Die Energiequellen der Zukunft – eine Suche

In diesem Jahr stehen auf der Mainau Energie und Nachhaltigkeit im Zentrum von Diskussion und Ausstellung. Dazu ein paar Gedanken vorab (1). Rund 80 Prozent des weltweiten Energiebedarfs werden heute mit den fossilen Brennstoffen Öl, Kohle und Gas abgedeckt. Mit dem Verbrennen der Jahrmillionen alten Stoffe wurden die Menschen immer mobiler und die Industrialisierung beschleunigt. Doch die Vorräte sind endlich und das verschwenderische Verbrennen führt zu einem immensen Kohlendioxidausstoß mit Folgen für das Weltklima.

„Es ist wichtig, dass wir mit der Energie, die immer kostbarer wird, intelligenter umgehen“, fordert etwa Theodor Hänsch, Physiknobelpreisträger des Jahres 2005. Allen voran habe das Einsparen von Energie das größte Potenzial. Der Direktor des Max-Planck-Instituts für Quantenoptik hofft, dass in diesem Sinne auch sein Forschungsgebiet indirekt helfen kann, indem schnellere Datenströme etwa mehr Videokonferenzen und Online-Austausch ermöglichen und so Reisen vermeiden. „Grundsätzlich müssen wir auf das gesamte Spektrum möglicher Alternativen setzen, inklusive der Kernenergie als Zwischenlösung, bis wir hoffentlich andere Energieformen in großem Maßstab nutzbar machen können,“ meint Hänsch.

Große Hoffnungen werden in eine umfassende Renaissance erneuerbarer Energiequellen wie Wasserkraft, Windkraft oder Sonnenenergie gesetzt. Wind- und Wasserkraft treiben längst nicht mehr direkt Werkzeuge an. In hoch technisierten Anlagen wird Strom gewonnen und in das allgemeine Netz eingespeist. In ähnlicher Weise, wird die Sonnenkraft selbst genutzt, sei es mittels Photovoltaik oder Solarthermie.

Mainau 2010

Pavillons der Ausstellung “Entdeckungen 2010: Energie” auf der Insel Mainau

Eines der ehrgeizigsten Projekte in dieser Hinsicht heißt Desertec: Strom, gewonnen aus der Kraft der glühenden Saharasonne, könnte als dauerhafte Energiequelle Afrika und Europa versorgen. Auf rund 20.000 Quadratkilometern sollen Solarthermie-Kraftwerke das Sonnenlicht in Parabolrinnen-Spiegeln einfangen, Wasser verdampfen und Turbinen für die Stromerzeugung antreiben.  „Europa könnte bis zum Jahr 2050 rund 15 Prozent seines Strombedarfs aus der Wüste beziehen“, skizziert Robert Pitz-Paal, stellvertretender Direktor des Instituts für Technische Thermodynamik des Deutschen Zentrums für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), das maßgeblich an der Entwicklung der Technologie für Desertec beteiligt ist, seine Vision.

Zwar sind die Kosten pro Kilowattstunde per Solarthermie noch viel zu hoch, um mit der Elektrizität aus Kohle- und Kernkraftwerken mithalten zu können. Aber Pitz-Paal ist überzeugt „wir werden in den kommenden 15 bis 20 Jahren finanziell wettbewerbsfähig werden“. Doch der Preis ist nicht alles. Mehrere Aufgaben haben die Solarforscher am DLR noch zu erledigen: Sie wollen die Effizienz steigern; klären, wie der Strom ohne große Verluste nach Europa gelangen kann – Hochspannungsleitungen, die mit Gleichstrom statt dem üblichen Wechselstrom arbeiten, könnten eine Lösung sein. Und nicht zuletzt müssen sie geeignete Speicher finden, die auch nachts, wenn die Sonne schläft, Energie bereitstellen. Gehandelt werden von Salz über Sand, Beton bis hin zur chemischen Speicherung die unterschiedlichsten Materialien.

Vielleicht macht am Ende doch Wasserstoff das Rennen, als Energiespeicher der Zukunft. Viele Hoffnungen wurden schon in den Stoff gesetzt. Denn das Prinzip erscheint einfach. Wasser wird aufgespalten, Wasserstoff gespeichert und bei Bedarf mit Sauerstoff wieder zu Wasser verbrannt. Das klingt sauber und machbar. Schon Jules Vernes schrieb 1874: „Wasser ist die Kohle der Zukunft.“

Nun ist aber die Speicherung von Wasserstoff keine einfache Sache. Größere Mengen lassen sich verhältnismäßig gut bei sehr tiefen Temperaturen oder unter hohem Druck aufbewahren, doch für den breiten Einsatz im mobilen Bereich sind andere Speicherformen nötig. Am Max-Planck-Institut (MPI) für Kohlenforschung und am MPI für Metallforschung werden viel versprechende Speichermaterialien wie Metallhydride und so genannte MOFs untersucht, die sehr viel Wasserstoff einlagern können. Genutzt wird Wasserstoff als Energieträger häufig in Brennstoffzellen. Forscher am MPI für Festkörperforschung arbeiten daran, diese durch den Einsatz verbesserter Materialien zuverlässiger und kostengünstiger zu machen.

Eine Vision der Wasserstoff-Zukunft existiert bereits: Autos angetrieben von einer Brennstoffzelle und einem Elektromotor anstelle des klassischen Verbrennungsmotors. Doch es gibt noch keine Serienproduktion und es fehlt ein flächendeckendes Netz an Wasserstoff-Tankstellen.

„Es kommen auch Hybridsysteme aus Batterie und Brennstoffzelle, womöglich noch gekoppelt mit einem Rage extender, der die Reichweite des Fahrzeugs erhöht, in Frage“, meint Holger Hanselka, Hauptkoordinator des Forschungsverbunds Systemforschung Elektromobilität der Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. Der Verbund will das Elektroauto auf die Straße bringen und setzt dafür auf das Know-how seiner Mitarbeiter von gleich 33 Instituten.

Am Institut für Chemische Technologie etwa will Jens Noack mittels sogenannter Redox-Flow-Batterien aus flüssigen Elektrolyten ein elektrisches Tanksystem schaffen, „das nur wenige Minuten für ein komplettes Wiederaufladen benötigt“. Knapp 100 Kilometer weit solle man dann fahren können. Dank solcher und vieler anderer Innovationen des Forschungsverbundes hält Hanselka es für realistisch, „dass im Jahr 2020 über eine Million Elektrofahrzeuge auf Deutschlands Straßen fahren werden und wir ein entsprechendes Betankungsnetz mit verschiedenen Möglichkeiten haben.“

Mit in den Mix der mobilen Zukunft werden weiterhin Autos gehören, die mit Kraftstoffen aus Biomasse angetrieben werden. Am Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT) setzt man auf Biokraftstoffe der zweiten Generation. „Wir verwenden weitgehend trockene Biomasse, nichts, das in Konkurrenz zur Nahrungserzeugung Fläche verbraucht“, beschreibt Nicolaus Dahmen, Projektleiter Bioliq am KIT. In Frage kommen restliches Stroh und Holz aus Land- und Forstwirtschaft sowie der Landschaftspflege. Die Biomasse kann in kleinen dezentralen Anlagen zu einem speziellen Öl-Gemisch, das sie BioSyncrude nennen, energetisch verdichtet werden. In einer zentralen Anlage soll daraus schließlich Kerosin, Diesel oder Otto-Kraftstoff für Verbrennungsmotoren werden.

In der Summe aber wird vermutlich Elektrizität eine zunehmend wichtige Rolle spielen. Selbst in der Geothermie wird längst nicht nur mehr an die direkte Nutzung der Wärme aus der Tiefe gedacht. Am Deutschen Geoforschungszentrum verwandelt beispielsweise Ernst Huenges die thermische Energie in mechanische, die wiederum Strom erzeugt – in Deutschland bei einer Wassertemperatur von 120 bis 150 Grad Celsius mit einem satten Energieverlust von 90 Prozent. Aber genau das wollen Huenges und sein Team wesentlich verbessern und er erklärt: „Immerhin ist von dieser Energiequelle wirklich reichlich vorhanden.“

Theodor Hänsch zeigt sich vielen gegenwärtigen Programmen gegenüber vorsichtig und warnt davor allzu schnell mit heutiger Technologie Großprojekte etwa der Solarenergie oder Windenergie zu starten. „Wir dürfen die Grundlagenforschung nicht vernachlässigen, mit der man vielleicht ganz neue Ansätze findet, die uns am Ende enorm weiterführen können,“ gibt er zu bedenken. Mit Grundlagenforschung gebe man jungen Leuten die Möglichkeit, mit ganz neuen Ideen die Zukunft vielleicht anders zu gestalten.

Wer weiß, womöglich gelingt es die Sonne auf die Erde zu holen? Nach dem Modell der Sternenfeuer sollen Wasserstoffisotope zu Helium verschmelzen und dabei große Mengen Energie freisetzen. Die friedliche Nutzung der so genannten Kernfusion ist eine Idee, die Physiker seit mehr als 50 Jahren umtreibt und sich als wahre Herkulesaufgabe erweist. Für die Verschmelzung müssen die Atome ihre Elektronenhüllen abstreifen, ein Plasma bilden. Auf Erden setzen die Forscher die Wasserstoffisotope Deuterium und Tritium ein, denn diese verschmelzen leichter als die Sonnenoriginale. „Dennoch müssen wir das Plasma auf 200 Millionen Grad erhitzen, damit die Fusionsreaktion ablaufen kann“, erklärt Günther Hasinger, Wissenschaftlicher Direktor des Max-Planck-Instituts für Plasmaphysik. Weil dies kein Material des Planeten aushält, müssen die Physiker das Plasma in Magnetfeldern wärmeisoliert einschließen.

Derzeit wird unter deutscher Beteiligung in Frankreich der internationale Experimentalreaktor ITER, lateinisch „der Weg“, gebaut. Mitte der 2020er Jahre wollen die Forscher damit zehnmal mehr Energie durch Kernfusion gewinnen, als sie zur Heizung des Plasmas einsetzen. Sind sie erfolgreich soll DEMO, ITERs Nachfolger, etwa ab 2040 den ersten Strom erzeugen. Richtige Kraftwerke könnten schließlich etwa ab 2050 ans Netz gehen. Wenn es gelingt, diese Energiequelle zu nutzen, wäre eine wirtschaftliche, sichere und umweltverträgliche Stromquelle gefunden. Doch all dies ist ergebnisoffen, wie Theodor Hänsch betont – „Aber es wäre natürlich ein Traum.“


(1) diesen Text habe ich in weiten Teilen für die Ausstellung “Entdeckungen 2010: Energie“, die vom 20. Mai bis 29. August auf der Mainau zu sehen ist, geschrieben.

mehr zum Thema:

Die Nachhaltigkeit der Lindauer Tagungen

Paneldiskussion zum Klimawandel 2009

Das Nobelpreisträgertreffen, Graf Lennart Bernadotte und die Ökologie

Personalities, puns and pictures in the plenaries

We’ve all had bad experiences of sitting in lectures, trying to focus on the slides while feeling like we’re really missing out on the key points of the subject. You want to stay motivated and learn something new, but somehow the speaker doesn’t make it easy for you. How to encourage good science communication was something that came up in the panel discussion at Monday night’s social event. So how do Nobel Laureates make their talks entertaining and memorable? I’ll mention some highlights from Monday and Tuesday mornings’ plenaries, showing that scientists can be captivating, witty and even brave enough not to take themselves too seriously.

Last year’s winner Ada Yonath opened this year’s series of lectures with a talk entitled “The Amazing Ribosome”. Recognising that her audience were not all structural biologists or even biochemists she started off with the basics of the Central Dogma (DNA makes RNA makes protein) illustrating this with pictures from a children’s book, quipping that the only inaccuracies were in the pictures of the ribosomes.

Whizzing enthusiastically onto the nub of her research into ribosomal structure and function, Yonath showed the two subunits of the bacterial ribosome –  the smaller of which she referred to as “the duck” and the larger as “the clown”, instantly making them more memorable.

You can be a scientist and a loved family member. Please ladies, go into science, it’s a lot of fun

After talking about the catalytic activities of rRNA as well as the mechanisms of antibiotic action, Yonath finished with some more personal thoughts; the first was a photograph of a painting her grand-daughter had given her, proclaiming her as “the best grandma in the world” an accolade she has to re-earn every year.This prompted her declaration that “You can be a scientist and a loved family member. Please ladies, go into science, it’s a lot of fun”. This she reinforced with a cartoon of herself where her trademark frizzy hair had been converted into a structural diagram of the ribosome, fixing her in all our minds. 

Highlights: unafraid to go back to basics to explain her subject to the audience, enthusiastic, very human, memorable anecdotes.

 

 What I cannot create, I do not understand

Tuesday morning opened with Roger Tsien presenting on “Designing molecules and nanoparticles to help see and treat disease”. His entire talk was punctuated by references as to how and why he’d made certain decisions in his scientific career while successfully narrating the science of GFP and other fluorescent compounds that it has been comprised of. From admitting to “liking pretty colours” since he was a child, as well as being from a family of engineers, to describing an affinity with Feynman’s famous quote “What I cannot create, I do not understand”, his explanations were lucid, often personal and derived from basic principles. Even his decision to move into more clinical applications of flurorescent imaging techniques has been prompted by the deaths of his father, nephew and PhD supervisor due to cancer.  This human angle was reasserted in his expressed dislike of being asked for a photograph or autograph “as if people thought he was a good luck charm and that some of his luck might rub off on them”. He confessed to preferring to have a conversation with any interested students than being viewed as an idol.

However, it wasn’t all seriousness – he showed a humour in his awareness of the pressures and politics in science with statements such as “that was all well and good and it got me tenure, but I needed to do something that was more acceptable…”. He also jested about naming the rainbow of fluorescent markers that his lab developed by using the colour scheme on the Crayola website.   

Tsien ended the talk with a helpful slide of key pieces of advice for the young scientists which included:

  • try to find important projects that give maximum payoff for minimum pain
  • learn to make lemonade from lemons i.e. persist
  • accept that your batting average (i.e. number of papers/key breakthroughs) will be low, but hopefully not zero.
  • Exercise is the best way to keep your brain healthy
  • Prizes are ultimately a matter of luck so avoid being motivated or impressed by them
  • Find the right collaborators and explioit them kindly for mutual benefit.

 

Highlights: clear explanations as to why he’d made certain career decisions, specific advice, humour in the face of challenges   

identify the victim, kill it, get rid of the body, destroy the evidence

Robert Horvitz‘s talk on “Programmed cell death and disease” was similarly lucid with the highlights for me being his creation of memorable ways to recall key facts, such as his summary of the key stages in apoptosis as comparable to a murder: “identify the victim, kill it, get rid of the body, destroy the evidence”. He also brought the process of doing research alive by showing a fax of one of the “eureka!” moments when on February 12 1992 they realised that bcl-2 was the human homolgue of C.elegans ced-9,  an anti-cell death gene.

Highlights: witty ways of remembering processes, insight into what it’s like to do science

Tuesday morning’s plenary’s ended with a lively talk by Martin Chalfie on “Adventures in Nontranslational research”. Chalfie’s sense of the adventure and enjoyment of scientific research clearly came through: he joked about having done all of his original key GFP experiments using microscopes that he’d borrowed from the manufacturers to “test them for a couple of months” and confessed to having done something similar recently, without admitting to what! He also illustrated some of the politics of publishing data, both in iterations of the title of his key Science paper where he was told to omit the word “new” because “everything in Science is new”. He then showed a copy of a letter that his wife had sent to him, consenting to the use of unpublished data, but only on the condition that he make Saturday morning coffee, prepare a special French dinner and take the garbage out. Finally, Chalfie appealed for audience participation, enquiring as to how many biologists had used GFP during their studies (a majority) before finishing with a few bullet points of advice:

  • success may come via many routes
  • scientific progress is cumulative
  • students and post-docs are the lab innovators
  • basic research is essential
  • all life should be studied, not just model organisms 

 

Highlights: conveyed that doing science can be fun, specific advice, audience participation

All of these lectures (and others that I’ve not included here) were entertaining at the same time as being informative. Do share your thoughts about them in the comments if you were there or listened online.

 

*You might also be interested in Martin Fenner’s interview with Roger Tsien and Akshat Rathi’s view on the plenary lectures.

Paul Crutzen’s Other Big Idea

Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen will be at Lindau this year, along with his fellow recipient F. Sherwood Rowland. The two along with Mario Molina contributed to one of the most significant intersections of science with politics and public policy in the twentieth century when they discovered the effects of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemical compounds on the all-important ozone layer. Crutzen is well-known for that contribution.

What Crutzen is not that well-known for may perhaps make him even more famous after a few years. In 2006, Crutzen published an article in the journal Climate Change that proposed a cheap and audacious-sounding technological fix to ameliorate the harm done by global warming. He proposed releasing millions of tons of sulfate and sulfur dioxide particles into the upper atmosphere which would cool the earth by reflecting sunlight. His scheme is part of what is now called ‘geoengineering’- willfully changing the climate of our planet to counteract the harmful effects of global warming. If Crutzen talks about geoengineering this year at Lindau, it will very likely be one of the most provocative talks at the meeting, and students should make sure they ask him lots of questions about it.

Let’s admit it. If we want to talk about the craziest-sounding ideas dreamt up by mad scientists with disheveled hair and demented glints in their eyes, geoengineering would admirably fit the bill. This is the stuff that pulpy science fiction is made of, when horrible accidents engineered by technology-obsessed scientists cast humanity into eternal doom. Yet, geoengineering is now seriously being considered by top scientists and policy makers. It also has a long history that is permeated by some of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. Science fiction it may sound like, but it’s being treated as serious science by serious people. Some have predicted that the issue of geoengineering will be catapulted in a few years into one of the most visible public debates of our times, regularly bandied about in the mainstream media. It will become a topic rich with scientific, political, social and moral dilemmas. Given the potential impact and importance it can have, I personally feel very likely that this will happen.

So what is geoengineering? It is simply the application of technology to engineer our environment to our benefit. If this does not sound like a novel definition, it probably isn’t. Human beings have been changing their environment using technology for thousands of years. The invention of agriculture and architecture and the breeding and domestication of animals are all examples of engineering our surroundings to suit our needs. Yet the word geoengineering deserves a modern definition in its own right simply because of the magnitude and audacity of ideas it dares to conjure up. Crutzen’s sulfur dioxide scheme constitutes one of them. Not bold enough? How about building giant hoses that will release sulfates tens of kilometers high up? Still too boring? How about dropping billions of tons of iron compounds into the world’s oceans to encourage the growth of CO2-eating algae? Covering the oceans up with gigantic white plastic sheets to reflect sunlight? And these seem to be some of the more conservative ideas floating around. One of the main problems that people seem to have with geoengineering schemes is that they think these schemes will add another dangerous and uncertain variable to a game we have already played with our planet beyond reason. And yet if we think about it, playing with the earth does not sound so bad when we ponder our present situation and its consequences.

Let’s take a hard look at the facts. Mankind has warmed the planet by emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on an unprecedented scale. This contribution has already engineered the planet in its own way by radically changing the environment and making the future uncertain for further generations. Drastically reducing CO2 emissions seems to be the one way to possibly stall the impact, even if we probably cannot completely neutralize it. But human nature being what it is, it has proven immensely difficult to adopt global policies that would reduce emissions. Kyoto was a dismal failure. Last year at Lindau, Rajendra Pachauri who is the chairman of the IPCC was glowingly optimistic about the 2009 Copenhagen conference. Now we know that although there were weak assurances and promises, that meeting too ended in failure. The bottom line is, the world still runs on fossil fuels, and many think it’s going to be decades if not more before all the inequities and differences among the peoples of our planet will make it possible to approach anything comprising significant consensus in reducing fossil fuel emissions. Clearly it’s a Sisyphean task to convince humans to give up their ambitiously high standards of living. Till then it could be too late.

But if human beings find it hard to reach a consensus, they don’t find it that hard to come up with other creative ideas to address the key issues. If we could modify the weather by other means and buy ourselves some time at the very least, shouldn’t we do it? The twentieth century is replete with attempts by scientists to come up with ways to change the climate for a variety of reasons, far before global warming was ever on the agenda. Probably the most high profile reason was being able to influence local weather patterns as a form of warfare; if you could radically engineer the weather around enemy formations, you could throw all their war preparations into chaos. Such type of thinking pervaded Cold War strategy. And it got a boost from one of the most brilliant humans being who ever lived.

John von Neumann, mathematical wizard who could multiply six-digit numbers in his head and recite the entire telephone book when he was six years old in his native Hungary, has become an anecdote-generating legend. Almost any anecdote about this great man and the quickness of his mind is likely to be familiar or sound like a cliché, so I will refrain. The sheer diversity of fields- pure mathematics, physics, nuclear weapons design, economics, computing, biology- to which he made lasting contributions boggles the mind and is without a doubt unprecedented. He made so many important contributions to so many important fields that even now one suspects if there was a conspiracy of geniuses who all published papers and ideas under the same name. In only one lifetime, while establishing the mathematical foundations of quantum theory, inventing game theory, designing the plutonium implosion bomb, laying out the blueprint for genetic replication, exploring the workings of the brain and becoming a father of computer science through his invention of what we call ‘software’, von Neumann ended up contemplating the use of the computer for weather prediction almost as a pastime. A prized consultant to top-secret government agencies, von Neumann had grandiose schemes for first predicting and then manipulating the weather using intensive computer modeling. Although his diabolical schemes to wage war (probably fortunately) did not come to pass, von Neumann’s ideas were the forerunner for some of the earliest computer models of climate, culminating in the sophisticated General Circulation Models (GCMs) that modern day climate scientists use.

Von Neumann died in 1957 in great pain from cancer, heavily surrounded by military security personnel in fear that he may divulge nuclear secrets while medicated. As if one brilliant Hungarian was not enough, another brilliant Hungarian materialized to don von Neumann’s mantle.

Nobody looms as large over geoengineering as the brilliant and impetuous Edward Teller, the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’. Teller was so obsessed with nuclear weapons that he has become almost a clichéd caricature of the mad scientist, supposed to be one of the inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s famous nuclear satire. As the greatest nuclear weaponeer in history, Teller never shied away from making nuclear bombs bigger, better, smaller and more powerful. Throughout his life Teller was known for two things, his scientific brilliance and his tortured relationship with his fellow scientists. After his testimony in the trial of Robert Oppenheimer made him a virtual outcast from the scientific community, Teller began to hobnob with powerful military and political leaders who wanted bigger and better nuclear weapons. Teller’s love for nuclear weapons led him in the fifties to propose ‘Project Plowshare’. Project Plowshare figures big in the history of geoengineering. It was literally a plan for sculpting the earth to suit human needs. It envisaged everything from blasting gigantic harbors in seconds to diverting the course of entire rivers to turn deserts into lush grasslands, all made possible by megaton nuclear bombs. Such grand planning was typical of the Cold War belief in technology, a belief which lasts even today. The Soviets also explored such plans and publicized them as glorious Communist dreams intended to bring the benefits of technology to the masses. Nuclear weapons had acquired a bad rap because of their destructive effects. Now Teller wanted to put a positive spin on them. But Teller’s motives were not completely benevolent. If Project Plowshare became popular, it would lead to more nuclear testing and hence to more nuclear building, both of which were Teller’s cherished goals.


Edward Teller (1908-2003)

One of the first experimental projects that Project Plowshare had in mind was excavating a giant harbor in what was considered a remote region of Alaska. In just a few weeks Teller was transformed into a marketing executive who strove hard to convince the local population including the local Inuit natives about how nice such a harbor excavated by a huge nuclear blast in two seconds would be for them. He even said he could sculpt a harbor in the shape of a polar bear. Teller insisted that fallout, which was the biggest threat from nuclear detonations, would be limited. He did not really give much thought to the details of the region and the fact that the Soviet Union was only 180 miles from the harbor’s location. Fortunately, Teller’s plan was killed in the water when a geologist named Don Foote mapped the entire region and its rich biodiversity and showed that not only would the livelihood of the Inuits be completely destroyed, but that uncertainty in wind patterns would likely draft the radioactive fallout toward the Soviet Union, a geopolitical disaster. A disgruntled Teller still did not give up on his dreams of changing the face of the planet, and planned for a small experiment in the Nevada desert that would perhaps convince the naysayers. The goal was quite elemental, to see how big a hole a nuclear weapon would dig. In 1962, a 1.5-megaton bomb excavated a crater more than a thousand feet in diameter and 300 feet in depth in about two seconds. Unfortunately, fallout from the blast was carried by the wind as far as Canada. Finally, after more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars in spending, Project Plowshare was dead. The crater still exists and is a tourist attraction.

But Teller’s highly fertile mind never remained still. Throughout his life he kept on coming up with highly creative and more than a little wacky ideas of accomplishing technological feats using nuclear weapons. I think Teller’s whole frame of mind is aptly summed up by Carl Sagan, who said that Teller’s problem was that he genuinely liked nuclear weapons. Thus he wanted to use them for almost any problem. Want to turn coal into diamonds? Use the pressure from a nuclear blast. Teller even insisted using nuclear weapons for pure science research. Want to analyze moon dust? Explode a nuke on the moon and analyze the resulting spectrum. Until his death in 2003 at the ripe old age of 95, Edward Teller continued to be enamored of technology as the solution to mankind’s greatest problems. His vision, even if it has been transformed into something a little more gentle and realistic, still lives on in the minds of geoengineers.

So who are these people and what do they want to do? Geoengineering schemes seem to fall into two categories. We know the first one as ‘carbon sequestration’ and it sounds more benign. It seeks simply to suck the excess CO2 out of the air and store it in one form or the other, either underground or in other locations. However, the word ‘simply’ does not do justice to the complexity of the problem. CO2 is a high-entropy material that has been generated from low-entropy fossil fuels such as coal. Essentially reverting the process might require much more energy than is saved. Plus, where is this energy going to come from? From fossil fuels which are going to release more CO2 themselves? That would be futile. So scientists are trying to come up with other creative ideas. One of the more creative ideas is being tested by David Keith, a physicist at the University of Calgary. Keith’s process to trap CO2 relies on high-school chemistry. Lye or sodium hydroxide will react with the CO2 from air to form sodium carbonate. This in turn will react with calcium oxide to form calcium carbonate. In his lab Keith is running experimental CO2 absorption columns. Success until now has been spotty; the reduction in CO2 is typically only 5 ppm, but the technology is worth exploring.

The second category of proposals would make science fiction fans stand up, because these are the ones aimed at actually modifying the planet’s atmosphere in one way or the other. Crutzen’s proposal to inject sulfur dioxide particles in the stratosphere is a running candidate. One reason why it is taken seriously is because there is a precedent in which the earth actually geoengineered itself. In 1991, the volcano Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted and put millions of tons of sulfur dioxide particles in the atmosphere. True to calculations and predictions, the planet actually cooled by a fraction of a degree. The most likely location for doing this kind of cooling experiment is the Arctic, which is rapidly losing ice. The problem with ice is that it constitutes positive feedback which makes the global warming problem worse; less ice means less reflection of sunlight which means higher temperatures which means even less ice and so on. Consequently, cooling the atmosphere above the arctic would mean more ice, which would kick-start the reverse cycle, increasing reflectivity and cooling the planet further. The amount of sulfur dioxide needed and its cost is not too much compared to what’s at stake. The main problem that some people see with this scenario is that it’s a band-aid, since it won’t actually curb CO2 emissions. Also, CO2 doesn’t just cause global warming. It also causes other serious problems like ocean acidification, which is killing off entire species and catastrophically disturbing ocean biodiversity and balance. Sulfur in the atmosphere is not going to mitigate these other issues. The good thing though might be that these increasing CO2 levels would be absorbed by plants, encouraging foliage which will suck up even more CO2. This brings us to the other geoengineering scheme- seeding the oceans with iron compounds. These compounds will encourage the growth of algae which will eat up the excess CO2. Algae might also serve another purpose. The British scientist James Lovelock who is the originator of the “Gaia” theory pointed out that algae produce the gas dimethyl sulfide (if you haven’t smelt this, don’t, as I can attest from experience) which also forms sunlight-reflecting aerosols. Lovelock is a big fan of engineering and thinks that it’s too late now for us to get a grip on climate change by reducing emissions alone.

Probably the craziest-sounding idea for geoengineering has been suggested by University of Arizona scientist Roger Angel. Angel proposes shooting out thin polymer-based disks, each about the size of a trash can lid, into orbit around earth. Once in orbit, these disks will cast a huge shadow on earth that will reduce sunlight absorption by about 2%. Even this small change will be enough to cool the planet. The problem? The mind-boggling number of disks that would have to be shot out into space- about 16 trillion. But Angel’s proposal is one of a kind proposed by scientists that include launching millions of sunlight-reflecting mirrors into orbit, essentially serving the same purpose.

 

Then there are proposals grounded in genetic engineering. These are again being taken seriously by a number of well-known scientists. Craig Venter, the famous genome pioneer who recently synthesized a working organism from scratch, is on the lookout for CO2-eating bacteria. Freeman Dyson has suggested a slightly more futuristic idea- engineering trees with silicon leaves instead of carbon leaves which would absorb much more CO2.

Science fiction or not, mainstream scientists are wary of all such proposals for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the belief that such proposals will be eagerly seized upon by industrial interests who can then go on emitting CO2 with abandon. Geoengineering is seen by these opponents as nothing more than a band-aid, leaving us free to indulge in even more fossil fuel based development. There is definitely merit to this point of view, but the same opponents should also realize that we are probably going to be entrenched in fossil fuel based development for decades. Till then we must do something to explore alternative scenarios for cooling the planet. There are arguments which say that geoengineering messes with a complex system about which we understand very little, and these are not invalid. But the history of technology shows that for whatever reason, we have been able to manage complex systems much better than what we initially imagined. Geoengineering should be supported at least on an experimental scale. The other more philosophical problem that some have with these ideas is that they cast yet another volley in mankind’s attempts to destroy the world’s natural essence. But whether we like it or not, we have already destroyed and irrevocably altered this essence since the last 40,000 years or so, when modern humans started migrating across the earth in large numbers. The planet now is radically different from what it was then, and it’s hard to see how geoengineering would be any different from the massive amounts of engineering we have done on this planet until now. And the bottom line is that global warming is too complex a problem to be attacked only through a single line of inquiry, that of reducing CO2 emissions. Only a multipronged approach can help resolve such a convoluted dilemma.

But ultimately the objection to geoengineering goes much deeper than technical and scientific issues. Geoengineering seems to signal the epitome of the hubris that human beings have always had, fuelling the belief that technology is going to solve all our problems. To some extent it has gotten a bad name because of scientists like Edward teller who wanted to harness the primeval force of the atom for sculpting our environment, without much thought about consequences. We all know what happened when Icarus became giddy with his powers of flight and soared too close to the sun. Our own Icarus has already outdone himself in his ambitions. Geoengineering seems only to be the culmination of our fantasy to achieve mastery over the planet. A planet with geoengineering will very likely look disturbingly artificial, with abnormally high levels of CO2 being sustained in a delicate balance with a sulfate-laden atmosphere, algal blooms in the ocean, an armor of mirrors in outer space, and landscapes dotted with CO2-eating plants with silicon leaves and behemoth CO2-sucking machines. All will look nice and cozy, until the very delicate balance is inevitable perturbed by our ignorance of complexity.

As the old proverb says, we need to be careful about what we wish for. Our wishes might come true.

A sustainable look at the future – Lindau

If you ever have the time to take a deeper look at the history of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting, you will recognize that concerns for humans and the environment shape it. The openness of the scientific debates and solution seeking fosters the specific spirit of Lindau ever since the first meeting in 1951.

One idea behind the founding of the meetings was the desire for a restoration of the scientific bridges between people from different nations after the Second World War. These new bridges the Laureates used immediately, in order to put their concern for humanity and the environment on the agenda.

In 1954 Werner Heisenberg saw the attendance of Albert Schweitzer, winner of the Nobel peace prize, at the meeting as cause to „rethink the humanitarian side of science“.It was his initiative to invite to the chemists’ Meeting in the following year all the Nobel laureates whose work lay in nuclear research. This led to the so-called Mainau declaration, which was signed by 18 Nobel Prize winners in 1955 and in which they issued a warning against the use of atomic weapons.

Mainauer Deklaration

The first lines of the Mainauer Kundgebung from 1955

A full martial use of today’s potential weapons can contaminate the earth so badly that entire nations would be annihilated. […] We don’t deny, that today peace may be kept especially out of fear of these fatal weapons. Nevertheless we take it as a self-deception if governments should believe, they could avoid wars on a long term only by using this fear. […] All nations need to come to the conclusion to abdicate voluntarily on violence as a last measure in politics…

The bridges grew and overcame longer distances with every year and environmental issues increasingly became set on the schedule by the conference participants. Not at least the co-founder and spiritus rector of the meeting, Count Lennart Bernadotte (†2004), opened the conference in 1970 with his appeal: “To all scientists in the world, help to re-establish a healthy environment, to care for it and maintain it as a place fit for human life!” Sustainability will again be a core theme of this year’s meeting. It will appear from a range of perspectives in numerous lectures, to be finally discussed by a concluding top-class panel on ‘Energy and Sustainability’ on July 2nd, 2010, on the Isle of Mainau.

The role scientists may play for a sustainable world also emerged in the talk on “The predicament of mankind” that Dennis Gabor (Nobel Prize in Physics 1971) gave in Lindau in 1973. Gabor was a member of the Club of Rome and co-author of its study “The limits of growth.” The report was based on a computer model that calculated the development of five independent variables, industrialization, population growth, malnourishment, resource use and environmental destruction, until 2100. Gabor outlined the dilemma between mankind’s growth and self-preservation and asked for urgent changes in energy mix and consumption. Analyzing different energy sources, he expressed the hope: “We scientists and technologists must create a new technology, one which uses only inexhaustible or self-renewing resources.“ It is very worthwhile to listen to his lecture (1).

Dennis Gabor

Dennis Gabor, 1973 – 23th Meeting of Nobel Laureates
The Predicament of Mankind (2)

Ever since that time numerous Laureates have been talking about these topics and discussed different energy sources at Lindau. In her “Magna Charta of Duties”, a lecture delivered in Lindau in 1993, Rita Levi-Montalcini (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 1986) asked her audience to do their best to help protect the biosphere and develop a world of justice – read more about my favourite Lindau lecture. She underscored the need for immediate aid for the poor from developed countries and plead for a world based on total equality. As scientific criteria lead to better decisions, Levi-Montalcini concluded that it should be specifically a duty of young scientists “to move this beautiful declaration to action.”

In recent years, the possibilities and limitations of renewable energies have been on a special focus. In 2007, for example, Hartmut Michel (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1988) discussed “Biofuels – sense or nonsense.” In 2009, Walter Kohn (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1998) outlined “An earth powered predominantly by solar and wind energy.”

Untiringly the three Nobel laureates in Chemistry 1995, Paul Crutzen, José Mario Molina and Frank Sherwood Rowland continuously make the protection of the atmosphere, greenhouse gases and climate change a subject of discussion at Lindau. They had uncovered the reactions, which led to the depletion of ozon in the upper atmosphere. This year Crutzen and Rowland will be back at Lindau and use the afternoon discussions with young scientists to talk about their core themes.

And may Laureates follow the example given by Rita Levi-Montalcini and talk about their concerns for environment and humanity – topics far from their own research. This year, for example, Richard Ernst (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991) invites young researchers to “Develop concepts for a beneficial global future;” Robert B. Laughlin (Nobel Prize in Physics 1998) discusses what happens “When coal is gone;” and Leland H. Hartwell (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2001) will talk about “Developing a sustainable world.”

The 60-year-old tradition of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings in this sense is a tradition of sustainability.

 


(1) Quotes from the lecture “The Predicament of Mankind” held by Dennis Gabor (Nobel Prize in Physics 1971) at Lindau in 1973

9:08 So what we scientists and technologists must create is a new technology. One which uses only unexhaustible or selve renewing resources.

38:37 We must realize we are living on an earth which is now becoming too small for us. Applied scientists and technologists must radically reverse their priorities. The first priority is to get our civilization going and not to continue with this irresponsible waisting of energy and material resources.

 

(2) The Lindau Mediatheque, a project sponsored by the Gerda-Henkel-Stiftung actually contains 130 Video- and Audiolectures from Lindau.

Meet the Young Scientists – part 1

This year’s Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting will give almost 700 young scientists from around the world the opportunity to meet and talk science with 61 Nobel Laureates. What’s it like to be an ambitious researcher today and does your experience of “doing science” or your hopes for the future depend on where you work? I’m planning to listen to the thoughts of three young scientists over the next couple of weeks – before, during and after this year’s meeting – to compare their stories. In this post we get to meet Emmanuel, Paul and Jisun.

Emmanuel Unuabonah is an associate professor of Chemical Sciences at Reedemer’s University in Nigeria. 

Emmy


Paul Rupar is also a chemist and works as a Postdoctoral Associate in polymer chemistry at the University of Bristol in the UK. He obtained his PhD from The University of Western Ontario in Canada and moved to the UK in 2009.

 Paul Ropar

Jisun Moon obtained her B.Sc and M.Sc in physics at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. Since 2006, she has worked in the lab of Prof. Alan Heegar at the University of California. 

Can you explain your research area to a non-specialist in three sentences?

EU: Presently, I use modified clays and/or agricultural waste materials such as wood sawdust, palm kernal fibre and Carica papaya seeds. The research is aimed at providing cheap but very efficient materials that could be used for treating water and wastewater. My ultimate goals are to design a small but very cheap system that is able to effectively treat water and to provide industries with very cheap materials that could be used in treating wastewater in place of expensive resins.

PR: In the Manners’ group (University of Bristol), we work with organometallic diblock copolymers. These block copolymers have two distinct chemical domains and can self-assemble into well-defined micelles. I am researching ways to fine-tune control of the micelle self-assembly.

JM: One of our group’s main research topics is polymer solar cells.  In polymer solar cells, the active layer, which absorbs light and generates electricity, is made of a blend of two materials, polymer and fullerene (soluble buckyball).   My work is to observe the morphology of the polymer and fullerene domain and study how to control the morphology such as connectivity, domain size, and the directionality of each polymer and fullerene domain.

Do you think that what you’re working on has a practical application or is it more conceptual, and does this matter to you?

EU: My work has a practical application. Materials I have modified so far can be combined in a system to treat water.

PR: The work that I am personally doing right now is very conceptual in nature. That said, as our control of micelle growth continues to advance, we are constantly considering ways to apply our systems to functional materials. We have some exciting applications planned in the near future. From a funding perspective, I believe that it is often easier to secure grants for applied research as opposed to funadamental research.

JM: I think it is both practical and conceptual.  Solar cells have obvious practical applications, but the morphology of polymer and fullerene for polymer solar cells, which is what I am focusing on, is more of a conceptual research topic.

What’s your average day at work like? Meetings? Lab work? Reviewing papers? Teaching?

EU:Teaching 50%, lab work 35%, reviewing papers 10%, meetings 5%.

PR: I think my average day is fairly typical for a post-doc. Most of my time is spent working on experiments, discussing research with other members of the lab, and reading literature at my desk. We have weekly group meetings where the students and post-docs present their own research and recent results from literature in a more formal fashion. 

JM: I spend most of my time for lab work and analysis of the data, as well as discussion with other group members.   I consistently make lab schedules and like to have occasional long times for reviewing papers. 

What’s been the biggest challenge in your research career so far?

EU: Epileptic power supply.

PR: I find research itself to be very emotional. If my chemistry is working well, I become excited and it is easy to work hard. However, when things are not going so well in the lab, I can become very discouraged. My biggest challenge is to stay focused and work through the tough times.  

JM: I haven’t had too many difficulties in my research yet because I have been getting great support from my advisor.
 

 The skill is in realising that the unexpected sludge sitting in the bottom of your flask is actually a major breakthrough.

Do you think you’ve had any lucky breaks? Any key experiments that worked first time or an important bit of advice that you were given or a timely grant/publication?

EU: Yes, I’ve had two breakthroughs in the preparation of two new adsorbents.

PR: I think serendipity is a big part of research. The skill is in realising that the unexpected sludge sitting in the bottom of your flask is actually a major breakthrough. I was extremely lucky during my PhD studies. I had a number of unexpected results and was able, with the help of my supervisor and the people I worked with, to recognise their significance.

Are there many others in the world working on the same subject as you? Do you think this helps or hinders you?

EU: Yes, there are many others in the world working on my area of research and this does help because from reviewing or reading some of their works I get new ideas and I am able to make better contributions to the subject by every new publication.

PR: There are a number of groups woking on the self-assembly of micelles using block copolymers. Other research groups approach similar problems in often different and creative ways. It is exciting, instructive and inspirational to learn from the work of others. The downside of a crowded scientific field is that there is always a risk of someone else publishing results similar to you, but this makes you want to work even harder so this can be viewed as a positive influence.

JM: For now I am the only one who is doing the cross-sectional transmission electron microscopy (TEM) phase imaging for polymer solar cells.  The good thing is that I’m the first one to see the data in the world which can be very exciting and sometimes surprising too.  The bad thing is that there are no references for me to look at and have to look at all the samples I want to see. 

What key questions do you hope will be answered in your research area in the next 60 years?

EU: How do we recover micropollutants from adsorbents for further use rather than discarding them with spent adsorbents into the environment or desorbing them from the adsorbents into the environment again?

When shall the larger volume of data obtained for various low-cost adsorbents be put to use in practical terms for the benefits of society?

PR:  The research that I am performing right now is part of the larger field of self-assembly. Essentially, a carefully designed molecular system can be made to spontaneously assemble into larger structures under the correct conditions. Biological systems (e.g. a proten, virus etc) represent the ultimate form of self-assembly. I am curious to see if human designed self-assembly can ever approach the complexity of natural systems.

  A Nature/Science publication will be enough for me for now! 

If you could have three wishes about your work granted this year, what would they be?

EU:

i) power supply in my laboratory

ii) Some very important equipment for surface characterisation such as the Scanning Electron Microscope etc be installed in my lab

iii) I am able to produce my dream adsorber system that is cheap and able to remove micropollutants from water even at parts per billion levels

PR: 

i) Obtain a faculty position at a research intensive university

ii) That my current project (which is very different from my PhD thesis) keeps moving in the right direction

iii) Publish the results from my 2nd wish in a top tier journal

JM: A Nature/Science publication will be enough for me for now! 

How did you hear about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and how did you apply to attend?

EU:Through the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (AWAS) and I was nominated by the same academy.

PR: I heard about the Meeting through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada and was nominated by NSERC to apply to attend.

JM: I heard it from my advisor, Alan J. Heeger who is a Nobel Laureate in 2000 and he encouraged me to apply to attend. 

 This conference will  give me the opportunity to interact with young scientists from various countries and various scientific disciplines… and possibly initiate collaboration with them.

What are you most looking forward to about attending this year’s meeting?

EU: I look forward to listen and to interact with scientists who have made breakthroughs in their various scientific fields (Nobel Laureates) and be inspired by how they have been successful in their research. Attending this conference will also give me the opportunity to interact with young scientists from various countries and various scientific disciplines and share with them the best practices in scientific research and possibly initiate collaboration with them. This will go a long way to further motivate me in my research.  

PR: Of course I am very excited to meet the Nobel Laureates!

JM: I look forward to meeting all the great Nobel Laureates, as well as my fellow peers in the scientific world. 

 

 

 

 

Climate change: The two-degree target lnlm09

This short film was made at the 2009 Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Germany…Seek advice from climate experts including the IPCC’s Rajendra Pachauri, challenge the sceptical views of political scientist Bjørn Lomborg, and learn lessons from the Nobel Laureates who showed that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer. published October 14th 2009