Caltech to Have Largest Solar-Energy Facility in Pasadena

Earth Day is April 22

PASADENA, Calif.-The City of Pasadena's largest-ever solar-energy facility will soon be installed on the California Institute of Technology campus. Construction begins this week and will conclude in August. The facility will be located on top of Caltech's Holliston parking structure.

"This is part of Caltech's commitment to minimizing the Institute's impact on the environment and reducing our dependence on nonrenewable energy," said Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau.

This facility is expected to have an annual energy production of 320,000 kilowatt-hours. The overall size of the structure is about 220 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it will cover more than half of the top level of the structure.

The remainder of Caltech's energy is supplied by an on-site campus cogeneration plant and by the City of Pasadena. The on-site generation facility provided 77 percent of campus consumption last year. Ultimately, Caltech hopes to add more solar facilities to the campus in an effort to further reduce its reliance on nonrenewable sources.

"The project came about as a result of Caltech's continual focus on the best practices in sustainability and on developing goals and objectives central to renewable energy as a means to save money, foster awareness, reduce environmental consequences of Institute activities, and provide leadership and stewardship relative to the environment," said Dean Currie, Caltech vice president for business and finance.

With these goals in mind, Caltech began construction of a solar-energy facility whose operation will be equivalent to eliminating 527,000 pounds of CO2 emissions from the air each year, removing 46 cars from operation, planting 72 acres of trees, or powering 38 average homes.

The City of Pasadena and Pasadena Water and Power have worked closely with Caltech to create the facility. The city and PWP are providing assistance with expedited permitting, technical support, and substantial rebates to promote renewable energy development in Pasadena. Design and construction will be completed by EI Solutions, a subsidiary of Energy Innovations of Pasadena. The project will be financed and operated through a Power Purchase Agreement between the campus and Solar Power Partners of Mill Valley, California.

"We're thrilled to be building a solar facility at Caltech and to be a part of the Institute's plans to reduce its impact on the environment and dependence on nonrenewable energy," said Andrew Beebe, president of EI Solutions. "Caltech is a leader in so many areas, and it is great to see it setting an example for universities and corporations across the country that are looking for ways to utilize economically sound green-energy alternatives like solar."

The solar-energy facility is one of many sustainability efforts the Caltech campus has undertaken in recent years. In addition to the previously mentioned cogeneration plant on campus, dining facilities use compostable food containers, incandescent lightbulbs are being switched to compact fluorescent bulbs, grounds planners use water-wise landscaping, there is a "green" cleaning program used by the custodial staff, an award-winning recycling program accepts items from the campus and local community, and the Caltech Electric Vehicle Club has a few electric cars that qualified users are free to drive.

Caltech is constructing three new buildings that will receive gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings. This means the buildings will reduce their impact on the environment through energy and water efficiency and materials conservation, among other characteristics.

"We take a lot of pride in what we have accomplished to date, but we are even more excited about what the future holds," said Bill Irwin, senior director of facilities management at Caltech. "We plan to add more solar facilities in the near future, to produce up to an additional megawatt of power. We are looking for innovative ways to reduce water usage through sustainable planting and turf reduction and by capturing and reusing wastewater from our boilers. Caltech recently installed two high-efficiency water chillers and will install more this year, along with other energy-efficient equipment upgrades. These are just a few examples of current and future plans. We recognize that what we are doing today and will do tomorrow directly affects those who will come after us, and we would like to leave a positive legacy."

For a more comprehensive list of "green" initiatives at Caltech, go to the Sustainability at Caltech website at

About Caltech With an outstanding faculty, including five Nobel laureates, and such off-campus facilities as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Palomar Observatory, and the W. M. Keck Observatory, the California Institute of Technology is one of the world's major research centers. The Institute also conducts instruction in science and engineering for a student body of approximately 900 undergraduates and 1,300 graduate students who maintain a high level of scholarship and intellectual achievement. Caltech's 124-acre campus is situated in Pasadena. Caltech is an independent, privately supported university. On the Web at

About EI Solutions EI Solutions is one of California's fastest-growing providers of commercial and utility-scale solar power systems. The company has completed projects for a wide variety of public agencies and private companies including Sony, BT, and the largest solar installation on a U.S. corporate campus, a 1.6 megawatt system on Google's Mountain View headquarters. EI Solutions' headquarters are in San Rafael, California, where all engineering, project management, finance, and administrative functions are based. EI Solutions also operates a sales and marketing office in Pasadena, at the home of its parent company, Energy Innovations. Energy Innovations, an Idealab company, is a manufacturer of commercial solar products that maximize usable energy from the sun. More information can be found at or by calling 800.237.0916.

Jill Perry

Caltech Creates New Center to Study the Global Environment

PASADENA, Calif.- To address the complex issue of global climate change from a wide range of disciplines, Ronald and Maxine Linde have established an $18 million endowment for the California Institute of Technology to create the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, uniting faculty from chemistry, engineering, geology, environmental science, and other fields.

The problems addressed by global environmental science represent the types of multidisciplinary challenges for which Caltech is well suited. Approaching them requires close collaboration among all six of Caltech's academic divisions--from chemists studying ozone-destroying reactions in the stratosphere, to fluid dynamicists and physicists studying atmospheric and oceanic flows, to biologists studying nutrient cycles, to geologists studying evidence of the effects of past climates, to social scientists (including economists) and humanists evaluating how society and institutions can respond to global change. In addition, Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (one of the nation's leading centers for satellite-based observation of the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface) can characterize and monitor changes in the current environment.

"Ron and Maxine Linde appreciate how critical environmental science is to the future of life on our planet and the tremendous contributions the Caltech faculty can make to society," says Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau. "Their gift will help bring our faculty together and provide flexible support that is critical to creative thinking."

Funded by the Lindes, the initiative will help Caltech achieve its vision of having an integrated program in global environmental science, spanning the many disciplines that must make up such a program. Edward Stolper, Caltech's provost, explains that the Linde Center "will provide a central home and focus for researchers and students working on understanding natural variations in and the impact of human activity on the global environment. These are among the most important and most difficult problems facing our society, and this gift will help Caltech play an important role in addressing them."

To train the future generations of scientists and engineers who will address these problems, Caltech recently established a degree-granting program in environmental science and engineering. This interdivisional program offers training and research ranging from a large-scale understanding of the ocean/atmosphere system and climate to the local scale of developing engineering solutions for environmental problems. As pointed out by Stolper, "Few programs have taken this step of bridging global environmental science and conventional environmental engineering--yet it is an approach we believe will be critical to training future leaders."

The faculty and students associated with the program will be housed in the 75-year-old building that is currently the Henry M. Robinson Laboratory of Astrophysics. When renovated, the building will be named the Linde + Robinson Laboratory. The astronomers will move a short distance to the soon-to-be-completed Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Ronald Linde has been a Caltech trustee since 1989. He is a private investor and chairman of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Foundation, a private foundation that the Lindes established in 1989. He was founder, chairman, and CEO of Envirodyne Industries Inc. He also held various scientific research and management positions at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) and has authored or co-authored more than 50 publications in science and technology. He received a bachelor of science degree in engineering from UCLA and master's and PhD degrees in materials science from Caltech.

Maxine Linde is a private investor and president of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Foundation. She was involved in the early U.S. space program as a scientific programmer at JPL and subsequently served as Envirodyne's general counsel and chief administrative officer. She received a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics from UCLA and a JD degree from Stanford Law School.

The Lindes have established the Ronald and Maxine Linde Professorship of Applied and Computational Mathematics at Caltech, currently held by renowned mathematician Emmanuel Candes. They also have funded a challenge grant to create the Ronald and Maxine Linde/Caltech Alumni Laboratories in Caltech's Broad Center for the Biological Sciences.


Jill Perry

Caltech Joins National Global-Warming Teach-In

PASADENA, Calif.--Did you know that it takes about the energy found in 1.4 liters of gasoline to make a cheese pizza? The energy cost of producing food is one focus the California Institute of Technology will take as it participates in a nationwide effort to engage schools in global-warming solutions.

On Wednesday and Thursday, January 30–31, Caltech will join more than 1,100 universities across the country for an unprecedented teach-in organized by Focus the Nation.

Focus the Nation is an initiative to draw attention to global warming through a teach-in that will engage faculty, students, staff, and community members. It is centered on what they consider to be the three most essential pillars needed for today's youth to embrace solutions to global warming: education, civic engagement, and leadership. Organizers chose the January date because it coincides with the beginning of the 2008 primary election season. They intend to stir a nonpartisan national discussion about confronting the challenge of climate stabilization.

Among the coordinators for Caltech's participation are graduate students Morgan Putnam and Asa Hopkins and undergraduate Aryan Safaie. Hopkins was inspired to host the event after hearing a speech by Focus the Nation project director Eban Goodstein at a campus sustainability conference at UC Santa Barbara last summer. Goodstein is an economics professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, who took a two-year hiatus from teaching to champion this cause.

The teach-in officially kicks off at 8 p.m. on January 30 in Beckman Institute Auditorium with a live, interactive webcast of "The 2% Solution", in which climate scientists and experts in related fields will discuss global-warming solutions and tackle viewers' questions. The title of the webcast reflects the idea that developed countries must cut roughly two percent of their current emissions per year in order to arrest global warming at an ultimate minimum of around four degrees Farenheit.

At lunchtime on January 31, the Caltech chapter of the Engineers for a Sustainable World invites the campus and community to join the Focus the Nation effort with an angle on food choices. They will provide fliers to inform lunchtime patrons at Chandler Dining Hall about where their food originates, the energy it takes to provide the meals, the environmental consequences of growing and buying food, and suggestions for minimizing impact.

Among other options, diners can select locally-caught fish topped with a salsa concocted from grapefruit from the backyard of Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau and California-grown kiwi and blood oranges, with a side of California-grown broccoli and cauliflower. The event organizers will also sponsor a contest that quizzes consumers about energy-related food choices. Which is the most energy-efficient option: a cardboard pizza box, a porcelain plate, or a compostable plate? The winner scores free pizza for a week.

"Focus the Nation gives us a coordinated chance to broaden the conversation at Caltech. Often we're very research focused, and that's good, but we also need to remember that our actions outside of the lab matter, too," comments Hopkins.

Elisabeth Nadin
Exclude from News Hub: 
News Type: 
In Our Community

Genetic Underpinnings of Wood Digestion by Termite Gut Microbes Revealed

PASADENA, Calif.--When termites are chewing on your home, your immediate thought probably isn't "I wonder how they digest that stuff?" But biologists have been gnawing on the question for more than a century. The key is not just the termite, but what lives in its gut. A multitude of genes from the microbes populating the hindgut of a termite have been sequenced and analyzed, and the findings reported today in the journal Nature.

California Institute of Technology associate professor of environmental microbiology Jared Leadbetter led a team of researchers from other universities, private industry, and the Department of Energy (DOE) in uncovering the genetic underpinnings and the roles of bacteria in wood digestion by "higher termites." These insects abound in tropical and subtropical ecosystems. What the team found, says Leadbetter, is "a comprehensive set of blueprints for the bacteria that help dismantle wood."

Prior to this study, only one gene--in the insect itself--had been connected to the termite's rare ability to digest and nourish itself with wood, a substance that is energy-rich but hard to break down. It had also long been suspected that the 250 bacterial species that crowd the pinhead volume of a higher termite's hindgut might be directly involved in the process. But there was no way of knowing their roles for sure, because most of the organisms die quickly when removed from their host. Although the first bacterium genome was sequenced in 1994, it was a few years before scientists even considered sequencing entire communities of multiple species of organisms.

Leadbetter and his colleagues proposed to the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI) that the gut community of the Costa Rican termite Nasutitermes be examined because it is abundant and it plays significant roles in the wood degradation that helps to renew ecosystems. Leadbetter joined forces with collaborators at JGI, Verenium Corporation's San Diego facilities, and INBio, the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica. They sequenced and analyzed more than 80,000 genes encoded by many of the hindgut bacteria species. "This was a fairly risky project when we proposed it," says Leadbetter, because "in these abundant tropical termites, there was no compelling evidence that these microbes play direct roles in cellulose degradation."

When the results started coming in, "we all breathed a big sigh of relief, because it turned out to be a gold mine in there," Leadbetter says. They found nearly 1,000 genes that underlie roles in breaking down two of wood's main components, cellulose and xylan, into their component sugars. The degradation of cellulose and xylan requires an arsenal of enzymes because of the huge diversity of biochemical bonds in wood. "This isn't some soft paper or grass we're talking about," says Leadbetter. "It's a hard substrate." Wood is made of three tightly intertwined compounds; taking it apart is a challenge, and termites are among the few known animals that can do it.

Leadbetter and his colleagues hope to eventually uncover exactly how each gene is involved in degrading wood, and where the energy the termite derives from the wood goes. This has recently become a focus of interest for those interested in developing an effective, industrial method to convert wood into ethanol. The challenge lies in events at the start of the process, like those involved in breaking down cellulose and xylan. Leadbetter and his colleagues believe that by investigating the genes that underlie these primary reactions, better ways of manufacturing biofuel can eventually be developed.

The study also identified nearly 100 different species of bacteria called spirochetes that belong to the genus Treponema. This membership makes them closely related to the bacterium that causes syphilis and to other spirochetes implicated in Lyme disease and gum disease. In termites, though, the findings show that these spirochetes actually benefit the health of their hosts. The genome sequencing also showed that the spirochetes are active in processes that generate hydrogen, an energy-rich gas, from wood. Certain genes also indicate that gut spirochetes can essentially taste or smell hydrogen and will swim either to or from its sources in the gut. In general, Leadbetter says, it looks like "these bacteria differ from those that dominate the gut tracts of humans and other mammals in their broad capacity to swim in response to diverse chemical stimuli. This behavior may be relevant to effective wood degradation."

Other Caltech authors of the paper are Eric Matson, a postdoctoral scholar in environmental science and engineering; Xinning Zhang, a graduate student in environmental science and engineering; and Elizabeth Ottesen, a graduate student in biology. Group leaders are Dan Robertson of Verenium Corporation, Phil Hugenholtz of the JGI, Giselle Tamayo of INBio, and Eric Mathur, formerly of Diversa (now at Synthetic Genomics).

Elisabeth Nadin

New Method of Studying Ancient Fossils Points to Carbon Dioxide As a Driver of Global Warming

PASADENA, Calif.—A team of American and Canadian scientists has devised a new way to study Earth's past climate by analyzing the chemical composition of ancient marine fossils. The first published tests with the method further support the view that atmospheric CO2 has contributed to dramatic climate variations in the past, and strengthen projections that human CO2 emissions could cause global warming.

In the current issue of the journal Nature, geologists and environmental scientists from the California Institute of Technology, the University of Ottawa, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Brock University, and the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve report the results of a new method for determining the growth temperatures of carbonate fossils such as shells and corals. This method looks at the percentage of rare isotopes of oxygen and carbon that bond with each other rather than being randomly distributed through their mineral lattices.

Because these bonds between oxygen-18 and carbon-13 form in greater abundance at low temperatures and lesser abundance at higher temperatures, a precise measurement of their concentration in a carbonate fossil can quantify the temperature of seawater in which the organisms lived. By comparing this record of temperature change with previous estimates of past atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the study demonstrates a strong coupling of atmospheric temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations across one of Earth's major environmental shifts.

According to Rosemarie Came, a postdoctoral scholar in geochemistry at Caltech and lead author of the article, only about 60 parts per million of the carbonate molecular groups that make up the mineral structures of carbonate fossils are a combination of both oxygen-18 and carbon-13, but the amount varies predictably with temperature. Therefore, knowing the age of the sample and how much of these exotic carbonate groups are present allows one to create a record of the planet's temperature through time.

"This clumped-isotope method has an advantage over previous approaches because we're looking at the distribution of rare isotopes inside a single shell or coral," Came says. "All the information needed to study the surface temperature at the time the animal lived is stored in the fossil itself."

In this way, the method contrasts with previous approaches that require knowledge of the chemistry of seawater in the distant past--something that is poorly known.

The study contrasts the growth temperatures of fossils from two times in the distant geological past. The Silurian period, approximately 400 million years ago, is thought to have been a time of highly elevated atmospheric CO2 (more than 10 times the modern concentration), and was found by the researchers to be a time of exceptionally warm shallow-ocean temperatures—nearly 35 degrees C. In contrast, the Carboniferous period, roughly 300 million years ago, appears to have been characterized by far lower levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (similar to modern values) and had shallow marine temperatures similar to or slightly cooler than today-about 25 degrees C. Thus, the draw-down of atmospheric CO2 coincided with strong global cooling.

"This is a huge change in temperature," says John Eiler, a professor of geochemistry at Caltech and a coauthor of the study. "It shows that carbon dioxide really has been a powerful driver of climate change in Earth's past."

The title of the Nature paper is "Coupling of surface temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentrations during the Paleozoic era." The other authors are Jan Veizer of the University of Ottawa, Karem Azmy of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Uwe Brand of Brock University, and Christopher R. Weidman of the Waquoit National Estuarine Research Reserve, Massachusetts.

Robert Tindol

Some Earth-like Worlds May Have Foliage of Colors Other Than Green, Researchers Say

PASADENA, Calif.—In the next decade, when scientists are able to study Earth-sized worlds around other stars, they may find that foliage on some of the planets is predominantly yellow—or orange, or red. It all depends on the color of the star the planet orbits and the stuff that makes up the planet's atmosphere.

That's the conclusion of researchers from the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, a NASA-funded initiative at the California Institute of Technology, who are announcing today results from a series of comprehensive computer models for guiding the future search for plant life on other worlds. Two related papers on what to expect out of photosynthesis are being issued in the journal Astrobiology.

Determining the range of possible colors is important because scientists need to know what to look for when they begin getting spectra of light from faraway Earth-sized planets, says lead author Nancy Kiang, a biometeorologist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and currently a visitor at Caltech's Spitzer Science Center.

"The dominant color of photosynthesis could be yellow, or orange, or maybe red," Kiang explains. "I think it is unlikely that anything will be blue—and, of course, green plants are also a possibility, since that's what we have here."

"What makes this study unusual is the highly interdisciplinary method by which planetary scientists, atmospheric scientists, biologists, and others have pooled their efforts in modeling the possible spectra of light available to plants on Earth-like planets orbiting around other stars," says Vikki Meadows, an astrobiologist at Caltech and lead scientist of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory. Because the study requires data about everything from the type of photons given off by a main-sequence star in a particular stage of its life, to the depth of water that an aqueous plant might prefer, a huge variety of information is required.

"No single astronomer or biologist or atmospheric scientist could have attacked this problem individually to get the simulation," says Meadows, who is herself an astrobiologist whose original academic training was in astronomy. "So these papers are truly interdisciplinary pieces of work."

The researchers focused on the way plants use light for energy to produce sugar—which is pretty much the definition of photosynthesis—because photosynthetic pigments must be adapted to the available light spectrum. The available light spectrum at a planet's surface is a result of both the light from the parent star and filtering effects of gases in the atmosphere. For example, ozone absorbs ultraviolet light, so that not much reaches Earth's surface.

"It turns out that the spectrum of the number of particles of light is what is important, and on Earth there are more particles in the red," Kiang explains. "This could explain why plants here on Earth are mainly green."

On Earth, plants absorb blue light because it is energetic, and red light because the photons are plentiful. There is more than enough energy from the blue and red in sunlight, so plants do not really need more. Therefore, they reflect away relatively more green light, which is why plants appear green to us.

A planet orbiting a star with the size and temperature roughly like our sun, and with Earth's particular mix of oxygen and what-have-you, would tend to have plants that like to soak up light in blue and red and less in green. But the situation could be different on other planets, where other colors of the spectrum might predominate. In those cases, another color like red might not be so useful, and the plants would mostly appear red.

There are many other factors, such as the role not only ozone plays but also carbon dioxide and water vapor, how the stellar radiation creates chemical reactions in the atmosphere, whether the star is prone to solar flares, how much water is on the planet, how much light gets to the surface, what gases are produced by the plants themselves, and so on. This is why a complex computer model was necessary.

Also, one might wonder what things could live on a planet with very little ozone, for example, where radiation would be a daily assault on living organisms, and energetic particles from solar winds would be like deadly microscopic bullets. Meadows says the modelers have taken such scenarios into consideration, and they think that there might be a "sweet spot" a few to tens of feet below the surface of the water where life is protected from UV radiation.

"We found that the sweet spot could be up to nine meters underwater for a planet orbiting a star significantly cooler than our sun, and photosynthesis could still take place," she says. "Something with a floatation capability could be protected from solar flares and still get enough photons to carry on."

In short, the new model provides a powerful tool for looking for life on other worlds, Meadows says.

"We once thought that planets around other stars were exceedingly rare," she explains. "But every time telescopes have gotten better, we've been able to find more and more Jupiter-sized planets. So there's no reason to think that there aren't a huge number of Earth- sized planets out there as well.

"We may not find anything like ourselves, but it's possible that bacterial life is prevalent on these Earth-like planets," Meadows adds. "If we have the environment for life to exist, then we think that it's likely that life will emerge in these conditions."

The other authors of the two papers are Antigona Segura-Peralta, Giovanna Tinetti, Martin Cohen, Janet Siefert, and David Crisp, all of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, Govindjee, of the University of Illinois, and Robert Blankenship, of Washington University.

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory was formed as part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which was founded in 1997 as a partnership between NASA, 12 major U.S. teams, and six international consortia. NAI's goal is to promote, conduct, and lead integrated multidisciplinary astrobiology research and to train a new generation of astrobiology researchers.

For related images, please visit



Robert Tindol

Caltech, UCLA, and UCSD Host ConferenceTo Address Clean Alternative Energy

PASADENA, Calif.—The latest in clean alternative-energy resources and the promise for transportation will be the focus of the California Clean Innovation 2007 (CACI) conference to be held Friday, May 11, on the campus of the California Institute of Technology. The conference is open to the public by registration.

According to one of the conference's main organizers, Siddharth Dasgupta, who is associate director of Caltech's NSF Center for Science & Engineering of Materials (CSEM), the all-day event has been designed to provide an inside look at the latest research, to address the challenges ahead, to provide information for entrepreneurs searching for new opportunities in alternative clean energy, and to provide networking opportunities for private- and public-sector professionals.

Conference session topics will include "Clean Power: Solar and Wind," "Clean Transportation: Fuels, Engine, and Storage," "Global Clean Tech Perspectives," and "Private and Public Market Finance." A fast-pitch business-case competition will also be held for student-friendly companies.

Keynote speakers will be Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, and Nate Lewis, the Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech whose research is heavily involved in alternative-energy technologies.

Activities begin at 8:30 a.m. with opening comments from Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau, whose own research interests have included environmental engineering. Lewis's keynote address, "Our Energy Reality," will follow at 8:40 a.m.

The first session, on "Popular Clean Power" will begin at 9:15 a.m., moderated by Art Ellis, vice chancellor for research at UC San Diego. Presentations will be given on solar photovoltaic cells by Harry Atwater, an applied physicist and director of CSEM at Caltech; thin film solar technologies by Billy Stanbery, CEO of Heliovolt; building integrated wind turbine development by Paul Glenney, director of Energy Initiatives at AeroVironment; and large-scale wind innovation by Leif Anderson of Suzlon Energy.

The second-session panel, on transportation fuels, will be moderated by Jose-Luis Contreras of Navigant Consulting. Panelists will be Kevin Gray, director of Alternative Fuels at Diversa on biofuels, Richard Hamilton, CEO of CERES on biofuels, and Vasilios Manousiouthakis, director of UCLA's Hydroegen Energy Research Consortium.

The third-session panel, on fuel cells and hydrogen, will be moderated by Terry Tamminen, an adviser to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Panelists will include Brent Fultz of Caltech on hydrogen storage, Justin Ward of Toyota Hybrid Vehicle Technologies, Mike Gorman, director of transportation products at United Technologies, and Sossina Haile of Caltech on solid acid fuel cells.

In parallel with this session there will be the first round of fast pitch business case competition. Ten teams will make three-minute fast pitches to a panel, which will select three finalists for the final round later in the afternoon.

The afternoon sessions begin with the fourth panel discussion on private and public investment, and will be moderated by Scott McGaraghan, director of business development at EnerNoc. Panelists will be John Rockwell, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson Element, Jim McDermott, managing director of U.S. Renewables, and Mark Huang, senior vice president at GE Energy Financial Services.

The parallel fifth session is on the Global Clean Energy Landscape, moderated by Jim Davis, president of Chevron Energy Solutions. Woody Clark, senior fellow of the Milken Institute will talk about China, Jeremy Martin, energy director of UCSD's Insitute of Americas will talk about South America, and Suvi Sharma, CEO of Solaria will talk about India.

These will be followed by the fast-pitch competition finals leading to the closing keynote by Vinod Khosla and comments by Dean Judy Olian of UCLA's Anderson School of Management. There will be a social mixer at the end from 5 to 7 p.m. for attendees to network with the panelists, keynotes, and each other.

The fee for registration is $150 for the general public, with an "early-bird" registration of $100 until April 15. The registration for students is $35. Online registration and additional information is available at


Robert Tindol

Geologists Provide New Evidence for Reason Behind Rise of Life in Cambrian Period

PASADENA, Calif.—Geologists have uncovered evidence in the oil fields of Oman that explains how Earth could suddenly have changed 540 million years ago to favor the evolution of the single-celled life forms to the multicellular forms we know today.

Reporting in the December 7 issue of the journal Nature, researchers from MIT, the California Institute of Technology, and Indiana University show that there was a sudden change in the oxygenation of the world's oceans at the time just before the "Cambrian explosion," one of the most significant adaptative radiations in the history of life. With a increased availability of oxygen, the team speculates, single-celled life forms that had dominated the planet for the previous three billion years were able to evolve into the diverse metazoan phyla that still characterize life on Earth.

"The presence of oxygen on Earth is the best indicator of life," says coauthor John Grotzinger, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at Caltech and an authority on sedimentary geology. "But it wasn't always that way. The history of oxygen begins about two and a half billion years ago and occurs in a series of steps. The last step is the subject of this paper."

The key insight was derived when Grotzinger's student Dave Fike, who is lead author of the paper, analyzed core samples and drillings taken at a depth of about three kilometers from oil wells in Oman, which are known to have the oldest commercially viable oil on the planet. The results of carbon and sulfur isotopic analyses from the material led the team to the conclusion that the oceanic conditions that laid down the deposits originally in Oman were quite different from conditions of today.

"You need a very different ocean for these conditions to exist—more like the Black Sea of today, with an upper oxidized layer and lower reduced layer with very little oxygen," says Grotzinger. "The ocean today is pretty well oxidized at all layers, but the ocean before the Cambrian period must have been very different."

When organic matter falls into an ocean that doesn't stir, it becomes deprived of sufficient oxygen and cannot survive as multicellular forms. For this reason, with a limited amount of oxygen, life continued in its single-celled form for the first three billion years.

But about 550 million years ago, according to the team's geologic evidence, the deep ocean began mixing its contents with the shallow ocean, resulting for the first time in a fully oxidized deep ocean.

Characterizing the study as paleoceanography, Grotzinger says the evidence is persuasive because it is so clearly evident in the rock record. Geologists have long believed that the rise of oxygen was a key element involved in the Cambrian radiation, so this discovery really helps solidify that hypothesis.

The oxygen trigger helps account for how life 500 million years ago could have gone from its single-celled existence to the emergence just 10 to 15 million years later of all the metazoan phyla we know today. In short, an abrupt increase in the availability of oxygen may have led to the diversity and complexity of life.

Fike is a graduate student at MIT who is currently in residence at Caltech to work with his professor, Grotzinger, who himself came to Caltech from MIT last year. The other authors of the paper are Lisa Pratt of Indiana University and Roger Summons of MIT.

Robert Tindol

Geobiologists Solve "Catch-22 Problem" Concerning the Rise of Atmospheric Oxygen

PASADENA, Calif.—Two and a half billion years ago, when our evolutionary ancestors were little more than a twinkle in a bacterium's plasma membrane, the process known as photosynthesis suddenly gained the ability to release molecular oxygen into Earth's atmosphere, causing one of the largest environmental changes in the history of our planet. The organisms assumed responsible were the cyanobacteria, which are known to have evolved the ability to turn water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into oxygen and sugar, and are still around today as the blue-green algae and the chloroplasts in all green plants.

But researchers have long been puzzled as to how the cyanobacteria could make all that oxygen without poisoning themselves. To avoid their DNA getting wrecked by a hydroxyl radical that naturally occurs in the production of oxygen, the cyanobacteria would have had to evolve protective enzymes. But how could natural selection have led the cyanobacteria to evolve these enzymes if the need for them didn't even exist yet?

Now, two groups of researchers at the California Institute of Technology offer an explanation of how cyanobacteria could have avoided this seemingly hopeless contradiction. Reporting in the December 12 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and available online this week, the groups demonstrate that ultraviolet light striking the surface of glacial ice can lead to the accumulation of frozen oxidants and the eventual release of molecular oxygen into the oceans and atmosphere. This trickle of poison could then drive the evolution of oxygen-protecting enzymes in a variety of microbes, including the cyanobacteria. According to Yuk Yung, a professor of planetary science, and Joe Kirschvink, the Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology, the UV-peroxide solution is "rather simple and elegant."

"Before oxygen appeared in the atmosphere, there was no ozone screen to block ultraviolet light from hitting the surface," Kirschvink explains. "When UV light hits water vapor, it converts some of this into hydrogen peroxide, like the stuff you buy at the supermarket for bleaching hair, plus a bit of hydrogen gas.

"Normally this peroxide would not last very long due to back-reactions, but during a glaciation, the hydrogen peroxide freezes out at one degree below the freezing point of water. If UV light were to have penetrated down to the surface of a glacier, small amounts of peroxide would have been trapped in the glacial ice." This process actually happens today in Antarctica when the ozone hole forms, allowing strong UV light to hit the ice.

Before there was any oxygen in Earth's atmosphere or any UV screen, the glacial ice would have flowed downhill to the ocean, melted, and released trace amounts of peroxide directly into the sea water, where another type of chemical reaction converted the peroxide back into water and oxygen. This happened far away from the UV light that would kill organisms, but the oxygen was at such low levels that the cyanobacteria would have avoided oxygen poisoning.

"The ocean was a beautiful place for oxygen-protecting enzymes to evolve," Kirschvink says. "And once those protective enzymes were in place, it paved the way for both oxygenic photosynthesis to evolve, and for aerobic respiration so that cells could actually breathe oxygen like we do."

The evidence for the theory comes from the calculations of lead author Danie Liang, a recent graduate in planetary science at Caltech who is now at the Research Center for Environmental Changes at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan.

According to Liang, a serious freeze-over known as the Makganyene Snowball Earth occurred 2.3 billion years ago, at roughly the time cyanobacteria evolved their oxygen-producing capabilities. During the Snowball Earth episode, enough peroxide could have been stored to produce nearly as much oxygen as is in the atmosphere now.

As an additional piece of evidence, this estimated oxygen level is also sufficient to explain the deposition of the Kalahari manganese field in South Africa, which has 80 percent of the economic reserves of manganese in the entire world. This deposit lies immediately on top of the last geological trace of the Makganyene Snowball.

"We used to think it was a cyanobacterial bloom after this glaciation that dumped the manganese out of the seawater," says Liang. "But it may have simply been the oxygen from peroxide decomposition after the Snowball that did it."

In addition to Kirschvink, Yung, and Liang, the other authors are Hyman Hartman of the Center for Biomedical Engineering at MIT, and Robert Kopp, a graduate student in geobiology at Caltech. Hartman, along with Chris McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center, were early advocates for the role that hydrogen peroxide played in the origin and evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis, but they could not identify a good inorganic source for it in Earth's precambrian environment.

The paper is available online at the following Web address:

Robert Tindol

Moore Foundation Gives $6.5 Million to Caltech For Research on Solar-Driven Energy

PASADENA, Calif.—The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded $6.5 million to found the Center for Sustainable Energy Research at the California Institute of Technology. The center will conduct research on solar-driven renewable-energy sources. The six-year grant targets various promising technologies that could result in cheap alternatives to fossil fuels.

According to Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor and professor of applied physics and materials science, the goal of the center is develop the technologies that will transform the industrialized world from one powered by fossil fuels to one that is powered by sunlight. More energy from sunlight strikes the earth in one hour than all of the fossil energy consumed on the planet in a year—so what is missing is not the solar energy, but the science and engineering innovations to use it.

"This new center is the beginning of a major campus effort to address future energy needs," says Atwater, adding that the center will focus on several avenues of research, first taking on technologies pertaining to solar-driven generating methods for fuels such as hydrogen or methanol.

"Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight is a grand challenge because it is the confluence of a number of hard problems," says Atwater. "But success would enable us to either generate and use hydrogen directly as a carbon-free chemical fuel, if society elects to burn the hydrogen by itself, or convert hydrogen to another hydrocarbon fuel like methanol by a carbon-neutral process, if we decide that is the way to go."

Fuel cells using methanol that's made from renewable sources would be carbon-neutral because carbon dioxide would both be consumed and emitted in equal quantities by the reactions for fuel generation and use.

"Which is better? That's the subject of enormous debate," Atwater says. "Currently, we have a liquid-fuel economy, and methanol would have the advantage of being another liquid. However, a hydrogen-as-fuel future would enable us to realize the dream of a fuel that's pollution-free both locally and globally.

"But the biggest challenge is to find a way to split water with sunlight that is robust, efficient, and replaces the platinum catalyst with something that is scalable to terawatts of energy. So platinum is out."

In sum, the Center for Sustainable Energy Research is looking at several technologies to accomplish the goal of providing fossil-fuel alternatives, and several research groups at Caltech are applying their individual expertise to various parts of the problem. Replacing the platinum catalyst, for example, is the goal of Professor of Chemistry Jonas Peters, who has had success with using cobalt as a catalyst. Working on different aspects of solar conversion are Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry, and Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry. Sossina Haile, professor of materials science and chemical engineering, is working on improving fuel cells.

Haile says that society should look toward new possibilities for the future in terms of energy technology rather than scrambling at the last minute when existing options become scarce. "There's an anonymous quote that the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones," she says.

"There is little question that sustainable energy is the grand challenge of our century," Haile adds. "The Moore Foundation has recognized the urgency of the situation. With the foundation's generous support, we will explore radical new ways of addressing all parts of the energy cycle, its generation, its distribution, and its consumption—starting with the basic premise that sunlight provides the planet with more than ample energy to meet our global demands.

"In the fuel-cell portion of the work, we focus on efficient conversion of chemical energy to electricity. And by designing fuel cells that are not restricted to hydrogen as the fuel, we relax the requirement that the world develop a hydrogen storage and delivery infrastructure before the many benefits of fuel cells can be realized."

Atwater says that the Moore Foundation funding is a crucial beginning for the center that could encourage the energy sector to invest more heavily in research and development of alternative sources of energy.

"We hope the center will become a rallying point on campus for work on renewable-energy sources of many kinds," he says. "The solar-driven fuel cycle is our initial effort, but we'll become involved in other promising renewal-energy research opportunities as time goes on."

"I think the story over the next few years will be steady progress on the individual areas of research, guided by the long-term goal of integrating them all together."

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was established in 2000 and seeks to develop outcome-based projects that will improve the quality of life for future generations. It has organized the majority of its grant making around large-scale initiatives and concentrates funding in three program areas: environmental conservation, science, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Robert Tindol
Exclude from News Hub: