April 10, 2012

At C.U., Obama Official Lectures on Science for Energy

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Dr. William Brinkman gave a lecture entitled “Science for Energy,” presented by the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology on April 2 during which he spoke of President Obama’s dedication to science,

The United States needs to continue investing resources in alternate sources of energy as humans continue to impact the environment and energy security becomes increasingly important, said Dr. William Brinkman in his lecture entitled “Science for Energy,” presented by the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology on April 2.

Brinkman is the Director of the Office of Science in the Department of Energy.  At the lecture, he spoke of President Obama’s dedication to science, mentioning the administration’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future published in March 2011.

“We really do need to get this right,” said Brinkman, referring to the U.S.’s need to improve energy efficiency, reduce reliance on foreign oil, and become more sustainable.

The Obama Administration has created 46 energy frontier research centers in 35 states plus D.C., three biofuel centers, five hubs, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.

Brinkman began his presentation with a NASA GISS chart of rising global temperatures from 2001. He noted that although the chart is no longer particularly controversial, “the anthropogenic effects of humans are real.”

Brinkman also discussed with the crowd simulated and predicted models of sea ice loss.

“We human beings are having a major impact on our climate … we need to do some drastic things, otherwise, we’re going to have New York City under water” he said.

He cited a 2012 early release of the U.S. Energy Information Administration predictions of energy consumption.

“If we don’t do something, it’s going to get pretty hot … We’ve got a real problem ahead of us,”  Brinkman said, adding that there is a need for refinement of models, and that models are not a panacea.

The real challenge in this space is making new energy sources that are financially realistic.  The goal is to “try to figure out how to get solutions that are economically viable,” he said.

After discussing the perils of human activity as relating to the nation’s energy future, Brinkman moved onto discuss current and potential developments in energy research.

“Solar cells are making really good progress,” and have gone down in price, he said, however the goal is at a price per watt ratio $0.50.

Silicon cells are 16 percent efficient at the time, which still leaves room for improvement. Vertical nanowire photoarrays from Caltech and multiple-band semiconductors may improve efficiency for solar cells.

“Solar energy is really the easiest [option] … to solve our problems,” Brinkman said.  Collaborations like the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the Department of Energy are exploring synthetic biosynthesis for fuels with the help of 20  energy frontier research centers.

Nuclear power offers an alternative to solar energy.  “From a point of view of carbon, it doesn’t need carbon at all, so it has tremendous advantages,” Brinkman said.

Conversely, nuclear power has a “black eye” post-Fukushima nuclear disaster he said.  Small modular reactors under 300 megawatts offer a new approach, with advantages like lowered technical risk, less financial resources requirments, an established licensing process, and intents to meet domestic and international norms and regulations for nuclear material.

Development of small modular reactors is taking place all around the world, in places like Russia, South Korea, China, South Africa and Japan, with collaborations among countries like the U. S.  and Russia.  Congress will be announcing a new funding opportunity to industry in the next few weeks, according to Brinkman.

Finding biofuel sources from non-food supplies has been historically difficult and costly.  DoE bioenergy research centers have emerged to address this problem.  The BioEnergy Science Center in Oak Ridge, Tenn., is looking at new strains of ethanol-producing microbes with enhanced tolerance to stresses associated with industrial biofuels production.

The Joint BioEnergy Institute is working with microbes, trying to acquire biodiesel directly from biomass.  Great Lake Bioenergy is characterizing impacts of biomass crop agriculture on marginal lands, with attention to shifts in the microbial community and potential for changes in green house emissions.

While the power of batteries has extended as far as cars, technology is still limited.  Battery-run cars can only travel 100 miles on a charge, and take a long time to recharge.

“Can we figure out a way to do something about the numbers?” Brinkman asked.  He stressed that the goal to figuring out the “battery problem” is increaseing energy density in batteries.  Current research looks at high-power electrodes for lithium-ion batteries and a novel 3D graphene composite scaffold that holds greater charge than conventional li-ion anodes as possible solutions.

The Department of Energy has plans to create a hub for the synthetic generation of energy from the sun.  Another funding opportunity announcement will be made public in next few weeks. Carbon capture and storage has demonstrated to be too costly, with little support in Congress.

Ultimately, “we cannot solve [the energy] problem if we are going to continue using coal,” he said.

Likewise, work needs to be done on enhancing oil recovery to increase supply and reduce the price.  Brinkman said the nation can solve this problem, but is currently a long ways away.

Original Author: Erin Szulman