APS News

Panel Pushes More Investment in Energy Research

By Michael Lucibella

An advisory committee to the Department of Energy has called upon both the private and public sectors to increase investment in advanced energy research. Constituted as a subcommittee of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC), the group put forward a series of recommendations to help curtail global warming and manage the nation’s energy needs at a February press conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

At the press conference, a panel consisting of the BESAC chair and the two co-chairs of the subcommittee (all 3 of them APS Fellows) called for greater use of green energy technologies that would curb carbon dioxide emissions and use more renewable energy sources. Widespread use of these technologies has been hampered because their current capabilities lag far behind the country’s needs. Technologies such as solar power, carbon sequestration and superconducting electrical wires have shown promise in labs, but have not yet been fully developed for large scale commercial use.

“Virtually all of the potentially revolutionary technologies in the energy and environment area have what we call scientific roadblocks,” said BESAC chair John Hemminger of the University of California-Irvine, “Areas where we just don’t understand how nature works.”

The report, “New Science for a Secure and Sustainable Energy Future” recommended that the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Science Advisory Committee create research “dream teams” of the nation’s top scientific minds to hasten the pace of discovery. These teams would spearhead research in the cutting edge of energy technology to help protect US national and economic security.

“Someone over the next ten to fifteen, twenty years is going to invent new energy technology. If that is us, we’re going to be selling that to the world. If that is China or Japan or Europe, we’re going to be buying that from them,” Hemminger said.

The panel also called for greater financial investment in research and development, pointing to declining levels over the last two decades. In 1989 the US federal government invested on average 10% of its research budget in energy issues compared to only 2% today. In the private sector, the energy industry reinvests on average 0.23% of its revenue to research, compared to 3.3% in the auto industry and 16% in the semiconductor industry.

The panel highlighted four areas that need technical breakthroughs in basic science in order to be commercially viable. These projected breakthroughs would allow for more efficient energy generation and transmission while reducing pollution at the same time.

The process of transferring electricity loses between 8% and 10% percent of its energy to heat alone. In addition, the national power grid is already near full capacity and suffers from some of the worst power outages in the developed world, costing the national economy nearly $80 billion a year. Proposed smart grid systems and high temperature superconducting power lines could go a long way to alleviate these problems. However the superconductor’s cooling costs have been prohibitive, since they can only operate at temperatures up to 138 Kelvin so far.

“There are revolutionary solutions; breakthrough solutions that would bring the performance of the grid to a new level,” said George Crabtree of the University of Chicago.

Carbon capture and sequestration is another field of intense research aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide from coal plants would be trapped and condensed into a liquid form, then buried underground. Already coal plants are being built to be sequestration compatible; however it’s unclear exactly what happens to the carbon dioxide after being buried.

“Unfortunately if you look at these methods, they all raise questions. First of all can you really inject CO2?” said Marc Kastner of MIT, “And once you put it there, will it stay there?”

Solar cells and improved electric car batteries are the other areas the panel highlighted for increased research. Both would likely benefit from advances in new materials sciences and nanotechnology.

The report calls for fast and expansive action. Prompted by concerns about depleting fossil fuel reserves and increased greenhouse gas emissions, the presenters emphasized that a multidisciplinary approach would be needed to confront the nation’s energy issues.

“If you want to stabilize CO2 emissions, you’re not going to be able to do it with one technology, there’s no magic bullet,” Kastner said, “You’re going to have to introduce a whole bunch of technologies each of which will reduce the CO2 emissions by some amount.”

In addition to the dream teams working on these problems, the panel called for greater recruitment of students and young researchers to help address each issue. Programs such as incentives and career awards could be used to bring in the next generation of energy scientists.

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