Colloquium on the physics of sustainability – April 12

Peter Littlewood

As a prelude to Fermilab’s Earth Week celebration next week, we are holding a colloquium titled “Physics of Sustainability” by former Argonne National Laboratory Director Peter Littlewood. The colloquium takes place this Wednesday, April 12, at 4 p.m. in Wilson Hall’s One West. The talk is open to the public.

In a recent international poll, 71 percent thought their country “could almost entirely replace coal and nuclear energy within 20 years by becoming highly energy-efficient and focusing on generating energy from the sun and wind.” Littlewood claims that, unfortunately, this optimism is not justified by the state of current technologies, either in terms of their efficiency or their cost. He argues, however, that a review of the fundamental principles suggests that there are modest grounds for optimism in the long term, as a long host of inventions can be brought to fruition.

Littlewood will provide a physicist’s perspective on some of the energy and sustainability challenges faced by the planet, stressing the need for thinking using robust principles to guide the investigation. To the extent that technology rather than conservation can play a role, efficient and low-cost materials technologies for energy capture, storage, transmission, and use will be key.

Can we rely on iterative improvements in what we have now, or do we need breakthroughs? If we are to have such breakthroughs, what is possible within the constraints of fundamental physical laws? How much headroom is there for new technologies?

Littlewood will give his answers to these questions on Wednesday.

Pushpa Bhat is the chair of the Fermilab Colloquium Committee, which organizes the colloquium series.