MIT scientist looks to physics for renewable energy options

The U’s celebration of the World Year of Physics began Wednesday with a speech on physics’ role in producing clean-burning fuels for the future.

Mildred Dresselhaus, a physicist from MIT, discussed her research on nanotechnology and how it could create environmentally friendly energy in the future.

She said research like hers was popular during the 1970s oil crisis, but as oil prices declined, fewer scientists researched alternative fuels. However, with President Bush’s 2003 promise to supply $1.2 billion for alternative-fuel research, the field is again booming.

However, answers aren’t going to come soon.

“Young people will play a role in this, maybe some of them are sitting in the audience right now,” she told listeners in the ASB Auditorium.

Dresselhaus has researched energy producers on a nano scale. A nanometer is a measurement of a tiny amount of space. A human hair measures 70,000 nanometers in width. Dresselhaus is working with materials that are a single nanometer in size. Such small research may be able to solve problems as big as global warming.

“It’s not a given we can solve the problem, but it’s hopeful we can make progress,” she said.

Dresselhaus addressed the issue of the hydrogen economy, which is what will replace the oil economy when crude runs out.

Two of the biggest drawbacks facing the hydrogen economy is, first, it isn’t found naturally.

“There are a lot of mines around here, but we can go mine hydrogen. We have to produce it,” she said.

Secondly, the amount of energy put out by liquid hydrogen isn’t enough to provide for the world’s energy needs.

“It’s hard to think of something better than liquid hydrogen, but we have to, it isn’t good enough,” Dresselhaus said.

She showed one of her favorite slides from the U.S. Department of Energy that shows a candle and a light bulb connected by a crossed-out arrow.

“We didn’t go linearly from a candle to a light bulb. A new technology came in and made a light bulb possible. Now we just have to find the technology to make a renewable energy source possible,” she said.

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