Science for Society: The Terawatt Challenge and some hope for a stable climate.
The Mission of Science for Society
The mission of our group is to perform relevant scientific discovery for both the joy of tinkering in the lab and to help society where we can. This means keeping our tinkering focussed on projects that could help problems like climate change. And what good is tinkering without showing off a little? The whole point of our research is to publish, but scientific journals aren't enough - we share our ideas with government, activist organizations, youth education programs, scientific societies, and industry. This broad outreach to youth and the realm of politics can be distracting from the lab, and thus easily neglected, but the full leverage of science is lost without it. Scientists and engineers can inform and inspire rational policy, especially on technical issues like energy infrastructure and climate change mitigation and adaptation. We challenge ourselves and our peers not to forget this.
For our own reference and the benefit of anyone curious, here are some amazing connections existing between science and society. The Materials Research Society, an international and interdisciplinary organization, has a Public Outreach Committee - check our their video about all the fun projects they have across the world. They also recently announced the annual $5,000 Nelson Buck Robinson Science and Technology Award for Renewable Energy to reward young scientists (students, postdocs, young faculty, young professional's) for groundbreaking research and outreach. To our fellow scientists and engineers in the United States, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) runs the Congressional Science & Engineering Fellowship, where scientists and engineers staff the offices of members of the US Congress, financially supported by the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, or numerous other progressional organizations. Some impressive activist organizations to engage with include 350.org and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Here at TU Delft, we have the Delft Global Initiative to help communities in developing countries and the recently formed e-Refinery to collaborate with industry and produce chemicals and fuels from renewable energy and CO2. These engagements with society are the only practical path forward to avoiding catastrophic climate change - and they're way more fun than JUST tinkering in the lab all day. Kids are good at fun, and politicians are good at talking, neither of which are strengths of the average scientist!
The Terawatt Challenge
The only path towards a limit of 2 C warming requires an aggressive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions beginning now, and becoming negative by 2070 (per figure below, from http://globalcarbonbudget2016.org/). Thus, the circumstance is urgent.
Hope for Success
Exponential growth will always catch you by surprise. For example, at the start of a process that doubles every year, you will spend nearly 9 years to progress from 0.1% to 50% of your goal. However, once half-way, after a 9 year slog as an underdog, only 1 year of work remains. We presently have exponential growth in renewables installation, as captured in the first figure below (https://www.nature.com/articles/nphoton.2016.232). In the case of solar, this rate of growth is supported by "Swanson's Law": the observation in the past 40 years that the cost of solar drops exponentially with increased global production capacity. The second figure below, from Haegel et al., demonstrates this impressive and fortunate trend in cost (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6334/141.long).
The Work We have Left
With renewable electricity generation rapidly catching up with total consumption, we need to address carbon emissions that aren't yet electrical. We need ways to convert these renewable electrons into chemical feedstocks and fuels. This is the challenge our lab works on. Due to the urgency of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, we partner with groups in other departments and with industry to keep our research focussed on the most relevant questions about the science and engineering of electrochemistry. This collaboration is most formally represented by our participation in the e-Refinery initiative. For details of our research, see the other research pages on our site.