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Caltech Raises Millions to Tackle the "Most Fundamental Issue Facing Mankind"

The Resnick Sustainability Institute raises $15 million to achieve clean energy breakthroughs.

Resnick Institute

Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute has received a $15 million gift earmarked to support scientists pursuing the breakthroughs in renewable energy demanded by the rising threat of climate change.

The organization, housed on the sunny Pasadena, Calif., campus of the California Institute of Technology, will announce Tuesday morning that Lynda and Stewart Resnick provided the latest donation. The billionaire co-owners of Roll Global, the holding company behind POM Wonderful and Wonderful Pistachios, also provided the original $21 million in 2009 that helped establish the institute (though, as the liberal blog Daily Kos points out, their environmental track record is a mixed one).

Resnick scientists are exploring a wide range of sustainability technologies, including wind energy, batteries and fuel cells, smart grid systems, solar photovoltaics, biofuels and more.

“We style ourselves as a studio for sustainability,” said Neil Fromer, Resnick’s executive director, in an interview with Re/code earlier this year. “Our goal is to capitalize on the unique culture at Caltech of interdisciplinary collaboration and playful scientific exploration to solve some of the biggest challenges facing the world, in terms of how do we use energy and natural resources in ways that can sustain our future?”

The most critical challenge is climate change, as traditional fossil fuels pump ever greater concentrations of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Scientists say we’ve already passed dangerous thresholds, locking in future warming that will result in rising sea levels, loss of species, severe weather, climate refugees, international conflict and much more.

In fact, many of the impacts have already arrived in the United States, as the latest National Climate Assessment released on Tuesday emphasized. The overview summarizes the state of things in stark terms:

Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.

Other changes are even more dramatic. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. In Arctic Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and autumn storms now cause more erosion, threatening many communities with relocation.

Existing renewable energy sources can’t come close to meeting current energy demands — much less those projected for the middle of the century — so developing new, more efficient clean energy options is crucial.

Researchers working on the problem at the institute include Harry Atwater, Resnick’s director and a Caltech professor of applied physics. He is exploring materials that can capture a greater amount of energy from sunlight, including thin films and so-called multijunction solar cells “that more efficiently use the full solar spectrum,” he said.

Essentially, the system divides sunlight into its component colors and focuses each on a cell made of material optimized to absorb that part of the spectrum. The best solar cells capture about 25 percent of the energy in sunlight that touches them. Atwater expects that they could get closer to 50 percent — with theoretical limits as high as 86 percent.

Meanwhile, chemistry professor Nate Lewis is pursuing “artificial photosynthesis” — or what some call artificial leaves — creating liquid fuel directly from sunlight. (For more on how, see my earlier story here.) Lewis is the principal investigator at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, located within the Resnick Institute and established with $122 million in federal funds.

“It’s an inevitable technology,” Lewis told me in an interview. “The sun is the biggest energy source known to mankind. … So we have to find a way to store that.”

Batteries won’t cut it, he added. The energy density in the best battery is 200 watt-hours per kilogram, while the energy density of gasoline is 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram.

“Chemical bonds in storage and fuels is by far, other than the nucleus of the atom, the best way to store energy,” he added. “Somebody is going to find a way to take the biggest energy source and store it in the best form possible.”

Three million dollars of the latest gift will set up the Resnick Institute Innovation Fund, supporting ideas with the potential to have a rapid impact. The other $12 million establishes the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Matching Program, providing a one-to-one match for any contributions that establish new endowments for the Resnick Institute.

By incentivizing the creation of these endowments, the institute hopes to create a source of ongoing funding to support extended research efforts. These technologies can take 15 years or more to develop, so the organization can’t simply rely on government funding, given the frequently shifting priorities of Congress.

“The toughest issues in sustainability are not short-term, two- or three-year problems,” Atwater said in a statement. “They require a 50-year view and need to be approached with creativity and a transformative perspective.”

The long research horizons have also made clean energy a tough space for venture capital, particularly following the high-profile bankruptcies of companies like Solyndra, Abound Solar, Beacon Power and others.

Some $4.2 billion flowed into clean energy companies in 2011, but that figure fell to $1.4 billion last year, according to data from the National Venture Capital Association and Thomson Reuters.

“The significant capital requirements combined with the lack of significant returns in the category have caused many firms and many folks who were focused on this area to really raise the bar in terms of what they’re looking at,” said Josh Green, chairman of the NVCA and general partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures.

That leaves academia and philanthropy to take up a growing portion of the slack in basic research on what could be the biggest challenge we face.

“Securing a sustainable source of energy for future generations is the most fundamental issue facing mankind,” Stewart Resnick said in a statement. “It is at the heart of all of the other long-term sustainability challenges such as feeding the world’s population and providing people with access to clean water and health care. We see funding Caltech’s efforts as an investment in our future, not just as philanthropy.”

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