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Climate Change and Energy Solutions
Date: Monday, January 24, 2011 Time: 12:00 PM Location: Hameetman Auditorium, Cahill Center, Caltech Speaker: Frank Shu, professor emeritus at UC San Diego
Frank Shu, advisor to the premier of Taiwan, Science and Technology Advisory Group, is a Distinguished Research Fellow at China’s Academia Sinica and the 2009 Shaw Prize Laureate in Astronomy.
We review the science behind climate change from an astronomer’s perspective. We investigate the evidence locked in Antarctic ice cores of past cycles of runaway warming and cooling (interglacial periods and ice ages) and their relationship to astronomical phenomena (the Milankovich cycle), and we point out why current events are different. We also discuss the alarming possibility that the Earth has already passed the tipping point for the melting of the polar ice. We then review alternatives to our current energy practices. Compared to projected needs by mid-century, there are only five realistic choices to reduce or eliminate net carbon-dioxide emissions: fossil fuel with carbon capture and sequestration, biofuels, solar photovoltaics/solar thermal, wind and nuclear. We point out the drawbacks of the first four. We then explain the basics of nuclear fission, concluding that reprocessing and breeding are necessary to remove public concerns about waste management, safety and sustainability of the nuclear option. We point out why the long-overlooked technologies of molten salt reactors coupled to the thorium fuel cycle is superior in terms of cost, passive safety and weapons non-proliferation to the current usage of nuclear power.
We discuss an approach using novel materials to build two-fluid molten salt reactors on a rapid enough schedule to make the United States and the world free of plutonium and net carbon dioxide emission by mid-century. Of particular interest may be the possibility of leveraging the capacity of such facilities by coupling nuclear power to the production of artificial coal. The latter holds the promise of making existing coal-fired power plants not only carbon neutral, but even carbon negative. In this manner, it may be possible to reverse human-induced climate change and pass on to future generations a mode of living compatible with satisfying the economic aspirations of billions of people now living in poverty together with a greener, more benign, and more bountiful planet.