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Basic Research for Energy Security

Our nation faces a grand challenge: finding alternatives to fossil fuels and improving energy efficiency to meet our exponentially growing energy needs over the next century and beyond.

by Peter Genzer

Energy research at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials

The Role of Basic Science

Recent advances in the scientific tools available to researchers have set the stage for fundamental discoveries in the energy arena. These tools themselves are often the result of basic research.  More...

The U.S. currently consumes about 3.5 terawatts of energy on a continual basis — think 35 billion 100-watt light bulbs burning constantly, or the output of 3,500 coal-burning power plants. Right now, we derive the bulk of that energy from oil, gasoline, coal, and natural gas — non-renewable fossil fuels that, when burned, add carbon to Earth’s atmosphere. Levels of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) going into the atmosphere are currently at an all-time high, and CO2 is the main “greenhouse gas” associated with climate change.

U.S. demand for energy is only expected to grow — upwards of 50 percent for electricity alone by the year 2030. To meet this ever-increasing demand, we need breakthrough solutions. Science can meet the daunting challenges of our energy future through fundamental, game-changing approaches that require long-term investment in basic research. By investing in this long-term approach, today’s scientists and policymakers can ensure that our nation’s ever-growing energy needs are met.

Basic research conducted at national labs like Brookhaven, at universities, and in industry is leading to advances that transcend the limitations of current technologies and may enable completely new and vastly more efficient energy systems.

Production

Constantly growing demand for energy and its inefficient utilization are the driving forces behind the energy issues facing the nation today. Currently, our largest energy demands are for transportation and electricity. Most existing technologies for the former rely on products derived from petroleum. For electricity, we burn close to a billion tons of coal each year. To build a foundation for our future in the 21st century and beyond, we clearly need replacements for these 19th century technologies.

Scientists across the country are focused on identifying and advancing renewable, sustainable sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydro, and biofuels/biomass. Practically speaking, less than 0.02 percent of energy in the U.S. currently comes from solar cells, but new scientific advances could help improve efficiencies and drive costs down.

Scientists have long sought to improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and find new ways to use the sun to produce power. Some interesting possibilities growing out of basic research include:

Semiconductor-based photovoltaic (PV) cells employing nanostructured “quantum dots” that have different properties than the bulk semiconductors currently used in PV applications.

New, inexpensive nanocatalysts for “artificial photosynthesis” systems that use the sun’s light to split water and cheaply produce hydrogen for various energy applications.

Materials for use in solar thermochemical systems, which use large focusing mirrors to harness and concentrate the sun’s rays, providing input for chemical reactions that need heat.