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Basic Research for Global Energy Security: A Call to Action

Date: Friday, February 13, 2009, 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Location: Hyatt Regency Chicago, Grand F

Sustainable energy future report
Download "New Science for a Secure and Sustainable Energy Future" (PDF)

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 demand for energy is only expected to grow -- upwards of 50 percent for electricity alone by the year 2030.

Basic research conducted at universities, national labs, and in industry is leading to game-changing breakthroughs that transcend the limitations of current technologies and may enable completely new and vastly more efficient energy systems. Scientists are also working to design and engineer technological improvements to optimize efficiency and performance across the energy spectrum to meet this crucial challenge.

This symposium will bring together leaders in the field to present new findings on identifying and advancing renewable, sustainable sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydro, and biofuels/biomass. Speakers will discuss innovations in producing, converting, transmitting, storing, and using energy, and explain how basic research — particularly in the emerging field of nanoscience — is enabling advances in catalysis, superconductivity, artificial photosynthesis, and other areas.

Moderator: James Misewich, Brookhaven National Laboratory

Basic Energy Research Opportunities in Solar Energy Utilization

Nathan Lewis, California Institute of Technology

Advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology are enabling dramatic improvements in our ability to find cost-effective uses for solar energy. This talk will cover the three primary approaches to solar energy utilization -- solar electricity, solar fuel, and solar thermal technologies – and describe how technology bottlenecks and hurdles for each are being addressed through nanoscience and nanotech advances. The ability to orient matter on the nanoscale has led to new physics of charge-carrier collection in solids for solar energy conversion to electricity, and the promise of cheap paintable solar cells. The ability to mimic nature is leading to artificial photosynthetic systems that make fuel directly from the sun with efficiencies equal to or greater than that of plants and bacteria. Finally, effective use of different wavelengths of the solar spectrum in high efficiency solar cells and thermoelectrics is making possible significant advances in the efficiency of solar thermal systems.

Nanoscale Materials for Solar Fuel Generation

Paul Alivisatos, University of California

Over the past two years, a broad coalition of Berkeley scientists has planned a concerted effort to develop artificial nanoscale materials that could be used to store the energy of sunlight in a transportable fuel. Planned activities include the development of nanoscale photovoltaics, new electrochemical systems, and molecular and nanoparticle catalysts. Those diverse components would be integrated into photochemically active membranes. This talk will describe potential advantages and the many difficulties that must be overcome to enable future-generation artificial photosynthesis solar cells using nanoscale materials. Nanoscale systems could possibly be manufactured economically on an enormous scale, and could allow us to harness new physics in dimensionally controlled systems to reduce energy dissipation. Yet, nanoscale systems have high surface areas with many potential trap sites, and present difficulties for spatially organizing chemical and electrical transport pathways.

Needs and Opportunities in Basic Research for Electrical Energy Storage

Yet-Ming Chiang, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The talk will first give an overview of the key metrics that electrical energy storage technologies must meet to have widespread impact on transportation and grid stabilization applications, such as energy and power density, safety, life, environmental impact, and cost/performance metrics. The state-of-the-art in electrochemical energy storage, including the development of nanomaterials-based batteries, and the near-term technologies it has or will soon enable, such as hybrid electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, will be discussed. The basic research origins of these recent technologies will be emphasized, as will future needs, such as batteries that have high enough energy density and low enough cost to enable a 200-mile range EV, or large storage systems with low enough cost-per-watt-hour over the system lifetime for load-leveling applications. Basic research directions likely to result in game-changing storage technologies for this and other applications will be suggested.

Superconductivity: Challenges and Opportunities for Our Energy Future

John Sarrao, Los Alamos National Laboratory

While the electric grid is a triumph of 20th century engineering, it is not capable of addressing the capacity, reliability, power quality, and efficiency challenges of the future. Superconductivity is ready to meet this challenge. The first steps are within reach with the recent deployment of high-Tc superconducting cable on the grid, but full transformational breakthroughs require fundamental basic research. To realize this potential, we need to achieve a paradigm shift from materials by serendipity to materials by design in discovering the next generation of superconducting materials. We also need to predict and control the emergent behavior of vortex matter that underpins current-carrying capacity. The building blocks of superconductors -- Cooper pairs of electrons and magnetic vortices – embody nanoscience. Fortunately, the theoretical and experimental tools to advance the frontiers of superconductivity research are at hand, so we are poised for success.

Nuclear Breeder Reactors and Sustainability

Vallampadugai Arunachalam, Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy

All presently operating nuclear reactors generating electric power are thermal reactors that use natural uranium or lightly enriched uranium compounds as fuel. The available reserves of uranium are limited to generating about 200 terawatts/year. On the other hand, plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear fission in a reactor, is also a fissionable material and can be a fuel for reactors, needing no slowing down of neutrons for a chain reaction to continue. If plutonium and uranium-233, a by-product of thorium under irradiation, are used as reactor fuel, then the amount of electricity that can be generated from nuclear power is extended substantially. This presentation will discuss the technological and economic viability of such breeders as well as their compatibility under nuclear nonproliferation regimes.

Addressing the Global Energy Challenge: Energy Conversion Using Nanoscale Materials

George Crabtree, Argonne National Laboratory

The expected doubling of global energy demand by 2050 challenges our traditional patterns of energy production, distribution, and use. The continued use of fossil fuels raises concerns about supply and security, and the effects on our environment and climate. New routes are needed for the efficient conversion of energy from chemical fuel, sunlight, and heat to electricity or hydrogen as an energy carrier and finally to end uses like transportation, lighting, and heating. Opportunities for efficient new energy conversion routes based on nanoscale materials will be presented, with emphasis on the sustainable energy technologies they enable.

Discussant: Michelle Buchanan, Oak Ridge National Laboratory


Visit our Anniversary Website One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York on behalf of Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization.

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