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Energy Storage, Rare Metals and the Next Ice Age

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Four Nobel Laureates discussed a wide range of energy storage and conversion problems and possible solutions on Wednesday. Photo by Kathleen Raven

Four Nobel Laureates discussed a wide range of energy storage and conversion problems and possible solutions on Wednesday. Photo by Kathleen Raven

The holy grail of energy storage may lie in chemical bonds, but a process for making this happen remains unknown. All of the Nobel Laureates who weighed in Wednesday on a chemical energy conversion panel agreed on this much.

“Replacement of liquid fossil fuels is still in far reach,” said moderator Wolfgang Lubitz, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy and Conversion. From there, the men focused on the major questions relating to solar power, endothermic reactions, rare metals, the ever-controversial nuclear energy and another ice age.

Solar energy

Gerhard Ertl (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2007) told the audience that nuclear fusion stood as the en vogue future energy source when he was studying in graduate school. “We are still waiting for solutions,” he said. In a similar way, solar energy holds great promise, but the storage problem remains unsolved. Hartmut Michel (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1988), the photosynthesis expert of the group, reminded that even nature struggled to get the most out of photosynthesis. “In photosynthesis, only 40 percent of the sunlight — energy-wise — is absorbed by the plants,” he said. Therefore, the chemists onstage at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting exhorted young researchers to search for a brand-new catalytic conversion process that could solve the sunshine enigma.

Producing energy requires energy

Richard Schrock (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2005) reminded everyone that whatever the next energy source revolution is, it will most likely still rely on endothermic reactions. “Nearly all conversion processes require energy,” he said. Even with ideas such as carbon dioxide conversion, “it’s a zero-sum game to talk about converting [it] catalytically or storing it.” He apologized for sounding pessimistic, but wanted to be sure the researchers in the audience felt the gravity of the situation.

Running out of rare metals

A young researcher wanted the Nobel Laureates to answer this question: “What happens when we run out of a rare metal like lithium used in batteries?” Schrock was quick to point out that “we don’t run out of elements, but we run out of concentrated forms of them—they are neither created nor destroyed.” Robert Grubbs (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2005) pointed out that researchers have already begun looking at non-rare metals as potential energy sources, too. The consensus seemed to be that humans will use whatever source is most plentiful and easiest to extract before moving on to alternatives. “Fortunately, a lot of these problems have to do with inorganic chemistry,” said Schrock, looking out over the audience. “So, go to it!”

Not another Fukushima

No open discussion of energy sources can completely avoid the nuclear question. So eventually the question snuck into the dialogue. “The problem is with nuclear waste — not the energy,” Ertl injected. Schrock acknowledged that while nuclear energy is no longer an option due to political forces in Germany, “nearly 75 percent of France runs on nuclear energy, and I think that’s a little-known fact.” As the discussion focused more on politics, Astrid Gräslund, professor biophysics at Stockholm University and co-organizer of the Lindau meeting, picked up her microphone. “One has to consider that this is the situation now,” she said. She explained that politics and public opinion are constantly in flux and that these changes should not influence science per se.

And what about 1,000 years from now?

As the panel drew to a close, a young researcher in the first row stood up and gave a proposition. He offered: Won’t this discussion seem a bit strange, if we think 1,000 years into the future, when we will most likely be depending exclusively on renewable energy? The Laureates exchanged a few glances. Michel spoke first. He pointed out that some research has hinted that the next ice age on Earth may occur in the not-so-distant future. “So Berlin may be covered with ice and we won’t even be able to think about this because we’ll be under ice,” he said, with a half-smile. “How long will it last?” Schrock asked his colleague. “About 80 to 90,000 years, maybe,” Michel answered. “Oh, good, problem solved,” said Schrock.


Behind the Greatest Experiments: Basic Research
Chemistry and diversity
Unity and diversity
Videos with a personality, flow and message
Cataloging the impact of Lindau meetings
Chemistry and physics: one needs the other
A receding horizon, now within reach
The GPCR symphony
The Blurry Line Between Small and Quantum Small
Supramolecular chemistry – Moving away from synthesis and toward design
Imaging the near invisible with TEM: a master class
Steven Chu talks innovation, energy, climate change and awareness
Avram Hershko’s lessons for doing good science

And see our In-Depth Report and the 30 Under 30 series on the main site.

This blog post originates from the Lindau Nobel Online Community, the interactive forum of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, dedicated to chemistry, is held in Lindau, Germany, from 30 June to 5 July 2013. 35 Nobel Laureates will congregate to meet more than 600 young researchers from approximately 80 countries.

Kathleen Raven is part of the official blog team. Please find all of her postings on the Community blog.

Kathleen Raven About the Author: Kathleen Raven is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MS in Ecology with a focus on sustainable agriculture and MA in Health & Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. Follow on Twitter @sci2mrow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 23 Comments

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  1. 1. sault 3:59 pm 07/4/2013

    It’s strange that they deflected on probably the most profound aspect of our energy problems. Eventually, we will have to be totally renewable or cease being an industrial species. All the time, money and effort we put towards non-renewable solutions merely kicks our energy problems down the road an indeterminate number of years. When the next non-renewable resource starts running out, or when the resource’s unequal distribution (inherent to all non-renewable resources) causes geopolitical difficulties, or when the waste streams from using these non-renewable resources start building up in the environment and causing problems (again, inherent to all non-renewables), then we’re right back where we started. And if these new resources don’t buy us a lot of time, or their waste products overlap like all fossil fuels do with CO2, then we’ll still be dealing with the problems of the last non-renewable resource when the problems from the next one kick in.

    Investments in renewable energy are the only ones we can be sure won’t eventually be wasted or lock us into continual problems down the road. Since energy sources like wind and solar are already competitive with non-renewable sources, despite being much newer technology and the fact that energy markets place no value on their cleanliness, they will at least be a part of our energy mix for generations to come. Meanwhile, investments in ever dirtier fossil fuels like the Tar Sands, oil shale and the like merely amp up the problems we’ve already created with conventional, easy-to-get fossil fuels.

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  2. 2. Scienceisnotagenda 6:30 pm 07/4/2013

    75% of France does not run on nuclear energy…75% of electricity generation in France is from from nuclear energy.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rkipling 7:53 pm 07/4/2013

    Yeah, the nutters won’t flock to this post. It’s more difficult to argue with Nobel Laureates no matter how much “peer reviewed” stuff they can link to.

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  4. 4. jimmywat 12:18 am 07/5/2013

    1. Henry Kissinger and Obusha are both Nobel Laureates – kinda taints the Award, don’t you think?

    2. At last someone is quoted about the approaching Ice Age instead of claiming that we will all die in some man made desert

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  5. 5. phalaris 2:37 am 07/5/2013

    rkipling : you don’t realise what you’re saying.
    Just read the post for some realism :
    – “the storage problem remains unsolved” – without which you can forget renewables.
    – nuclear energy: it’s a political problem in Germany.

    If you’re one of the ones who imagines renewables are the panacea, you just shot yourself in the foot.

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  6. 6. rkipling 3:11 am 07/5/2013


    You have mistaken me for some other nutter. The Four Nobel Laureates made sense as I read it. Perhaps your aim is off? Maybe you were shooting for the comment @1?

    Besides, I only like panaceas with fava beans and a nice chianti.

    Link to this
  7. 7. phalaris 5:15 am 07/5/2013

    sorry if I misread you: it was early morning pre-coffee when I posted.

    Your last line L0L….!!

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  8. 8. em_allways_right 8:04 am 07/5/2013

    Some how I don’t see a new Ice Age starting anytime soon.

    Don’t breeder reactors solve the nuclear waste problem?

    Link to this
  9. 9. mkelter 8:31 am 07/5/2013

    One of the saddest casualties of the Great Global Warming Scam has been the aspersion cast over worthy discussions such as energy resource development (renewable and non-renewable) and energy conservation. Whether or not you fall for The Hoax, these issues loom important from both an immediate pocketbook perspective as well as from a long-term sustainability scope.

    Greedy Government bureaucrats and their Washington cronies have done a great disservice to issues of conservation and development of energy resources by politicizing scientific discussions and by doling out vast sums of scarce taxpayer dollars on frivolous business enterprises (such as Fisker and Solyndra)and on dubious research efforts with pre-ordained conclusion expectations. The US government has proven itself unworthy to participate in energy discussions.

    There has been one time on this planet where human population has declined. Unless we want to go back to the bleak days of the Black Plague, we best resolve ourselves to a growing population with an increasing energy demand. That means ALL energy solutions are on the menu–not just those that are cheap at the moment and not just those that are Politically Correct at the time.

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  10. 10. jonno 8:43 am 07/5/2013

    They seem a bit low wattage nobelaureates to me. One factory making sulphur hexafluoride would be enough to defer all ice ages until the sun swallows our planet. Concentrate on the real problems. Two of which are not – what do we do with the waste? ( burn it for energy ) and – will we run out of fissile fuel? ( see above, plus thorium, plus deuterium )

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  11. 11. rkipling 8:58 am 07/5/2013

    So, let me guess. The high powered Nobel Laureates are the ones that agree with you.

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  12. 12. sethdayal 2:41 pm 07/5/2013

    “Eventually, we will have to be totally renewable or cease being an industrial species”

    For the very first time Sault has something right. Since the most renewable of renewables, using up far less non renewable resources than other “renewable”, is nuclear power. Without a massive conversion of fossil to nuclear fuels society will not survive.

    “energy sources like wind and solar are already competitive with non-renewable sources,”

    With all in costs with gas backup of 40 cents a kwh and 90 cents for solar, they are only competitive with massive taxpayer subsidy.

    No GHG’s are saved as the plant has to be backed up with low efficiency gas plant run inefficiently. Less GHG’s less gas skipping the wind and using high efficiency gas plant in the first place.
    Without subsidy there would be no wind and solar. If all the money spent on wind and solar had been spent on nuclear all the world’s coal electricity production could have been already phased out saving more than a million lives annually and the global warming precipice would have been moved 30 years into the future.

    The wind and solar bill is paid in the coin of the blood of innocents.

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  13. 13. sault 8:38 pm 07/5/2013

    Wow, the psychosis is deeper than I thought! You think nuclear power is RENEWABLE? How in the world can you even think something like this? Just try sticking all that radioactive Strontium, Iodine, Cesium and other fission products that are leaking out of the Fukushima reactors STILL into another reactor and see how much power you can get from nuclear “ashes”! There is NO WAY, by ANY definition of the word, that nuclear power is renewable. It might get 1000′s of times more energy per kg of fuel input, but it is not renewable.

    And you still have yet to provide ANY links to back up your silly claims about the cost of renewable energy that isn’t from a fossil fuel front-group. Again, for somebody that readily accuses others of working for “Big Oil”, you’ve done a bang-up job helping “Big Oil” spread their lies on climate and energy yourself!

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  14. 14. sethdayal 9:26 pm 07/5/2013

    Once again the stupidest troll on SCIAM, earning his money shilling for Big Oil with his illiterate spew.

    The Sault troll being illiterate, it is unaware of something called a breeder reactor like the new Indian and Russian units in service next year. Make more fuel than they use. It is also unaware that the gas backup required for its wind and solar have dumped far more radioactivity into the atmosphere than has FUKU. The cubic miles of deadly toxic forever end of life solar waste, soon to be leaching into water tables from landfills will be the cause of untold amounts of sickness and death.

    Because it is completely innumerate, with arithmetic skills at the sub grade 3 level as we see on the current SCIAM “britain-opens-worlds-largest-offsho” thread, it is impossible for the troll to understand any costing data.

    Here is a detail costing from real measured data published in Canada’s most prestigious financial paper giveing onshore wind at 44 cents a kwh To that number we need to 10 cents for offshore and 8 cents for 5 times transmission, 62 cents a kwh unsubbed. The troll is too stupid to understand the numbers but the rest of you should have no problem.

    Google “ontarios-power-trip-mcguintys-bigger-debacle/

    However from the notoriously pro wind/solar US NREL we have solar numbers from Vermont- lotsa Greenies there

    So Vermont $7.53 watt/peak or 7530 kw/peak installed average. Ok so using pV watts in Burlington the one watt peak gets 1.117kwh per annum. Financing at 7% home equity over 20 year life gives approx

    53 cents a kwh

    now lets add in for the array on every roof scam the low information greenie is wont to propose, 30 cents a kwh for gas backup and offpeak demand losses, and 10 cents a kwh for 7 times sized transmission systems and we get

    93 cents a kwh.

    I have asked the notorious troll Sault to stop posting here until he can back up with capital cost and capacity any wind farm that meets his extraordinary claim of 4 cent a kwh electricity when the norm is the Ontario feedin tariff of 14 cents. Basically everything he posts is some kind of a lie.

    Link to this
  15. 15. sault 12:38 am 07/6/2013

    We’ve been developing breeder reactors since the 60′s, spending billion$$$ on them with nothing to show for it so far. I’ll believe the technology’s viability when I see it, which is something I don’t have to do with wind and solar because they’re already working just fine. Go ahead and read as many OPINION articles from obviously-biased financial “papers” that reek of Tar Sands money as you want, but you’ll never get closer to the truth. And feel free to make up all those silly and unsubstantiated numbers for the cost of renewable energy, but all you’re doing is making yourself look like a fool.

    I’ll post this stuff again just because you, one who throws around the “illiterate” label so often, doesn’t even bother to READ the links I provide.

    Wind power costs between 4 and 7 cents per kWh:

    Here’s some choice quotes from utility companies:

    “Austin Energy officials say those wind contracts are among the cheapest deals available, when the cost of building power plants is taken into account, and comparable to what the historically volatile natural gas market has been offering recently.” ( article)”

    “Our contract with NextEra Energy Resources is one of the lowest we’ve ever seen and results in a savings of nearly 40 percent for our customers,” said David Eves, president and CEO of Public Service Company of Colorado. “The addition of this 200-megawatt wind farm demonstrates that renewable energy can compete on an economic basis with more traditional forms of generation fuel, like natural gas, and allows us to meet the state’s Renewable Energy Standard at a very reasonable cost to our customers.”

    If this was costing them eighty bajillion cents per kWh to generate, why aren’t these people in prison or fired from their job by now?

    And wind doesn’t need backup:

    “It has become an article of popular faith that building wind farms also involves constructing fossil-fuelled power stations for back‑up when the weather is calm. As a result, some opponents go on to say, wind turbines do little or nothing to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
    Now the National Grid has studied what actually happens in practice, with explosive, if surprising, results. Between April 2011 and September 2012 – its head of energy strategy, Richard Smith, told the Hay Festival – wind produced some 23,700 gigawatt hours (GWh) of power. Only 22GWh of power from fossil fuels was needed to fill the gaps when the wind didn’t blow. That’s less than a thousandth of the turbines’ output – and, as it happens, less than a tenth of what was needed to back up conventional power stations.
    It proved to be much the same with emissions. Wind saved nearly 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over that 18 months; standby burning of fossil fuels only reduced this by 8,800 tonnes, or 0.081 per cent.
    Not surprisingly, given these figures, no new fossil‑fuel power station has been built to provide back‑up for wind farms, and none is in prospect.”

    Watch who you’re calling illiterate too because the ACTUAL price of solar PV in Vermont is $6.75 per watt according to the very site you linked to. And Home equity lines of credit are currently running at 5% for the amount you would need to finance an array. So even your silly, made-up numbers are 40% off straight away. Then you’re dumb enough to blab about “7 times” transmission for a solar array that generates at the point of load! Do you even listen to yourself anymore?

    Look, it’ okay to be wrong sometimes, but when you’re wrong all the time, you need to get some better information…if you’re not just making it all up in your head, that is!

    Link to this
  16. 16. sethdiyal 1:16 pm 07/7/2013

    Once again the Sault the stupidest commenter on SCIAM. THis troll paid by Big Oil to haunt this site it seems doesn’t get paid unless he spews 75% of the content on this site.

    The BN-600 Sodium Fast Breeder has been working for the last 10 years, India’s new 500MW unit first of five to 2020 is due for service next year and is the Russian BN-800. No surprise the stupid illiterate troll wouldn’t know that.

    The stupid illiterate brainless troll has been told many times what subsidized wind power sells for has nothing to do with what it costs with utilities required by law to meet RES’s in many states. Only unsubsidized capital costs and capacity define cost.

    Once again I have asked the notorious troll Sault to stop posting here until he can back up with capital cost and capacity any wind farm that meets his extraordinary claim of 4 cent a kwh electricity when the norm is the Ontario feedin tariff of 14 cents. Basically everything he posts is some kind of a lie.

    Numerous times he has repeated his stupid quote that can’t attributed and without data for backup from something that some fella who might have maybe somebody said worked at one time at National Grid at a farmers market in a report on badgers.

    In fact as usual with the troll’s stupid and illiterate spew, his unattributed quote doesn’t say what he claims since it doesn’t list the hundreds of gas and coal backup units running on hot standby backing up wind using fuel while wasting energy waiting to pick up when wind drops off.

    AWEA board member E.ON, which operates German transmission grids and also builds wind plants in the US, is succinct:

    “Wind energy is only able to replace traditional power stations to a limited extent. Their dependence on the prevailing wind conditions means that wind power has a limited load factor even when technically available…. Consequently, traditional power stations with capacities equal to 90% of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently online [and burning fuel] in order to guarantee power supply at all times”

    This means wind generation cannot replace fossil generation to any meaningful extent.

    With mortgage rates currently at 5% it would be a rare individual that could get a bank to finance a solar array that usually decreases the value of home, at less then 8%.

    Yup it appears in the last few weeks the reported cost of solar in Vermont has dropped 10%. However interest rates have increased 50% in the last month so if anything my numbers are optimistic. That the troll with his grade 3 level of arithmetic skill is too innumerate to follow the arithmetic is no surprise.

    Finally the brainless halfwitted creature doesn’t get (too stupid) that in a environment like Germany’s with lots solar rooftop PV, the peak to average ratio of solar is 7. On a sunny day in June at even a 15% solar 100% of the grid’s electricity is coming from solar. It has to be trucked off all over, as very little is needed locally.

    I’m thinking now that the troll is paid to keep commenting so the magazine can market itself as a comedy rag.

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  17. 17. sault 5:33 pm 07/7/2013

    Quit posting 8-year-old, outdated stuff that doesn’t back up your position at all. And if you think that a solar array decreases the value of a home, you are delusional:

    “Across a large number of hedonic and repeat sales model specifications and robustness tests, the analysis finds strong evidence that California homes with PV systems have sold for a premium over comparable homes without PV systems. The effects range, on average, from approximately $3.9 to $6.4 per installed watt (DC) of PV, with most coalescing near $5.5/watt, which corresponds to a home sales price premium of approximately $17,000 for a relatively new 3,100 watt PV system (the average size of PV systems in the study). These average sales price premiums appear to be comparable to the investment that homeowners have made to install PV systems in California, which from 2001 through 2009 averaged approximately $5/watt (DC), and homeowners with PV also benefit from electricity cost savings after PV system installation and prior to home sale.”

    Yeah, you basically get all your money back if you sell your house! That’s a better return than rennovating your kitchen!

    Link to this
  18. 18. sethdayal 1:07 pm 07/8/2013

    Our troll is unfamiliar with science so he thinks the physical universe changes every 8 years. He prefers blogs about badgers over 8 years old physics from the National Electric Reliability Committee

    Californians are not like the rest of us. Pointless.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Dr. Strangelove 3:31 am 07/11/2013

    “The holy grail of energy storage may lie in chemical bonds, but a process for making this happen remains unknown”

    Lead acid, lithium ion, alkaline batteries. They are known but costly to consumers.

    “Nearly all conversion processes require energy,”

    Solar PV, wind turbine, hydropower. All free energy inputs.

    “The problem is with nuclear waste — not the energy,”

    The problem is social and political – not technical.

    Link to this
  20. 20. David Marjanović 11:04 am 07/11/2013

    “Troll” isn’t a random insult, it’s a term with a meaning: somebody who says something that’s calculated to infuriate as many people as possible, so that the troll can then laugh at the upset responses.

    I can’t see any trolls in this thread.

    Link to this
  21. 21. hybrid 9:32 pm 07/12/2013

    The most massive potential energy source is tidal forces. Not waves or tidal flows but just its rise and fall. Consider for instance an ocean bay subject to a 4 foot tide rise has enormous gravity potential embodied in such as 4 feet X 2 square miles. Mulberry type populated floating islands would pay their way, and the efficiency of geared means to capitalize on the phenomenon does not matter if the input is virtually unlimited. Networking generating sources would overcome timing difficulties.

    Link to this
  22. 22. hybrid 9:46 pm 07/12/2013

    The rise and fall of an island surrounding a series of fixed pillars anchored to the sea bed embodying rack and pinion means, drive coupled generators to produce the power.

    Link to this
  23. 23. zelda2003 11:34 pm 08/2/2013

    sodapure Home soda maker, turn water into soda in 10 sec. save you cost and easy to use

    Sodapure เครื่องทำน้ำโซดา เปลี่ยนน้ำเปล่าให้โซดา ทำได้ที่บ้าน สะดวก สะอาด ประหยัด ซ่า ทำได้ง่ายภายใน 10 วิ

    Link to this

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