Friday, July 9, 2010

Panel Discussion on the Role and Future of Chemistry for Renewable Energy

As well as the lectures, one of the morning sessions featured a panel discussion about the role and future of chemistry for renewable energy. Sitting on the panel were Nobel Laureates Ertl, Grubbs, Kohn, Kroto, Marcus, Molina and Rowland. The moderator made an opening address that outlined some of the challenges we face in this particular regard and then each Nobelist was invited to respond.

“Because chemistry is faced with challenges from the environment, climate, energy, medicine” said Gerhard Ertl, who got the Nobel in 2007, for investigating the individual steps involved in the synthesis of ammonia in detail, at the atomic level. Working in the area of catalysis, his big dream is to finally have hydrogen driven economy, where hydrogen is derived from breaking down water (H2O).

In a nutshell: of all the gases that are causing havoc in the atmosphere, five most important ones are: carbon dioxide, which lives in the atmosphere for more than a century; Nitrous oxide, which has a lifetime of about 120 years; methane which lives in the atmosphere for only about 8 to 9 years; and then there are chlorofluorocarbons, ozone, etc.

Ertl of course stressed on the fact that since energy cannot be created (it’s constant); it needs to be transformed from one form to the other for which science has to work with doubled-trebled effort towards converting solar into thermal or photovoltaic energy.

Robert Grubbs (2005) thinks new materials hold the key as they’d provide new storage medium that last longer and are safer.

Walter Kohn (1998), a great proponent of solar and wind energy, believes mankind needs to move from being a fossil fuel civilization to a ‘solar civilization’.

Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland, who together won the Nobel in 1995 for studying atmospheric chemistry and showing the world the ozone depletion which eventually led to the Montreal Protocol goading the world to curb CFCs from the atmosphere, are still at it, convincing the world that the atmospheric heating in last the 150 years far supersedes the heating combined in the last 450,000 years. Molina’s worry is: “While making and selling cars are good for the economy, the challenge now is to convince people not to use it.”

Rowland was lamenting the fact that he had to say something original after following six other Nobel Laureates! But he did. For Rowland, thinking of new ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a feasible route for chemists. “I already see some proposals but most of it I don’t believe in.”

Well, his skepticism is not alone. Sir Harold Kroto worries that the world is far more tuning into strategic research, clearly moving away from the ‘blue sky’ research which is so very important for discoveries. “Historically, most major discoveries have come from unexpected areas.” He however thinks if we could follow nature and figure out how trees convert water into hydrogen and oxygen we’d crack all energy problems, but “trees are not stupid” and have evaded humans from copying their technique, so to say!

Panel discussion on the Role of Chemistry in Renewable Energy

So, the discussion went all over — from fusion science, which has taken 35 years and will probably take another 75 to solve the energy problem; molecular machines akin to the nano devices that our body uses to convert energy; smart materials that can directly convert solar energy into electricity; rechargeable batteries that would store sufficient energy for a substantially long period and so on.

What was most striking was that at an age and after a stage (winning Nobel), many in other professions would hang their armour but not these scientists. If the zeal is strong, the concern is even bigger that they should do more for the society. “We should do more…make people understand that we, scientists, are decent people. When it comes to information transfer to society, we can still do better”, said Kroto.
After some questions from the young researchers, much discussion ensued about the best way to tackle our energy problems.

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