Friday, December 19, 2008

Nobel Laureates discuss on Climate Changes and Energy Challenges

Chaired by Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Nobel laureates Deisenhofer (Chem '88), Giaever (Phy '73), Michel (Chem '88), Oshero (Phy '96), Rubbia (Phy '84), von Klitzing (Phy '85), Steinberger (Phy '88) sat down to discuss the two burning issues of the present: energy crisis and climate change. First the chair, Schellnhuber described the issues to be discussed. The common issues for both these challenges were: the extent to which these crises are to be mitigated, how to adapt to these changes in a planetary scale and whether to incorporate business community in combatting these challenges. Climate change and energy challenge are inter-related, the need for a combined strategy was also stressed. How science and technology can aid to mitigate this challenge was also another issue to be discussed.

The first question posed to Osheroff. "Do you think climate change is a tough problem?" To Osheroff, this is a very serious issue. The notion of climate change is not an aberration of weather, it is happening real. Dire floods in different parts of the world are the effects of this change. But climate change is very tough to predict and model due to highly non-linear effects. He also stressed that politics plays a essential role in determining the course climate change. Ethanol production was a part of a Republican lobby, he exemplified. But Ivar Giaever remained skeptical of climate change. Is this really going to happen, he doubted. Thirty years age, there was a grave global concern about acid rains, but that threat was not real. Again in the early ninety's, it was reported that there are holes in the atmosphere, but still the UV rays has not been a problem still. His stance was not against global warming. He feels, people of India and China, the highest producers of green house gasses also do have the right to use cars and electricity as the most developed nations. He also stressed that ocean is a massive heat reservoir that would help to keep the effects of global warming low. To him, nuclear energy is the best solution for combating energy crisis, but solar and wind energy are not very promising solutions.
But Prof. Rubbia seemed very concerned with these challenges. He put forward the statistics, by the time, the world population has quadrupled, the energy consumption has increased by sixty times. Klitzing elucidated the essential role of the increase of living standards to these challenges. Such problems need to be combatted globally, international cooperation is pivotal. Steinberger also emphasized the need for a global accord, the collaboration of human societies.
Then the chair moved to Deisenhoffer for a possible solution to these challenges. His opinion was that we cannot wait for a pollution free alternative energy sources, we cannot wait for fusion. We must nd a solution with what we have. In view of the signicant divergence of opinions in the panel, we added that difference in ideas is essential to finding an effective solution. Chemistry Prof. Michel then highlighted the effectiveness of bio-energy in solving the energy crisis. The greenery is very inefficient to convert the energy of photons to chemical energy. While solar cells have been reported to have efficiency of 15%, the efficiency of tree leaves is not more than 0.3%. The Nature tried for three billion years, but did not succeeded in significant increase in this conversion eciency. Bio-fuel may be a viable option for the countries like Brazil, but not in countries with scarce forests.

According to Prof. Rubia, solar and nuclear energies are the practical alternatives for energy without CO2. But none of them are ready to replace hydrocarbon energy sources. At present, 15000 GW of solar energy available. Solar energy incident on Saudi Arabia is enough to quench the energy thirst of the whole world. Storage is a major issue for effectively tapping this potential. On the other hand, there are three fundamental issues to be solved for a worldwide dissemination of nuclear power: Nuclear waste management, prevention of proliferation of nuclear technology for terrorist purposes and shortage of U-235. Rubia pointed that Thorium could be a viable alternative to U-235. The world has abundant reserves of it and Thorium cannot be used for nuclear weapons. In view of the worldwide ebb in nuclear energy research, he suggested that research funds must be channeled to Thorium. But Steinberger disagreed in such optimism. He recalled that in 1955, three was a hype that fusion energy will be a technology within ten years which is still not one. So the research eorts seeking energy solutions should be multi-focused.

Afterwards Osheroff and Steinberger proposed the idea of solar energy farm in the desolate places like the Sahara, Giaver again played the role of a skeptic. In his view, solar energy is too costly to be viable and he pointed out that with the coal reserves in USA alone, the world can run for another ve hundred years.

The discussion ended with the prediction that within next ten years one Nobel prize will be awarded for nding a solution to energy crisis and climate change. To Osheroff, the solutions to these burning issues would be engineering ones and the role of politicians are also integral to these issues. In the last words, Michel disagreed with the idea that there will be a ground-breaking Nobel winning discovery or invention for solving to these issues, the technological solution is already here. It is a matter of policy and political goodwill.

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