The Mary and Tom Beck Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research
David Cahen, Director
The Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer Professorial Chair in Energy Research
The Center started operation in 2008, with as purpose support for research by Weizmann scientists in Alternative Energy. It constitutes a major pillar of the institute's Alternative, sustainable energy research Initiative (AERI). Information on the mode of activities can be found on AERI's homepage, http://www.weizmann.ac.il/AERI and are given also below.
In terms of direct support for research, AERI issues calls for proposals once a year via the Research Grants and Projects office, http://www.weizmann.ac.il/RGP, where details can be found.
The Need for Alternatives to Present Energy Resources:
Life in modern society is fueled by relatively cheap, high density and readily available energy sources. Without such sources, the industrialized world would be unable to provide the power to maintain its standard of living. To be able to leave the next generations a safer and healthier world, this generation needs to assure them of the needed energy resources, both instantaneously available (electricity) and stored ones (fuel).
The main questions that arise are:
- Reduced carbon (fossil fuel) is one of scarcest natural resources that we have, if viewed as a "mineral" resource. Does the earth have enough fossil fuels to fulfill the growing energy demand, both with respect to total energy and in terms of the rate at which the energy is generated, at least to carry us over to the period where we will be able to manage without fossil fuels?
- The most abundant fossil fuel resource is coal. Therefore, if the answer to the first questions is yes, we should look at coal as one of the intermediate paths to carry us to the stage where we will be fossil fuel independent. There are also a variety of other reasons, including geopolitics, the value of oil as raw material for plastics, that lead to the need to become oil-(and gas-) independent as soon as possible. All this leads to the question if we can find ways to base a near future energy supply on coal, a fuel that with today's practical technologies, produces some pollutants as well as CO2, a greenhouse gas, and does so even more than oil and gas fossil fuels?
- If the answer to the first question is negative, then this leads to the question of how we can limit and ultimately eliminate the effects of the fossil fuel burning rate for life on earth? Clearly this suggest to become independent of fossil fuels, which then begs the question of how we can best prepare viable alternative, sustainable energy resources?
The challenge, posed by these questions is of such proportions that it demands a coordinated response from the world's scientific, technological, government and industrial/financial communities. It is a global challenge that should be met by an integrated approach.
In the long term the solution is the development of energy sources that are Carbon-free or Carbon-neutral (taking from the atmosphere, land and oceans what you put into it, at comparable rates) i.e., renewable and nuclear energy.
Although the amount of non-fossil fuel-based energy that will keep the current balance of nature is a matter of discussion, it appears likely that by 2050 the world will need at least another 20 Terawatts of power (a terawatt, TW, is 1000 gigawatts, GW; the Hadera power station complex has a capacity of 2.4 GW). 20 TW is more than the energy consumption of the whole world today. To produce 20 new TW in a sustainable manner by 2050, the basic science on which the solutions will be based must become available by about 2020 to allow manufacturing and installation by 2050, after the common period that it takes for applied scientific and then technological development stages.
The first challenge is to bridge the period till 2050, something that will require mostly building on the basic scientific knowledge that is available today (evolutions in science).
The second challenge, and one particularly well-suited for the Weizmann Institute's main mission, fundamental scientific research, is to explore ways to introduce clean energy sources. The obvious ones are solar (which also includes biomass, wind, hydroelectric), nuclear and geothermal. Any solution is very likely to involve all these and other options. However, as things stand now it would appear that only solar and nuclear have the potential to reach 20 TW within the next 30-40 years.
For example, the practically realizable potential of solar energy has been estimated at 600 TW with no inherent or clearly manageable environmental concerns. However, without new ideas to effectively utilize this source, we will not be able to get even close to this.
To arrive at such new ideas suggests, in addition to the above-mentioned evolutions, the need for revolutions. AERI and its sources try to help pave the way, to facilitate such (r)evolutions to occur, by educating, stimulating and funding Weizmann scientists to work towards the above-stated long-range goals.