What does the future of energy look like? Stanford scientists weigh in

Stanford experts agree that the world needs to be less reliant on fossil fuels for energy. Getting there will remake the world’s largest economic sector – energy – into one that is more sustainable, secure and affordable for everyone.

Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas supply 80 percent of the world’s energy to warm homes, charge devices and power transportation. They are also the primary human source of greenhouse gas emissions. Stanford scientists broadly agree that curtailing our use of fossil fuels would have significant benefits – like improving health and reducing the number and severity of natural disasters – but it’s not yet clear what can replace them.

Stanford researchers advance the future of energy

Research into renewable energy, batteries, carbon capture and storage, the electric grid and natural gas have sprung up around campus, helping to move the world to a more sustainable future.

Wind and solar are increasingly popular sources of energy, but the sun does not always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. Batteries to store their intermittent energy are not yet cheap and powerful enough to fill the gaps. Nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases directly, but the current generation of reactors has other problems. Solutions like storing carbon dioxide underground or turning it into clean fuel are promising, but they also need much development. None of the possible solutions is without challenges.

Eight Stanford researchers describe how, among these many developing options, they envision the world becoming less reliant on fossil fuels. Nobel physicist and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a professor of physics and of cellular and molecular biology at Stanford, outlines the broad challenge, “which cannot be overestimated,” he says. Other professors describe pathways to better technologies, as well as the public policies and financial mechanisms necessary for the best applications to flourish. All agree that the goal is less reliance on carbon-based fuel sources, and that a combination of solutions – rather than a silver bullet – likely will create that greener energy future.

Produced in association with Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy

How do we get there? Steven Chu

Steven Chu, a Stanford professor of physics and of molecular & cellular physiology, discusses the enormous challenge of eliminating global greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century.

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Capturing carbon: Sally Benson

Sally Benson, a Stanford professor of energy resources engineering, explains the essential role of capturing carbon and storing it underground in curbing climate change.

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Clean alternatives to gasoline: Thomas Jaramillo

Thomas Jaramillo, a Stanford associate professor of chemical engineering, explains how researchers are developing clean alternatives to gasoline and other fossil fuels.

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Innovations in electricity: Arun Majumdar

Arun Majumdar, a Stanford professor of mechanical engineering, explains how advances in big data and technology will lead to a modern, low-carbon electric grid.

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Natural gas as a transition: Mark Zoback

Mark Zoback, a Stanford professor of geophysics, discusses the impact of the natural gas revolution as electricity providers transition from coal to a renewable-energy future.

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Improved batteries and solar cells: Yi Cui

Yi Cui, a Stanford professor of materials science and engineering, discusses the big technical challenges in battery and solar research, and some possible solutions from his research.

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Financing the transition: Dan Reicher

Dan Reicher, a Stanford professor of the practice of law, discusses the role of policy and finance in spurring development of clean-energy technologies.

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Controlling chemistry to make new fuels: Stacey Bent

Stacey Bent, a Stanford professor of chemical engineering, explains strategies underway in her lab for making ethanol from molecules in the air.

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