By Edwin L. Aguirre
Climate change is real, and it’s happening now. That’s the message delivered by former U.S. energy secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu to a packed audience on Nov. 16 at UMass Lowell’s University Crossing.
“There is compelling evidence that Earth’s climate is changing and humans are responsible for it. We only have one chance at correcting it and we have to do it,” said Chu, who was on campus to deliver this year’s Tripathy Endowed Memorial Lecture and receive an honorary doctorate. More than 100 students, faculty and staff were on hand for his talk, “Climate Change and a Path to Clean Energy.”
Each year, a leading scientist and scholar comes to UMass Lowell to present the lecture in memory of Sukant K. Tripathy. The late professor of chemistry was internationally recognized for his research in the area of thin polymer films in electronics and optics. He founded the university’s Center for Advanced Materials and served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Prior to his lecture, Chu received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Chancellor Jacquie Moloney for his “lifetime commitment to tackling our world’s energy and climate-change challenges.”
A Planet in Dire Straits
In his talk, Chu presented decades of satellite data that show how human activities are affecting the global climate pattern. “Glacier melting is accelerating and the sea level is rising,” he said.
Chu showed a graph that plots the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide emissions from 1850 to 2011. He said carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere stays in the environment for tens of thousands of years. The sea absorbs most of the excess gases and becomes acidic. “It’s not the yearly emissions we should be concerned about but the cumulative effect,” he noted. “Earth is not going to clean itself [of greenhouse gases] automatically.”
Chu also pointed out a correlation between increasing air pollution in dense urban centers like Beijing and the rising incidence of lung cancer among both smokers and non-smokers. He said air particles from power plant exhaust and cigarette smoke contain carcinogens that cause lung cells to mutate and form malignant tumors. “The incidence of lung cancer is 25 times higher now and poses the biggest health threat in the developed world,” he noted.
The good news, said Chu, is that new technological solutions are being developed in the area of air filtration using HEPA filters and novel techniques that trap particles using electric charge. Advances in renewable energy sources like wind and the sun are also making electricity production cheaper and more commercially viable. For example, he predicts the price of solar-generated electricity will continue to drop from 3 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2020 to 2 cents per kWh by 2035 or 2040.
Research is also being conducted to make batteries last longer and more efficient. Chu expects the price of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles to drop 10 percent from the current levels. Scientists are also developing a new generation of high-capacity batteries based on carbon, silicon and lithium composites.
As the nation’s first scientist to hold a cabinet position, Chu recruited top scientists and engineers to the U.S. Department of Energy during President Obama’s first term and launched several initiatives to support research and innovation in clean, sustainable energy. “It’s the best way to do it, and I hope the next administration will follow the same model,” he said.
Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on cooling and trapping atoms using laser. He joins a distinguished list of Nobel laureates and leaders in materials science research who have delivered the Tripathy lecture at UMass Lowell, including Profs. Alan MacDiarmid and Alan Heeger (co-winners, 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), Wolfgang Ketterle (co-winner, 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics), Robert Grubbs (co-winner, 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and Craig Mello (co-winner, 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine).