The future’s most pressing energy questions

by Greg St. Martin

Top researchers, entre­pre­neurs, scholars, and pol­i­cy­makers from Mass­a­chu­setts and Switzer­land con­vened at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity on Friday for an energy summit, where par­tic­i­pants dis­cussed inno­va­tions and strate­gies to address cli­mate change and a range of other global energy challenges.

Experts—including a Swiss del­e­ga­tion of about 70 people—examined myriad topics including renew­able energy con­ver­sion, data storage, green building, and global part­ner­ships related to energy projects. Panel dis­cus­sions expanded upon areas ranging from public sector energy research to bringing tech­nology to market, while win­ners of the pres­ti­gious Watt d’Or award—given by the Swiss Fed­eral Office of Energy in recog­ni­tion of out­standing Swiss energy projects that offer a sig­nif­i­cant ben­efit for society—also pre­sented their inno­v­a­tive projects.

Doris Leuthard, a Swiss Fed­eral Coun­cilor and head of Switzerland’s Depart­ment of the Envi­ron­ment, Trans­port, Energy and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said in her keynote that as the global effects of cli­mate change progress, the window is closing to address them.

“We have to get to impor­tant ques­tions in the next decades,” Leuthard said. “What will our cities look like in 50 years? How we can pro­duce and use energy with faster designs in the future for gen­er­a­tions to come? These are global issues that can only be solved globally.”

Global efforts, she said, must be sup­ple­mented by national efforts that are tai­lored to the spe­cific energy needs of dif­ferent coun­tries and cul­tures. The day’s dis­cus­sions, she added, would help spark new energy inno­va­tions and strengthen col­lab­o­ra­tions between the U.S. and Switzerland.

Lino Guzzella, pro­fessor and president-​​elect of ETH Zurich, a dis­tin­guished Swiss research uni­ver­sity that has earned three Watt d’Or awards, stressed the impact public-​​and private-​​sector invest­ment in research can have on real­izing cli­mate change solu­tions. He noted, for example, that Albert Ein­stein in 1905 dis­cov­ered the pho­to­elec­tric effect, which is the basis for solar power and now 100 years later has led to a multi-​​billion industry. The tech­nology, Guzzella said, may be one “that saves the Planet Earth.”

“Basic sci­ence,” he noted, “is the root of true progress,” adding that invest­ment in sci­ence is an invest­ment in the planet’s future.

The day­long sem­inar coin­cided with the public opening of an exhibit at Northeastern’s Inter­na­tional Vil­lage fea­turing 25 energy inno­va­tions hon­ored with the Watt d’Or award. The trav­eling exhibit, a dynamic blend of art and sci­ence, is making its world pre­miere at North­eastern and includes The Solar Impulse, a solar-​​powered air­plane that flew for 26 con­sec­u­tive hours. Other fea­tured projects include a rev­o­lu­tionary yet ele­gant method for saving energy while show­ering and a fuel cell-​​powered vehicle called Pac Car II that set a world record in 2005 for energy-​​efficient driving.

North­eastern pre­sented the events in part­ner­ship with the Swiss Fed­eral Office of Energy and swissnex Boston, the con­sulate of Switzer­land. The events dove­tail with Northeastern’s long­standing com­mu­nity to use-​​inspired research in the area of sus­tain­ability, one of the university’s core research themes.

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, noted how North­eastern fac­ulty are addressing sus­tain­ability chal­lenges through inter­dis­ci­pli­nary and inno­v­a­tive approaches. Pro­fessor Matthias Ruth, a leader in the emerging field of eco­log­ical eco­nomics, has shown that adopting proac­tive “green” poli­cies is the most cost-​​effective way to sus­tain coastal cities against the long-​​term impact of cli­mate change. Asso­ciate pro­fessor Car­olyn Lee-​​Parsons is studying plant-​​based alter­na­tive ener­gies, while pro­fessor Mark Pat­terson has devel­oped autonomous under­water robots to mon­itor the ocean and mea­sure the effects of cli­mate change.

Director also noted the work of pro­fessor San­jeev Muk­erjee, who directs North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Center for Renew­able Energy Tech­nology. His lab’s work includes devel­oping new fuel cells to replace internal com­bus­tion engines in cars.

Muk­erjee par­tic­i­pated in an after­noon panel dis­cus­sion in which experts exam­ined the dif­ferent approaches to energy research in the U.S. and Switzer­land and how they define how the energy pipeline will be filled. In response to a ques­tion about gov­ern­ment sup­port of basic and applied research, Muk­erjee said a researcher begins with a “nat­ural curiosity” about his field and must have a strong under­standing of what bar­riers exist in that field. “Big bar­riers cannot be crossed with trans­la­tional ideas. Trans­la­tional ideas come when you know there’s a chance you can jump that big wall. Once you know you can jump it, that doesn’t mean it’ll become a product, a device, or a tech­nology. But there’s a chance.”

He added, “As a researcher, the most impor­tant thing is to under­stand at a fun­da­mental level how things work and be able to make that jump.”

The panel was also asked to iden­tify the most urgent tech­no­log­ical need for inte­grating renew­ables and energy effi­cien­cies in the coming decades. Jen­nifer Rupp, a pro­fessor of mate­rials sci­ence at ETH Zurich who is working on inno­v­a­tive tools for energy storage in bat­teries and energy con­ver­sion sys­tems, said it’s crit­ical to know the global acces­si­bility of the ele­ments needed to build bat­teries for energy storage tech­nolo­gies. Iden­ti­fying alter­na­tive storage methods is just as impor­tant, she added.

Originally published in [email protected] on July 15, 2014

College of Science