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How Dark Matter and Nanotechnology can Help Transform the Global Energy System

How Dark Matter and Nanotechnology can Help Transform the Global Energy System thumbnail

Fundamental scientific research lies at the heart of many energy-related breakthroughs that ultimately disrupt established social and economic systems. It can be overwhelming to look at the world’s looming energy and climate challenges, but Dr. Franklin (Lynn) Orr, Under Secretary for Science and Energy at the US Department of Energy remains optimistic despite the complexity of these dilemmas.

Under Secretary Orr looks after the main programs at 13 of the 17 US National Laboratories and one of his key missions is to leverage energy technologies to address climate change through emissions reductions commitments that facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. A long-time academic, Orr seems genuinely excited about the potential for positive energy system changes that are emerging from the programs he currently oversees.

“For the longest time we had taken energy so completely for granted that we didn’t recognize how fundamentally woven it is into every aspect of modern life,” he told Breaking Energy in a recent interview in New York City.

One of the things he did in his freshman and sophomore classes was to make the students carry around a pad for a day and write down every time they did something that involved energy in some way. “And I did it myself. It’s eye opening,” Under Secretary Orr said.

Of the 13 National Labs over which Orr presides, 10 are science labs and 3 are applied energy labs. “But the boundaries amongst those labs are not hard ones. The science labs all do some energy-related work and vice versa.”

Inventing Tools Future Energy Systems Need

Technology moves so fast these days it can take time to figure out applications for all the new things being invented. Just look at all the things controlled via smart phones or new uses for drones that seem to pop up on a daily basis. But innovation needs to maintain pace, if not accelerate, if we hope to conquer some of the world’s most pressing energy problems.

“For society as a whole, recognizing that we not only need to supply the energy the world needs to be economically secure – and all the national security aspects that go along with that – but we also need to do it in a way that protects the planet,” said Orr. “Those are big challenges and of course there is the part of the world that we don’t adequately supply now. So this really requires transforming the world’s energy system. And while I’m quite confident that we can do that, it is the kind of challenge that requires all the tools that we have available now plus some more we need to invent.”

And this is where Orr’s DOE purview comes into play. It involves a few main thrusts, he explained, with one of those being a strong fundamental discovery science effort. On the surface, however, it may not be clear how this relates to energy.

“But the truth is if you look around there are energy applications for many things that flow through those science programs. We didn’t necessarily go in saying ‘aha we’re going to do this because,’ but once the work gets done [applications for it become clear]. It ranges from material science to work on a new detector for some giant particle accelerator. Some things come out that find their way into the next batch of electronics that all of us have to carry around in our pockets.”

He used advanced turbine blade technology as an example of this phenomenon. “They are in all those jet engines that haul us around the sky and in every power plant in some sort or another. So we all have a pretty big vested interest in having those turbine blades be as inexpensive as possible, as strong and durable as possible. And so there are some new ways of using additive manufacturing to make very complicated parts out of tough materials and assembling them in ways that potentially reduce the cycling times and costs a lot,” Orr said.

Heat exchangers are another example of where nanostructures can improve the performance of energy-related systems we use every day. “In principal you can think about making shapes that are just too hard to do by machining or would be too expensive. Even something as mundane as heat exchangers – used everywhere from your automobile radiator to every kind of chemical plant and so on – but now you can think about making interpenetrating networks of flow channels that provide lots of surface area and better contact than traditional shell and tube,” he explained.

“A few percentage points on improving heat exchange ripples through energy systems in ways that are hard to predict.”

And while some of the research into future energy technology remains in an early stage, Orr assured me that very smart people at DOE are working on these things now. Electrofuels are an exciting concept in which abundant wind and solar energy could be stored as liquid fuel, for example. If that could be done in a way that eliminated carbon emissions it would truly be a game changer for the power generation sector and maybe even the transportation industry.

With regard to the US power grid specifically, Dr. Orr sees a future that involves a much larger fraction of renewable energy than we use today. The biggest question is the pace at which these energy sources will increase because many of the policy decisions that move the needle are made at the state level with initiatives like renewable portfolio standards. Of course we need to grapple more effectively with intermittency issues, grid control, balancing, storage and demand response, while figuring out how retail markets should work, he said. “All those play interlocking roles that will determine how fast it [renewable energy growth] happens.”

Most Exciting Possibilities?

That’s clearly a hard question for someone overseeing so much cutting-edge scientific research, but the Under Secretary was a good sport and played along. “There’s a lot of fundamental science stuff that I think is hugely exciting. The whole question of dark energy and dark matter and what the early universe can tell us about the physics that underlie everything else. That stuff is way exciting.”

Speaking about the power grid, which the National Academy of Engineering described as the greatest invention of the 20th century – he sees “real opportunity in our ability to analyze and model and understand and control very complex systems.” We need to make the grid a 21st century convention that “provides a much more reliable and secure environmentally benign electricity system,” he said.

“On the transportation side there is new and exciting work on advanced battery chemistries. I like the idea of being able to design materials, design catalysts, design nanostructures that use electrochemistry to do all kinds of things that we are just now beginning to be able to do. This can create whole new opportunity spaces for making fuels.”

History Repeats Itself

Under Secretary Orr draws a comparison to the early US environmental movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and today’s climate change discussions. In the 1960’s, improving air and water quality was a daunting proposition. Many said industry would never get on board, it would be too expensive and we’d go bankrupt in the process.

“But places like California said ‘well the heck with you feds, we’re choking to death and we’re going to do something about air quality.’ So California put some rules in place and other states started to go along and pretty soon industry and the congress realized that we would be better off with a national set of rules. The Clean Air Act passed and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act passed – in a republican administration – and here we are 45 years later and we haven’t solved every problem but it’s way, way better than it was. And guess what? We didn’t go bankrupt and the economy grew and we are all better off from a health standpoint. …And I kind of think that’s where we are now about this business of greenhouse gases and other aspects of clean energy. There will be plenty of ancillary benefits associated with being cleaner across the energy system.”

Orr remains cognizant of the challenges, but he is also optimistic given humanity’s inventive nature. The key is to properly frame the challenges and incentivize the pursuit of solutions. “It’s quite clear to me that we can solve these problems we are facing. We have to make up our minds to do it and we have to recognize the external costs and pay for it all, but I’m fundamentally confident that we will be able to do it. … We’ve left ourselves a lot of room to be better on the efficiency side so we should keep plugging away at that. We can do it all.”

breaking energy



14 Comments on "How Dark Matter and Nanotechnology can Help Transform the Global Energy System"

  1. Davy on Sat, 30th May 2015 9:34 am 

    Let me translate the numb nut Under Secretary Orr. The last paragraph sums up the previous paragraphs:

    “Orr remains cognizant of the challenges, but he is also optimistic given humanity’s inventive nature.”
    Translation: We are in trouble. Technology to the rescue hopium
    “The key is to properly frame the challenges and incentivize the pursuit of solutions.”
    Translation: We need government subsidies
    “It’s quite clear to me that we can solve these problems we are facing”
    Translation: More hopium
    “We have to make up our minds to do it and we have to recognize the external costs and pay for it all”
    Translation: Lobby government for government subsidies
    “but I’m fundamentally confident that we will be able to do it”
    Translation: More hopium
    “We’ve left ourselves a lot of room to be better on the efficiency side so we should keep plugging away at that”
    Translation: There is always the magic of efficiency hopium
    “We can do it all.”
    Translation: Exceptionalism hopium

  2. Boat on Sat, 30th May 2015 9:55 am 

    Well let’s see, we could eliminate about 1/2 trillion from the US defense and about equal China’s. That would buy some smarter hopium.

  3. tahoe1780 on Sat, 30th May 2015 10:35 am 

    In the meantime, population and energy-sucking technology increases… http://www.unfpa.org/world-population-trends Jevon’s paradox http://www.inscc.utah.edu/~tgarrett/Economics/Jevons_Paradox.html

  4. Jerry McManus on Sat, 30th May 2015 10:40 am 

    What a relief to learn that “very smart people at DOE are working on it”.

    And here I was getting all worried for nothing.

  5. gdubya on Sat, 30th May 2015 11:06 am 

    And what, pray tell, does the headline have to do with the article?

  6. shortonoil on Sat, 30th May 2015 11:18 am 

    We agree that if there is any future for modern civilization it will come about from advances in material science. That is not likely, however, to address the present reality. The world will have to devise a means to replace 196 quad BTU/ year over the next 15 years. It will take 21 mb/d of petroleum production to keep the other 62% of the energy supply (coal, NG, nuclear, etc.) functioning. Being enraptured by the Technology Fairy may be comforting; it is not, however, going to address what the world faces today!

    http://www.thehillsgroup.org/

  7. penury on Sat, 30th May 2015 11:42 am 

    When I was a teenager, it was the golden age of SciFi, I read all of the greats and some of the barely passable,
    today? I read articles like this and ones on fusion and other happy dreams of worlds enough and time and realize again that while wonderful these things will always remain a dream “hope” is what humans do.

  8. Perk Earl on Sat, 30th May 2015 1:21 pm 

    “One of the things he did in his freshman and sophomore classes was to make the students carry around a pad for a day and write down every time they did something that involved energy in some way. “And I did it myself. It’s eye opening,” Under Secretary Orr said.”

    Carry a pad and write it down every time they use energy?! I’ve got news for Orr; we use energy ‘all the time’, even when we think we’re not. Otherwise our bodies would collapse and someone else using energy would wheel us down to the morgue.

  9. Makati1 on Sat, 30th May 2015 6:27 pm 

    Not my preferred type of science fiction…

  10. Keith_McClary on Sat, 30th May 2015 8:01 pm 

    Dark matter is way beyond fusion on the Hopium-Unobtanium scale.

    He’s a chemical engineer.

  11. SilentRunning on Sat, 30th May 2015 10:26 pm 

    “Dark Matter” is not even approximately settled science – it is in the “blue-sky, theoretical hand-waving stage”. It has to get out of that stage and into the *understood physics* stage before engineers can even begin to apply it.

    Even known physics is no guarantee of being practically applied to real life situations.. Nuclear fusion is well understood, but we still are decades (or more) from being able to make fusion reactors for energy.

  12. SilentRunning on Sat, 30th May 2015 10:28 pm 

    You might as well start having article titles like “Unicorn farts will meet future energy needs”

  13. Outcast_Searcher on Sun, 31st May 2015 2:39 pm 

    To paraphrase Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he discussed the “discovery” of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, he said “We may as well call then ‘without a clue A’ and ‘without a clue B’. Also he said “These terms are just placeholders for our abject ignorance”.

    http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/watch/2008/06/25/dark-matter-and-dark-energy

    As a Tyson fan, I just LOVED this, as it pointed out the hubris of scientists who can’t admit “oops, we were REALLY wrong about that” when what is considered settled science by “everyone” in the scientific world is proven shatteringly wrong.

    But meanwhile, we’re going to SOLVE our short term energy problems by throwing around such “impressive” sounding words? Yeah, just as we’ll solve our economic problems by taking stuff from group A who earned it and giving it to group B who “needs it more”.

  14. Apneaman on Sun, 31st May 2015 3:16 pm 

    More entitlement whining from outcast, terrified that the plebs are going to take his unearned income. Group A is the 1% and all the rest of us are group B. You just can’t admit it.

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