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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Steven Chu, U. S. Energy Secretary, Advocates “Sputnik” Level Support for Energy R&D

Introduction.  On Nov. 29, 2010 U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu addressed the National Press Club   on implementing new programs to create domestic U. S. industries in the fields of alternative and sustainable energy.   He recognized a need for major federal support for research and development in this area, likening the present situation to the time when, after the first Soviet Sputnik was launched, President Eisenhower instituted massive new federal programs in education, training and research in the sciences, mathematics and technology.  In the present environment, Secretary Chu sees China as fulfilling the role in energy technology that the Soviet Union played with respect to space technology.  In both instances, the U. S. had ceded global leadership to the adversary.  Presently this requires major federal support to regain the U. S. initiative in alternative energy development.

Global Warming Is Proceeding More Rapidly, and with More Serious Consequences, Than Previously Thought.  In previous posts on this blog (see and we have discussed current analyses of global warming arising from man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  For example, the United Kingdom National Weather Service  found that greenhouse gas emissions are proceeding at an even higher rate than was thought only a few years earlier.  It predicts that the global average temperature could be 4 deg C (7 deg F) higher than today (note: 4.7 deg C higher than preindustrial revolution times) by 2100, using a “high-end emissions scenario”. 

These results are in broad agreement with predictions made in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations consortium of thousands of climate scientists from around the world.

The International Energy Agency released its World Energy Outlook 2010 in November 2010.  The Outlook analyzes the commitments that nations of the world made at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference.  It finds that those measures are inadequate to restrict greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to keep the global average temperature within Copenhagen goal of 2 deg C above the temperature that prevailed in the pre-industrial revolution period.

In general, analyses such as these propose the need for a massive, immediate effort by the worldwide community significantly to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century.  Only in this way can the worst consequences of global warming on the planet be avoided, according to these scientific projections.

Secretary Chu Proposes That a “Sputnik” Moment in Energy Race Is Upon Us.  Secretary Chu, in his speech  proposes large expenditures in alternative energy research and development (R&D) to make up for the lead that China currently holds in this regard.  Dr. Chu, rather than basing the need for new programs in alternative energy on various dire predictions of excessive global warming such as those summarized above, stresses the need for the U. S. to regain leadership in technological innovation as the underlying reason for R&D programs in alterative and sustainable energy.  Basing this view on theories of economic development, he states that science and technology R&D form the basis for innovation.  This “Sputnik” moment must be seized to restore U. S. primacy in innovation, which has migrated in recent years to China and other countries in the world.  He states that, according to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” in 2010, U. S. “competitiveness … has … deteriorated” in the last five years.  This is illustrated in the following graphic:
Source: Note that the marks along the horizontal axis denote years, with the digits written from bottom to top and overlapping with each other, at each position.

© 2010 Henry Auer

It is seen that since about 2000, the U. S. share of global exports has declined (blue line), whereas China’s share has significantly increased (green line).  China is dedicated to developing a major portion of its energy and transportation economy with alternative energy sources that avoid the burning of fossil fuels which produce greenhouse gases.  It is already well along such a path, with major expansions of efficient electric transmission lines, nuclear energy plant construction, high speed rail systems, and renewable energy installations, for example.

U. S. Energy R&D Funding is Miniscule.  In view of the leading role of China in the world energy economy, Dr. Chu finds it is critical for U. S. economic competitiveness to provide federal funding for innovative energy R&D.  Yet, as of 2010, energy R&D represents only 0.14% of the federal budget.  Characterized more broadly, in 2007 energy R&D, both government supported and industrial, represented only 0.3% of sales, while that for computers and electronics was 7.5%, and that for pharmaceuticals was 18.7%. 

The U. S. Department of Energy Is Funding Innovative R&D Among Diverse Projects.  Only the federal government can provide the requisite support for innovation R&D in the energy sector.  The benefits of such funding include first, that the results of such support would benefit all of society, and so the research is a legitimate governmental activity; and second, that because of the high risks involved, it is unreasonable and unlikely that corporate R&D would/could support such projects.

Currently the Department of Energy (DOE) is undertaking several projects using a short-term increase in funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus” act).  This funding endures for only a few years; it is hoped that it will be extended and expanded for the long term.  The following projects are examples of innovation “hubs” now being developed with the DOE and other sources, including many that support private or nonprofit R&D:

Affordable electric vehicle batteries with a 500-mile range.
Supporting research at Arizona State University, this project is directed toward using oxygen in the air, a metal such as lithium, and a molten salt electrolyte instead of a water-based solvent.  This permits operating at a much higher temperature and bases the charge-discharge cycle on the oxygen and the metal.

Transformative approaches to lowering the cost of bio-fuels.
Working with scientists at the California Institute of Technology, this project seeks to develop an artificial system that mimics the photosynthesis of green plants.  This would provide the carbohydrates (sugar-like molecules) made in green plants by absorbing the greenhouse gas CO2 from the air. (The carbohydrates can then be processed to bio-fuels.)

Abundant, domestic fuel produced directly from the sun. This research is aimed at providing a solar-fuels generator that provides fuels directly from sunlight with very high efficiency.

Other projects include
• Solar photovoltaic energy (solar panels) at 1/4th the fully installed cost.
• Dramatically reduce carbon capture and storage (CCS) costs.
• Design by computer simulation that will eliminate costly development cycles requiring physical construction of pilot concepts.

Conclusion:  Secretary Chu envisions the present era as being another “Sputnik” moment.  When the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik the U. S. responded with a massive, decades-long program to foster science and technology development leading to the U. S. space program that is now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  This program included the promotion of education and training in science and engineering, as well as the myriad of technological developments required to sustain space exploration and space travel.

Similarly, Hoffert (Science 2010 Vol. 329, p. 1292-4; see Note 1; discussed in a previous blog), in analyzing the inadequacy of current strategies for addressing global warming, has stated that our present status requires “programs with the scale and urgency of the Manhattan atom bomb project. One goal should be to develop technologies that can … eventually provide [the required] power by mid-century…from ‘clean coal’ and from nuclear and renewable technologies.”

Whether characterized as a Manhattan Project or a Sputnik response program, it is important to recognize that nothing short of major long-term public financing, coupled with venture funding in the private realm, is needed to stem the inexorable accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus mitigating their effects on the global environment.  Funding support of this magnitude is readily achieved in a command economy such as is currently operating in China.  It is far more difficult, but no less critical, to implement in a representative democracy such as the United States.

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Note 1. Abstract available online free, or the full article for a fee or through personal or institutional subscription.  Many public libraries, and university libraries open to the public, receive the journal.

© 2010 Henry Auer

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