Public Lecture: Quantum Mechanics and the Future of the Planet

Emily Carter
Princeton University

An alarming milestone was reached this past spring: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm for the first time in human history. The reason is clear: humans have been burning fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate and those carbon-based, non-renewable fuels are producing the CO2 that in turn warms the earth and causes climate change. About seven years ago, when the CO2 atmospheric concentration was “only” 380 ppm – way above the pre-industrial revolution historical average of ~280 ppm – I began a deliberate re-orientation of all of my research to do whatever I could to help move the planet onto a sustainable energy path. How? And what does quantum mechanics have to do with the future of the planet? The foundational theory behind of all my research is quantum mechanics, which accounts for the fundamental physics governing the energy and spatial distributions of electrons in matter. I develop mathematical and physical approximations to the Schrödinger wave equation (SWE), whose eigenvalues and eigenfunctions delineate the distribution of electrons in energy and space, respectively. The SWE cannot be solved exactly except in the limit of a single electron; hence the need for approximations that still contain the essential physics of the phenomenon or matter under investigation. I will touch on such approximations but will primarily give examples of how these powerful methods can be used to study systems that aim to render sustainable energy a reality: from biodiesel fuel combustion to solar energy conversion to electricity and fuels to fuel cells to fusion reactors. I aim to give you a taste of what is possible, given proper attention and investment, for the future of the planet.

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