Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu brings energy transition a step closer

23 June 2017

‘As soon as an economically better solution has been found for the use of fossil fuels, the transition to a fossil free economy will be irreversible’. During the public lecture that he gave to the Faculty of Science, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu demonstrated convincingly that this solution was within reach.

Chu, Professor of Physics at Stanford and former Secretary of Energy in the United States, delivered an address on the importance of investing in sustainable energy sources for the preservation of the Earth to an audience of researchers and students of the faculty. He aptly quoted a Native American saying: ‘We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’

Remarkable career

‘I wanted to do something to save the Earth’, said Chu when talking about the remarkable progress of his career over the past fifteen years. As a physicist who knew little about energy, he became the head of an institute specialising in energy research. Partly thanks to many fellow-researchers who he invited to think about ideas for this research area, Chu acquired in-depth knowledge of the climate problem and the energy transition.

The next step was just as remarkable: Chu was asked by President Obama to become Secretary of Energy, even though he knew nothing about politics. Chu accepted the invitation, acutely aware of what a scientist can achieve with power and influence. He enabled the rapid growth of wind and solar energy in the United States in the past five years, partly thanks to a subsidy scheme that he established for companies in that market. Chu commented however that the share of solar energy in the United States is still very modest: 0.25% of the total energy generated.

Colloquium Steven Chu

Discussion with Steven Chu byTristan Bakx and Evita Verheijden. Photo: Joost van Mameren

Energy transition

In his lecture, Chu used examples to demonstrate that renewable energy is finally on the verge of setting the wheels of energy transition in motion. The cost prices for the generation of both wind and solar energy are competitive with those of gas and coal. Solar energy, for example, has become 40 times cheaper in the past 40 years and the price level will decrease even further in the coming 10 years – to the extent that it will become cheap enough to be utilised on a large scale.

Chu foresees a great role for electrochemistry in the further development of sustainable energy sources. The price of raw materials for lithium batteries, for example, will rapidly increase in the coming years as a result of an increasing demand for lithium. This could slow down the availability of storage for solar energy. However, by extracting lithium from seawater through electrochemistry, it could become available in great quantities.

Hydrogen production

This also applies to the production of hydrogen from water. This is produced by electrolysis, but it costs a lot of energy and is therefore expensive. However, particularly in liquid form, hydrogen is an indispensable energy carrier for the transport sector. The calorific value of petrol and diesel is unbeatable. A lithium battery provides merely a fraction of the required energy compared to fossil fuels. However, if hydrogen can be generated on a large scale it will be a good replacement.

Chu left his post as Secretary four years ago and recently, the political winds in the United States have been blowing in a very different direction. Chu sketches a gloomy picture of what this will mean for energy and climate research. Funds are being reduced on a large scale and even current, ongoing research programmes can suddenly have their funding cut.

Fundamental research

This is a missed opportunity, particularly for the United States, according to Chu. He greatly values fundamental research and has a clear focus on conducting research into materials. As a researcher and policy maker, he has always encouraged this type of research. Chu: ‘Companies will not readily invest in fundamental research into new materials. That is a government task. However, if those new materials are useable for companies, they will invest in it on a large scale. As such, it is a great opportunity for an economy to grow.’

As far as Chu is concerned, ‘the secret is out of the bag’: for investors on Wall Street, London City and Shanghai, investing in solar energy and wind energy is a profitable and safe option. The period of uncertainty and reluctance is over.

Science Colloquium

The public lecture by Steven Chu is part of the Science Colloquium series regularly organised by the faculty. This colloquium was introduced by Professor Jook Walraven. Following his lecture, Chu was interviewed by students of the Bètabreak debate club.

Published by  Faculty of Science