ECS Lecture with Steven Chu

The ECS Lecture during the 232nd ECS Meeting in National Harbor, MD, was delivered by Steven Chu. Chu is currently the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular & Cellular Physiology at Stanford. Previously, he served as U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Obama and was the co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to laser cooling and atom trapping.

Chu’s ECS Lecture, “The Role of Electrochemistry in our Transition to Sustainable Energy,” focused on the risks society is facing due to changing climate, the evolving energy landscape, and the role of electrochemistry in providing critical technological advances.

During his lecture, Chu outlined the risks that modern society faces, which demand technological innovation to provide solutions. Namely, Chu stated that the rising climate poses significant risks to the global community. According to Chu, the Earth has warmed by an alarming one degree Celsius since 1975.

“One degree Celsius does not sound like a lot, but just a couple of degrees warmer would make a dramatic difference,” Chu said. “If the Earth does warm by two degrees Celsius, Boston will be underwater.”

Greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, have been linked to rising global temperatures. However, Chu believes that reducing carbon emissions alone will not solve this global crisis, citing that carbon dioxide could circulate in the atmosphere for up to 30,000 years. Because of this, much of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere will continue to pose a threat long after talks of capping emissions are finalized.

In order to stay below the global two degrees Celsius temperature rise, Chu reported that the United Nations drew a red line at 2,900 billion tons of total cumulative emissions. However, he states that simply capping emissions will not address the underlying issue.

“At the rate we’re going, even if we cap carbon emissions so there is no longer any increase in carbon or other greenhouse gasses,” Chu said, “we’ll go over that red line in 20 years.”

The answer to addressing many of these issues, for Chu, is to change the energy landscape. As the technologies to find and extract oil and gas become more efficient, Chu stated that more focus must be placed on innovative technological advances in renewables to not only offer a clean, efficient alternative, but also an economically competitive one.

In addition, Chu believes the shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable solutions will require a culture shift.

“We transitioned from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, and nowadays when we look at stones on the ground we don’t shake our heads and say, ‘stranded assets,’” Chu said. “And so we need to get to a time and place where you don’t look at the oil and natural gas in the ground and say, ‘stranded assets.’ You say, ‘We’ve gone on to better things.’”

In referencing a 2016 analysis by Lazard, “Leveled Cost of Energy Analysis 10.0,” Chu stated that the current landscape of renewable energy is optimistic. The unsubsidized cost of wind energy was shown to be between 32 and 62 dollars per megawatt hour, or three to six cent per kilowatt hour. Similarly, solar prices have continued to drop, falling by a factor of four within the last five years at 46 to 61 dollars per megawatt hour.

According to Chu, continuing advances in the field will allow these prices to drop even further, making renewable energy technologies even more economically competitive.
“There’s every expectation that within a decade or less,” Chu said, “the cost could decline to two cents a kilowatt hour.”

One of the keys to the advancement of renewable energy sources, Chu noted, lies in battery technology and other forms of energy storage. Chu discussed how in the past few years, battery technology has advanced exponentially to open the door for electric vehicles (EVs) and beyond.

“Since the first EVs started to come out around 2006, they were at a very, very high cost. It was around $1,200 to $1,500 to develop a battery for an EV,” Chu said. “Then that price plummeted. Nowadays, it’s around $250 to $300 to manufacture an EV battery.”

While the EV industry continues to grow, Chu notes that it’s not because EV prices are declining at an accelerated rate like that of solar. Instead, he believes a rising awareness of environmental pollution to be the main driver behind the rise of EVs.

But the impact of batteries expands far beyond EVs, and even beyond lithium-ion batteries, according to Chu. As the battery paradigms continue to shift, Chu believes that younger technologies such as lithium-silicon or lithium-metal batteries will begin to overcome technological barriers as researchers continue work at a fundamental level.

The interconnectivity of research efforts in the field paired with the technology’s real world, practical applications led Chu to his overall position that electrochemistry has immense potential to solve pressing global issues, specifically focused on the changing energy landscape.

For Chu, one of the most promising ventures is in carbon dioxide capture and reuse. He and his research partners are currently working on ways to split carbon dioxide, creating hydrogen as a usable product. From there, hydrocarbons can be developed, paving the way for the future of distributed large scale energy and EV technologies alike.

“We want to take cheap, clean energy, turn it into a chemical fuel, stick it in a tank, and then ship it. At that point, paired with the capture of CO2, we can being to really phase out fossil fuels,” Chu said. “I see electrochemistry at the heart of all of this.”

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