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Energy research is the key, Chu says

Energy secretary says new technology is essential to avert climate catastrophe
Nobel Laureate and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu speaks at MIT.
Nobel Laureate and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu speaks at MIT.
Photo / Donna Coveney
President Susan Hockfield moderated as Steven Chu, secretary of the Department of Energy, took questions from the audience.
President Susan Hockfield moderated as Steven Chu, secretary of the Department of Energy, took questions from the audience.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Steven Chu, the newly appointed secretary of the Department of Energy, said in a talk on Tuesday at MIT that a major increase in basic research is necessary in the United States in order to provide the new energy technologies needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

Chu gave the Compton Lecture, the Institute's most prestigious lectureship, to a packed audience in Huntington Hall (10-250) and a packed overflow room (26-100) where people watched on closed-circuit television.

In introducing Chu, MIT President Susan Hockfield described the problem of addressing global climate change as "the challenge of a lifetime," requiring a national effort "like the Apollo program, but raised by a few orders of magnitude." And in addressing that challenge, she said, Secretary Chu is now "the director of mission control."

Chu, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on cooling and trapping atoms with laser beams, is the first Nobel laureate ever to hold a U.S. cabinet position, and the first working scientist ever appointed as head of the Energy Department. Already, his department has been charged with implementing "the largest and most significant investment in science and technology since Apollo," Hockfield said.

Chu began his talk by describing various measures of the pace of recent climate change, emphasizing that the changes being seen now -- including the rate of decline in Arctic sea ice, and the rate of rise of global sea level -- are already either at, or even beyond, the most extreme projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations.

"We're skirting the outer limits of the range" of predicted changes, he said. "Things that were said a decade ago are coming true, but a little bit faster" than had been expected.

The projections now say there is a "significant probability" of an increase of 6 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century, he said. The difference between today's average temperatures and those during the last ice age, when much of North America and Europe were buried under more than a mile of ice, was about 6 degrees Celsius, he said. "Six degrees means a profound difference in climate."

And it could get even worse: Carbon has been getting stored in the frozen tundra for millions of years, he said, and if temperatures rise to a certain point, that carbon will begin to be released to the atmosphere as the ground thaws. That process could quickly reach a point where the carbon emissions from the thawing permafrost could exceed all the emissions from human activity, he said. "Then it takes on a life of its own, it's out of our control. That's a tipping point you don't want to go near."

With that dire outlook, he said, "Is there a reason for hope? I think there is."

To explain that hope in the face of such bleak projections, he cited the example of Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book "The Population Bomb," which predicted that hundreds of millions of people would starve in the 1980s and 1990s because human population was growing too fast for food production to keep up. But technical advances -- fourfold or better improvements in crop yields resulting from the "green revolution" -- prevented the predicted food shortages from occurring.

Similarly, new technologies should be able to forestall the worst projections of climate change, he said, as long as they are developed soon enough.

To curb the emissions of greenhouse gases, he said, "energy efficiency and conservation are number one." He cited the example of how refrigerators have changed in the last few decades as a result of efficiency standards that were imposed, over the strenuous objections of the appliance industry. Even though people have been buying ever-larger refrigerators, their efficiency has improved by a factor of four, so their overall energy use has been cut in half -- and so, contrary to the makers' claims, has their cost.

"They're cheaper, they use less energy and they got bigger," Chu said. As a result, the energy savings just from this one type of appliance already exceeds the total energy production from all renewable energy sources combined, he said.

"Can we do better? Yes, we can do much better," he said. For example, creating a set of energy standards for new buildings, comparable to the refrigerator energy standards that were imposed in the 1970s and 1980s, has the potential to cut the nation's greenhouse emissions by about a third. "This is truly low-hanging fruit," he said.

In other areas, such as more cost-efficient solar cells, he said, "what we're looking for is transformative technology." He said what is needed is a massive research effort, comparable in approach to the innovative research produced in the past by private research facilities like AT&T's famed Bell Laboratories, which spawned some of the 20th century's most important advances such as the transistor and helped usher in the modern computer age.

Similar large-scale focused research is now needed for the development of technologies that will have a direct, beneficial impact on the environment. "I am," he said by way of example, "very optimistic we'll get very good batteries in five years or so." Major efforts are also needed, he said, in biologically based energy, such as using microbes to produce fuel for transportation. "We need to use nature as inspiration, but go beyond nature."

By solving such technical challenges, he suggested, today's scientists and engineers could "win a Nobel prize, and save the world at the same time." Showing an image of the Earth taken by Apollo astronauts, he said, "It's our home. Let's take care of it."

The first step, he said, will be the massive work of evaluating the many proposals submitted for grants under the new funding for research that is part of the government's economic stimulus package. He suggested that students could take a leave of absence to work for the Energy Department in evaluating these proposals. "We need the best help we can get," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 2009 (download PDF).

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