Steven Chu talks on energy choices

Last night a 12-year old friend and I attended the first in a free series of energy lectures in downtown Berkeley, courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Paul Alivisatos will speak May 7 on Nanoscience at Work: Creating Energy from Sunlight, Jay Keasling June 4 on Renewable Energy from Synthetic Biology. Alivisatos and Keasling lead LBL’s Helios Project, turning sunlight into fuels.

Steven Chu, Nobel Prize winner in physics, left his field to head a national lab because his new interest is The Energy Problem: What the Helios Project Can Do about It — climate change and cellulosic biofuels. This will be the subject of an upcoming blog.

[The Nobel Prize was awarded for his method of slowing atoms down to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Imagine an atom that can only move left or right. Shine a laser light on it from both directions. Because of the Doppler effect, the atom will see one source of light as higher frequency, the other as lower frequency. The higher frequency light has greater momentum, and will give a larger push to the atom, slowing it down. In our 3-dimensional universe, six lasers are needed.]

LBL posts the talks, Chu’s is here.

A couple of interesting details:

• Between 50 and 100% of today’s US fuels could be produced by using agricultural waste plus growing crops on 50 million acres, a portion of land a little larger than Nebraska. This kind of crop would be ideal for degraded and marginal land. It would be low input (water and fertilizer) but help restore the soil. Note: fuel consumption is rising, so we need to find a way to bring this down through greater fuel economy, and perhaps through using plug-in hybrids, so that low-carbon electricity provides some of the energy. Also, predictions about yields in a changing climate are more iffy than we want them to be.

• Radiation release from nuclear power is less than that from coal. I knew that an operating coal plant releases 100 times more radiation than a similar size nuclear power plant. [Coal contains heavy metals — uranium, thorium, mercury and others. Uranium and thorium are the main source of the radioactivity release, but health problems from the release of mercury are of more concern than the heavy metal plus radiation from uranium + thorium.] What I missed in reading this article is that a coal power plant in normal operation releases 4 times as much radioactivity as a nuclear power plant from mining to operation to waste disposal, this number rises if radioactivity release from coal mining (unknown) is included.

• Average glacier thickness decreased 14 meters (45 feet) in the last 50 years. Gulp. The Tibetan glacier is shrinking 1.2 meters, 4 feet, each year.

3 Responses to “Steven Chu talks on energy choices”

  1. Tibor Kiss says:

    How would you change your private life to protect the environment?

  2. […] Steven Chu talks on energy choices, Karen Street gives an account of a talk at Berkeley, by a Nobel Prize winner in physics, on energy […]

  3. Karen Street says:


    I hope that others address your question. And that you share your own answers.

    I have reduced my flying to zero, at least temporarily, and hardly hitch rides any more — I got rid of my car some years back. The house has all efficient appliances and bulbs — except on the dimmer switches. I don’t heat and light unused rooms.

    More though, I have made addressing climate change a focus of my life. This means educating myself on what is happening and may happen, and solutions, technological and otherwise. It means educating others as well.

    Some look to see how I live my own life as part of deciding whether I really think climate change is serious, others only listen to the words.

    I personally feel the need to reduce my own GHG emissions. I also feel the need to advocate for policies that reduce GHG emissions. In my case, this has meant letting go of preconceptions and listening to what those most knowledgeable say, and then finding ways to communicate to people with less time or more resistances.

    Personal change includes listening for what is true, what is important, and what is mine to do.