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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

Energy, the Essential Resource: Crafting its Benign Future
Conference on Scientific Challenges for Energy Research
OECD Global Science Forum
Paris, France
May 17, 2006

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Title Slide]
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Good morning to everyone. I'm honored to join you today in this historic setting, as we discuss one of the most urgent and pervasive challenges of the 21st Century.

Energy, in all its guises, presents us with a major dilemma. It has already been said that energy is a means, not an end. It brings us food, light, heat, mobility, processes and products -- in short, energy adds to our quality of life and prosperity. And yet, to add further emphasis, our energy systems and sources are not sustainable.

Over the next two days you will hear experts discuss the scientific and technological opportunities and roadblocks that shape our ability to make progress in moving beyond our current energy systems. So I intend to focus my comments on an overarching framework that may be helpful for the discussions that follow. I've titled my remarks "Energy, the Essential Resource: Crafting its Benign Future" because I want to emphasize two critical points as we discuss the role of science and technology.

[Slide #2: Yellowstone National Park (from slide show of fuel resources and energy technologies]
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First, by a "benign" future I mean one in which our actions as a global community are sustainable. Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen has coined the phrase "Anthropocene Age"1 to describe the present day as the first geological era in which human actions have resulted in impacts on our environment that are planetary in scale.

One aspect of sustainability is that we should meet the needs of our own times without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.2 Most projections see world population growing from the current six billion to at least nine billion by about 2050, and many of those six billion are without reliable energy supplies today. Many energy researchers project that our current energy consumption burn rate of 12.8 TeraWatts will increase to 28 TeraWatts or more by 20503. Our current resources, in the broadest sense, are unlikely to fill the bill.

We can quibble over the meaning of "sustainable," which as yet has no precise and universally accepted definition. But that is as it should be. When concepts as complex and innovative as "sustainability" are still emerging, we need to practice a kind of "constructive ambiguity" that gives us the flexibility to incorporate new knowledge and perceptions about the issues as they arise. In that way, we can make course corrections along the way, adapt to changing circumstances, and incorporate new knowledge. This is a subtle skill we must learn to develop in a world now besieged by fast-paced transformation.

My second point hinges on the phrase "Crafting our future." I am an engineer by training, so I am accustomed to thinking of challenges in terms of design. Crafting a solution means designing one that is feasible, optimal, meets physical and economic constraints, but also acknowledges requirements for safety, environment, and health. No responsible engineer intentionally builds defects and dangers into products and processes. As we look for solutions to our energy dilemma, it is our own future we are designing -- so we need to be good engineers and stewards of the planet. In today's climate of high-velocity change and super-heated expectations, we need to acknowledge the constraints that sustainability puts on our solutions. The solutions, however, are squarely in our court.4

Advances in science and engineering can help. To a large extent, 21st-century civilization is still running on 19th-century energy technologies -- most notably, combustion of fossil fuels. And humanity is still practicing a social paradigm unchanged in 100,000 years, that of burying or burning its copious wastes. Only a very small percentage of products are made on the premise that it is better to prevent waste than to clean it up once it is formed -- a basic principle of "Green Chemistry." The production of a typical 2 gram computer chip requires about 1.7 kilograms of chemical inputs.

Although the role of research in sustainable development is broadening, it must be given even higher priority in our search for solutions to our energy needs. Fuel cells, photovoltaic devices, biologically produced fuels and superconducting materials are only in preliminary stages of development, and they are merely the early generations of their kind. Fundamental research is needed to improve performance and identify new methods of storing and transporting energy.

At the same time, investigators must devise much more efficient and benign forms of manufacturing, recycling and disposal, while discovering or creating new materials that blur the distinction between organic and inorganic, combining the characteristics of metals, films, polymers and ceramics.

Promoting such fundamental research is the principal focus of my current balliwick as Director of the United States National Science Foundation, so I am speaking today from that perspective.

NSF has a unique role within a broader US research and development enterprise. Our task is to search out the most promising fundamental research at the frontiers of discovery. I call this "dogging" the frontier. It is imperative to continually push the frontier forward, because it is generally beyond the frontier that new, revolutionary ideas and concepts can be found. These are the ideas and concepts that can dramatically change our lives, spawn innovative technologies, or solve major dilemmas that challenge our societies. They can help us solve our energy dilemma.

[Slide #3: Oregon Wave Park]
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Our energy research projects branch in many directions -- from the examination of chemical catalysts and molecular transformation to innovative studies of wave energy like the one you see here.

[Slide #4: Nathan Lewis, Photoelectrochemical Cell]
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They include novel ideas of producing hydrogen from algae or wastewater. And they address fundamental investigations of electron transport, and studies of surface chemistry that could help us along the path to efficient solar energy production.

Fundamental research is already propelling us down a positive path. The very conduct of science is changing in ways that make our prospects for the future brighter than they were only a decade ago.

Several features of the current research environment are particularly promising. I'll mention four, and provide examples to illustrate them.

[Slide #5: Promising Features of the Current Research Environment ]
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They are:

  • Innovative partnerships
  • Cyberinfrastructure
  • Complex systems
  • Nanoscale science and engineering

Let me start with innovative partnerships.

[Slide #6: Cellulase/cellulose Visualization]
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The NSF-supported San Diego Supercomputing Center has launched a new program called the Strategic Applications Collaboration (SAC). The aim is to bring together resources in high performance computing with researcher teams to enable new science on relatively short timescales of three to 12 months.

A team of researchers is using high-performance computer simulation and Teragrid resources to investigate the molecular dynamics of the enzyme cellulase, used as a catalyst in the conversion of biomass into ethanol. One of the barriers in making the biomass-to-fuel conversion process more efficient is the slow rate and high cost of breaking down cellulose. Understanding the dynamics of this reaction at the molecular level will provide researchers a window on how to make it more cost effective. The key is to discover ways the enzyme can be altered through genetic engineering.

Not only are the simulations the first to simultaneously model the cellulase enzyme, cellulose substrate, and surrounding water, they are among the largest molecular systems ever modeled. The cellulose model includes over 800,000 atoms—an enormous structure to model computationally.

A key to this work is the community code called CHARMM, which researchers reengineered to run on the gigantic DataStar Computer (recently expanded to 15.6 teraflops), the TeraGrid at (4.4 teraflops), and the BlueGene Computer at (5.7 teraflops).

This is an innovative paradigm that could be a partnership model for jumpstarting research or eliminating bottlenecks at critical junctures. We should be looking at ways to develop such strategic collaborations using distributed international resources.

Let's examine cyberinfrastructure further.

[Slide #7: Cyberinfrastructure]
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Information and communications technologies have enabled us to scan research frontiers at velocities that are orders of magnitude faster than ever before. These tools are not simply faster -- they are also fundamentally superior. They have raised the level of complexity we can understand and harness. That capability is growing at a breathtaking pace. Just consider two revolutionary innovations in our toolkit: computer simulation and modeling. Cyberinfrastructure will take research and education to an entirely new plane of discovery. If we combine new capabilities in information and communications with sensors and satellites, and improved visualization and simulation tools, databases and networks, we will leave our familiar landscapes in the dust.

The simulation of cellulase I mentioned previously is one example of the power of cyberinfrastructure utilizing high performance computing and grid architectures. Cyberinfrastructure tools offer a panoply of applications that take us into new realms.

[Slide #8: OOI, NEON Collage]
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New large-scale observatories are now within our reach. These distributed networks of instruments, sensors, and satellites will, for the first time, allow us to monitor the impact of humans on the environment on a grand scale. The Ocean Observatory Initiative and the planned National Ecological Observatory Network are two examples. Eventually such networks will span the world and provide shared data and models on a planetary scale.

This brings me to complex systems.

[Slide #9: Fluid Dynamics of Water Strider]
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The investigation of complex systems plays an increasingly important role in current research. Two strands combine to paint a more detailed, and yet vaster picture of phenomena. One thread comes through the science of complexity. It recognizes that self-organization and "chaotic" or nonlinear phenomena may be more prevalent, and more important, than previously realized in fields ranging from climate studies to social behavior to fluid dynamics and biodiversity.

The other is the growing ability to detect, record, and analyze the complicated interplay of numerous covariables in large systems, whether ecological, social, engineered—or a combination of these. These complex systems can display emergent behavior, and in these systems, analysis of the parts does not necessarily explain the behavior of the whole.

The Investigations of complex systems -- natural or engineered -- can help us explain and predict their behavior. That, in turn, gives us more policy options for management and control. The wisdom of Einstein applies here. "Make things as simple as possible," he said, "but no simpler." That wisdom ought to tell us that energy systems cannot be considered in isolation from other systems and resources. Water is an obvious example. In the US, about 39 percent of fresh water we consume is used to cool power plants. That's about equal to the amount required for agriculture.

In order to achieve drastic cost reductions in alternative fuel technologies, we need to employ integrated systems research. That means resolving not just the technical challenges of production, storage, and distribution, but also the economic, social and political dimensions of moving to an economy built on alternative fuels.

[Slide #10: Collage: Traffic Jam, Gas Pump, Biofuels]
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Consider what a systems approach would be like if we use it to investigate the use of materials in transportation fuels. We would like to know, from a life cycle perspective, the tradeoffs involved in using alternative fuels. Sensible selection among these options requires an understanding of their technical, economic, environmental and social implications. This is a challenging task. There are complex supply and delivery networks for these materials, and many alternative raw materials and manufacturing pathways. There is great variety in their emissions and their impacts on humans and the environment. As yet, we have little understanding of the effects that economic factors and social preferences will have on their adoption.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Ohio State University, funded by the NSF BE/MUSES program, is developing a statistical framework for assessing gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen fuels that encompasses all these elements. This statistically enhanced lifecycle framework should assist decision makers in evaluating the impact of industrial activities on the economy and ecosystems, and the effect of government policies on industry. The researchers have established international collaborations to extend the research to other countries.

Another team at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is gearing up to look at similar issues related to automobiles. Among the largest flow of materials in modern societies are those associated with the demand for automobiles. This demand also accounts for a significant portion of greenhouse gases and hazardous air emissions. By integrating a lifecycle framework with data on industry decision-making and consumer preferences, the team aims to develop methods to predict the consequences of proposed public policies on materials flows and life cycle environmental emissions.

Let me now conclude with nanoscale science and engineering.

[Slide #11: Electron Flow]
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I include nanoscale science and engineering on my list of changes in the conduct of science because it has the potential to redesign and revolutionize every field and discipline of science and engineering. "Nano" denotes the very small in scale, but there is nothing diminutive about the expectations generated by nanotech -- the application of fundamental research at the nanoscale.

Nano has been called a "general purpose technology" to capture the expectation that -- like electricity -- nanotechnology will forge and reconfigure a wide range of technologies touching most sectors of the economy. Nanoscience and engineering already give us the capability to design and build materials one atom or molecule at a time. At the nano scale, ordinary matter often displays surprising properties that could be exploited to make materials that are stronger, lighter, and smarter by orders of magnitude.

Each type of energy conversion or storage device faces its own unique challenges. But it is safe to say that all of them could benefit from new materials that have novel or improved properties.

[Slide #12: MOFs (metal-organic frameworks)]
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In the push to develop hydrogen fuel cells to power cars, cell phones and other devices, one of the biggest challenges has been finding ways to store large amounts of hydrogen at the right temperatures and pressures. At UCLA, Omar Yaghi and colleagues at the University of Michigan, whose research overlaps chemistry, materials science and engineering, have now demonstrated the ability to store large amounts of hydrogen in concentrations of 7.5 percent at the right pressure. That exceeds the US Department of Energy's estimates that practical hydrogen fuel will require concentrations of at least 6.5 percent. The key to this discovery is a class of new materials called metal-organic frameworks -- or MOFs for short -- which can be made highly porous to increase their storage capacity. One gram of an MOF has the surface area of a football field. And MOFs can be made from inexpensive materials.

Yaghi has also shown that MOFs can store large amounts of carbon dioxide under ambient conditions, a development that could be used in applications to prevent carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and automobile tailpipes from reaching the atmosphere.

Yaghi talks about his approach as making materials in a rational way -- like building from a blueprint. This is the new capability that nanoscale science and engineering gives us. We can now conceive of broad-based programs of materials discovery that will produce a spectrum of new and promising candidates.

[Slide #13: Closing Slide -- Energy, the Essential Resource]
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These examples only scratch the surface. In the workshop discussions to follow, you will hear about the nuts and bolts of fundamental energy research, as well as energy schemes on a grand scale. There are many paths to the same end, and that is as it should be. NSF regularly supports a variety of platforms and methods in emerging fields.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that current research is already adequate to solve our energy dilemma. To the contrary, in every major area of energy development, production, storage, transportation and use, there remain fundamental challenges in basic science and engineering that we must resolve. The fact remains that fundamental breakthroughs are needed before we can realistically claim a future of sustainable energy.

I do want to leave you with optimism about the capabilities of our new science and engineering to help us move toward that goal. Although our science, engineering, and technical knowledge is not yet powerful enough to solve our most difficult energy challenges, it will be, perhaps in the near future.

We all recognize that new ideas will come from every part of the globe. And we know that partnerships can combine the best resources of laboratories, institutes, and universities to speed progress. International collaboration in frontier research can increase the momentum needed to speed us toward framing rational solutions to common problems. Our energy future may be the most pressing and demanding of all. I look forward to many fruitful collaborations.

Thank you!

1 Crutzen, Paul; Nature 415, 23, 2002
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2 Report of the World Commission on the Environment and Development, 1987.
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3 Nocera, Daniel, http://web.mit.edu/chemistry/dgn/www/research/e_conversion.html;
Lewis, Nathan, http://nsl.caltech.edu/energy.html.
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4 Environ. Sci. Tech. 2002, 36, 5504.
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