Science & Tech

Nobel Prize Winners, Top Academics, Administrators Discuss Energy/Environment Issues

System Chancellor John Sharp announced allocation of $5 million to support a mass spectrometry facility on the flagship campus.
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M Marketing & Communications April 19, 2016

Chancellor Sharp addresses the audience at the Symposium
Chancellor Sharp

Climaxing the academically star-studded symposium titled “Energy and the Environment: Scientific, Economic and Legal Issues” at Texas A&M University Monday evening, System Chancellor John Sharp announced allocation of $5 million to support a mass spectrometry facility on the flagship campus.

The funding from the Chancellor’s Research Initiative will provide state-of-the-art instrumentation and training that will be available for researchers across campus, including student training and use for numerous research projects. Mass spectrometry is used to determine the atomic/molecular composition of any material – gas, solid or liquid—which, in turn, gives researchers insights into structure and function.

“This cutting-edge research equipment can be used by almost all departments and is the kind of investment we need to maintain our existing faculty’s competitive edge in research,” Sharp said in remarks that concluded the day-long symposium on energy and the environment.

“Texas A&M is the best place in the country to do research, and we are proving this every day,” he stated.

The symposium focusing on energy and the environment was jointly sponsored by the Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study and the Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.

It featured four Nobel Prize winners, including former U.S. Energy Secretary and current Stanford University professor Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner in physics. The others were Harvard professor and Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Dudley Herschbach; Texas A&M economics professor and Nobel Prize winner Bruce McCarl, and David Lee, Texas A&M professor and Nobel Prize winner in physics.

Texas A&M System Regents Charles Schwartz and Judy Morgan also participated in the symposium, chairing two of the afternoon sessions.

President Young speaking at the symposium
President Young

Texas A&M President Michael K. Young was invited to address the issue of energy alternatives based on his notable experience in negotiating international treaties.

He reflected on his delegation position within the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 when the entire international community gathered to discuss environmental protection on a global scale.

He said “to talk about environmental sustainability, you must also talk about its relationship to development. We need to figure out a way to reduce a whole series of environmental challenges—desertification, pollution, and global warming to name a few.” However, he states the developing countries would argue “this pollution is what has put our leading country on the path of economic development.”

He said studies show that the average person in the U.S. today uses four times as much energy as a person did in the early 1900s, “but in a few years, it will be five times as much” and consumption will only increase as we strive to make energy more accessible to the underdeveloped world. Chu, energy secretary from 2009-2013, the longest ever to hold that title and the first scientist ever to hold a Cabinet position, said trillions of tons of carbon dioxide pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere over the past 200 years have altered Earth’s climate and long-term weather patterns.

“Our planet has had cold periods and warm periods over time,” he noted.

“We do think carbon emissions may now have peaked, especially because of an economic slowdown in China. In Beijing today, if you breathe the air there, it is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. To put it simply, virtually all climate data we get today is bad news.”

Steven Chu speaking at the symposium
Steven Chu

Chu said solar energy could be the answer to many of the world’s energy problems. “The utility companies are scared to death of solar energy,” he said, “because it is a huge threat to their bottom line. But 1 in 7 people in the world today have no access to electricity, so it might be our best hope.”

McCarl noted that it is beyond dispute that the Earth is getting warmer. “When you have 15 or 16 of the warmest years ever recorded since just 2000, it means something is going on,” he said. “And the latest data show that 2016 has already become a hot year.”

He said there are several ways to approach climate change, “but most of them compete with traditional economic investments. It obviously becomes a political issue because it takes money away from other parts of our economy.”

Christodoulos Floudas, director of the Texas A&M Energy Institute and the Erle Nye ’59 Chair Professor for Engineering Excellence in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, said that in recent years, as much as 84 percent of greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere come from human activities.

“There is no single material process or technology that is the best (for controlling emissions), so we must not focus on one aspect,” he said. “Carbon capture, utilization and sequestration, known as CCUS, is the most grand challenge of the 21st century,” and he and his team are working on ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Media contact: Keith Randall, Texas A&M News & Information Services.

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