Electronic Design

Are You Taking Global Warming Seriously? MIT Offers Perspective

This year's Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT left me more on-edge than energized. The message from a keynote panel was a wakeup call to the seriousness of global warming and the need for immediate action.

"It's not too late, but we must move away from fossil fuels... or ruin the planet for the next 50 generations," said Joseph Romm, founder and executive director of the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions. Romm urged a massive investment in alternative energy as well as a deployment of all current alternative technologies to reverse our increasing consumption of fossil fuels before 2020.

"This is about risk management. The lifetime of greenhouse gasses is thousands of years," said Caltech professor Nathan Lewis, agreeing that we have just a 20-year window to change course. "We are ticking closer to the point where the world is not ever going to be the same. We need to do the things we know how to do now, starting today. We need to emphasize conservation."

Lewis noted that California has kept per-capita energy consumption levels flat since the 1970s while the rest of the country has seen multifold increases. And while wind might provide 10% of our long-term needs, "the sun is where the energy is," Lewis said. "We need high-performance materials that can capture the sunlight—better solar paint—and we need to integrate that with new storage systems."

A massive investment in alternative energy creates some serious business opportunities, particularly if you're General Electric. "We need everything and anything to generate power," agreed panelist Kelly Fletcher, Sustainable Energy Advanced Technology Leader at GE Global Research. But, added Fletcher, alternative power won't take off until government policy supports it.

More government support of energy research could also address looming concerns about the state of U.S. science and engineering. Harvard professor George Whiteside discussed a recent report on U.S. competitiveness and education from the National Academy of Sciences that recommended a DARPAlike government agency focused on energy development, ARPA-E. Electronic Design readers agree, with 81% of you advocating added spending.

While educated consumers and active government are essential to solving global warming, a solution also depends on individual engineers and scientists working on independent pieces of the puzzle.

A session on "High-Performance Batteries to Transform Transportation" offered complementary approaches to energy storage. Ted Miller, technical specialist for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, said lithium-ion batteries will replace today's nickel-metal-hydride batteries in hybrids. This will reduce weight, simplify battery control, and improve efficiency. The challenge, he said, is low-temperature charging.

New cathode materials that help improve lithium battery life-spans are the purview of A123 Systems, a startup led by MIT's Yet-Ming Chiang, professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Chiang said his company's new materials also address the problems behind the recent laptop battery fires. Test labs are still trying to make the company's cell blow up. "This the first time they haven't been able to do it," he said.

Working on electrolytes and new anode materials that work at lower temperatures, 3M research specialist Mark Obrovac said there is "no reason electrolytes have to be flammable." While graphite has been the usual anode material in lithium cells, 3M is looking at alternative materials that can store 10 times the energy. "And they are not exotic materials. We're looking at silicon, with its diamond lattice, that can expand and can also maintain integrity," he said.

Angela Belcher, MIT professor of biological/materials science engineering, described using bacteria to "self assemble" new electrode materials from gold and cobalt oxide into 6-nm wires. "We give sea organisms the opportunity to make new materials from elements on the Periodic Table," she said.

With brilliant scientists like these working on energy storage, it's easy to be confident you readers can engineer solutions to looming environmental challenges. Still, vocal advocates will have to get the government to support needed research and fast-track the rollout of clean, sustainable energy.

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