Many individuals are fighting for a switch towards renewable, clean energy systems in place of fossil fuels, which emit carbon into the atmosphere when burned / Fossil Fuel Disinvestment March / Trocaire / Creative Commons

Today, I attended the Emerson Center Lectureship Award Symposium with the year’s theme, “Sustainable Energy: Fundamental Principles, Multidisciplinary Approaches, and Progress.” The discussions presented reinforced my belief that using renewable energy and carbon negative technology are critical to mitigating climate change.

But why? Besides being limited in quantity, the burning of fossil fuels that we currently rely on for energy also releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. A shift towards renewable sources of energy may be just what we need to gradually decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, and, thus, release smaller concentrations of carbon.

Even without mitigating climate change, renewable energy sources will play an integral role in the protection of our planet. Regardless of Earth’s climate, anthropogenic energy sources are currently limited and will eventually be depleted in the future. Finding alternative, sustainable energy sources is critical to stop this process. For instance, converting sunlight and nuclear power into electricity as well as combusting biodiesel into fuels can act as more long-lasting methods of energy to support current lifestyles without the depletion of resources associated with fossil fuels.

Solar power is one form of renewable energy that we can use to combat climate change / Panels / Alan Levine / Creative Commons

Speakers throughout the symposium agreed on the critical nature of renewable energy. During a lecture entitled “Quantum Mechanics Derived Solutions for Sustainable Energy,” Emily A. Carter, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, discussed using subatomic particles to make renewable energy more effective. For instance, utilizing doping and alloying techniques on molecules and chemical compounds may be able to improve their conductivity and ability to produce renewable energy.

Hydroelectric power can have positive impacts on the environment, but it can also have negative impacts by disrupting ecosystems with the construction of dams / dam / ogwen / Creative Commons

Each renewable energy source has its pros and cons. Hydroelectric power is clean and abundant, but dams create their own environmental problems. Biofuels, in turn, are abundant, but they may compete with food production. By further studying ways to improve each of these sources through quantum mechanics, we can improve the efficiency of our renewable energy systems.

Moreover, a thought that is important to note is that many renewable energy sources are not 100% renewable. Solar panels, for example, require the use of rare minerals to create. Though this will likely not occur until far in the future, Earth will, eventually, deplete these minerals if we continue using them at our business-as-usual trends. As our societies move towards renewable energy sources as potential strategies for the protection of the environment, we must ensure that we recognize these limitations.

Conversely, other speakers were more focused on using carbon sequestration techniques rather than supply-side mitigation strategies. Christopher W. Jones from the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology spoke about “Extracting CO2 from the Atmosphere using Amine-Modified Silicates: A Carbon Negative Technology.” He said it is critical to also focus on extracting carbon that is already in the atmosphere in addition to adding less carbon into the atmosphere, like renewable energy systems focus on. 

Jones predicted that carbon management and energy will become the defining problems of upcoming generations, much like data, social media, and technology are defining characteristics of my current generation. This is a thought I feel summed up the day’s lectures very well. I completely agree with him; the effects of our energy systems on our current climate are extensive and must be halted.

View a few infographics on clean energy here.


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