April 17, 2008

Nobel Winner Lays Out Plan for Environment

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As the earth warms up, the human race must also speed up its alternative energy technologies to increase its efficiency, at least according to Nobel Laureate Steven Chu.
“The fact that the earth is warming up is not a matter of debate,” Chu told a crowd last night at the 2008 Hans Bethe lecture. The debate, according to Chu, is about whether or not the climate change is due to humans, which he believes research strongly suggests is true. Either way, temperature fluctuations are much more rapid than predicted and have far-reaching consequences.
Improved calculations show that in the first half of the century, California will lose about 26 percent of the snow packed in the Sierra.
“If you’re down by 25 percent for two or three years in a row, it’s a disaster. This is forever,”emphasized Chu.
Similar environmental scenarios are reflected around the world, which he believes merit increased public knowledge and attention.
[img_assist|nid=29955|title=Focused|desc=Nobel Laureate Steven Chu speaks in Schwartz Hall yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]A professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu holds “an astonishing corpus of work” of “extraordinary breadth,” according to Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who introduced the Nobel laureate. Chu is very important in advising the nation and government on energy issues.
Chu described himself as a bureaucrat, which is “going pretty low,” he lamented, but he felt that if he could “encourage intellectual horsepower to work on energy, that would be a good thing.”
While advances in sustainable energy will require technological developments, it will take much more that just that to implement energy conservation practices, according to Chu.
“[Change] will require international cooperation. Free market forces aren’t going to do this,” Chu said. “What you really need is a combination of fiscal policies and regulations [which] has to be international and above all you need to put a price on carbon without any loopholes … It has to be a meaningful cost.”
Chu also outlined several energy conserving technologies that LBNL as well as other members of the scientific community are developing. One relatively simple solution LBNL is working on with United Technologies involves generating a “smart building” with amenities such as automatic shading to conserve and reuse energy in a coherent manner, similar to the way hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius work.
In order to make such buildings a reality, however, Chu emphasized the need for policies such as documents that tell homebuyers how energy-efficient a home is. Otherwise, he explained, landlords, homeowners and businesses will have little incentive to adopt these monetarily costly developments. Such regulations, however, are difficult to implement.
“Berkeley is very, very progressive, but even the mayor there is afraid there will be a riot [if such a policy is adopted],” said Chu.
Wind power, however, has been extremely successful and costs have decreased by an order of magnitude. Other renewable energy sources, including solar power, hydropower, geothermal and bio-mass, are another realm that has yet to be fully exploited.
“Currently renewable energy is about seven percent of our energy usage. It’s only a small sliver,” said Chu.
Other possible energy conserving technologies Chu mentioned included storing energy by compressing air into a cave, using polyethylene oxide and polystyrene in lithium-ion laptop batteries to decrease their decay and growing plants that can be converted into transportation fuel.
Feedstock grasses and switchgrass, which are easily grown, can potentially be converted into fuel, but efficiency is the key that is still lacking, since the lignin and cellulose of plants are designed to resist degradation, according to Chu. By sequencing the DNA of microbes within termites that break down cellulose, LBNL scientists hope to discover how to synthetically create an efficient process to produce fuel.
“I really appreciated the specific things about the research at LBNL, but I thought the lecture was broad, maybe too broad, not controversial enough, but … I listen to hundreds of lectures on this topic,” said Shawn Reeves, ’97.
The range of information covered during the lecture reflects Chu’s own breadth of knowledge.
“The lecture was very good. He packed a lot into it,” said Prof. Henry Tye, physics and chairperson of the Bethe Lecture Committee. “Choosing him was a no-brainer.”
Undergraduate and graduate Cornell students, professors and members of the community crowded the Schwartz Auditorium in Rockefeller Hall to hear Chu speak.
“I wanted to know what new developments there are for 2008. We’ve come a long way and I’m very impressed to see them,” said Sarah Iams grad.
While development is continual, Chu ended his talk by stressing that “the world can and will prevail over these challenges” and that aside from this world, “there is nowhere else to go.”