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Lindau 2013: Steven Chu talks innovation, energy, climate change and awareness

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Steven Chu at Lindau

Former Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu gave a wide-ranging and engaging talk at Lindau about science innovation and a realistic appraisal of problems. There were two main messages in his presentation: first, that scientific innovation has often thwarted doom and gloom prognostications, and second, that an accurate recognition of the nature of our most pressing problems is key to bringing innovation to bear on them.

Chu began by listing what are probably the two most important scientific and technological innovations of the twentieth century. The first one was the agricultural revolution started by the Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation which is today keeping a third of the world alive. An equally important revolution was engineered by Norman Borlaug in the 70s, right after the doom-and-gloom prognosticator Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University predicted that no crash programs could possibly keep the world from starving in the 80s and 90s. Borlaug’s repudiation of Ehrlich’s dire prognosis taught us, firstly, that prediction is always difficult, especially about the future, and secondly, that scientific innovation can quell fears of imminent doom almost overnight. The pertinent question about the agricultural revolution though was, can innovation truly solve our problems or does it simply postpone them? Chu pointed out that the world’s population actually promises to level off because of increased wealth and literacy, so the benefits of growth that we have been enjoying may indeed be here to stay for the foreseeable future. The one factor that could derail this state of affairs is climate change, as Chu mentioned later in his talk.

The second revolution was the communication revolution that was initiated by Edison and others in the late nineteenth century but which reached its full potential through the invention of the vacuum tube, transistor and integrated circuit in the 1950s. This revolution led directly to the information revolution whose fruits we are still sampling.

Chu then moved on to climate change and said that it is the single-biggest problem that could thrown a wrench in the works, that could impact us disproportionately so that all our innovative capability is stretched to its limits. He ran through a quick summary of the major pieces of evidence for increased CO2 emissions and temperature including data from ice cores, satellite measurements of melting ice in Greenland and heat waves. I liked Chu’s overall take on climate change: He said, “I prefer to take a very epidemiological view of climate change, similar to the link between cigarette smoking and cancer. Even if we don’t know all the gory details and the exact mechanisms, the trends are clear and ask us that we act”.

How can scientific innovation help us act? This was a half hour talk after all so Chu could not go through all possible solutions. But he started by noting two cases – that of clothes washers and refrigerators – where innovation guided by government mandated efficiency standards led to cost reduction, efficiency and size reduction. He talked about a car from Tesla Motors which his friend owns which can go 300 miles on a single charge. The problem: the cost – $80,0000. This is of course a problem with most electric vehicles and it will have to be addressed by a combination of solutions including government taxes and better technology. The most promising battery technology currently available depends on lithium ion batteries. The problem with lithium batteries is that in terms of energy density they are quite lousy. Chu showed a revealing graph in which he compared the energy density of lithium batteries with that of a variety of other substances. Pound for pound body fat and sugar provide some of the highest energy density around (indeed, there is much more energy in a Snickers bar than in an equivalent stick of dynamite).

Energy density of various materials. Lithium ion batteries are at rock bottom.

From the graph the situation looks hopeless since we seem to need at least an improvement of a factor of ten. But as Winston Churchill once said, “It is not enough to do our best, we should do what is necessary”. What is necessary in this case is to ramp up the energy density of lithium just enough to provide us with a cost-effective and reasonably efficient technology. For lithium that sweet spot turns out to be an improvement of a factor of about four. With that improvement we can get electric cars which can go 400-500 miles on a single charge, potentially enough for most homes.

Since he was speaking in Germany Chu spent some time talking about solar energy. He praised Germany’s extensive solar energy infrastructure but did not point out the limitations including cost, long-term feasibility and government support. He also pointed out new potential methods for solar cell fabrication that avoid the wastage of silicon. Solar energy is a promising technology whose long-term and large-scale use needs to be validated before it can serve to power the world. But there is no doubt that there is innovative research taking place on this front.

Overall Chu’s message was quite clear: whenever people have projected doom-and-gloom scenarios for the future of humanity, some unexpected and often relatively simple scientific development has revolutionized the solution to the problem. The most important challenge in front of us is how to engage the brightest people in the world and provide them with enough funds so that they can generate potentially game-changing ideas by the truckload.

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, will be 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.

Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is part of the official blog team. Please find all of his postings in the Community blog.


Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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

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  1. 1. M Tucker 2:40 pm 07/3/2013

    Yes, we have had it repeated many, many times that artificial fertilizer production by the Haber-Bosch process, and the work done by Borlaug, saved the world from starvation. But the Haber-Bosch process was developed in the early 20th century and Borlaug’s work was begun well before Ehrlich published his book. So the solutions were well in progress before the alarm was sounded. But it did allow crop yields to rise faster than population. Is that still true today? It is easy to find the answer. Don’t be afraid of facts. How is top soil doing? How is water availability expected to be impacted by population growth, economic growth and climate change?

    I am surprised that Chu didn’t bring up the old ‘automobile saved us from drowning in horse shit’ line.

    I only trust professional demographers when it comes to population. The UN just released a report on population growth estimates, if Chu wants to ignore them and report a rosy prediction that is his business.

    Edison, always Edison, whether an author is talking about electricity or communication it is always Edison. I am so tired of it I now howl, “F#@k Edison!” How about Marconi? Didn’t they need tubes to develop the wireless telegraph? Where would those in lifeboats after Titanic sank have been if it was not for the wireless telegraph? Marconi got a Nobel Prize for his work! The communication revolution actually began with the wire telegraph.

    As for the question of can we really replace fossil fuel burning power plants and automobiles, and trucks, and ships, and aircraft fast enough so that we actually end our relentless increase in atmospheric CO2 and end ocean acidification in time to avoid the terrible consequences? Well, that is the 64 thousand dollar question isn’t it? But Chu is right! Mankind has always benefited from scientific and engineering innovation. That is all we have ever had to boost civilization forward, so we will have to depend on innovation whether it comes in time or not.

    Chu should also remind the audience that many of our innovations have come with unintended consequences. Now we have dead zones in lakes and oceans from all that artificial fertilizer. We have disrupted the natural nitrogen and phosphorous cycles because of massive fertilizer use. Our innovations have caused acid rain and ozone holes. We have massive piles of plastic in the oceans and massive piles of e-waste piling up in third world nations. We are close to the limit of the land we can convert to cropland. We are losing topsoil at an alarming rate. Civilization is responsible for accelerating biodiversity loss that many biologists are calling the next mass extinction event.

    As for manmade climate change, well that warning started about 80 years ago when American physicist E.O. Hulbert did his work. But the prediction at the time was that the oceans would absorb the CO2 and the oceans are so vast that the added CO2 would not negatively affect them. Well those predictions did not work out so well. In the 1950’s Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass continued the work and in a 1953 Time magazine article he said, “At its present rate of increase, the CO2 in the atmosphere will raise the earth’s average temperature 1.5° Fahrenheit every 100 years. … for centuries to come, if man’s industrial growth continues, the earth’s climate will continue to grow warmer.” Some predictions are better than others. We have been aware of the CO2 problem for a long time. We have technology that can begin to replace a great deal of the fossil fuel sources right now. What we have now is not a shortfall of innovation it is obstruction to solving the problem. We have a fossil fuel economy that the most powerful corporations on Earth do not want to end. Science can come up with truckloads of “game changing ideas” but those in charge do not want to change. THAT is the problem. Still feel all fuzzy about innovation? What if the world really does want to keep burning coal for electricity and gasoline for cars despite all the evidence of warming and melting ice and sea level rise and continues to ignore the innovations? What then?

    Link to this
  2. 2. cjorach 5:59 pm 07/3/2013

    In the pre industrialized world of 1762 when cheap and reliable energy from coal did not exist Jean-Jacques Rousseaus Emile was written. It contained these words:

    “One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year… .This is natures law; why contradict it?”

    On June 25, 2013, President Obama gave his Climate Change speech. In his speech he claimed the world would be better off if cheap and reliable energy from coal did not exist. His speech contained these words.

    “While we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.”

    Thus in the pursuit of making “our children” “better off” President Obama declared he would use his power to extinquish the energy coal provides to the American people. Energy that provides over a third of America’s power. He declared he will use his power to deny the American people the right to develop their vast natural fossil fuel resources. Energy resources that would provide the American people and their children and children’s children cheap and reliable energy for 300 years or more. He declared he will use his power to destroy jobs in the coal industry and put people out of work. He declared he will use his power to waste billions of more tax payer dollars on failed green energy boondoggles like Solyndra that are toxic to the environment, unreliable and high cost sources of energy hurting the poor the most. He declared that he will use his power to “skyrocket” energy prices and thus lower the standard of living of the American people.

    President Obama justifies his right to control America’s vast energy resources on the false prophecies of his climate gurus in the Ivory Towers of Academia and the Conclaves of Green Activists. Prophecies that have been proven false. Temperatures are not going up as CO2 increases. Severe weather was worse in 1913. The oceans are not rising. There is no “hot spot” The models were wrong. If people are forced into energy poverty and children die before their eight year as they did in the preindustrial days of 1762, so what, President Obama and his ilk in the green movement were on a mission from Gaia.

    Greens are “stunned” by the massive envrionmental damage of “green” energy

    Link to this
  3. 3. sault 9:56 pm 07/3/2013


    Thanks for wasting my time linking to an obviously-biased and climate-denying blogger that presented nothing in the way of hard proof to back up his points.

    You see, there are these things called scientific papers and they’re written / reviewed by experts in the field. I would believe the conclusions in a peer-reviewed paper over the incoherent ramblings on a blog any day. This scientific paper says that the pollution from coal causes around $100B in damages to the U.S. economy annually:

    This scientific paper dug deeper and determined that coal pollution costs us up to $500B annually:

    And you’re just delusional about climate change. CO2 traps heat and we’re building it up in the atmosphere with our fossil fuel use. Like post #1 said at-length, we’ve known about the impending dangers of unrestrained emissions growth for decades and now we’re starting to see more and more of the result. The last decade was the warmest on record, as was the previous decade before the period between 2001 and 2010 took the crown. Arctic ice is in a death spiral while Greenland and Antarctica are melting away, adding to the already troubling level of sea rise.

    Look, you gotta lay off the fossil fuel propaganda. These companies have a huge financial incentive to keep the atmosphere open as their free sewer and they’re not afraid to use deceptive and underhanded techniques to keep the status quo. You’re letting the fox guard the henhouse if you believe them over the world’s entire scientific establishment.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sault 8:01 pm 07/6/2013

    What I don’t get is all the FUD I hear about electric vehicle batteries all the time. Look, we already have cars like the Nissan LEAF that can get 100 miles of range in the city and small improvements can get this up to 150 miles in the next generation of vehicles. For just commuting and running errands during the day, you have to seriously ask yourself if you hardly EVER exceed 150 miles a day. The overwhelming majority of people don’t and this is an inescapable fact.

    If you want a 400 – 500 mile range for your EV, 60% or more of its battery capacity is going to sit unused for 99% of the time. This adds extra cost and weight to the vehicle just to eliminate supposed “range anxiety” that can also be taken care of with proper planning.

    Even if we quadrupled battery energy density, most automakers know their customers and usage habits, so they’ll just take 2/3 of the batteries out and still sell you a 150 mile-range car. Now you CAN pay a premium for extra battery capacity by buying a Tesla Model S. They’re also putting up quick chargers and even battery swap stations so that their vehicles CAN go on long-distance road trips if necessary. However, the huge capacity of Tesla batteries is needed because of the very high power requirements these vehicles have so they can meet the 0 – 60 MPH targets expected of high-end luxury vehicles. The 200 – 300 mile range of the different Model S battery options is just a side-benefit of having enough cells to put out 200 – 300 kW for short bursts of acceleration. Don’t get me wrong, this is a sweet car, but as your average commuter, it probably won’t get discharged all that deeply. This increases battery life, but in cars that don’t need to go screaming fast, it is also a very costly design choice.

    Now for the 1% of the time when most people take long-distance road trips, you can either keep a gas-powered car around or rent one for the trip. If you only do this once or twice a year, then renting a gas car only when you need it is a low-cost option.

    Link to this

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