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