Carlo Rubbia is one of three winners of the 2020 Global Energy Prize. The 39 million rouble (470 000 Swiss francs) award, announced on 8 September in Kaluga, Russia, by the Global Energy Association, cites the former CERN Director-General for the promotion of sustainable nuclear energy use and natural-gas pyrolysis.

A renowned particle physicist, Carlo Rubbia is widely known as the winner, alongside Simon van der Meer, of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics, for turning the Super Proton Synchrotron into a particle collider and using it to discover the W and Z bosons. He was appointed Director-General of CERN in 1989 in the crucial period leading up to the presentation of the Large Hadron Collider project proposal to the CERN Council in 1993.

The same year, Rubbia proposed the “energy amplifier”, which employs a particle accelerator to generate the neutrons needed to drive a nuclear reactor. Such technology promises the production of energy under sub-critical reactor conditions using thorium, with minimal if any long-lived nuclear waste compared to uranium fuels. In more recent years, he has been an advocate for using natural gas as the main source of energy worldwide, based on new CO2-free technologies.

“You have either energy from atoms or energy from nuclei,” said Rubbia on accepting the award via videoconference. “Energy from atoms is certainly the easiest thing to do … and natural gas is clean and can be used in such a way that the CO2 emissions are under control or eliminated. And you can go on until such a time as you will develop an appropriate form of nuclear, which eventually will come, but will not be the nuclear of today.” 

Rubbia won in the “conventional energy” category of the 2020 prize. Peidong Yang (University of California, Berkeley) topped the “non-conventional energy” category for his pioneering work in nanoparticle-based solar cell and artificial photosynthesis, and Nikolaos Hatziargyriou (University of Athens) won in the “new ways of energy application” category for using artificial intelligence to improve the stability of power grids.

There have been 42 winners of the annual prize, with 78 scientists from 20 countries put forward this year. Previous winners include another former CERN Director-General, Robert Aymar, who was recognised in 2006 for work to develop the scientific and engineering foundation of the ITER project, which seeks to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion as an energy source.

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