Lindau09: Reflections on day 2

Mar 27, 2019
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Tuesday morning at Lindau saw three talks from Laureates – Aaron Ciechanover (Chemistry 2004), Mario Molina (Chemistry 1995), and Erwin Neher (Physiology or Medicine 1991). Unfortunately I was called away just at the start of the first talk to shuttle our van around Lindau and only made it back half-way through Molina’s talk. Jason – one of my colleagues here – had it even worse, however, as he headed over to Zurich (almost a 300-km round trip!) to pick up essential equipment for the film crew.

After the coffee break, we were treated to the first of two panel discussions here at the meeting – this one was about the role and future of chemistry for renewable energy. Sitting on the panel were Laureates Ertl, Grubbs, Kohn, Kroto, Marcus, Molina and Rowland – quite a line-up! The moderator framed various problems at the opening of the discussion, in particular (i) the fact that fossil fuels will not last forever, (ii) anthropogenic climate change as a consequence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and (iii) security problems with nuclear energy technologies. Each Laureate was invited to respond in an opening statement and some snippets are included below.

Ertl reminded us that we cannot create (nor destroy) energy and that our problems simply boil down to how we can harness the power of the sun to produce useful energy that can be stored in a practical fashion – he suggested that silicon photovoltaics are potentially a promising way forward. Grubbs reminded us that he was the only organic chemist on the panel (the first time I’ve heard him describe himself as an organic chemist!) and that materials science is a crucial and enabling technology for renewable energies, in terms of making energy storage and transport more efficient. Kohn summed up the situation by telling us that tough problems must be tackled by viewing them from many different perspectives.

Next was Kroto, who said that we need to recognise the scale of the problem – telling us that it takes a million years to produce the quantity of fossil fuels we currently consume each year. Water splitting is what we should focus on in his opinion – and recounted someone telling him that if ‘stupid’ trees can do it, then we should be able to do it too! The problem is that trees really aren’t that stupid after all – nature has had a long time to figure out photosynthesis. Sir Harry went on to criticise how science is funded, and pointed out that breakthroughs often come from blue-sky research and that governments and funding agencies should continue to fund such work.

Marcus was next and brought up the point that not only is solar energy conversion an important societal challenge, but is also a very interesting and stimulating intellectual challenge. Large numbers of researchers and good collaborations are required – and he suggested that a mini Manhattan Project is in order (obviously with a very different goal, but using the same principle of bringing together leading scientists and engineers from around the world to tackle a pressing problem).

Molina and Rowland rounded out the opening statements, with Molina suggesting that society needs to double or triple its investment in renewable energy – and although it may look self-serving for a scientist working in this area to say this, it is wholly justified. Finally Rowland lamented the fact that he had to say something original after following six other Laureates! Nevertheless, he did, saying that we should focus on getting rid of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and also look at other nuclear fusion approaches, although he was less optimistic about these.

Finally, the moderators presented questions to the Laureates that had been prepared by the students – and much discussion ensued about the best way to tackle the energy problems we face as scientists and as a society.

That concluded the open scientific activities for the day and then I went off to my other career here, that of a helping hand with the film crew. First off we filmed a couple of the young researchers chatting with Peter Agre and then headed off to one of the hotels to film a discussion between Molina, Rowland and three students moderated by Olive from the Climate Feedback blog.

After that, there was another production meeting to discuss the filming schedule for today and that will kick into high gear after lunch – and stories will follow tomorrow…

Stuart

Stuart Cantrill (Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry)


Stu Cantrill

Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry, Springer Nature

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