If the human race continues to deplete energy sources at the rate it does today, experts predict that the Earth only has around 50 years left of certain fuel reserves, such as oil and natural gas. While our use of these resources has allowed tremendous progress and innovation, we have simultaneously been destroying the planet we call home. Carbon dioxide emissions are at an all-time high, and the evidence of global climate change has become incontrovertible. In order to ensure long-term stability of the planet, something needs to change.

Here in Telluride to give this week’s Telluride Science Town Talk is Dr. Yogi Surendranath, who leads a research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dedicated to the development of an efficient alternative energy source. His passions for chemistry and sustainability came early and led him to where he is today. “I remember my father taking me into his lab when I was a kid, just to show me what he was doing, and it was his enthusiasm that really rubbed off on me. My similar interest in sustainability also spoke to me. It struck me that inorganic chemistry has a lot to contribute to a transition to a more stable economy and future,” Surendranath said.  

Where will this alternative source come from? Surendranath and his team focus on drawing power from none other than the world’s most abundant element: hydrogen. Strong enough to power a space shuttle, hydrogen bonds are an extremely effective way to store energy. The challenge comes from creating the hydrogen to draw from, since it cannot be harvested like other natural resources. Scientists use one process known as electrolysis, in which water can actually be split into its two separate components: oxygen and hydrogen gas.

Surendranath believes the amount of water needed should not be considered a limiting factor. He noted, “In terms of the actual water molecules you’re converting, it’s a very low resource demand.” However, the process does require some sort of energy input, which could render the whole effort meaningless if done incorrectly. The hope is that a renewable source, such as solar power, can be used to drive the electrolysis in a battery-like device and the energy from the newly made hydrogen can provide the power at night.

Due to the declining state of the environment, the pressure is on to make these sustainable changes happen quickly. When asked how plausible this great shift really is, Surendranath explained, “Turning this around is a grand challenge not just for the chemical sciences, but also material sciences, engineers and people who think about policy. You need all of that to address a massive global challenge. It requires a coordinated effort, but I think chemistry plays a very significant role in enabling a more sustainable energy future.”

The Telluride Science Research Center is making this necessary collaboration a reality. Along with Gordana Dukovic of the University of Colorado Boulder, Surendranath is co-organizing a Telluride Science workshop this week titled “Solar Solutions to Energy and Environmental Problems.”

“We’re excited to put on a workshop that connects people who many not traditionally talk to each other because they live in slightly different disciplinary baskets,” Surendranath said. “But, they are all connected by virtue of their interests in some component of taking chemical energy and making it electrical. It’s an extraordinarily rich community-building opportunity and a fascinating place to discuss science, to engage people in collaboration, and get critical feedback on your research.”

On Tuesday, Surendranth will illustrate his vision for our world with his Town Talk titled "Using Nature's Blueprint to Build a Sustainable Energy Future. " His presentation will be followed by an interview and Q&A session moderated by Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television correspondent and professor emerita of broadcast journalism at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, Judy Muller. This Telluride Science Town Talk is a free public event and is the fourth of the summer series of talks presented by the Telluride Science Research Center. With a network of over 5,000 preeminent scientists from over 90 countries and 500 institutions, Telluride Science generates the fundamental knowledge-base for new solutions in many fields, including energy, medicine, water, climate, national security, and advanced materials for computing and manufacturing.

To learn more about the Telluride Science Town Talks series or about Telluride Science and their current Capital Campaign to purchase and restore the Telluride Depot as a permanent home for the world’s largest independent molecular science center, visit telluridescience.org.