In the mid-1990s, I was finishing up a physics degree and working on a research project to study the electrical properties of mixed conductors. A possible application for the material we studied was to create longer-lasting batteries. Roughly: the batteries that we drop into flashlights and remote controls and the like consist of electrodes (usually a sort of metal) in contact with an electrolyte (usually a sort of alkaline (basic) material). The electrode is made of a material that reacts with the electrolyte in such a way that electrons flow when metal comes into contact with a battery’s “terminals”. Electron flow is electricity. In the reaction between the electrode and electrolyte, which happens when the electrons flow, there are byproducts. Those byproducts build up on the electrode, thus inhibiting the chemical reaction. The electrode also ever so slowly dissolves in the reaction. This is how a battery weakens and eventually “dies”. The appeal of the mixed conductor (in our application, a solid electrolyte) was that the byproduct of the reaction that made electrons flow did not inhibit that flow as quickly. Hence, the battery would last much longer.
With more funding, we could have continued the project longer and possibly discovered something more interesting about the exotic material under study. But by the mid-1990s, funding for projects that aimed to improve battery technology was scant; alternative energy programs were on a political back-burner.
Skip forward a decade and, to the surprise of many, the historically science-resistant Bush-Administration introduces “The American Competitiveness Initiative” and the “Advanced Energy Initiative”.
A couple of recent articles in EETimes succinctly describe some of the Initiatives’ details:
- “Specific areas of research outlined by Bush included clean coal technologies, solar power, wind energy, vehicle efficiency, hydrogen fuel and a biorefinery initiative to study advanced technologies for making renewable ethanol fuel from plant fiber. Bush also referenced ‘clean, safe nuclear energy’ as part of the energy solution.”
- “The budget also includes $54 million for the FutureGen Initiative, a partnership between government and the private sector to develop innovative technologies for an emissions-free coal plant.”
- “The administration will also step up the nation’s research in better batteries for use in hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. The 2007 budget includes $30 million a $6.7 million increase over FY06 to speed up the development of this battery technology and extend the range of these vehicles.”
- “[Includes increased funding for] the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DoE SC), and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).”
- “The budget includes $137 billion for federal research and development, an increase of more than 50 percent over 2001.”
- “To encourage private-sector investment in technology, the administration continues to support making the research and development (R&D) tax credit permanent. A permanent R&D tax credit would enable companies to have certainty in their tax planning and therefore be bold in their R&D investment strategy.
- “Making the credit permanent, which is estimated to cost $86 billion over ten years, will eliminate problems and uncertainty associated with its temporary nature, according to the administration.”
- “In addition, the American Competitiveness Initiative proposes $380 million in new Federal support to improve the quality of math, science, and technological education in our K-12 schools.”
These Initiatives, if applied well, are long-overdue commitments to improving our science-education infrastructure, and to raising awareness of what will be the biggest challenge in the first half of this century — to overhaul our attitudes toward energy consumption.
The extracts from EETimes show that the Initiatives are supposed to spread funding and incentives among government agencies, private industry, and educational institutions. I argue that the long-term interests of the US and the world will be best served if we ensure the funding of university research projects and on supporting innovation at educational institutions. Furthermore, we should more broadly construe the project to emphasize the need to reduce energy consumption in general, not only consumption of foreign oil.
Universities provide the best environments for innovation. The private sector, with concern over profit margins and the like, will be best at applying cutting-edge research to create affordable consumer products. However, cutting-edge research, such as research on better battery technologies and more efficient solar solutions, is best left to grad students and post-docs, for they will be the most motivated to discover innovative techniques and solutions to energy collection, production and storage. At the same time, we will enhance the quality of science students who come out of US Universities something that we desperately need.
We should aim to reduce our dependency on ALL sources of energy, not only foreign sources. Bush’s now infamous “addiction to oil” comment is better stated that we have an “addiction to energy consumption”. We should use the appropriations to provide more incentives to reduce energy consumption across the board, such as greater incentives to install solar power, to use Energy Star appliances and to use public transportation or human-powered transportation (such as bicycles). The 2006 Energy Bill makes strides in this direction by establishing tax credits for residential solar power and renewal of federal programs to provide credits to hybrid vehicle owners. The incentives need to be increased and expanded. At the same time, programs that (inadvertently) encourage consumption need to be adequately restricted or removed.
A firm commitment to advancing American competitiveness and reducing American energy dependence will require that we enact these initiatives such that no one group — government, academia, or the private sector — disproportionately benefits from the additional funding. Universities should be tapped to provide the innovative ideas. Private industry should be tapped to create consumer grade implementations of academic innovations. And the government should further fund incentive programs for those who demonstrate their commitment to rehabilitating America’s addiction to energy.