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The Second Law and Energy

10/05/2007 1:00 PM Broad Institute
Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy

Description: This Nobel Prize"winning scientist admits to staying up late the night before his talk to bone up on thermodynamics. He puts his research to good use, discussing the history and application of the laws of thermodynamics, which have served as "the scientific foundation of how we harness energy, and the basis of the industrial revolution, the wealth of nations."

Taking Watt's 1765 steam engine, Stephen Chu illustrates basic principles of thermodynamics -- that energy is conserved, that you can do work from heat, especially when you maximize the difference in temperature in the system and minimize heat dissipation from friction. Chu offers another form of the laws: You can't win; you can't break even; and you can't leave the game.

The game hasn't changed all that much in the past few centuries. Nations now burn coal for electricity, achieving around 40% thermal efficiency. Natural gas can be harnessed at higher efficiencies still, and if we could deploy temperature"resistant metals for boilers, even less energy would go to waste. This is a pressing matter, points out Chu, because the planet can no longer afford wanton use of carbon"based fuels. With too much CO2, our global "heat engine" has begun to tip toward a point of no return. So the big question for Chu is whether science can design "entropy engines that can generate sustainable (carbon"free) energy sources.

He describes efforts to capture sunlight with improved solar cells, but notes that a silicon shortage, expensive chips, and a learning curve dictated by Moore's law mean the technology won't be widely deployed for 10"15 years -- not fast enough in the battle against climate change. Chu likes the efficiencies of power generation from wind, but there's a limit to turbine size, and the U.S. high voltage transmission network needs a complete and expensive makeover to take full advantage of wind. Forget corn as biofuel, he counsels, since it "barely breaks even in terms of CO2 saved," and focus instead on perennial grasses like miscanthus. Chu's lab and others are looking for microbes that can help turn these plants more readily into fuels.

Another potentially rich energy source, Chu says, involves converting sun light into fuel the way plants do in photosynthesis. But "how does nature split water?" asks Chu. Science hasn't entirely figured out the molecular machinery that turns water into oxygen and hydrogen. Deriving bioenergy through artificial photosynthesis may mean considering entropy and other basic laws in a different light, Chu suggests. "Nature turns out to be very good."

About the Speaker(s): Steven Chu joined the Physics Department faculty at U.C. Berkeley in 2004. Previously, Chu had been a Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Prior to 1987, he was at Bell Laboratories where he conducted the research that led to his 1997 Nobel Prize in physics, which he shared with Claude Cohen"Tannoudji and William D. Phillips, for methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.

Chu is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Sinica, and is a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and of the Korean Academy of Science and Engineering.

He serves on the Boards of the Hewlett Foundation, the University of Rochester, and NVIDIA. He served on the Augustine Committee that produced the report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" in 2006.

Chu received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1976 and was a post"doctoral fellow there until 1978. He got his B.S. in 1970 from the University of Rochester.

Host(s): School of Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated 13 days ago

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