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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. The U.S. currently consumes about 3.5 terawatts of power on a continual basis — think 35 billion 100-watt light bulbs burning constantly, or the output of 3,500 coal-burning power plants. And U.S. demand for energy will continue to increase, upwards of 50 percent for electricity alone by the year 2030. Science can meet this daunting challenge — not by making incremental improvements in existing technologies, but through fundamental, game-changing approaches fueled by an investment in basic research.
Right now, we derive the bulk of the energy we use from oil, gasoline, coal, and natural gas — non-renewable fossil fuels that, when burned, add carbon to Earth’s atmosphere. Levels of human activity-generated carbon dioxide (CO2) going into the atmosphere are at an all-time high, and CO2 is the main “greenhouse gas” associated with climate change. In addition, our current dependence on fossil fuels results in our reliance on imports, a portion of which come from increasingly unstable parts of the world.
It’s crucial that we continue to develop new, renewable sources of energy, especially for high-demand applications like transportation and electricity generation. Most existing technologies for transportation rely on products derived from petroleum. For electricity, we burn more than a billion tons of coal each year. To build a foundation for the 21st century and beyond, we clearly need replacements for these 19th century technologies — renewable replacements like solar, wind, hydro, or biofuels/biomass, among others.
The primary reason we use so much energy is the inherent inefficiency of our existing systems. In converting our current energy sources to their many end uses — to power our cars, support industry, and light and heat our homes and businesses — more than half of the original energy is completely lost. In a time of dwindling supplies and rising costs, such inefficiencies are unacceptable.
Research conducted at national labs like Brookhaven is leading to advances that can transcend the limitations of current technologies and may enable completely new and vastly more efficient energy systems.
Last Modified: November 6, 2009