In the pocket of my coat I have a peculiar souvenir of my recent visit to China. It’s a white face-mask with a little filter built-in to one side. It cost 2 Yuan, or about £0.2, and was given to me by a research student in Tianjin, who worked in my lab in Liverpool for a year. She bought it for me one Saturday when we were going out sightseeing in Tianjin because the air quality was so poor it caught on the back of your throat. The smog was so thick you could not see the tops of even modestly tall buildings.
This is a daily reality for millions of people in many of China’s cities. I reported in my blog entitled ‘Year of the Air: 2013’ [November 20th, 2013] about the number of deaths from pollution. PM2.5 that’s particles with a diameter less than 2.5 microns are damaging to human health. While I was in Beijing the level of PM2.5 was 144 micrograms per cubic metre, compared to 13 at home in Liverpool. My student’s mother had visited her while she was in Liverpool and I asked what she liked most during her visit – the fresh air was her reply.
I can’t really remember smog in England though I do remember buildings in the city centres being gradually cleaned because the smog had turned them black. And I remember shortly after I finished my PhD, being shown by a collaborator in the Pathology Department, the lungs from a recent post-mortem – they were grey-black from the smog!
The scale of the problem is difficult to grasp. Tianjin is a provincial city about 30 minutes by bullet train south-east of Beijing with a population of 14 million people, almost twice that of London, and 2.4 million cars. The smog is generated by pollution from factories, power-stations and cars. Hybrid cars could make a difference but there are none because they are too expensive, a Beijing colleague told me as he drove me in his brand new Volkswagen Passat. Plug-in cars would not solve the problem because the electricity would come mainly from coal-fired power stations, so the pollution would be simply moved elsewhere.
China needs clean energy, fast and lots of it. In 2011 China’s installed electricity generating capacity was about 1TW (Tera Watts or 1 with 12 noughts after it), of which about 2% comes from China’s 21 operating nuclear power plants. Typical modern nuclear power plants take years to build and generate around 1,000 MW; perhaps we should be considering the small-scale mass production of medium-size modular power plants. Huge, complex, reliable aeroplanes are made in this way, for instance the current Airbus A380 is production rate is about 25 per year. So why not medium-size nuclear power plants? Mass-production would also make decommissioning cheaper since it not be a bespoke process for each plant.
Maybe now that the Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works have turned their attention to developing a fusion reactor, power-stations will be produced like airliners before I retire.
BTW – My pathology colleague and I were interested in whether people with osteoporosis could break their hips and fall, rather than the usual assumption of falling and break their hips. See:
Wilkinson JM, Cotton DWK, Harris SC & Patterson EA, Assessment of osteoporosis at autopsy: mechanical methods compared to radiological and histological techniques, Medicine, Science & the Law, 31(1):19-24, 1991.