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Posted: March 6, 2009

The role of science and technology in meeting America's energy, environmental and economic challenges

(Nanowerk News) Statement of Dr. George W. Crabtree, Senior Scientist, Associate Division Director and Distinguished Fellow, Materials Sciences Division, Argonne National Laboratory before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, March 5, 2009:
Chairman Bingaman, Ranking Member Murkowski, and members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the national discussion of the role of science and technology in meeting America's energy, environmental and economic challenges.
Let me begin by expressing my thanks to the members of the Senate present today and to Congress for their strong support of basic science and technology. Basic science and technology have given us remarkable innovations that have dramatically raised the quality of our personal lives, increased the productivity of our businesses, and created long term economic growth. However, the combined challenges of energy, environment and the economy that we face today are greater perhaps than at any time in the last six decades. They will require a new generation of inspirational breakthroughs from basic science to replace the economic recession with economic growth, to replace uncertain and costly imported oil with a secure and sustainable energy supply, and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that threaten global climate.
Congress has taken a bold step toward meeting these economic, energy and climate challenges with the recent passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Along with the pending FY09 Omnibus Appropriations Act, these acts have the power to transform science and technology into the vibrant and aggressive engines of change envisioned by the America COMPETES Act passed by Congress in 2007.
But such daunting goals cannot be achieved in a year. A sustained and aggressive investment in basic scientific research, manpower and infrastructure is needed, like that triggered by Sputnik or devoted to the Manhattan project. Today's combination of energy, environment and economic challenges is much greater than either of these landmark historical events.
Energy and Environmental Challenges
A single number captures the magnitude of the energy challenge: $700 billion/yr, the cost of imported oil at last summer's peak prices. That money is removed from the U.S. economy, where it cannot turn over and stimulate additional economic activity. Even at today's prices, imported oil will remove about $200 billion/yr from the U.S. economy, a significant drain on the economic recovery. Last year we imported nearly 60% of our oil, used primarily to power our cars and trucks. Imported oil has become the lifeblood of our transportation system, making us vulnerable to interruptions caused by natural disasters, terrorist acts or internal political decisions in producer countries. Our energy security requires markedly reducing this dependence on imported oil.
Carbon dioxide emissions are an equally serious threat. The evidence for global warming cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is unequivocal: rising average temperatures and sea levels, shrinking polar ice and snow cover in the northern hemisphere, and pole-ward migrations of animals and plants to maintain their preferred habitat. The U.S. is the second largest carbon dioxide emitter behind China, but we have remained remarkably passive in addressing this issue. We need to regain international leadership by tackling this global threat.
There is a transformative opportunity hidden in these challenges. Next-generation energy technologies not only solve our own energy and environmental problems, but also create a new export market of enormous capacity and enduring strength. The world's energy and environmental problems reflect our own – a reliance on uncertain imported oil and the threat of climate change. Meeting these global needs with next-generation technologies exported by U.S. companies generates long term economic growth that can protect the economy from stagnation or recession and reverse the drain of imported oil. Next-generation energy technologies will be developed – the question is whether the U.S. will be buying or selling them.
The Path Forward
The report New Science for a Secure and Sustainable Energy Future, issued recently by the Department of Energy's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, outlines the opportunities to address these challenges and recommends a path forward. We know what many of the next-generation sustainable energy technologies are: carbon capture and sequestration; high-efficiency coal and nuclear electricity; renewable solar, wind and geothermal power generation; solar fuels and biofuels; solid state lighting; energy storage for plug-in hybrid and battery electric cars, and high-temperature superconductivity for a 21st century electric grid. Many of these technologies have been proven in principle in the laboratory or in small scale demonstrations. Why have we not deployed them? The answer is remarkably simple and universal: the current versions of these technologies do not perform well enough to compete with conventional fossil energy technologies.
The performance roadblocks to next-generation sustainable technologies are extremely challenging – otherwise they would have been solved by the extensive research and development already devoted to the energy sector. Inexpensive catalysts ten times more active than platinum are needed for producing electricity in hydrogen fuel cells that operate without emitting pollutants or carbon dioxide. Electrodes that accept and release large quantities of lithium are needed for high energy density batteries to enable plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles. New superconductors that carry high current at low loss are needed for long-distance transmission of solar and wind electricity from remote generation sites to population centers.
The materials and chemistry that will overcome these performance roadblocks will be much more complex than those in use today. High-temperature superconductors contain four or five elements instead of the one or two of conventional superconductors. The best battery electrodes have intricately nanostructured surfaces that promote injection and release of lithium. The catalytic activity of platinum can be increased by a factor of ten, by altering its sub-surface composition in subtle and still unexplored ways. The lesson of the last ten years of materials and nanoscience research is clear: greater complexity enables higher performance.
The complexity demanded of next-generation materials is so great that conventional trial and error approaches to their discovery and development are failing. Edison gave us a wonderful model when he said “Genius is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration.” These words motivated the technology of his day – and described his remarkable success with the light bulb, the phonograph and the movie camera. The complexity of today's materials and chemistry, however, is much greater than in Edison's time. The number of possible variations is enormous. It is no longer possible to try one variation after another and eventually hit the jackpot. Instead, we need to raise the inspiration quotient. Instead of 2% inspiration we need at least 50% inspiration to dramatically reduce the perspiration of perfecting new energy technologies. This inspiration comes from basic science. We need to understand why and how materials do what they do, at nanoscale dimensions and ultrafast time scales beyond the reach of the human eye. The basic science of how and why materials behave as they do is the inspiration for developing new materials and chemistries that will change the performance equation of sustainable energy.
The Basic Science Solutions
What are the basic science challenges we need to solve for next-generation energy technologies? They are laid out with remarkable clarity and detail in the twelve Basic Research Needs Workshop reports that are summarized by the “ New Science ” report. Each of these workshops selected a sustainable energy challenge such as electrical energy storage, solar energy, advanced nuclear power, superconductivity, solid state lighting, or catalysts for energy. Each workshop then convened a group of 100 or more experts drawn from universities, national laboratories, industry and foreign countries to identify the materials and chemistry challenges in the selected field and the promising research directions to overcome them. These workshops and reports are textbooks for next-generation sustainable energy technologies. They provide the roadmap for investments in inspirational basic science that will change the energy game.
The importance of basic science inspiration for next-generation sustainable energy technologies cannot be overemphasized. History has shown that breakthrough materials and chemistries, once found, are quickly snatched up by entrepreneurs looking for a competitive opportunity. The laser, digital electronics, and fiber optics communication are all examples of materials advances spawning new technologies. These technologies flowed from basic research. Try to imagine, for example, the information revolution based on vacuum tubes.
In the rush to do something about the daunting problems of imported oil and carbon dioxide, we often emulate Edison's emphasis on perspiration – redoubling our efforts on technologies based on existing materials and chemistry. These efforts often improve technologies incrementally, but just as often they miss the opportunity for game-changing breakthroughs to an entirely new material or chemistry that dwarfs the old approaches. The big solutions come from high risk-high payoff basic science on new materials and chemistries – catalysts for fuel cells, electrode materials for batteries, superconductors for electricity transmission. These basic science inspirations are the tipping points that create the next-generation energy technologies that will replace imported oil, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and grow us out of the recession. To have the biggest effect, we must go after the biggest challenges, and that means investing in basic science.
Energy Frontier Research Centers
The Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC) proposed by the DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences are a model for promoting inspiration. These centers will create “dream teams” of the best scientists, working with the best tools and focused on the most important problems outlined in the Basic Research Needs Workshops and the “New Science” report. The EFRCs are basic science inspiration machines, examining how complex materials and chemistry work at nanometer length scales and ultrafast time scales. The scientific knowledge and understanding they generate will be the basis for overcoming the materials and chemistry roadblocks to next-generation sustainable energy technologies.
The scientific community has responded enthusiastically to the concept and opportunity of EFRCs. The Office of Basic Energy Sciences has received approximately 260 proposals representing 3800 senior investigators from 385 research institutions in 41 states and the District of Columbia. The proposals reflect an unusually high degree of interdisciplinary cooperation - the average proposal has nearly 15 senior investigators from 4.8 institutions. The EFRCs will deliver the “dream teams” needed to overcome the challenging performance roadblocks to next-generation sustainable energy technologies.
The Department of Energy must do more than establish “dream teams” and EFRCs. It must recruit the next-generation of talented early career scientists and inspire them to become tomorrow's energy innovators. The challenges we face – dependence on imported oil, carbon dioxide emissions that accelerate global warming, and growing ourselves out of the recession – are the biggest we have faced in six decades. The solution will require basic science inspiration on a grand scale – and a new generation of energy scientists to achieve it.
Thank you again for the opportunity to provide this testimony and I will be pleased to answer any questions.
Source: Argonne National Laboratory