Alternative Energy: The Stone Age Did Not End From Lack of Stone

At a recent breakfast forum held at Midtown’s Yale Club, Professor David Cahen of the world-renowned Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel shared thoughts about the future of alternative energy and its role in global politics.

I had the pleasure of attending a breakfast meeting at the Yale Club in Midtown last week that featured Professor David Cahen of the world-renowned Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. The event was hosted by the real estate and finance consulting firm Schonbraun McCann Group and offered a handful of real estate industry leaders the opportunity to explore crucial applications of building green with Professor Cahen, who serves as both the head of the Materials and Interfaces Department at the Institute, as well as the Scientific Director of its Alternative and Sustainable Energy Research Initiative (“AERI”). The major objectives of AERI are to educate a new generation of scientists who will spearhead multidisciplinary research and provide scientific groundwork for future technologies that will lead to clean, affordable, and sustainable energy. I was invited to attend the event courtesy of Schein Media, New York House and MetroGreenBusiness.com.

Jahn Brodwin, the Managing Partner of Schonbraun McCann, introduced Dr. Cahen by observing how profoundly energy costs impact the world economy and international politics. He also noted that he strives to teach his children the three Rs- Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Dr. Cahen would later add Renewable as the fourth critical R. Next up was a short film about the Weizmann Institute called Back To Basics which stressed the importance of basic scientific research in developing scientific breakthroughs, specifically research not tied or directly related to the development and selling of commercial products.

The main thrust of Dr. Cahen’s lecture wasn’t specific discoveries or green building techniques, but the vital importance of how creative, non-commercial, multi-disciplinary scientific research will result in real products and commercial applications, though the timeframe for the development of such products is probably in the order of decades rather than years. With respect to the building industry, Dr. Cahen cited breakthroughs in solar energy, reinforced concrete, and plastics that resulted from non-commercial scientific research which ultimately provided huge benefits to building industry. For example, developments in reinforced concrete resulted from the observations of how human hair reacted in honey- an experiment that showed that the sum of parts is stronger than the whole. Cahen mentioned how breakthroughs in solar technology resulted by observing how electrons pass through molecules. He also noted how a revolution in plastics started in the 1950s because observations of a dirty flask used in an experiment indirectly led to the development of polyethylene.

Cahen went on to say that, since the early 1980s, very little basic research in alternative energy options has been done in the U.S., and that most countries throughout the world have actually given up on researching alternative energy options. He called for scientists to participate in the political process and demand that government aggressively address alternative energy research in collaboration with scientists throughout the world. The most important global effort right now? Conservation. Cahen pointed to England’s total waste of 1 gigawatt of the nation’s total 40 gigawatts of energy output.

Cahen told the audience that his “personal holy grail” is artificial photosynthesis. He imagines a future where paint itself could capture solar energy. Cahen also quoted a Saudi sheik who once quipped that “the stone age did not end from a lack of stone.” Regardless of whether there is sufficient oil left to fuel the world, we are not required to remain stuck in the oil age. Plenty of options exist if we would simply perform the research and sort out those options which are the most feasible.

Among many others who attended the event were Thomas Jost of ARUP, Emanuel Stern of Hartz Mountain, Alyson Toombs of Merrit Capital Investors LLC, John Hirschfeld of Hirschfeld Ventures LLC, Jon Braman of Good Energies Inc, as well as Elizabeth Kulik, Barry Barovick and Mark Rubin of Schonbraun McCann.

Erik Kaiser from Remi Companies came over to say hello while I was talking with Jonathan Kern, Global CIO of GE Real Estate. I recognized Mr. Kern from Greenbuild in Chicago when I saw him standing up on the stage at President Clinton’s opening plenary, where Mr. Clinton announced the Clinton Foundation’s initiative to work with GE Real Estate to green its global real estate portfolio.

With global warming and pollution at the forefront of worldwide concern, it is inspiring to know that scientists like Professor Cahen continue their path-breaking research programs in alternative energy. It’s also encouraging that real estate leaders such as those that I met at the Yale Club are making concerted efforts to improve conservation, decrease emissions, and ensure that science remains relevant to the future of the real estate industry.

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