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.]
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.