The Future of Energy Science & the Fusion Experience - 1.2.11
[SUITERS] Solving the nation's energy problems -- is science the solution? A look at today's innovation and what might be possible tomorrow. We get insight from some of science and energy's most influential leaders, including the science advisor to President Obama. Which technology has them excited? What does the President think? Where does China stand? Also, we join the hunt for energy's Holy Grail -- fusion power.
[NED SAUTHOFF] Imagine you're now the plasma, and you're approaching an antenna.
[SUITERS] How scientists and dreamers are trying to capture and sustain the power of the Sun.
[MARK SUPPES] This is just right there. It might just be right there. It might not be. But it might be so close.
[SUITERS] This is "energyNOW!" Hello, and happy new year! Welcome to "energyNOW!" -- a weekly look at America's energy challenges and what we're doing about them. I'm Tyler Suiters. Susan McGinnis is off.
As we start a new year, it's a good time to look not only at what we're doing about our energy challenges, but also what we aren't doing. Are we putting enough resources into science and technology to help find new ways to meet those challenges?
Some say, "No." President Obama's top science and tech advisors recommend tripling what the U.S. spends to develop new energy technologies. They say it is essential to help hold our place as a world energy leader. So in this edition of "energyNOW!" we're looking into what science is doing right now and what it might do in the future.
And we have a very special MIX panel to take us through that -- three leaders at the forefront of energy sciences. To my left, John Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, the science advisor to President Obama. Ralph Cicerone is President of the National Academy of Sciences. And David Sandalow is the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy. He tracks what the rest of the world is doing on the energy science front. If we could dive right in, what should we be excited about on the energy science front that we haven't seen or that we haven't paid enough attention to? John, let's start with you.
[HOLDREN] Well, there's a tremendous amount happening, and we need a lot to be happening in the domain of energy science and technology. We're working on more efficient batteries, we're working on better biofuels that exert smaller impacts on the environment, we're working on better fuel cells, we're working on cheaper photovoltaic solar energy technologies, we're working on better nuclear reactor designs that will be both less costly and safer and less prone to transfer technologies that could be used for nuclear weapons. All of these things --
[SUITERS] All these will impact our lives on an everyday basis at some point if they're fulfilled, correct?
[HOLDREN] Well, all of us need energy, and we need to get it in economical and environmentally sustainable ways. And, as the energy use of the world grows, our need for technologies that can provide that energy in ways that are affordable and environmentally tolerable grows, as well.
[SUITERS] Ralph, what about the view from the private sector? You talk regularly with business leaders. I know they tap you when they want the inside information regarding the science world. What has you excited right now, regarding our energy future?
[CICERONE] Well, everything that John Holdren just said is true, but I think what excites me the most is what I'm seeing in young people around the country. When I go on college campuses, everywhere I go, the students are turned on by what they can do on the energy research agenda. Whether they're biologists or physicists or engineers, also people looking for job training, which they have a sense is going to lead them into energy industry -- this is really an encouraging sign that so many of our motivated young people see this challenge as a future.
[SUITERS] David, you've traveled around the world in your position with the Department of Energy. Are the best ideas, indeed, here at home?
[SANDALOW] I tell you, I think Americans are making a lot of progress, and just to add to what John and Ralph were saying, one exciting development here, I think, is the way we're bringing together energy technology and information technology. And I would ask our television audience, how many of you out there think you know how much it cost you to run your refrigerator on electricity in the past year? Say, plus or minus $25. And I'm guessing, based upon when I ask this question to television audiences, most people out there don't have any idea. And it's an irony, because when I go to buy a refrigerator, I'm very sensitive to the difference between $699 and $799, but then I don't pay any attention to how much the electricity costs. Now, I think, 10, 20 years from now, we're all going to know how much our household appliances use in electricity and what that costs, and that type of information technology is going to make its way across the business sector so that we are able to better manage energy.
[SUITERS] John, when you sit down with the President and you do have his ear on these issues, what's it like? What's the conversation like? Do you talk about simple things, like David mentioned, regarding your refrigerator's energy efficiency? Or is it the future of modular nuclear reactors?
[HOLDREN] Well, first of all, what I would say is that, with this President, there's very little tutorial content to the conversations I have with him.
[SUITERS] He has a good grasp.
[HOLDREN] He already has an exceptional grasp of what the issues are, what the technologies are, what the options are. And so most of the time is spent talking about what we need to do. What are the policies that are needed to enable advances in energy technology? What are the policies that we need to help people get the information, as David was saying, that they need to make sensible decisions? What are the policies we need to advance energy efficiency technologies, technologies that enable the goods and services that people want to be delivered with less energy and thus less cost and less impact? And those efficiency technologies are at least as important as new technologies for energy supply. And that's really what we're talking about -- we're talking about the policies to get that stuff to happen. Because this President already knows the technical facts that he needs to know.
[SUITERS] David, speaking of policies, what about ARPA-E? It's one of a number of programs that are hard to identify from the outside looking in in Washington, but Secretary Chu says we're looking for home runs here -- this is essentially high-risk, high-reward energy R&D.
[SANDALOW] Thanks for the question, Tyler, and this is one thing that gets a lot of us very excited about energy sciences these days, this new program that's called ARPA-E. It's modeled after a program called DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- which has a long history. DARPA is part of the Defense Department. It's credited with helping to found the -- or to discover the basic technology behind the Internet and a number of other technologies. ARPA-E was created within the past two years by President Obama and Secretary Chu under our stimulus legislation, and it is looking for the home runs, as you said, the things that will really make a difference for our energy future. Innovative projects like turning sunlight directly into fuel without having to go through plant products. Energy storage technologies that are utterly transformational and breakthrough products. So this ARPA-E program is tremendous, very exciting project, and I think it's got huge potential.
[SUITERS] Ralph, what -- please.
[CICERONE] Let me say a word about that kind of science that ARPA-E is working on, as well as a lot of other people around the country. It's not whistling in the wind, because these ideas of the kind that David just mentioned, like extracting fuel from sunlight on water, these are principles that have been well established, it's just a question of getting the materials and the numbers right. It's difficult work, but in so many of these areas, where it sounds like it might sound like science fiction, in fact, the ideas are based on solid scientific principles with demonstrated projects.
[SUITERS] Two of these other possibilities within the ARPA-E program -- a car battery that can go 500 miles, versus 100 or so, which we're dealing with right now. A laser to help drill geothermal wells. John, what is a home run rate? Is it 1 in 20 projects that get funding? Is it 1 in 100?
[HOLDREN] Well, I think we'd be happy, actually, with 1 in 20, because we are looking for home runs, and things that will make an enormous difference. And when you're out there on the cutting edge, when you're trying to do science and technology that will really break the mold, you have to expect a lot of failures. If you don't have some failures, you're not trying interesting enough projects. But the history of investments in energy science and in energy technology is such that only a small fraction of what you try needs to succeed to transform the world. And we think that's what's going to happen out of ARPA-E.
[SUITERS] Okay, let's take a short break. We'll stop right there, we'll catch our breath, and when we return with our panelists on theMIX, is America paying enough attention to science? Or are we falling too far behind other countries? Also, the search for energy's Holy Grail, fusion -- achieving, capturing, and sustaining the power of the Sun.
[MAN SINGING] Oh!
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[TEXT ON SCREEN] energyNOW! REALITY METER
GLOBAL HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE TEST SCORES
3. SOUTH KOREA
4. NEW ZEALAND
15. UNITED STATES
SOURCE: Org. for Econ. Cooperation & Development
[SUITERS] That is how countries rank when it comes to high school science test scores. U.S. students, as you saw, rank 15th in the world, and that list you saw doesn't include China. There are no comprehensive results for that country, just regions -- however, Shanghai's test scores were the best in the entire world.
On that note, we are discussing the future of energy science with White House science and tech advisor John Holdren; Ralph Cicerone, the head of the National Academy of Sciences; and Assistant Energy Secretary David Sandalow. Gentlemen, an open-ended question -- how big is this gap between us and the rest of the world, regarding math and science and the scientists and engineers of the future?
[CICERONE] Let me address the gap. David and John might want to talk more about what we're doing about it. But the gap is real, and it's big. There are a lot of different tests, and of course you can always complain that the tests are a little bit different from each other, and you get slightly different results, but this latest round was done by people who are as good as anybody else at getting representative groups of children -- in this case, I think it was 15-year-olds -- from different countries and giving them the same test. And we did not do well. I think we were 15th in science, but I think we were like 30th or something in mathematics and 17th in reading around the nations -- this is not good. Why? Because we have these specific challenges, where we need highly talented and well-educated people, such as in energy research and development, but also, frankly, to run a democracy, you have to have a well-educated population -- not just the elite, but as many people as possible. And we're not doing well.
[SUITERS] When you speak of the President's priorities, David, I want to turn to you, because one of those is addressing climate change. There's another science gap here between the scientific community, which is almost unanimous, regarding climate change that's happening, the effect of humans on that; and the perception of American voters or Americans on the whole or the new members of Congress who are coming in, that there are an inordinate number of climate skeptics who will now be on Capitol Hill beginning this year. Is that a gap worth addressing from the White House as a priority?
[SANDALOW] There is a gap, Tyler, and I think there are a lot of skeptics in the country. I think skepticism about science puts the United States at competitive disadvantages. Other countries are marching forward in the 21st century, to deploy new technologies. That creates wealth.
However, I think that gap can often be overstated and often is overstated. And particularly with respect to the climate change issue, I would highlight this -- last year, a majority of Americans supported action on climate change. The polling data was very clear on that. A majority of the House of Representatives supported action on climate change -- they passed a bill. I believe a majority of the Senate supported action on climate change, if you took what we call here in Washington, D.C., a whip count and counted the senators. But they weren't able to get to 60 votes, which is the requirement in the U.S. Senate.
Now, I think that there is a lot of support for action on climate change in this country, and we have to find ways to make that happen within our political system, and we have to make sure that Americans are educated and trained in a way to help our country succeed in the 21st century, not just with respect to this issue, narrowly, but more broadly, on science and technology.
[SUITERS] Well, regarding the numbers, you can debate who thinks what, but there are members of that climate-skeptic minority that are in strong positions of power. Jim Inhofe, the leading minority member on the Senate Environment Committee, is one who counts himself as a climate skeptic. This year, coming in, John, the Chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, right up your alley, Ralph Hall, a Republican from Texas, who may be considered a climate skeptic. Do you have to fight the climate-change battle all over again in order to get through these lawmakers and get the funding you need?
[HOLDREN] Well, certainly, the process of educating folks about what we know about climate science, what we know about the options for dealing with climate change, that's a continuing process. You're never done with the educational dimension. I think in the new Congress, there will unquestionably be hearings on climate science -- I think those hearings are going to end up being educational. I think we'll probably move the opinions of some of the members of Congress who currently call themselves skeptics, because I think a lot of good scientists are going to come in and explain very clearly what we know and how we know it and what it means, and it's a very persuasive case.
[SUITERS] I mentioned the need for funding that has to go through Congress. Let's talk about ARPA-E, for example, which we discussed earlier, this home run science R&D. $400 million through the Recovery Act was put toward ARPA-E. That's beginning to run out. The White House wants $300 million for next year. However, your alma mater, John, and your alma mater, Ralph, MIT, through a publication there, said, and I'm quoting, "It looks like funding for energy R&D would be stagnant in 2011, then actually decrease in 2012." John, it seems like this is part of a constant battle for funding that you need for ongoing R&D.
[HOLDREN] There are always battles about resources and how to allocate the available resources in the federal budget. But we have some pretty good indications from President Obama that he will remain committed to doing everything we can to bolster investments in science and technology, in science and math teaching in general, and to put the investments into energy research and development that we need. He spoke repeatedly -- since the financial constraints that affect the government's budget have materialized -- he's still spoken repeatedly about the importance of making these investments in the future, through investing in science and technology and in science and technology and math education.
[SUITERS] Briefly, David, the money will be there?
[SANDALOW] I hope so, Tyler, I mean, the ARPA-E program which you asked about in particular has had broad bipartisan support -- we certainly hope it will continue. You know, there are legislators on both sides of the aisle with a lot of experience in education. I think immediately of Senator Lamar Alexander -- was a university president. And a number of legislators who have really been strong about investing in science and technology, making sure that America has the competitive edge in the years ahead, based on those investments. I would really emphasize that point. In the 21st century, this -- the race is not just about financial capital; it's not about natural resources. It's about human capital. Unless we're investing in young Americans, we're not going to be succeeding in the 21st century.
[SUITERS] John, you and David were in China this fall at the same time we were there, reporting on clean energy issues and various climate sector issues, as well. What do you see from China, regarding cooperation and competition? We have a number of efforts under way right now through the Department of Energy, David, with China on potentially game-changing technology. Is it still a 50/50 mix, or is it tipped one way or the other?
[SANDALOW] I'll tell you, Tyler, what's happening in China right now is pretty extraordinary. I was driving on one of those trips this year to Tianjin from Beijing. I was on the eight-lane highway there, going about 60 miles an hour. And as we were driving along, the bullet train came by at 220 miles an hour, about 160 miles an hour, relative speed -- it was actually very cool to see that thing move right by. But as it happened, I thought, "You know, there's a metaphor here." I think the United States is on the highway, we're going 60 miles an hour, getting up speed in this whole clean-energy technology business. But there is a lot of investment happening all over the world, and it's going to shoot right by unless we take the steps that we need to train, to invest, and make sure that we are competitive in the 21st century.
I think, with China, it's a balance of competition and cooperation. Both are important. In China today, there are some extremely advanced technologies being deployed at very high scale. Ultra-supercritical coal plants with very high thermal heating values. Long-distance transmission lines at 1,000 kilovolts. High-speed rail. We've got a lot to learn from the Chinese. They've got a lot to learn from us. I think we can cooperate to our mutual benefit.
In the process, by the way, we've got to be careful, because there are significant intellectual property concerns that our businesses raise. We need to be careful as we do this, and we are, but we've got a lot to learn from each other as the United States and China work together.
[SUITERS] One of the things I seem to notice, John, or have heard over and over again during my time in China was that that country doesn't do innovation especially well -- they can take someone else's technology and refine it exceptionally well. Does that secure our place a little more firmly, in terms of being an innovation leader?
[HOLDREN] Well, I think, Tyler, that used to be true, but it's becoming less true. That is, China is doing more and more real innovation on its own. This is actually a good thing in a number of respects. First of all, as they develop more real intellectual property of their own, they'll become more interested in protecting intellectual property and will become more cooperative in the global intellectual property rights domain. And number two, as David was saying, because they are becoming real innovators, there are things that we can learn from them through cooperation, just as they are learning things from us, and a lot of those things are in our mutual advantage to accelerate in both countries. For example, it's in both of our interests that each of us reduce our dependence on imported oil, because there's a world oil market. It's in both of our interests that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced in both countries, because we live under one atmosphere. And so there are a variety of areas in which we shouldn't think that we're disadvantaged if they're making progress. It's in our interest, as well, that both countries make progress.
[SUITERS] I'd like to ask one final question, and I'd like to see if we can explain this in one sentence only to sum it up. Ralph, I'll start with you. We'll go around the room. What lies ahead in 2011? What's the best development that you see coming to fruition?
[CICERONE] Tremendous progress in energy science on the biological side, the physical side, that is based on physical principles, biological principles, that just requires a lot of smart people to stay with it before there will be a number of breakthroughs -- and we need more than one.
[SANDALOW] Growing awareness about the potential for the clean energy future in this country and around the world.
[SUITERS] That precludes a climate agreement?
[SANDALOW] Well, let's hope so.
[SUITERS] I'll give you one more sentence.
[SANDALOW] Let's hope so.
[SUITERS] Okay, John, what about you? As I said, you have the President's ear. What does he need to hear in the year to come?
[HOLDREN] I think the biggest potential gain in the year ahead is that we end up getting bipartisan support for the proposition that investments in science, technology, science and math education, energy infrastructure, new energy sources are in this country's interest from the economic standpoint, the job standpoint, the national security standpoint, and the environmental standpoint. These shouldn't be partisan issues. They don't need to be. They're things that Republicans and Democrats ought to agree about, and I think we're going to see some progress in that.
[SUITERS] And here's to the new year. Dr. John Holdren, Dr. Ralph Cicerone, Assistant Secretary David Sandalow, gentlemen, fantastic conversation. Thanks again for giving us your time. And happy new year all the way around.
And still to come here on "energyNOW!" tracking the hunt for energy's Holy Grail -- how scientists are trying to harness the power of the Sun, fusion, to power our world in the future.
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[SUITERS] It's often called the Holy Grail of energy -- cheap, abundant, clean energy for the entire planet, and we'd never run out of it. Sounds almost too good to be true. It is fusion power, the very same thing that powers the Sun and the stars. "energyNOW!"'s Susan McGinnis followed those in search of that Holy Grail in this energyNEXT.
[DOC BROWN] You mean we're out of gas?
[MARTY McFLY] Yeah, it's no big deal. We got Mr. Fusion, right?
[McGINNIS] For "Back to the Future" fans...
[DOC BROWN] I need fuel!
[McGINNIS] Fusion is what powered the DeLorean. For scientists and engineers in the real world, it's an elusive form of energy they've worked for decades trying to perfect. From Stan Milora, who runs the Fusion Energy Division at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee...
[MILORA] We could have an inexhaustible source of energy.
[McGINNIS] To Mark Suppes, a so-called amateur fusionist who built his own mini-lab in New York City.
[SUPPES] This is just right there. It might just be right there, it might not be, but it might be so close.
[McGINNIS] By day, Suppes is a Web designer for fashion giant Gucci in Manhattan.
[SUPPES] Okay, so this is ready to go.
[McGINNIS] By night, he's busy at his lab, working on what many think is the ultimate energy source. In its most basic form, fusion occurs when the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms are forced together and fuse to form a helium atom. When they fuse, they release energy. It's what has Suppes and about three dozen other amateur fusionists nationwide building tabletop devices at home.
[SUPPES] I've always been really fascinated with physics and chemistry and all the hard sciences, and I am self-educated.
[McGINNIS] Fusion first caught Suppes' attention when he saw a Google video featuring the late fusion scientist Dr. Robert Bussard.
[SUPPES] This video that Dr. Bussard gave, "Should Google Go Nuclear?" and I was really taken with it because it seemed like the first kind of innovation in the fusion space in a really long time.
[McGINNIS] That was enough to get him to sink $40,000 of his own savings into this lab and equipment.
[SUPPES] I bought this whole thing on eBay.
[McGINNIS] About seven months later, Suppes claims, he achieved fusion.
[SUPPES] There it is. And the positive ions are all rushing into the center and colliding head-on, and so that's what gives you -- when they do it enough times, you get the fusion.
[McGINNIS] What excites you the most about the potential for fusion energy?
[SUPPES] I mean, this is so exciting on so many levels. Like, how is it not exciting? This is like, if you do this, it changes everything forever. It solves the energy problem. It solves the energy problem.
[McGINNIS] But can tabletop experiments like this really overcome the massive barriers to fusion encountered so far? Namely, to produce not one fusion reaction, or even a few million per second -- some experiments have -- but billions and billions in a controlled reaction that's self-sustaining, producing more energy than goes in, and keeps doing that predictably for months or years at a time.
That's what brought us to Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where some of the nation's top fusion scientists and engineers have been studying fusion energy for decades.
[MILORA] It's simple, in principle, but it's very hard to achieve in practice.
[McGINNIS] Stan Milora knows how hard fusion is to achieve. He started in this field 36 years ago.
[MILORA] You have to have, essentially, astronomical temperatures to make this reaction to proceed very rapidly. So we're talking about temperatures that are 10 times higher than the temperature of the core of the Sun.
[McGINNIS] That's upwards of 150 million degrees to make fusion work on Earth, also called "a star in a jar."
[MILORA] So that's the real challenge, is how do you heat it to those astronomical temperatures and then how do you confine it, keep it from getting out of the bottle, essentially?
[McGINNIS] The challenge is alluring enough that it brought together seven of the world's leading powers to agree to a joint nuclear facility, the culmination of 20 years of negotiation on a massive experimental reactor. Construction is under way in the south of France. It's called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. Ned Sauthoff of Oak Ridge National Lab took me inside the fusion process.
[SAUTHOFF] You and I are going to be shadows, and the plasma is going to be bright.
[McGINNIS] With a massive screen that felt more like I was in an IMAX movie than a fusion lab.
[SAUTHOFF] You can imagine you're now the plasma, and you're approaching an antenna, which is launching about 20 million watts of power, just like comes out of a television station, but 10,000 times as much. And so these waves go and heat the plasma. When the plasma gets hot enough, then the parts of the plasma start hitting each other, sticking together, fusing, and then release energy. Our game here is to get ITER just big enough that it becomes nearly self-sustaining.
[McGINNIS] Here's a look at fusion research in the real world. This is the NSTX fusion device here at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in New Jersey. This is a $200 million facility, where scientists deal with temperatures up to 50 million degrees, in experiments that will ultimately produce fusion energy.
Stewart Prager at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab says fusion is near a breakthrough and could be a game changer for the global energy picture.
[PRAGER] Fusion could have a transformative effect on the world. Because it's a limitless source of energy. It has a zero contribution to greenhouse gases. It's entirely clean. It's safe -- there's no chance of any sort of runaway reaction. And the fuel comes from seawater, so it's available to all nations. So hopefully it will reduce the conflict over natural resources, so it's nearly a perfect energy source.
[McGINNIS] Critics argue against the billions spent and yet to be spent on fusion research, saying energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal are far more achievable on commercial scale far sooner.
Still, Milora and other believers say the ITER facility in France is worth the expense because it will lead to the final goal.
[MILORA] It's the penultimate step to a demonstration fusion reactor, where you'll actually deliver electricity, and then eventually that would grow into commercial fusion reactors.
[McGINNIS] Milora sees a day when fusion energy provides about 30% of the world's energy.
So you're pretty confident that in our lifetime we will see this as a source of energy that can be sustained?
[MILORA] Yes, sure. I think about 2050, we should be able to introduce fusion on a commercial scale. But about 2035, we should start building demonstration fusion reactors. So you'll see electricity being demonstrated about 2035.
[McGINNIS] Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, Mark Suppes keeps tinkering, trying to be the one who does it. For now, still holding on to his day job at Gucci.
You want to change the world?
[McGINNIS] And you think you can?
[SUPPES] I mean, I'm going to try. You know? It's like, who knows what's possible? But you've got to try.
[McGINNIS] In Brooklyn, New York, Susan McGinnis, "energyNOW!"
[SUITERS] And that's it for this week's "energyNOW!" If you have story ideas, questions, or comments, you can e-mail us at [email protected]. And you can find us on Twitter and Facebook, as well, at energyNOWnews. I'm Tyler Suiters. See you next week, and from all of us here at "energyNOW!" happy new year!
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