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Sustainability needs a push in innovations for alternative energies and connecting us all to the grid, said George Crabtree, a Senior Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

'Historic transition' to sustainability at a crossroads

by Laura Mihelich
Feb 01, 2012

Molecular advances in solar energy technology and a revamp of the U.S. grid are essential steps for sustainable energy.

Some innovations research must address include catalysts for higher energy in electrical transport and an electrical storage system for solar panels, according to George Crabtree, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. Also high on his list, advances are needed in geological and predictive modeling for sequestering carbon and storing spent fuel in various energy technologies.

Much of the work is in its infancy but “there is a potential historic transition taking place,” said Crabtree, an expert in material sciences.

He said sustainable research, policy, education, and entrepreneurship all must come together to face the challenges set by spiraling energy usage.

Crabtree spoke about these challenges to an audience of about 75 at his lecture “Sustainable Energy: Fact or Fiction?” The Chicago Council on Science and Technology hosted the event Tuesday at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The lecture brought together students, energy professionals, and researchers to learn about where sustainability is today.

“There was a good core,” said Neil Harper, an undergraduate  student a DePaul University, who attended the event after learning about environmental concerns in a communications class.  He felt that the presentation was very educational about the technicalities of sustainability.

During the lecture, Crabtree defined sustainability using three criteria for anything: it lasts a long time, does no harm, and leaves no change.

Very few technologies today fit this definition perfectly, he said

However, options such as solar panels and biofuels have a promising outlook if roadblocks such as the cost of production and inefficiency are met.

“We’ve known about these [roadblocks] for a long time… but we haven’t done a lot,” Crabtree said.

He believes that increases in efficiency are possible.

“The headroom is there to make them more efficient,” he said.  “But dramatic improvements are needed.”

Another important change will be to understand how best to interconnect the electrical grid across the United States.

Currently, the grid system only serves relatively short distances.  And while most U.S. energy is still used east of the Mississippi River, the best sources of solar and wind energy are on the west side of the country.

“It’s like the highways before interstates,” Crabtree said.  “You could drive from New York to L.A. but it was painful.”

In order to prompt sustainable progress, Crabtree suggested that the not only researchers and policy-makers, but also private citizens need to be educated, as they are the ones that call on their policy-makers to create change.

“The trends reside with us,” he said. 

Robert Whittier, the director of sustainability at Northwestern University, agreed that education is an important step when promoting sustainability.

“I want to engage more students very actively,” he said.

However, Whittier said that it’s also the faculty that needs to be taught about sustainable behavior change, looking beyond energy usage and into facets such as consumption, water use, and waste disposal.

“We need to work across these areas of sustainability,” Whittier said.