Making fuel from sunlight, increasing the resiliency of urban waterfronts, and developing low-cost batteries for energy storage are among the many efforts by Berkeley researchers aimed at creating solutions for energy efficiency, sustainability, and the environment.
Those three endeavors were just a few of the projects presented earlier this month at the Cal Future Forum, a public event that included over a dozen talks from Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley researchers about climate, energy, conservation, biodiversity, farming, and more.
“There are few issues less fundamental to our future than issues surrounding energy, the environment, and climate,” said Paul Alvisatos, UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Research and former Berkeley Lab director, in his opening remarks at the forum held on the Cal campus.
Bill Collins, the head of Berkeley Lab’s Environmental & Earth Sciences Area (EESA)’s Climate & Ecosystems Sciences Division, was the first presenter to take the stage. Collins, who is also a professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley, shared his observations about a changing climate.
“None of the students in my classes have grown up in a normal climate,” he said. “They’re growing up in a situation where we have much more rapid heat waves, dramatic droughts like the one we just emerged from, and increased sea level rise.”
Collins called out black carbon (a component of particulate matter released into the atmosphere during diesel fuel combustion) and carbon dioxide emissions as some of the major agents that are catalyzing global climate change.
“The climate model projections show that in the next 10 to 20 years, we’ll be at a critical juncture,” he said.
Nevertheless, Collins finished his talk on an encouraging note by pointing to Los Angeles, a city that has improved its air quality over the last few decades.
UC Berkeley professor and EESA faculty scientist Inez Fung built upon Collins’ talk by telling the audience about the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a NASA satellite that measures levels of carbon dioxide around the globe. Fung and her research group are developing a new carbon-weather data assimilation system which will use the satellite CO2 data to verify the levels of carbon emissions reported by countries. (Under the United Nations’ Paris Agreement climate accord, all participating nations must report their greenhouse gas emissions).
David Ackerly, EESA faculty scientist and UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, also spoke at the forum.
Later in the afternoon, Peidong Yang (a Senior Faculty Scientist in the Materials Science Division at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley chemistry professor) gave the audience a glimpse into the potential of artificial photosynthesis, a way to create renewable energy that doesn’t cause a net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The technology, he said, can transform carbon dioxide and water into chemical fuels using sunlight.
“Nature is doing this every day,” he said. “[It’s] telling us it’s doable.”
Over a decade ago, Yang and his research team realized that they needed to discover a new class of semiconductor materials to capture sunlight, as well as a new class of catalysts to promote the chemical reaction. Since then, they have accomplished this. Now Yang is looking to a future that could include applying the concept to produce more than just fuels.
“You can produce polymers, and in some cases pharmaceutical intermediates to make drugs,” he said—even manufacturing fertilizer to grow potatoes on Mars.
Another researcher that posed provocative ideas to the crowd was Mary Ann Piette, a mechanical engineer and the director of the Building Technology and Urban Systems Division in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area. She spoke about the need for a new business model to solve the problem of the “duck curve” in California, the dynamic where an excess of renewable energy is produced in the state during the middle of the day instead of during the evening when energy demand reaches its peak.
“The challenge is what can we do in buildings, as they have flexible [energy] loads,” she said. “We want to fill that duck belly…we’re developing the technology here in Berkeley to control those loads. It’s a critical part of achieving the vision of a low carbon future.”