UWF Speaker Series Welcomes Energy Expert

Jan 13, 2018

Dr. Nathan Lewis
Credit uwf dot edu

One of the leaders in energy innovation and science will be speaking in Pensacola this week. Dr. Nathan Lewis has been active in the solar fuels/solar chemical field for over 40 years. He is a Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. He will be the speaker this Thursday and Friday for the University of West Florida’s Hal Marcus of College of Science and Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series. He says his interest in energy began at a young age. "Waiting in gas lines with my dad in the 1970's when we really has an energy crisis. I was a teenagers at the time and interested in science and wanted to do something about that if I could. So that stuck with me as a theme fro my research." Lewis says he felt that a country that had such success with its space program should be able to solve the crisis. 

Dr. Lewis says finding alternative energy sources has never really caught the imagination of the public the way space exploration or medical breakthroughs have. He feels that because for most people, energy is energy. Where it comes from doesn't really matter to them as long as the lights turn on when you flip the switch. 

During the lecture series, Dr. Lewis will give a pair of talks. One is called Where The Energy of the Future Will Come From. The other: Artificial Photosynthesis: Direct Production of Fuels from Sunlight. He says the two topics are closely aligned. "'You can't build a better mouse trap until you actually understand that mice are a threat' is a favorite saying of military technology developers. So, if you (believe) that we have plenty of fossil energy, then we won't have to do anything if we're content to just use oil, coal and gas until they start to run out, which might be many centuries from now. But if you think that we want to avoid carbon dioxide emissions sooner rather than later, then you have to look at where the gaps are, what we don't know how to do."

So what don’t we know how to do? Dr. Lewis says first we don’t know how to store massive amounts of energy to compensate for times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. The other gap involves transportation. "Even if we electrify all the light duty vehicles, there's no such thing as a plug-in, hybrid airplane. And what do we do about global commerce when we need a liquid transportation fuel? So (those are the gaps), the biggest energy source is the sun, so it makes sense to try and develop an approach that would do what nature (already) figured out, which is (get energy from) that biggest resource, the sun, and store it in its most energy dense form...chemical bonds, and make chemical fuels."

That’s what natural photosynthesis does inside a plant. And that’s what Dr. Lewis and his team are trying to accomplish, find a way to take the sun and instead of storing the energy in batteries, turn that energy into chemical fuels that can run cars and planes and heat homes. "Let's do what nature did, but do it better. In the same way that birds have feathers but we don't build fast flying aircraft out of feathers, we design them with wings and jet engines." He wants to build a system that takes the sunlight and turn it into liquid fuels.

Dr. Nathan Lewis will be talking about these issues and this project Thursday evening at 6 at the Museum of Commerce in Downtown Pensacola, and Friday at Noon on the UWF campus. Both lectures are free and open to the public.