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Materials science as key enabler for clean energy transition

Materials science as key enabler for clean energy transition

Former US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Yi Cui and Nian Liu, all currently at Stanford University, write in a Perspective piece in Nature Materials that research in materials science is contributing to progress towards a sustainable future based on clean energy generation, transmission and distribution, the storage of electrical and chemical energy, energy efficiency, and better energy management systems.

“If you don’t change direction, you will end up where you are heading,” said Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism. Where are we heading? Energy use is projected to climb to 629 quad BTUs by 2020, and 813 quad BTUs by 2040. The global emissions of CO2 doubled from 1975 to 2015, and are projected to triple by 2040 if we stay on our present course4.

…Here, we give an overview of the opportunities that recent exciting results in materials science may open in selected areas of energy research.

…Materials science is an enabling science and is playing a central role in our transition to sustainable energy. The advances in the past decades have been breath-taking. While accidental discovery remains a major source of new materials, the empirical trial-and-error method of innovation has been profoundly supplemented by a deeper understanding of the basic physics and chemistry of materials and our ability to measure and fabricate materials at the molecular-level and nanoscale.

Such continued scientific advances must be adequately supported by the public sector since much of the materials science research is too long-term to garner private sector investments. Beyond research, there are two ‘valleys of death’ that have to be crossed in the transition from scientific discovery to innovation and wide scale deployment. The first valley crossing requires patient private sector investors that are found in most venture capital or equity investment firms. Thee second valley is the scale-up from small pilot projects to commercial-size facilities, where economies of scale can be used to dramatically reduce costs.

—Chu et al.

Renewable energy future. a–i, Advances in materials science and engineering are increasing the efficiency of electricity generation from clean renewable energy sources—solar panels (a) and wind turbines (b), for example—as well as electricity distribution (c) and storage (d). Improved energy management in buildings (e) and widespread diffusion of electric vehicles (f) are decreasing our carbon footprint. Better catalysts and photoelectrochemical devices allow a more efficient generation of hydrogen and oxygen (g), and CO2 conversion to fuels and chemicals (h). Carbon-capture materials (i) will decrease the amount of CO2 released in the atmosphere. Illustration courtesy of Paloma Liu. Chen et al. Click to enlarge.


  • Steven Chu, Yi Cui & Nian Liu (2017) “The path towards sustainable energy” Nature Materials 16, 16–22 doi: 10.1038/nmat4834



What can be done to accelerate the switch from dirty fossil fuels to much cleaner REs, with enough storage for 24/7 usage?

Since clean REs with storage is still more costly than fossil, will the switch take place without some sort of direct and/or indirect financial subsidies.

The same should be applied to better built residences-offices-schools-factories, HVACs, windows-doors-appliances, lights etc. to reduce energy waste, increase comfort and reduce ongoing cost.

Shouldn't those benefiting from the use of cheap dirty fossil fuels be called upon to support the major part of the cost for the switch? An national-international (minimum) progressive tax on carbon and pollution may be unavoidable? Canada will do it by 2018. Will others follow?


We are in for a major setback with trumps cabinet, The NSF and DOE are due to be chopped down ,if it is not a military applilcation , it will be shut ddown tll, the next round democrats can offset the poor judgement bing laid down our environment. Too bad Solar is already the cheapest source of power . Subsized solar rooftop power and wind farms may be the most endangered species now. Every scientist and educator needs take a stand against tyranny, that is about ensue. There is only hope that Republicans see their supporters benefit most from electric cars and solar roofs not forgeting all the red states that generate the most windpower. Farmers in Iowa and Texas now have ddual incomes and tax benefits. West Virginia and Kentucky need to o move on like Pennsylvania and ohio did.

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