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Nobel Prize Winner Calls For Energy Overhauls

Published on September 24, 2003
Richard Smalley advocated new energy sources as alternatives to oil.
By MARTY LASALLE, Columbia Daily Spectator

Describing the growing energy crisis in the U.S., Nobel Laureate Richard E. Smalley last night recommended alternative sources of energy for the nation.

"Energy may very well be the single most critical challenge facing humanity in this century," Smalley said in his presentation, which took place in the Low Library Rotunda. He argued that it is necessary to create a cheap, efficient source that "not only the richest people on earth can afford."

"We simply can not do this with current technology," he said.

Smalley emphasized that prior to the 20th century, coal was the world's primary energy source until the introduction of oil changed the world. "We're still living in a world where we assume energy prosperity is going to come from [oil]," Smalley said, adding that "if oil continues to be the basis of energy prosperity for our human culture, this will not be a prosperous century."

By the year 2050, the current world population of 6.5 billion is expected to increase to a possible 10 billion. According to Smalley, the energy required to maintain this population will theoretically more than double from the 14 Terawatts used per day in 2003 to 30-60 Terawatts in 2050.

In his argument, Smalley showed that 165,000 TW of energy from the sun hits the earth's surface every day. "We only need 20 to completely sum up the world's energy needs," Smalley said.

"This is a vast energy source," he said, "we just don't know how to get it cheaply."

Smalley located six deserts throughout the world with cheap real estate and feasible solar energy plant setups. The combination of these locations would provide more than enough energy for the projected population in this century, he said. Smalley proposed a plan in which energy acquired in these locations would be transported over electrical energy wires, rather than by transport of mass, to 100 million asynchronous local storage sites.

According to Smalley, the movement for alternative energy sources runs into obstacles because of the necessity for people, inspiration, and money.

"We need young people to enter this field of science and technology," Smalley said. He also emphasized the idea that we need a sense of mission similar to the inspiration caused by Sputnik. "We need a new Sputnik event to inspire the US citizens into the Physical Sciences and Engineering," he said. He argued that many of the great physicists of our time gained inspiration during Sputnik, and are beginning to retire from their fields.

Smalley recognized that proper funds are required for this research. He suggested that, since "energy is the biggest enterprise in this economy," it would be reasonable to ask for 5 cents for every gallon of gas purchased. This would generate an annual amount of 10 billion dollars that would be strictly allocated for frontier energy research. "Don't call it a tax," Smalley said, "It's a contribution. We're transformers."

One audience member expressed his agreement with Smalley after the lecture. "Financing to some degree is important. I would be willing to finance this very significant incremental production," he said.

Kevin Ho, CC '07, said he would be unwilling to pay an extra 5 cents for fuel.

Connie Shi, SEAS '07, said that "most of the stuff I was able to relate to... It made me more aware," she said.

Before any considerable changes can be made, Smalley said, education and raising awareness of the problem should be a priority.

Smalley insisted upon immediate action. "Energy is something we can do something about," he said. "It would be much more in the country's interest to get on this right now."

Updated: 2016/06/30

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