lenders and economically distressed communities: A spatial analysis of financial predation


January, 2014

Poverty kills

Karen Rowlingson


There are a number of possible threats to human life which the Saving Humans theme is highlighting.  Poverty is one of those threats.  Poverty kills people throughout the world but this isn’t just a problem in poor countries. People also die from poverty in the UK and other wealthy countries.

For example, infant mortality rates are much higher among poorer groups in the UK.  Children are also more likely to die from accidents and illnesses if they are brought up in poverty, and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to commit suicide.  Life expectancy is much lower for people in poverty and the UK suffers more ‘excess winter deaths’ than much colder countries like Sweden because older people in the UK cannot afford to heat their homes.

File:"Cost of Living 1918-1944" - NARA - 514088.jpg

Death is clearly an extreme consequence of poverty in the UK but there are other consequences in terms of the negative impact on mental and physical health, family relationships, educational performance and so on.

Poverty rates in the UK are higher than many people expect.  In 2011/12, 13 million people were living in income poverty[1], around one in five of the population.  Other ways of measuring poverty and deprivation paint a similarly bleak picture.  For example, 18 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions, and around 4 million children are not properly fed, as judged by the majority of the population,.

We sometimes assume that poverty is solely the result of being out of work but the majority of those in poverty actually now live in households where someone is in work.  This is because wages have stagnated if not declined over the last 10 years in the UK and living costs have increased.  Of course, those out of work often suffer more extreme forms of poverty but the benefit system has supported many of those both in and out of work since the credit crunch of 2008.  In the next few years, however, the recently introduced cuts to welfare spending will start to hit the poorest hardest, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Given the decline in incomes and rise in living costs in recent years, it is no wonder that people have increasingly borrowed from a range of sources to help make ends meet.  The ‘bank of mum and dad’ where available, is increasingly drawn on.  So too are more expensive sources such as payday lenders.  The government has tried to support lower cost lenders such as credit unions but these cannot (yet) compete with the better resourced commercial lenders.  The government is also supporting financial education initiatives to help young people to learn to manage their money better.  While such initiatives are clearly helpful, and you can read more about them in blogs this week, the basic problem of low income, either through the benefits system or employment, needs to be tackled in order to reduce the harm that poverty undoubtedly causes.

[1] Defined as living in incomes below 60% of median (average) income

Related blogs by Karen Rowlingson

Other useful links:

Cameron will hail the jobs figures but the living standards crisis isn’t over

Fall in inflation fuels hopes of rise in living standards

Commission on Living Standards and their final report

Image Source: Cost of living:

January, 2014

Chemistry for the future

Dr Zoe Schnepp


In the past, chemists were free to play with any element or molecule they wanted. Hazards such as bioaccumulation were unknown and, importantly, unexpected. Chemists busied themselves making devices, materials and medicines for the 20th century world with no idea of the problems these products might cause. In the process, chemistry (and chemicals) got a pretty dreadful reputation! Now we have to keep up with the demands and needs of a 21st century population, as well as find solutions to problems like the energy crisis. 

So what are the next challenges for chemistry? Energy is certainly the biggest in my opinion. There are numerous options, with solar being perhaps the most attractive. The energy will also need to be stored, which is another big area of research. Another area that is becoming really interesting is where we source our feedstocks. Most school-age children will learn about fractional distillation of crude oil to produce molecules for the chemical industry (as well as the major fraction going to fuels). If oil becomes scarce then we will need alternative feedstocks and again nature may provide the answer. There is a lot of attention in the media about biofuels but similar chemistry is also being used to make useful molecules for the chemical industry. Plant matter (biomass) can be broken down in a biorefinery to make a whole range of molecules that can then be used to produce the drugs, plastics and other materials we use in our everyday lives. 

A large challenge that I’ve mentioned briefly this week is resources. Elements that we use in devices and materials have to be sourced from the Earth. Many of these are mined from the Earth’s crust and some are present only in very small quantities. These scarce elements are expensive and several of them are becoming very important in modern technologies. Most importantly, some elements such as platinum or indium will become increasingly important in future technologies such as solar capture or fuel cells. Finding alternative ways to make these technologies work without rare elements is one possibility. In the meantime, the careful use of resources is essential. 

There are so many other challenges I could discuss here. If you are interested in reading further, there is some great information (and a white paper) on the webpage of the Royal Society of Chemistry.[i] Scientists have always been good at solving problems, that’s the main reason that most of us do research! I’d like to think that the big challenges of the future represent some great opportunities.

January, 2014

Better living through materials chemistry

Dr Zoe Schnepp

As I mentioned yesterday, a big area of research in chemistry is controlling the size and shape of different materials. I talked about materials for water purification but that’s just one possible application. By controlling the size and shape of particles of a material you can do some really amazing things. You might have come across the example of gold already. It’s a really unreactive metal in the bulk state – that’s why people have used it for millennia in jewellery after all! But reduce gold down to nanoparticles and it can do amazing things like purify car exhaust.[i] 

Size and shape is most important for a class of materials called catalysts. These speed up chemical reactions and they are fundamental to many aspects of our lives. They will also be crucial in many future applications such as hydrogen-powered cars and capturing solar energy. There are many ways that scientists can control how catalysts are formed, but maybe the most exciting way is to copy nature! 

Living organisms have been controlling size and shape of materials for millions of years. Mammals generate bones out of a hard mineral called calcium phosphate. Bones have a microscopic honeycomb structure that allows incorporation of cells and blood vessels and also keeps the bones from being too heavy. Sea creatures create a spectacular range of shells that become even more amazing when you view them under the microscope![ii] The best thing about this ‘biomineralization’ is that living organisms create these structures under ambient conditions and from water. In this sense, they have designed the ultimate green materials chemistry. 

There are many ways that we can copy nature and control the microscopic architecture of materials. It’s a huge field of research and there are a lot of books on the subject. One way is to use the natural materials themselves as a template.

For example, by coating a leaf skeleton in a solution of iron and heating, we were able to replicate the microscopic vessels of the leaf in a magnetic material called iron carbide (an important catalyst for a range of processes).[iii] Another possibility is to use some of the remarkable polymers (long molecules) that nature produces. Seaweed is a particularly nice example. Brown seaweeds produce a polymer called alginate and this can be used to make nanowires of superconductors. The polymer is able to control how the crystals of the superconductor grow.[iv] 

Magnetic Leaf

This method of using natural materials to create useful materials is the main area of research in my group.[v] It’s maybe not the conventional idea of a chemistry lab! We have boxes of sawdust (that we’re using to make water filtration materials) alongside tubs of gelatin (to make materials for fuel cells).[vi] As well as being interesting, this type of science is becoming increasingly attractive to industry. Waste materials from industry and agriculture often have very low value. In fact with increasing taxes on landfill and burning, waste materials now often have negative value – the represent a cost to the producer. So if we can take a waste material such as sawdust and create a useful material like a water filter it is not only attractive in terms of sustainability, but may generate valuable income.


January, 2014

Saving humans through saving water

Dr Zoe Schnepp

Faroe_stamp_129_sea_pollution_-_consequences 22 01 14 

Generating clean drinking water for everyone on this planet is one of the biggest global challenges. It’s also a particular interest of mine since there are so many ways in which chemistry can contribute. 

One of the big problems with water is the presence of microbes – bacteria, viruses and parasites – which can cause a range of diseases. Gastrointestinal infections related to poor sanitation kill 2.2 million people a year.[i] However, there are also many other sources of water contamination. These can be man-made pollutants, such as fabric dyes or agricultural run-off. There is also increasing concern about drug molecules such as hormones entering the water supply from both animal and human excrement. Another important source of water contamination is from nature. The earth contains plenty of toxic elements and these can leach into water from rocks. It would be impossible to talk about all the fascinating chemistry research into combatting all of these water problems so I’m just going to focus on one: arsenic. 

Arsenic is found in many different minerals in the Earth’s crust. It’s also used in a range of different industries but as I mentioned above, the main source of arsenic contamination in water actually comes from the element leaching from rocks into groundwater. This is widespread, including countries such as Bangladesh, India, China and Argentina.[ii] The actual concentrations of arsenic in groundwater are quite low – too low to cause acute arsenic poisoning. The problem comes from long-term consumption of arsenic-contaminated water, as well as use of groundwater to irrigate crops. This can cause a range of unpleasant health problems and, since arsenic is carcinogenic, it has been linked to cancers of the skin, lungs and bladder. 

A particularly interesting example of tackling arsenic removal actually uses the same chemistry as I mentioned in this blog yesterday – photocatalysis. Many research groups around the world are working on ways to use sunlight to help remove arsenic from water. It’s similar chemistry to self-cleaning windows, where sunlight activates catalysts on the surface of the window to break down molecules of dirt that have accumulated. Since arsenic is an element, we are not looking at breaking it down, but we can convert it into a different form. Once it’s in that form, it’s much easier to remove. 

The chemistry works by using a photocatalyst – a material that can absorb energy from the sun and use that energy to drive a chemical reaction. Arsenic in groundwater is mainly present as positively charged ions – each ion having a charge of +3 (As3+). In this form, arsenic is very mobile – it’s not absorbed very well by normal water filters and it can move easily into the body. The purpose of the new photocatalyst chemistry is to convert arsenic into a different form that is more easily absorbed onto water filters. By shining sunlight onto these photocatalysts, arsenic is converted from +3 ions to +5 ions. These are much more easily removed. 

The beauty of this chemistry is that it uses sunlight as the energy source. It could also be integrated with some conventional water-filtration materials such as activated carbons. The challenge is now to get the materials (the photocatalysts) optimized. Catalysts work best with a high surface area and so a lot of current research into these photocatalysts is in structuring the material – more on this tomorrow!

January, 2014

Sun worship – addressing the energy challenge

Dr Zoe Schnepp


Enough energy from sunlight strikes our planet in one hour to provide all the energy needed for human activity in one year.

Given this astonishing fact, it is not surprising that governments all over the world now consider the harvesting of solar energy to be a priority. Several approaches exist, the most well known being the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity. However, sunlight is not constant and so to ensure a reliable national power supply an energy storage system is required. This cannot just be a daily charge-recharge cycle. For energy security most countries require a storage buffer. At the moment this often takes the form of an oil stockpile. Batteries could provide part of the solution, but current technology does not have the energy capacity or stability for large-scale long-term storage.

Another possibility is using solar energy to generate a fuel, in much the same way as plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into energy-rich carbohydrates. Chemical fuels offer a much higher energy density (amount of energy per unit of mass) than batteries and can be stored for use either in stationary power plants or in vehicles. However, ‘copying nature’ is not straightforward. Photosynthesis is actually quite inefficient and so to make artificial photosynthesis a viable industry we can’t just settle with copying nature. We need to go one better.

Photosynthesis in plants involves two main steps, both of which are driven by sunlight. One step splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen is not released as a gas but is transported as a positively charged hydrogen ion to another enzyme. Here, the hydrogen ion is combined with carbon dioxide to generate sugars. For a chemist, copying this exquisite multistep process is extremely difficult! One alternative is just to focus on part of the photosynthesis reaction: the water splitting. If we can generate materials to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, we could generate hydrogen gas, which is an energy-rich and clean fuel. The materials use energy from sunlight to drive the water splitting and are called photocatalysts.

This system has a lot of potential but many challenges need to be overcome. Current photocatalysts have quite low efficiency and many only work using UV light. When water is split, the hydrogen and oxygen gases need to be kept separate to avoid creating an explosive mixture! Furthermore, many existing photocatalysts for water splitting use toxic elements such as cadmium or extremely rare and expensive elements such as platinum. Viable, large-scale hydrogen production from sunlight will require efficient photocatalysts based on cheap materials and simple preparation methods.

It’s at this stage that you can envisage some of the enormous challenges facing scientists. We’ve already mentioned cadmium being toxic – it’s banned from many applications under EU RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) legislation.[i] But in artificial photosynthesis, there are materials containing cadmium that work really well! Should we continue to use cadmium, arguing that it may end up being the only material that works? Or perhaps we can learn a lot about the science of artificial photosynthesis by studying cadmium? It’s a very difficult problem and certainly not one that is confined to cadmium, or indeed to artificial photosynthesis. There are countless cases of toxic or expensive elements that perform their jobs extremely well. This is why some toxic elements are exempted from EU chemical hazard regulation for certain devices. I would argue that we have a unique opportunity. In terms of implementing the technology, we are in the very early stages with artificial photosynthesis. There is a lot more work to be done to make this very promising chemistry work and it could genuinely revolutionize our world. If we consider sustainability now, then we won’t be faced with a big clean-up operation in 50 or 100 years.

January, 2014

Can chemistry ever really be called ‘green’?

Dr Zoe Schnepp


I tried an experiment today. I typed the word ‘chemical’ into a Google image search. Alongside images of glassware filled with colourful fluid and The Chemical Brothers in concert I got lots of hazard warning signs (TOXIC, WARNING, HARMFUL, RADIOACTIVE) and people in protective suits. Sadly, the search also returned many images from the recent conflict in Syria. Chemicals seem to be synonymous with danger, harm and even death, so can chemistry ever really be called ‘green’? 

Many of the chemicals responsible for this negative image were the result of a lack of foresight. With the advent of world-changing technologies in the 20th Century, it was inconceivable to scientists and industries at the time that many of the products they were making might harm people or the earth on which we live. CFC refrigerants were lauded at the time of discovery for being a non-toxic and ‘inert’ alternative to the much more dangerous and commonly-used ammonia. It was decades later that the complex atmospheric interaction of CFCs with ozone was discovered. The insecticide DDT was also once a success story, being used for example to combat malaria. Likewise, Thalidomide was initially used effectively to control morning sickness in pregnant women. Obviously, the image of the chemical industry has not been helped by some cases of appalling cover-ups. But the point is that these chemicals, and many others, were never designed to do the harm that they did. They were created with the goal of improving our lives. The terrible effects on human health and the environment were unforeseen.

With cases like DDT in mind, chemists in the US in the 90s coined the term ‘Green Chemistry’ and wrote a set of twelve principles. This was not a new field of chemistry, but rather a philosophy, a set of values to be used by all chemists when designing a new molecule or process. The twelve principles include minimization of energy usage and waste but also the design of new molecules to be non-toxic. The idea is that sustainability should be considered from the very first stages of a new research process, rather than after a new molecule or material has already been created. Of course the same principles can be applied to existing processes and in fact there are many examples of industrial processes that have been made much cleaner and more energy efficient through the application of Green Chemistry. But the long term goal is that sustainability should be considered at the design stage.

So can chemistry ever really be green? Will we ever have a world where all industrial processes produce harmless waste or even no waste at all? Can we generate all of the chemicals that we use in our everyday lives (medicines, detergents, electronic materials, food ingredients to name just a few!) from entirely renewable resources? It’s certainly going to be a challenge and there are many sceptics. But there are also some remarkable and exciting Green Chemistry success stories, some of which I hope to talk about in this blog over the next week!

Dr Zoe Schnepp is a Birmingham Fellow in the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham.

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