Many experts are touting the upcoming COP26 climate summit as the last chance for humanity to come together and take action to avert a climate catastrophe. No doubt big promises and commitments will be made by governments around the world. But will this be enough? Alongside behavioural changes and boosting existing green technologies and initiatives, might we need new scientific breakthroughs to attain a net-zero society?
The answer is likely to be ‘yes’, and a good way to take an educated guess at where these breakthroughs might be made is by looking at past winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Often, even the most seemingly obscure new physics discoveries lead to new technologies that enrich society. Here are just three that have the potential to make a huge impact in tackling climate change:
Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (Nobel Prize in Physics 1913) discovered superconductivity in 1911 when he observed mercury exhibit zero electric resistance when cooled to near absolute zero temperatures. Since then, a total of 16 Laureates – ranging from Lev Landau (1962 Nobel Prize in Physics) through to John Bardeen, Leon N. Cooper and J. Robert Schrieffer (1972 Nobel Prize in Physics) and most recently Alexei A. Abrikosov, Vitaly L. Ginzburg and Anthony J. Leggett (2003 Nobel Prize in Physics) – have progressed our understanding of superconductivity.
A large part of why the Nobel Committee has taken such interest in superconductivity over the decades is that it promises so much. When our modern way of life is driven by electrons transporting unthinkable amounts of energy, if those electrons can travel resistance-free, vast efficiency and capacity gains can be had. This is because superconductors allow energy to flow efficiently through them without generating unwanted heat.
Unfortunately, most known superconductors also need to be supercooled, which itself requires a lot of energy and infrastructure, making them impractical for most applications. For example, metallic superconductors usually only work below -200 °C.
A key breakthrough was the discovery of ceramic superconductors in 1986 by J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alexander Müller (1987 Nobel Prize in Physics). Ceramic superconductors superconduct at higher temperatures, making them more useful for practical applications. But they still only work significantly below -100 °C, and have challenges in regard to their manufacture.
The Holy Grail of superconductivity research is to discover a room-temperature (and pressure) superconductor. Not only will the discoverer no doubt win a well-deserved Nobel Prize, but it will also unlock the full potential of superconductivity. Among many other applications, room-temperature superconductors could transform the ways we generate, distribute and store electricity. They could provide green transportation solutions, such as superconducting Maglev trains and motors for international shipping. And they could slash the energy demands of our digital world.
Andre Geim and Konstantin S. Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for isolating and discovering the miraculous properties of graphene six years earlier. Graphene is a supermaterial of almost limitless potential. It is ultra-light, ultra-thin and 200 times stronger than steel. And it is flexible, transparent and more conductive than copper. At the time of graphene’s discovery, scientists and the public imagined how these incredible properties might lead to futuristic technologies, like flexible smartphones and electronic wallpaper.
Today, it is being wielded in a host of green energy technology ideas too. Graphene promises more power and extended life for lithium-ion batteries. Graphene solar cells promise lightweight, inexpensive and more efficient solar energy panels. And from graphene supercapacitors we can expect more power for electric vehicles and efficient storage of wind and solar power.
Yet this promise is still to be fulfilled. Among key challenges to realising graphene’s full potential is its manufacture – graphene is difficult to produce in large volumes, and demand for the material is continually growing. Designing an industrial-scale process to produce graphene cheaply and in large volumes is critical.
Though Wolfgang Pauli won his 1945 Nobel Prize in Physics for his eponymous exclusion principle, he is also remembered as the person who first proposed neutrinos. Pauli believed they existed, but did not think they would be detected, even famously betting a case of champagne that they would never be observed. But he was proved wrong in 1956 when Frederick Reines (1995 Nobel Prize in Physics) and Clyde Cowan detected antineutrinos emitted by a nuclear fission reactor. Pauli paid his bet, though Reines later grumbled that theoreticians in his group drank the lot, and he and Cowan never took a sip.
Further neutrino-related Nobel Prize awards in 1988 (Leon M. Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger) and 2002 (Raymond Davis Jr. and Masatoshi Koshiba) are testament to the enduring appeal of these ghostly particles. Most recently, Arthur B. McDonald and Takaaki Kajita were awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for establishing that neutrinos have mass. This discovery was hugely significant. As the Standard Model of particle physics demanded that neutrinos were massless, it meant that our understanding of the subatomic world was incomplete.
Moreover, for McDonald it meant that our understanding of the process that powers the Sun – nuclear fusion – was incomplete too. Solar nuclear fusion takes place at such high temperatures that atomic nuclei fuse together, resulting in the creation of very large numbers of neutrinos. McDonald has argued that knowing neutrinos have mass has enabled scientists to measure the fusion processes in the core of the Sun correctly. In turn, this has meant that the same physics can be applied here on Earth in large-scale nuclear fusion experiments, such as ITER (the world’s largest fusion project).
Aiming to produce energy by 2025, ITER will convert hydrogen into helium atoms by bringing them together at 150 million °C. This fusion releases about four times the energy that splitting nuclei does in nuclear fission plants, and none of the radioactive waste. If fusion power is realised in ITER or other fusion experiments, and later full-scale power plants, we will have the ultimate tool to tackle climate change: plentiful green energy.