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Sustainable energy

Can a whizz-bang presentation attract students to green science? Chris Fautley catches a demonstration

First, create a hydrogen explosion. Now generate a tornado. Then seed a cloud. Add an enormous dollop of bright pink "silly putty", (polyborosiloxane, if you prefer). And, for good measure, consider how our future energy requirements could be found in sewage. Quite a tall order for an hour-long science lesson, but that is exactly what students got when the roadshow "Our Planet, Our Future" visited London's Royal Institution as part of a nationwide tour.

Organised by the Institute of Physics and the Engineering and Technology Board, it aimed to demonstrate how science and technology can reduce the detrimental impact mankind has had on the planet and how, with energy resources running low, sustainability is the way forward.

Presenters Karen Bultitude and Laura Grant did a sterling job. The audience had a role, too, each member being issued with a radio handset that enabled them to vote. The first task was to choose one of two topics that made up each of the presentation's three sections. This, says Karen - a research associate in the graphic science unit at the University of the West of England - ensured lectures maintained appeal to the 11 to 16 age groups they were targeting. The handsets were also used to answer key questions.

For example, "What, for you, will be a car's key feature in 2020?" Answers will be collated in a nationwide survey.

Karen explains that what really fires students up is seeing demonstrations that they are no longer allowed to perform in school. "It's the whizz-bang science they haven't seen that they get really get excited about." For example, how do you demonstrate hydrogen's potential as an alternative fuel? Simple. Inflate a balloon with it and put a lighted taper to it (in turn, a splendid cue to demonstrate a model car powered by hydrogen fuel cells).

And how do you seed a cloud (thus reducing a hurricane's energy by up to 15 per cent), from your own classroom? All you need is a beaker with a few drops of water, a smouldering match to provide the seeds (smoke), a rubber glove as an airtight seal, and your fist inside the glove to act as a plunger. It works.

Let's not forget the "silly putty" either: suffice to say it was used to demonstrate why some plastics are recyclable and others are not. The most remarkable demonstration, however, was the flame tornado. Everybody was transfixed as Laura and Kate filled a dish with lighter fuel and placed it on a revolving platform. The fuel was then ignited and a column of fine wire mesh placed around it. As the dish rotates, a vortex of air is created inside the mesh and the flame rises, tornado-like. If rotation slows, there is insufficient energy for the vortex to form; too fast, and turbulence and drag destroy it. Cracking stuff. Kate reminds us, though: "There was no point in showing explosions, but not passing on any of the science."

Among the audience at the Royal Institution were 42 Year 10 double-award science students from Maidstone Boys Grammar School. "It does lend itself to fuels and energy," said their head of science. "We do touch on plate tectonics. Certainly in terms of the weather and climate change the presentation was very, very topical. I hope they would have understood something of the seriousness of the situation we find ourselves in, and the fact that energy resources are running out. Hopefully they can see that there is research being done on alternatives - viable alternatives as well."

* A free CD-Rom of the entire presentation is now available (maximum two per school). Email:

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