The low-carbon Cars: How our main source of transport is cleaning up its act — Energy & the environment feature 5

Road vehicles cause a sixth of man-made carbon emissions. This, along with the high cost of fuel, are the main driving forces behind manufacturers looking to develop cleaner, more efficient cars which use alternative propulsion methods. Jon Norrey examines the ones vying for pole position.

Whilst sitting still in yet another traffic jam, we’ve all wondered what it would be like to speed through the air in a flying car; soaring over any obstacles that might once have blocked our journey. Some of the more ambitious members of the automotive industry are even working on this; but the majority are concentrating their efforts on an arguably more important, if less interesting, car of the future.

Electric, hybrid, and alternative fuel cars, are the ones on track to becoming the future of automobiles. And the ultimate winner will be the one that can offer the best combination of cleaner, cheaper and more readily available fuel – but this race has only just begun, and the road ahead may get a bit bumpy; however, the auto industry is smoothing it out as much as possible with investment of over £60 billion a year dedicated to research and development of these machines.

Toyota Prius Hybrid

A lot of effort has gone into reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-powered cars over the years, with some success, but many now agree that the main problem is the fuel rather than the vehicle. While more efficient engines and catalytic converters – which reduce the toxicity of pollutants – have helped, burning fossil fuels like petrol and diesel is always going to result in a lot of environmentally unfriendly substances coming out of the exhaust. Over 95% of which is carbon dioxide (CO2), the most abundant ‘man-made’ greenhouse gas. The average car pumps out 5.1 tonnes of it per year.

“Air quality is greatly compromised by traffic emissions,”says Andrew Clark, environmental assessment and management lecturer at Salford University.

He adds: “Transport constitutes over a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and around 36% of our energy use in the UK, so more than a third of energy we use goes to burning fuel in private cars, of which there are around 30 million on the road. This is very important in terms of carbon emissions, but we should also remember that very harmful pollutants other than carbon are being produced too, such as oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter.

“We have pollutant levels that shouldn’t be exceeded called limit values. The UK is currently exceeding the limit value for oxides of nitrogen [molecules containing nitrogen and oxygen] in many urban areas, such as Manchester and London.

“On top of that, research has actually found adverse effects such as respiratory illness and reduced life expectancy at levels below those limit values that we’re already exceeding!”

With CO2, oxides of nitrogen and various other pollutants reducing air quality, causing illness and contributing to climate change, it seems to be in everyone’s best interests to consider the alternatives. With this in mind, the UK government has offered £900 million in grants for the development of ultra-low emission vehicles, for which it wants the country to be at the global forefront.

In November, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, said: “The UK’s automotive industry has undergone a renaissance in recent years and we have the potential to emerge as a trailblazer in the development, design and manufacture of green cars.

“We’re doing well compared to our European competitors, helped by a buoyant UK car market. But, if we’re to stay ahead we need to secure the UK’s position as both a global leader in the production and adoption of low carbon vehicles.

“We need to see more people who live in Britain driving these cars and enjoying the lower running costs they can bring.”

While our government recognises the importance of creating and driving these vehicles, it’s other nations – mainly Japan – who are leading the charge.

The Nissan leaf is the top selling electric vehicle in the UK, and has sold 100,000 units worldwide. Nissan spokesperson Richard Murphy says: “The benefits electric cars have over other vehicle types are that they are cheaper to charge and run. If you live in an area with congestion charges they are normally not charged these due to the near zero CO2 emissions, which also means there’s no road tax, as well as being a lot better for the environment.”

The Leaf, along with other electric cars, boasts zero emissions at the point of use. But the electricity to charge the batteries still typically comes from power stations, so to think of it as entirely emission-free fails to take into account the full picture. While it greatly varies depending on location and means of electricity generation, electric cars produce on average around half the emissions of their fossil fuel-powered counterparts.

But there are a few drawbacks. The battery technology, while improving, is heavy, expensive and only offers a range of around 100 miles – and if you’re running out of juice a long way from home, charge points are extremely scarce. On top of that, the vehicle can take up to 13 hours to fully charge when plugged into a domestic socket.

Electric vehicles are also almost double the initial cost of similar conventional cars and, once bought, only manage to retain around 20% of their value after three years. Despite this, research shows that by the end of 2014 the number of electric cars on the road will have doubled to more than 700,000.

A hybrid car, as its name implies, uses a combination of different propulsion methods; usually a conventional petrol-powered motor, as well as an electric motor and a battery. There have been over seven million hybrids sold worldwide, with manufacturer Toyota providing 80% of them.

Toyota spokesperson, Nathan Jones, says: “Hybrids offer the best of electric and petrol vehicles, like low emissions and no road tax, and you don’t have to spend hours charging the batteries as they charge automatically while driving. The car also decides which is the most efficient power method at the time and switches between the two which means they offer a similar performance to normal cars.”

He adds: “We estimate that hybrids save about 40% in running costs. ”

Toyota claims their hybrids release 37% less CO2 than comparable diesel cars and have prevented the emission of 34 million tonnes of the greenhouse gas. However, with initial costs of around 25% more than similar conventional cars, and higher maintenance costs due to the extra complexity of the dual propulsion system, many experts claim that hybrids are merely a transition technology before we properly utilise alternative fuels like hydrogen and biofuels.

Toyota are also at the forefront in hydrogen-power, with the first mass-production vehicles set to go on sale next year.

The cars will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells which work by ‘stripping’ electrons off hydrogen stored in the cells and using them to create electricity. The used hydrogen then combines with oxygen from the air to form water, which is released as a vapour. This is the only emission.

While the generation of electricity to power the car works similarly to battery-powered vehicles, hydrogen power offers the kinds of benefits that are more likely to satisfy the consumer, such as the ability to refuel in under five minutes and a range of around 300 miles. It will therefore offer all the comforts of a conventional vehicle, with none of the emissions out of the tailpipe. Perfect, right? Well, not exactly. Once again, you have examine the full picture of how the fuel is produced.

Hydrogen is almost exclusively obtained from natural gas (methane). The process involves reacting the methane with water which releases not only hydrogen, but our old foe: carbon dioxide.

Because of this, studies estimate that the actual emissions per vehicle add up to only slightly less than hybrid vehicles; however, various other methods of hydrogen production are being explored which have the potential to cut the emissions by more than half. These include: ‘gasification’ – converting coal or biomass into gaseous components and using various chemical reactions to greatly improve efficiency; electrolysis – using an electric current to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (which could employ the use of low-carbon renewable energies); and high-temperature thermochemical water-splitting – which uses high temperatures from nuclear reactors or focussed sunlight to split water.

Some have voiced concerns over the storage of pressurised hydrogen in the cars, which is highly explosive when ignited. But experts assert that it is actually less dangerous than the highly-combustible fuels we currently use – so we’re unlikely to witness any smaller scale, ground level Hindenburg disasters.

The more pressing issue for the consumers is the lack of infrastructure; hydrogen refill pumps are currently only available in California, so the cars will only go on sale there, but if successful, we could see rapid worldwide expansion of the technology.

The last of the competitors are biofuel-powered cars. Biofuels are fuels made from living organisms – like plants and algae – which absorb inorganic carbon and turn it into organic carbon – basically, they take in useless and potentially harmful carbon substances (such as CO2), and give out useful carbon substances which we can burn as fuel.

Obviously, burning this fuel creates the useless and potentially harmful carbon substances again, but, in theory, it balances out as the organisms absorb it all again and turn it back into useful carbon – so it’s ‘carbon-neutral’. But in practice it isn’t doesn’t quite work out that way as growing the organisms requires various uses of fossil fuels; however, studies have shown that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by up to 90% by utilising biofuels.

Biofuels are already used to great effect in the US and Brazil, and the most appealing aspect about them to many is that they can go into our standard fossil fuel-powered cars. Diesel cars require no modification to use them, and petrol cars can be modified relatively cheaply. In fact, it is common even now to see fossil fuels blended with a small percentage of biofuels to reduce the cost and lower emissions, and this method could open the door for fossil fuels in our future vehicles, albeit in smaller doses.

The drawbacks of biofuels are that they provide less power than fossil fuels as they store less energy, which reduces vehicle performance and requires more regular fill-ups. But the main concern is one of an ethical nature: should we be using crops for car fuel when instead they could be used to feed starving people around the world?

Given that biofuels are usable in the standard cars we all know and love, this may give them the edge over their rivals. However, the auto industry is always developing and expanding; it could, at any time, give a significant boost to one of the aforementioned competitors, or maybe even offer a short-cut to the chequered flag to one we didn’t even know was in the race.

Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey


No fracking down — Energy & the environment feature 4

With the government attempting to drill into our minds the benefits of ‘fracking’ in potentially over half the country, Jon Norrey spent the day with protesters on the front line of the fracking war.

“They’re not going to break us up here; spirits are too high and we can see the win line,” says Joe Boyd, a 40-year-old environmental studies student from Liverpool, shortly after emerging from his tent at the anti-fracking protest camp at Barton Moss, “I’ve got a girl who’s 15 and a lad who’s 10. It’s their future I’m fighting for.”

Anti-fracker's caravan

Anti-fracker’s caravan at Barton Moss

The camp runs along the western boundary of Barton Aerodrome, just off the M62, and sits in the shadow of a giant drill which is being used for exploratory purposes to determine the viability of the shale rock – up to 10,000ft below – for production of natural gas, which could lead to hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ in the area shortly afterwards, a scenario Boyd sees as unlikely: “We’re 110% focused on stopping this fracking, we get up every day and do what we’ve got to do. We won’t lose; it’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.”

The self-proclaimed peaceful protesters believe they are fighting a war of information with the government and various energy firms to raise public awareness of the damage fracking could cause, and they see their camp – a 200-yard row of tents and small caravans – as a “focal point on the front line,” which fittingly sits in a trench at the side of a narrow private road opposite their enemy: the IGas test site.

A national survey conducted by The Guardian last August showed 40% for, 40% against, and 20% undecided regarding fracking in their local area – and the protesters believe their efforts have tipped the balance in their favour. “It’s a case of waking people up, which we are doing. When people know what it is, they don’t want it,” assures Boyd.

The camp receives huge local support which sees the 50 ever-presents regularly joined by over 200 from surrounding communities. They often get donations, from food and drink to blankets and clothing, and even received over £300 worth of supplies from one supporter. “We had a march last week with over 1000 people. We’ve got one next week and we’re looking at a few thousand,” continues Boyd, who has been at the camp since its inception in early November. “Everything is going our way right now.”

Some of the camp’s campaigners have travelled from across Britain, including 21-year-old Lara Davis who left her job as a pharmaceutical assistant in London to fight for the cause. Her main concern is earthquakes, such as the ones caused by fracking in Lancashire in 2011 (leading to a temporary ban), which she believes have the potential to cause great damage to surrounding communities.

Robby Taylor, a climate campaigner of 8 years from Croydon, has been at the site since early December. He says: “My primary concern is digging up more fossil fuels when climate scientists are saying we should leave them and switch to renewables. That’s the global issue.”

The 27-year-old sound engineer continues: “Then there’s local issues such as the potential for water contamination. Industries are saying it can be done safely but accidents happen and if you’re talking about polluting people’s water supplies that’s too high a price to pay.

“Thirdly, there’s the industrialisation of communities and the added truck movements in and out of fracking sites which will increase local traffic and pollution.”

The veteran campaigner describes the “battles” they have every weekday with up to 20 trucks moving in and out of the IGas site, explaining that on a good day the protesters can cause a delay of over 2 hours by walking slowly in front of the vehicles for the few hundred yards from the main road to the site entrance. He then mentions the time in mid-December when they blocked the site entrance with a 17-metre long, 1.5-tonne wind turbine blade. “There’s almost an art to it,” he laughs.

Despite offering guidance to others and welcoming those who enter the camp’s vicinity, Boyd dismisses the notion of a camp hierarchy: “We don’t have leaders. Out in the cities there are leaders. Everyone plays their part individually here.” He then receives a call on his walkie-talkie addressing his adopted pseudonym, ‘Raven’, which he pulls from the waist of his camouflage combat trousers to acknowledge a warning of the presence of another enemy: Greater Manchester Police (GMP). Shortly afterwards two officers quietly walk the length of the previously tension-free camp exchanging glances with the 50-odd protesters. Boyd stifles his speech as they pass.

Officers and Tactical Aid Units have been used to assist the IGas trucks in arriving at their destination, and GMP have claimed that over £330,000 has been spent on policing the camp and that 82 arrests have been made so far – 62 of whom are from outside Greater Manchester.

Chief Superintendent Mark Roberts says: “At the start of this protest the majority of protesters were peaceful and law-abiding, but over the past couple of weeks local residents and officers have seen a distinct change to this. It now seems that the majority of people who are arriving at the site are not there to protest against fracking but are there to disrupt and intimidate the local community and to antagonise police.

“We have seen offences of assaults, damage, harassment of residents and workers, a flare fired at the police helicopter and threats to kill.”

He adds: “The police are there to do a job and that job is to facilitate peaceful protest and to balance the needs of all parties: the residents who live there, businesses who operate from there, and the protesters themselves. It is not up to GMP who operates on this land and who has access to it, we are simply there to police it to ensure that everyone remains safe.”

Boyd vociferously denies what the camp are calling ‘flaregate’: “There’s no evidence whatsoever. Everyone in this country knows if a flare was fired at a helicopter with 5 police officers in it this place would have been locked down in 10 minutes.” According to the camp the police took no initial action and arrived two days later with a search warrant.

Simon Pook, head of prison law at Robert Lizar Solicitors, who has represented many of the protesters in court and even spent time at the camp himself, has accused GMP of “targeted arrests and political policing”, as well as unlawful arrest and overly-aggressive behaviour – resulting in one elderly disabled man breaking his leg.

He says: “There’s incredible amounts of footage of police brutality and at least 30 complaints I’m aware of that have been lodged.” Adding: “In my view, the policing here goes against Article 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.”

The 46-year-old had similarly harsh words for the government: “For the last year the government have been working arm in arm with the fracking industry and have been sharing how they would undermine any anti-fracking argument. So the fracking industry has direct access to the government. That information is quite damning in my view.”

Prime Minister David Cameron recently offered incentives to councils willing to adopt fracking which include 100% of business rates from shale gas schemes (instead of the usual 50%), as well as £100,000 once a well is built, and a further 1% of revenues – up to £1.7 million per year. This was labelled as a bribe by Greenpeace and Pook says he believes this was offered due to the government’s fracking claims being undermined by new reports of its dangers emerging from America, and in part from Europe, citing France’s complete ban on the controversial technique.

A government-commissioned report by AMEC claims that more than half the country – around 40,000 square miles – could be suitable for shale gas fracking, and that up to 2,880 wells could be drilled for oil or gas under new licensing; creating up to 32,000 jobs and producing over 8 billion cubic feet of gas throughout the 2020s – up to three times the current UK annual demand. It also states that a single well could create up to 51 lorry movements per day but that the environmental impact would be “manageable”.

This is in stark contrast to a BP report released this month which claims that global greenhouse gas emissions are likely to rise by nearly a third in the next 20 years, primarily due to growth of the shale gas industry. This would put global greenhouse emission targets well out of reach.

Despite this, the government remain steadfast in their support of fracking, but the reported issues may have led to their acknowledgement of the need for strict regulation. Energy Minister Michael Fallon, said: “It is an exciting prospect, which could bring growth, jobs and energy security. But we must develop shale responsibly, both for local communities and for the environment, with robust regulation in place.”

The fracking process involves drilling down into the earth and injecting a mixture of sand, water and various chemicals at high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release the natural gas inside. The technique is controversial as it uses millions of gallons of water, which must be transported to the site by numerous trucks on a daily basis. The chemicals used have also been linked to cancer, infertility and birth defects, which could have dangerous consequences should they leak into the water supply.

The IGas site

The IGas site

But Sian Pritchard, spokesperson for IGas, believes that fracking could be highly beneficial for the UK in its progression to greener energy. She says: “Early indications suggest shale gas could provide a significant opportunity for the economy, creating and supporting jobs in regions of the UK that need it most. It could also give us greater energy security, and hopefully provide a lower carbon fuel to use as we transition to renewable energy.”

This view is backed up by Thomas Eckersall, gas engineer for Air Products, a leading provider of nitrogen used in many fracking procedures. “Using our natural resources to be self-sufficient will save us a lot of money,” he says. Adding: “In an ideal world global warming wouldn’t be an issue and everything would be powered by children’s laughter but in reality I think this is the best solution for acquiring something we can’t currently live without.

“It will provide jobs across the country; it should lower or at least stabilise fuel costs; and it will increase GDP if we export any excess. I doubt it would affect our emission levels as we’d just import what we’d otherwise extract and as long as we maintain good standards of practice there should be no issues.

“It’s a bonus if we put that extra money into development of greener and even more reliable methods, but that can’t be done until we can make the switch to those with it having no negative effects on the public – which is impossible right now. There would be more outcry if it came at great cost and inconvenience to the consumer.”

Fracking is a highly contentious issue in the US, which has over half a million active natural gas wells. Researchers at Duke University recently discovered dangerous levels of methane – a flammable gas 23 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide – had leaked from fracking sites into local water wells and video footage has emerged showing people igniting their water supply as an alleged result. This, along with the other reported issues, has caused widespread backlash amongst its opponents.

Illinois resident Dale Zaidi is about to see fracking sites move into his state, mirroring the UK in that respect. He says: “From an economic perspective fracking is fantastic, but from an environmental perspective it’s disastrous.” Adding: “We have very vocal protest groups but thousands of barrels a day seems to speak to governments louder than them and all the related environmental disasters combined.”

With an estimated 2.5 million wells fracked worldwide, the UK government has made it clear they believe it’s time we get in on the action and utilise what could be a more economically sound method of energy production; but with a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels before 2050, many claim the move would put that goal beyond reach. Added to the possible health issues, it seems the war over this divisive issue looks set to rage on for the foreseeable future.

Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey

A new era of nuclear — Energy & the environment feature 3

Over the closing months of 2013 the government ushered in a new age of nuclear power by giving the go ahead to increase the UK’s nuclear capacity by over 50%. Jon Norrey examines the effects this divisive energy supply may have on the country.

The notion of harnessing energy released by nuclear fission has been around since the late 1930s, but for many the concept still seems more suited to the realms of science fiction. It is perceived by many as a dangerous process with the potential to end human civilisation, by others as a vital source of clean and efficient energy, and by some as a method of turning angered scientists into large, green superhumans. Of course the latter isn’t possible (yet) but the others certainly are, with consequences already witnessed.

In 1945, it took just two nuclear bombs dropped in Japan to almost instantly wipe out over 100,000 people, along with much of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and to severely injure many more – but the damage didn’t end there. Exposure to residual radioactive particles, or ‘fallout’, in the aftermath caused radiation poisoning, various cancers and birth defects. This demonstrated the potency of nuclear weaponry, helping to end a war but in doing so creating a new fear, along with major political tension regarding nuclear proliferation.

In 1986, 31 people died trying to contain a nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which left the neighbouring city of Pripyat – then home to over 50,000 – a radioactive wasteland. The disaster created an ‘exclusion zone’ of 2,600 square kilometres, which remains in force to this day, and spread fallout across much of the northern hemisphere, affecting thousands. And those who thought such occurrences were a thing of the past only last year saw similar devastation in Fukushima, Japan; the effects of which are yet to be fully discovered – A British example is the Windscale (now Sellafield) accident in 1957 which is believed to have caused cancer in around 240 people.

Incidents like these have strengthened the view that when something nuclear goes wrong, it’s usually catastrophic, causing nuclear programs around the world to be closely scrutinised in an attempt to prevent the most deadly weaponry known to man getting into the wrong hands, and to try to ensure safe usage.

The UK has utilised nuclear power for over half a century with it currently providing a sixth of the country’s energy needs (around 10 gigawatts [GW]) from 16 reactors nationwide. With all except one of these set for decommission in the next ten years, the government faced strong pressure from opposition groups to divert focus to alternate sources – mainly renewable energies such as wind, wave and solar power to match the policies of many of our European neighbours – but the arguments appear to have been disregarded with agreements now in place for the construction of new reactors in Hinkley, Somerset; Anglesey, Wales; and Oldbury, South Gloucestershire, with more expected soon.


In fact, energy companies have plans to build up to 16GW of new nuclear power capacity by 2030 – a total investment of £60billion – with the first reactors expected to be operational by the end of the decade. Hinkley developer EDF claim that the new nuclear plans could raise GDP by over £5 billion, increase nuclear industry exports by £900 million, and create 900 permanent jobs over its 60-year operation. Their new reactors will be the first built in the UK in two decades and will generate enough electricity to power six million homes (7% of UK demand).

In October last year, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “This deal means £16bn of investment coming into the country and the creation of 25,000 jobs [during construction], which is brilliant news for the South West and for the country as a whole.”

He added: “This also marks the next generation of nuclear power in Britain, which has an important part to play in contributing to our future energy needs and our longer term security of supply.”

As well as reducing reliance on energy imports, which should offer protection against volatile prices, the new plants are being built privately at no cost to taxpayers. Supporters have also praised the coalition’s continuation of the previous Labour government’s proposal to cut greenhouse emissions 80% from the 1990 baseline by 2050 by making nuclear power – a low-carbon source – central to its energy policy.

Critics, however, maintain that renewable sources should be prioritised and nuclear power phased out in line with other nations. After the meltdown in Fukushima, Germany permanently shut down eight of its 23 reactors with the rest to follow by 2022, following an overwhelming parliamentary vote – nuclear power had previously been their greatest energy source at 23%. But Germany weren’t the first to commit to phasing out what they consider to be a high-risk energy source, with Italy (now entirely non-nuclear), Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and Spain doing the same. The latter three have even enacted laws against construction of new sites.

In France (home of EDF), where nuclear power constitutes 77% of total energy production, President François Hollande vowed to reduce that figure to 50% over the coming decade. The Japanese and Taiwanese governments have made similar promises. Countries such as Australia, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Norway and many more have no reactors and remain opposed.

Nikki Clark, an anti-nuclear campaigner with the Stop Hinkley protest group believes we should follow suit. “Relying on uranium, which we don’t mine in the UK, doesn’t give us energy security, whereas home-grown renewables would,” she says. Adding: “the problems with nuclear are that we have no solution for the waste, we can’t be sure about the health impacts as the models used to assess this are highly contested in scientific circles, and we don’t need it to fight climate change.”

Regarding public attitude towards nuclear power she says: “There is very low unconditional support – around the 30% level – and as for conditional support; that depends on two things: the first is that it is part of the energy mix with renewables, and the second is that it’s a stepping stone to a completely renewables-based future. If the government get their way there won’t be any renewables; their investment into nuclear power is already having a very negative impact.”

Helen Christie, a PhD nuclear researcher working with a team across six UK universities (funded in part by EDF), disagrees. “Building new nuclear reactors to help power the country is a positive thing as their efficiency and total energy production is far greater than the majority of renewables, and it’s also a lot greener than using fossil fuels,” she says, “so it’s a great compromise.”

She adds: “If you look at the numbers, nuclear is actually one of the safest methods of energy production. Many of the major nuclear incidents have been due to human error; not the methods or equipment – people generally don’t know this and so a stigma has become attached to it. In reality, the risk factor of a nuclear reactor is a lot less than people think and if they knew that there would be less stigma and more support.”

She concludes: “We have very high regulation standards so I don’t see any danger with expanding and updating our nuclear power supply.”

Nuclear power remains a highly divisive issue (a poll by The UK Energy Research Centre showed a 32% approval and 29% disapproval rating with the rest undecided), but the vastly reduced carbon emissions of up to 30 times less than fossil fuels, the well-documented decline in fossil fuel supplies, and increased fuel price volatility appear to be the main reasons the government are strong supporters of a nuclear future.

However, another bone of contention is the agreed ‘strike price’ (the price consumer pays per megawatt-hour [MWh] of energy) for the Hinkley plant, set at £92.50 – around double the current energy cost. This has been labelled ‘too expensive’ by various economists as well as Jim Ratcliffe, CEO of chemical company Ineos, who recently agreed a deal for nuclear power in France at £37.94 per MWh.

Clark calls the agreement “a stab in the dark,” and adds: “They’ve got no clue what the going rate will be then and what they’re committing us to is ridiculous.”

In December, former head of the International Atomic Agency Hans Blix proposed an alternative; one which many claim could provide a satisfactory compromise between pro and anti-nuclear sides. He suggested moving away from uranium to utilise a different radioactive element: thorium.

As well as being four times more abundant than uranium, meltdowns are impossible in thorium reactors as chain reactions cannot be sustained as fission ceases automatically. Furthermore, it is estimated that one tonne of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium and 3.5 million tonnes of coal. But perhaps most importantly for some, unlike uranium the by-products cannot be used to create nuclear weaponry (which is widely claimed to be the reason the US dropped the technology in favour of uranium-based nuclear power in 1973).

Professor Robert Cywinski, Researcher at Huddersfield University and scientific advisor to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, says: “Thorium has been deployed successfully in the past for power generation and looking to the future it certainly possible, and desirable, that thorium could fuel conventional power stations – in so doing it would produce virtually no plutonium [which is used in nuclear weapons] and orders of magnitude less radiotoxic waste than uranium.”

He adds: “India and China are already investing in these thorium technologies, and we should too. Given that there is sufficient thorium on the planet to satisfy all our needs for the next 10,000 years, the future for thorium technologies should be extremely bright.”

Though thorium technology is still in its relative infancy, many are hopeful that given both time and investment thorium could become the primary nuclear fuel beyond the next generation and provide a cleaner and safer nuclear energy.

Named after the Norse god Thor, the protector of mankind, it is fitting that in the future his namesake element may be used to accomplish that very goal.

Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey

Size matters: Can nanotechnology solve a big problem? — Energy & the environment feature 2

Nanotechnology is slowly but surely revolutionising modern science, from killing cancer cells to preventing clothing stains. Jon Norrey looks at how something so small can have potentially huge environmental effects.

Advocates of Nanotechnology claim it to be an environmental saviour; believing it can almost single-handedly solve the widespread issues of climate change, pollution and resource depletion. They say it can offer efficient, cheap and green energy; allowing continued economic growth and consumption at a significantly reduced environmental cost. But what is it?

Nanotechnology is small. Extremely small. Its name is derived from the Greek ‘nanos’ meaning ‘dwarf’, and one nanometre equates to one billionth of a metre. If you’re struggling to picture this, pull out a hair and examine its width – that’s about 100,000 nanometres. Imagine you were shrunk to the height of that hair width and then pulled out another hair – the width of this new hair would still be about ten times bigger than a nanometre!

Created by Digital Micrograph, Gatan Inc.

So nanotechnology deals with things on this scale – the nanoscale – manipulating matter on molecular levels to perform specific functions. It may be difficult to comprehend how something this small can be useful, but it isn’t the size that counts, it’s how you use it; even the smallest entity engineered for a certain task can have a profound effect – especially if millions of them are working together.

Mark Robbins, a nanomaterial research scientist at European Thermodynamics, explains: “You can tune the properties of a material by making slight changes to the nanoparticles and make them do very uncharacteristic things. This is because the normal physical rules you expect don’t apply in the nanoscale.”

He rolls back the sleeve of his white lab coat and reaches for what could be mistaken for a heavily used ashtray. “For example, you could put a block of standard aluminium next to a block made from this aluminium nanopowder and they would have completely different characteristics. Aluminium, like most metals, is a very good heat conductor, but using nano-processing techniques, you could tune it to have the same thermal properties of wood – an extremely poor conductor. This is what makes nanotech revolutionary and allows scientists and engineers to start thinking about things in new ways.”

It is mainly due to this that the field is widely regarded as the most important and bountiful area for scientific research, and despite still being relatively new technology, global investment amounts to over £6 billion annually, a figure which has risen year on year.

Robbins continues: “The progression of nanotechnology since its emergence in the late 80s has restarted research in many scientific fields that had once plateaued in terms of advancements, and that’s one of the reasons there’s so much interest and investment in it.

“As more powerful imaging became available it allowed researchers to view and analyse the effects of different processing techniques on the nanostructure of materials; thus enabling them to modify the materials so that they exhibit characteristics which wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

“For a long time it was not known how lotus leaves remained so clean until scientists were able to view the surface on the nanoscopic scale. They discovered it was made of tiny protruding ‘fingers’ which caused water droplets to roll off the leaf’s surface instead of just sliding. These rolling droplets pick up dirt and debris from the surface and now this self-cleaning technology is being used in solar panels.”

But this technology isn’t just to save you the effort of having to use a wet cloth and some elbow grease; it’s one of many ways in which nanotechnology is trying to improve the energy industry, with a strong focus on renewables such as solar power.

If it were possible to capture all of the Sun’s energy which hits the Earth, within an hour we’d have enough to power all our needs for a year – this is the concept and motivation behind solar panels. As sunlight shines on the panels’ photovoltaic cells, it knocks electrons loose from their atoms which then flow through the cell, generating electricity. The process is relatively simple and works well in theory, but in practice there are various issues.

“Manufacturing normal silicon solar panels which don’t use nanotechnology is more expensive than getting the same amount of energy from fossil fuels; it’s obviously greener but as we know, money talks,” says Robbins. “On top of that, the efficiency can be quite low – it only converts around 20% of energy from the light it captures to usable energy. This is where nanotechnology comes in.”

Proponents claim that utilising nanotechnology in capturing solar energy is greatly advantageous for numerous reasons.

The aforementioned self-cleaning mechanism prevents contaminants from blocking light, allowing more to hit the cells, and the use of ‘quantum dots’ (synthesised nanoscale spheres) allows panels to absorb light from outside of the visible spectrum.

Also, as nanomaterials have a greater surface area to volume ratio, they are able to capture more light energy. Robbins offers a simple analogy for this: “If you need to dry a wet shirt the best way to do it isn’t to crumple it up into a ball, but to stretch it out flat i.e. give it a bigger surface area. Even though the volume, or amount of material, is exactly the same in both cases, more surface area allows it to absorb more energy and it dries quicker.”

But the significant breakthrough appears to be ‘roll to roll’ printing of nano photovoltaic components onto ‘sheets’– much like printing a newspaper – making them thinner, more flexible, lighter, easier to use, and quicker and cheaper to manufacture than the large and clunky silicon panels, often seen on the roofs of houses. The claims are that you could roll out the sheet like a carpet wherever the sun is shining and have it produce electricity. “This is particularly useful for poorer communities where there are vast amounts of sunlight – such as in Africa. They will be able to easily harness enough cheap, green energy for all their needs. I would like to see solar farms popping up in areas like this,” says Robbins.

Dr. Mark Morrison, CEO of the Institute of Nanotechnology, echoes the sentiments and adds: “Nanotechnology can improve existing silicon panels in numerous ways, but can also be used to substitute the silicon entirely with more efficient materials.

“We’re already using it in a few ways and as we continue to develop the technology it’s only going to impact the market further in the coming years.”

Despite producing less than 1% of the world’s energy supply, solar power is the fastest growing source of renewable energy and is widely expected to have a bright future.

On top of improving the solar industry, nanotechnology applications are said to be on the verge of revolutionising wind power. With carbon fibre already being used to create lighter, stronger turbine blades, scientists are looking at ways to introduce carbon nanotubes – the stiffest and strongest fibres known to man (over 100 times stronger than steel) – into the material, along with other lower cost composites, to further reduce costs and increase efficiency, though research is still in the early stages.

Wind power accounts for almost 2% of global energy production, and recently became the most prominent power source in Spain, providing around 21% of their energy needs and helping to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a quarter. But its future in the UK could be jeopardised by a Bill, currently in the second reading stage in the House of Commons, which, if passed, will see the abolition of wind farm subsidies.

The list of nanotechnology-based benefits to the renewable energy sector goes on and is added to more and more each year, but it’s not all good news for environmentalists. Despite many putting the onus on nanotechnology to help provide greener energy solutions, petrochemical companies plan on using it to create nanosensors in order to unearth untapped oil and gas wells.

But Robbins doesn’t view this as a negative. “I believe that using fossil fuel energy is fine as long as we can strike the right balance with renewables and continue our development of greener energy technologies.

“The world has used fossil fuels for centuries and to try to cut them out completely in a short space of time, and without the infrastructure in place to replace them, would be irresponsible and likely have a few negative repercussions,” he says.

Energy giant BP invested £7 million last year to set up a research group at Surrey University to develop the nanosensor procedure. Group director Dr Spence Taylor, said: “This will enable the responsible exploitation of this valuable resource in years to come.”

But not everyone has been won over by the claims of nanotechnology. A report by Friends of the Earth was highly critical and a spokesperson said the field had “failed to live up to expectations.”

The report states that solar panels utilising nanotechnology elements are actually about half as efficient as the standard silicon ones, and that any cost benefit is likely to be negated due to large Chinese investment towards cheaper mass production of silicon panels. It goes on to claim that silicon panels can last up to three times longer than their nanotechnology-inspired counterparts, which also struggle to replicate lab results on full-size working models.

The report added that nanotechnology’s possible wind power applications were still too far off to substantiate any positive claims. It was also disapproving of the field’s part in enabling further uptake of fossil fuels.

There are many nanotechnology applications spread across numerous areas, but most are still in the laboratory stage. Despite this, it has already been shown to do amazing things from the relatively trivial – like repelling liquid from fabric; preventing those early morning coffee stains – to the momentous – like removing nuclear waste from water and killing cancer cells.

Whatever the application, all those within the field are hopeful the technology can progress quickly in order to save lives, improve living conditions and prevent further devastation caused by man-made climate change.

Whether it can, only time will tell.

Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey

Last warning on global warming — Energy & the environment feature 1

Since the industrial revolution mankind has been pumping out ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gas to satisfy the demands of a burgeoning population. Climate scientists now say that we’re approaching a tipping point and that our continued over-reliance on fossil fuels could cause irreversible environmental damage. Jon Norrey explores the dangers of climate change.

NASA recently released a report confirming the long-term global warming trend and eliminating any doubt some may have had as to the veracity of man-made climate change. It showed an alarming rise in average global temperatures: 0.8 degrees since 1880, with 0.6 degrees of that coming since 1960. It also showed that the warmest ten years in recorded history have all come since 1998. This is already having a telling effect on the environment.



“We’re seeing some severe weather events such as extreme droughts and flooding, and these will only get stronger and more frequent. We will see poorer and less equipped communities unable to cope with the effects and, potentially, we could see whole communities wiped out,” says Andrew Clark, environmental assessment and management lecturer at Salford University.

Added to this, a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showed that sea levels have risen 20cm since turn of the 20th century and are currently rising faster than ever as the polar ice caps melt quicker. Due to this, experts are predicting major flooding of low-lying coastal areas and an increase in severity and frequency of hurricanes and other storms, as well as devastating effects on worldwide ecosystems.

Clark warns: “The threshold above which various environmental systems will go into chaos is at about a 2 degrees Celsius increase – so far the predicted temperature increase by the end of the century is about 4.5 degrees.

“This means that urgent changes are needed which include decarbonisation of society at a very rapid rate by significantly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels [coal, oil and natural gas].”

This ‘2 degrees limit’ is based on a 2009 UN agreement to take measures to keep average global temperature less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels (1.4 degrees above current levels), beyond which the effects of climate change are said to be catastrophic and irreversible. But even this figure is strongly contested by many climate scientists who say that if we reach that level it will already be too late, and that severe weather events (such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines — Typhoon Haiyan) that have increased in frequency and severity over the past few years will become an all too regular occurrence.

Fortunately, measures are being undertaken by many countries to prevent further climate change, which primarily include lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases act as their name suggests – ‘trapping’ heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space, so essentially, the more there are, the warmer it gets.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the greenhouse gas policy makers worry about most; mainly because it makes up the largest share of the ‘man-made’ warming gases and the sharp rise in its levels are primarily due to burning fossil fuels – which emits CO2 – and deforestation – which reduces the number of plants that absorb CO2. Because of this, its atmospheric concentration has increased 40% – from 280 to 400 parts per million (ppm) – since the pre-industrial era.

Since 2000, annual CO2 emissions for China and other rising economies have more than doubled to almost 14 billion tonnes per year (worldwide emissions amount to around 35 billion tonnes or 5 tonnes per person). As a result, China is now the largest global carbon polluter, primarily due to growth in coal use.

Clark says: “More than half of global growth in coal use is China – the rest is pretty much India [who is the third highest CO2 emitter]. But can we really blame them for doing what other countries have for well over a century? We must remember that they also have the greatest growth in various renewable energy technologies, which they must think are good for the economy.”

Despite contrary international efforts, greenhouse gas emissions grew on average 2.2% per year in the first decade of the millennium – up from a 1.3% average the previous 30 years – mainly due to rapid economic growth and a steady increase in the world’s population.

Because of this, we now have higher greenhouse gas levels than any time in last 800,000 years and the IPCC claims that the growth in worldwide emissions must end before 2020 if the world is to have any chance of hitting emission targets and fighting off that extra 2 degrees.

In the UK, our long-term target is to lower emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, in accordance with the Climate Change Act 2008, with shorter term decreasing ‘carbon budgets’ (acceptable levels of carbon emission) over upcoming five-year intervals.

Between 1990 and 2010, the UK managed to lower emissions by 23% – helped by an increase in the use of low-carbon technology such as renewable energies and nuclear power, more efficient fuel burning techniques, and reduced transport emissions. But even with this, fossil fuels still provide over 70% of UK power and contribute heavily to our 600 million tonnes of yearly greenhouse gas emissions.

As a result of fuel price volatility, plans have been put in place to use hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) to obtain fossil fuels from deep within the country’s terrain in a move which climate scientists say will undermine our previous efforts.

Clark draws parallels with the 1973 oil crisis when the UK, among other countries, faced oil embargoes from various Arab nations from which they obtained the bulk of their fossil fuels. “We had a chance back then to make Britain more energy secure by investing in green, renewable technology in which we were world leaders with some of the biggest potential for wind power and wave power, but we didn’t.

“Now we’re facing a similar crisis because we’ve gone from being a net energy exporter to a net importer; we import more than half the energy we consume. And as prices of oil increase we’re left again with the choice to either exploit our own fossil reserves or invest heavily in alternatives like renewables. If we’d invested back then the UK would be in a much better situation now.

While it would be a little far-fetched to expect climate change to cause typhoons and tornadoes to sweep through Britain any time soon, a spokesperson for the Met Office says we can expect “stronger and more frequent rainfall and flooding,” and, in what many will view as positive, “milder winter and warmer summers,” as well as an extended growing season, which could potentially improve the UK economy. However, they have urged individuals to do all they can to help stem greenhouse gas emissions.

While Clark hopes we don’t reach the atmospheric carbon concentration level which could spell climate chaos (which many scientists predict to be around 450ppm), he insists that even if we do, the fight wouldn’t end there.

He concludes: “Unless we make rapid changes we will reach that level sooner rather than later and our only option will be to use technology to ‘suck’ carbon back out of the air. At the moment that technology is experimental and I don’t know if we can rely on it in the long-term.

“The time to act is now.”

Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey

Battling through kidney failure and cancer to raise £250,000 for charity — Profile

Fran Wright

Thirty-five years on, Fran Wright still feels guilt that her lifesaving kidney came due to the death of a child, but this, and many other setbacks, has driven her to raise money and awareness to help save the lives of others. Jon Norrey writes.

Born at Salford Royal Hospital in 1965, Fran had dreamed of sporting glory for as long as she can remember. From just seven years of age she was tipped as a potential future Olympic swimmer by her coaches. She had dedicated her childhood years to the sport, but at 13 her dreams were put beyond her control when she suffered double kidney failure.

“One day I told my mum that I wasn’t able to train and that I wasn’t feeling very well so I had that day off and had a nap. When I woke again up I couldn’t move or speak or do anything and I had no idea why; I was terrified,” she says. “Up until then I’d been training twice a day since I was seven, winning loads of competitions and I had ambitions to swim in the Olympics for Great Britain.

“But about 12 months before I started getting headaches and nosebleeds and was very tired all the time, and because of that, despite putting a load of work in, I wasn’t achieving what I wanted to or what other people expected me to with my swimming – I only know now that was because of my gradually failing kidneys and the high blood pressure it caused.”

The former Worsley Wardley Grammar School pupil had spoken of the symptoms with a doctor on numerous occasions leading up to her kidney failure, but was labelled a ‘hypochondriac’ and sent home with painkillers and iron tablets – which likely exacerbated the problem.

After the 13-year-old was rushed to Accident and Emergency and put on dialysis to filter her blood, she was told that she would almost certainly have died of a heart attack had she not been so fit. She was also told that the degradation of her kidneys was likely due to a rare illness she picked up as toddler called Porphyria – which had been monitored at the hospital for a few years after it developed, but regular testing ceased when no further problems were anticipated.

Fran spent a large amount of her 13th year hooked up to a dialysis machine in her bedroom, which she slept attached to every night. Despite this, she retained her ambition to compete at the top level.

“I didn’t want fussing, I just wanted to get back to normal and train like I was before – but I wasn’t really able to. My main focus had to be on trying to keep healthy and hoping that one day I’d get the working kidney I needed.” And one day, about six months afterwards, her wish came true.

“I was rushed to the hospital by my dad when he got the call that I had a donor and the rest is a bit of a blur – I just remember waking up and being told I had a new kidney. I didn’t know where it had come from until a few weeks later when I picked up the local paper and read in there that it was from a 13-year-old girl, just like me, from Newcastle, who died in a car crash.

With watering eyes she continues: “It plays on my mind even now to be honest – I feel a bit guilty. Even though I know she was already dead so it might as well go to use, it would have been nice to thank her for the gift even though I know that wasn’t possible. Knowing that a family somewhere was devastated by the loss of their little girl while I was being fitted with her kidney is a strange feeling.”

Fran recovered well from the transplant and got back into intensive training, and while she felt disappointment that the Olympics had become an unreachable dream she was provided with another option.

“I was invited to compete in the World Transplant Games which is held biennially and is basically the Olympics for transplant patients. So I did my first one when I was 15 in the USA, then I did Greece, Holland and Austria until I was about 22 – and that was while suffering from bulimia too. I dominated the swimming events, and I was even told by one of the surgeons there that it wasn’t fair on the rest of the competitors and I had to do a different event for my last games, so I trained to be a sprinter and won that too! I have a shoebox full of gold medals under my bed – about 30 in total.”

After the Austria games she took some time away from swimming to have her only child, Tom, at 24, which didn’t go entirely to plan.

“Tom was a breech birth and we both almost died – nothing goes normally for me!” she chuckles. “But I was asked to do my last Transplant Games in Canada about three years later when I was 27, but I didn’t win everything that time – I got two silvers and a gold.”

While the average person would be delighted with the achievements, to Fran it served as a reminder of what could have been.

“To be honest, the transplant games were great to do as they’re a great cause that raises awareness and increases the number of organ donors in the host country, but they aren’t the real Olympics so to me they didn’t count.”

Nonetheless, her exploits earned her recognition from the Royal Family and Downing Street and she was invited to meet Prince Charles and the then Prime Minister, John Major. She was also asked to compete in an opening event for the historical warship, Mary Rose, on a ‘celebrity team’ with the likes of Steve Ovett and Duncan Goodhew.

She recalls: “The most memorable part of meeting Prince Charles was that he told me I had better legs than Diana. I was speechless!

“And when I went to see John Major I took Tom with me; he was two at the time. It was quite embarrassing actually because when the door to number ten opened Tom ran straight up to the Prime Minister and smacked him in the privates! And after that he spilled Vimto all over the cream carpets – we weren’t invited back!”

Her success also grabbed the attention of newspaper Sunday Sport, who asked her to do some modelling shots, which she graciously declined.

In a life with more than its fair share of tribulations, Fran had an emergency hysterectomy in 2001 and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2004.

“I had the tumour removed but wasn’t able to have the radioiodine therapy people normally have because it’s filtered through the kidneys,” she leans forward and touches the wooden table in front of her chair, “but fortunately it didn’t spread and hasn’t come back yet.”

In 2008, doctors diagnosed Fran with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) after struggling with regular bouts of extreme mental and physical fatigue, and she left her job as senior officer for admissions and exclusions for Salford schools because of it in 2011. She remains unemployed but has plans to return to work in future.

As you may have guessed, it isn’t in the nature of the 48-year-old to just sit around and relax, so she decided she had to give something back.

“When it got to 30 years after my transplant in 2008, I planned to do the Great North Run in Newcastle which is a place close to my heart because that’s where my donor was from, but unfortunately I had to pull out after snapping my calf – I was very disappointed. So that’s when I bought a bike and decided to start organising charity bike rides with my husband, Dave.

“The first one was in 2011 from London to Paris; the second in 2012 from London, to Amsterdam, to Brussels; and the third is this year from Geneva to Venice over the Alps.”

So far Fran and her husband have raised around £250,000 for charity Kidney Research UK and they plan to raise even more in the future.

“I’m lucky my kidney has lasted for such a long time – 35 years. The money raised will hopefully go towards helping people’s transplants last as long as mine has.”

The average life span of a transplanted kidney is around 10 years.

She concludes: “My mum would say that everything I’ve gone though and beaten is due to positive thinking. I’ve never said ‘no, I can’t do that because of my transplant or anything else’. Sometimes people overthink what they can’t do instead of pushing the limits of what they are capable. That’s my simple view anyway.”

Having now taken up triathlon, the inspirational mother is setting her sights high, insisting that regardless of her age, she wants to compete with women half her age in the best competitions around.

Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey

An insight into an anorexic mind — Feature

Anorexia_paint_5_by_Luaxan via Deviantart

Following the inquest into the death of anorexia victim Sarah Houston, Jon Norrey spoke to a sufferer at a specialist mental health facility to gain a deeper insight into the mind of an anorexic person.

Sarah Houston, a 23-year-old medical student at Leeds University, had suffered from anorexia since the age of 14. She died as an indirect result of the illness in September 2012. Coroner David Hinchliff concluded in April 2013 that her death was due to a deadly dose of Dinitrophenol (DNP), an industrial chemical commonly used as a pesticide, which when taken orally speeds up the metabolism, making the body burn fat. Sarah had been secretly purchasing DNP capsules over the internet. Human consumption of the substance is illegal due to it being deemed too toxic – yet it has been linked with the deaths of 62 people around the world, most of whom were suffering from anorexia. This tragic incident further highlights a question that causes confusion among the public and even within the medical profession: How can someone’s mind be so greatly affected that they are willing to go to such extreme lengths to lose weight, regardless of the consequences?

In a secure, specialist mental health unit in Manchester, a group of severely ill teenagers gather in a stiflingly hot and humid room – their emaciated bodies almost entirely engulfed by the chairs in which they are sat. They suffer from anorexia nervosa; a condition which kills around 20 per cent of those diagnosed with it – which is more than skin, breast and prostate cancer.

They live on this unit because their eating disorders are so severe that they require constant monitoring. They are understandably terrified of the situation in which they’ve found themselves but at the same time are able to find some comfort in knowing they are surrounded by those who can empathise, away from the judgemental eyes of the world in which they find it impossible to function.

The reason for their meeting today is to try to draw hope from recovering anorexic Charlotte Lily, from Salford, who was in a very similar position to them just five years ago. Taken away from her family home to live on ‘the unit’, she was schooled, monitored, counselled, and put on a strict meal plan to prevent her becoming any more dangerously underweight than she already was and to attempt to gradually return her to a healthy weight. It was her home for nearly a year. At her lowest point the five-foot-seven teen weighed just six stones, or 38 kilograms – a little over half of what is considered ‘normal’.

She recalls: “I was legally an adult at the time so I had the choice, but other younger people are sectioned if they get to the state I was in. It was very difficult and emotional for me to leave my home, but deep down I knew that if I didn’t get the constant monitoring and help from professionals I was going to die.”

The now 23-year-old had been suffering with the illness for around two years at that point but was unaware of what she was suffering from until she was eventually referred to a specialist just a few months before being admitted to the unit. “I saw my GP but he couldn’t explain it; he just told me to eat McDonald’s! All I knew was that the voice in my head was telling me food was bad for me and that I should feel extremely guilty for eating and that I needed to keep losing weight, which is why my meals often had to be almost force-fed through tears – I didn’t know how dangerously thin I was. So I worry that GPs and other healthcare professionals sufferers might go to for help in the initial stages when the illness hasn’t yet completely taken over are offering the wrong treatment when being able to offer useful advice instead could potentially prevent them from going through torment like I have, or dying like Sarah did.”

She continues: “What happened to Sarah was tragic but until both the public and healthcare professionals improve their understanding of the illness similar incidents are inevitable as sufferers will always be likely go to extreme measures to satisfy the illness. It sounds ridiculous and healthy people will never fully understand but we have a phobia of eating because of a distorted body image; the anorexia brainwashes us into believing we’re overweight no matter how we actually look and no matter what people tell us. And the thinner we get, the stronger the voice becomes – I can see how it manages to kill one in five people suffering with it.”

She goes on to explain that there was no single trigger to her illness, but that it was brought on by a combination of factors such as high school bullying for being “chubby,” and depression brought about by the death of her grandparents. She adds: “I also think that the whole ‘size zero’ thing did play a part but it certainly wasn’t the main cause for me and most other sufferers like many people will have you believe; it’s about more than that – it always is.”

Charlotte is pleased to finally be in a position where she feels and looks well enough to be able to offer genuine hope to extremely underweight sufferers that they can too get through the worst of their suffering and once again lead relatively normal lives – but she knows it isn’t all plain sailing. “People with anorexia are prone to relapse as it’s a mental illness that never really leaves, it just goes quiet for a while, and personally, I hope it will stay that way for the rest of my life.”

She sums up her thoughts on the public perception of anorexia with a chilling statement: “Lots of people say it’s a vanity thing and we’re just doing it to look like models and get attention; vanity is when you’re pleased with how you look and that is a feeling we never experience. We’re not vain – we’re sick.”

She makes a good point about ‘size zero’ culture; it takes a large portion of the blame for glamorising, exacerbating or even directly causing anorexia in the media, which then influences popular opinion — when quizzed, the average person in the street inevitably reaches similar conclusions with regards to underweight models and their promoters in the fashion industry – but are they being made a scapegoat for a deeper issue?

Dr Rangitha Giles, a therapist who has worked with anorexic patients for 13 years, believes so. While she doesn’t completely absolve the culture of blame, she asserts that there is far more to it than solely that: “The public perception is that girls want to be size zero and they want to follow the models and look like them but that is not entirely true because people who badly suffer from the illness go beyond size zero and if not treated they die.”

Dr Giles then discusses the research of Professor Bryan Lask, medical director for eating disorders at health service Care UK, along with her own experiences, on the contributory causes of anorexia, starting with high emotional sensitivity – “You can give them a hundred compliments and one slight criticism and they will worry about the latter. They are often also perfectionists where anything less than 100 per cent isn’t good enough and they’re often very caring people who always put other people’s needs before their own.

“In terms of genetics, there is usually a history of mental illness in the family, be it clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or an eating disorder. And there are triggers to the illness which can be things like bullying, stressful situations and deaths of close family or friends – They are vulnerable and it can take just one of these triggers to set off the illness.”

Dr Giles then offers her advice to the public: “Anorexia is a disease but the public don’t see it that way yet. The most important thing is to realise that with what you read in the media – it’s like an iceberg – you only get the tip of the understanding of the illness. It’s only when you lift it out of the water and examine the rest of it closely that you begin to understand the severity. So realise that what you read is actually just a small percentage and far from the whole story.”

According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), hospital admissions for eating disorders rose by 16 per cent from June 2011 to June 2012 in England, and this troubling increase accentuates the need for heightened public understanding of an illness which currently affects around two per cent of the population.

 Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey