Richard E. Smalley shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of a new form of carbon—the carbon 60 molecule—known today as “buckyballs” or fullerenes. The discovery of the carbon 60 molecule opened a new field of research called Nanotechnology.
Professor Smalley believed the growing energy demands of the world will require a new, sustainable energy source: “Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today – not just the U.S., but also worldwide. The magnitude of this problem is incredible. Energy is the largest enterprise on Earth – by a large margin… While conservation efforts will help the worldwide energy situation, the problem by mid-century will be inadequate supply.” The solution, in his view, is a combination of solar energy and developing nanotechnology to harness energy from the sun.
Dr. Richard Smalley was a distinguished Professor of chemistry and of physics at Rice University and founding director of Rice University’s Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory.
* Professor Smalley died after a long battle with leukemia.
Transcript of the Testimony of Richard E. Smalley to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
“Energy is the single most important challenge facing humanity today.
As we peak in oil production and worry about how long natural gas will last, life must go on. Somehow we must find the basis for energy prosperity for ourselves and the rest of humanity for the 21st century. By the middle of this century, we should assume we will need to at least double world energy production from its current level, with most of this coming from some clean, sustainable, CO2-free source.
For worldwide peace and prosperity, it must be cheap.
We simply cannot do this with current technology. We will need revolutionary breakthroughs to even get close.
I am an American scientist brought up in the Midwest during the Sputnik era, and like so many of my colleagues in the US and worldwide, I am a technological optimist. I think we can do it. We can find “the New Oil”, the new technology that provides the massive clean, low-cost energy necessary for the advanced civilization of the 10 billion souls we expect to be living on this planet before this century is out.
Electricity will be the key.
Consider, for example, a vast interconnected electrical energy grid for the North American Continent from above the Arctic Circle to below the Panama Canal. By 2050 this grid will interconnect several hundred million local sites. There are two key aspects of this future grid that will make a huge difference: (1) massive long-distance electrical power transmission, and (2) local storage of electrical power with real-time pricing.
Storage of electrical power is critical for the stability and robustness of the electrical power grid, and it is absolutely essential if we are ever to use solar and wind as our dominant primary power sources. The best place to provide this storage is local, near the point of use. Imagine by 2050 that every house, every business, every building has its own local electrical energy storage device, an uninterruptible power supply capable of handling the entire needs of the owner for 24 hours. Since the devices are small and relatively inexpensive, the owners can replace them with new models every 5 years or so as worldwide technological innovation and free enterprise continuously and rapidly develop improvements in this most critical of all aspects of the electrical energy grid.
Today using lead-acid storage batteries, such a unit for a typical house to store 100-kilowatt hours of electrical energy would take up a small room and cost over $10,000. Through revolutionary advances in nanotechnology, it may be possible to shrink an equivalent unit to the size of a washing machine and drop the cost to less than $1,000. With intense research and entrepreneurial effort, many schemes are likely to be developed over the years to supply this local energy storage market that may expand to several billion units worldwide.
With these advances, the electrical grid can become exceedingly robust since local storage protects customers from power fluctuations and outages. With real-time pricing, the local customers have an incentive to take power from the grid when it is cheapest. This in turn permits the primary electrical energy providers to deliver their power to the grid when it is most efficient for them to do so, and vastly reduce the requirements for reserve capacity to follow peaks in demand. Most importantly, it permits a large portion — or even all — of the primary electrical power on the grid to come from solar and wind.
The other critical innovation needed is massive electrical power transmission over continental distances, permitting, for example, hundreds of gigawatts of electrical power to be transported from solar farms in New Mexico to markets in New England. Then all primary power producers can compete with little concern for the actual distance to market. Clean coal plants in Wyoming, stranded gas in Alaska, wind farms in North Dakota, hydroelectric power from northern British Columbia, biomass energy from Mississippi, nuclear power from Hanford Washington, and solar power from the vast western deserts, etc., remote power plants from all over the continent contribute power to consumers thousands of miles away on the grid. Everybody plays. Nanotechnology in the form of single-walled carbon nanotubes (a.k.a. “buckytubes”) forming what we call the Armchair Quantum Wire may play a big role in this new electrical transmission system.
Such innovations in power transmission, power storage, and the massive primary power generation technologies themselves, can only come from miraculous discoveries in science together with free enterprise in open competition for huge worldwide markets.
America, the land of technological optimists, the land of Thomas Edison, should take the lead. We should launch a bold New Energy Research Program. Just a nickel from every gallon of gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, and jet fuel would generate $10 billion a year. That would be enough to transform the physical sciences and engineering in this country. Sustained year after year, this New Energy Research Program will inspire a new Sputnik Generation of American scientists and engineers. At a minimum, it will generate a cornucopia of new technologies that will drive wealth and job creation in our country. At best we will solve the energy problem within this next generation; solve it for ourselves and, by example, solve it for the rest of humanity as well.
Give a nickel. Save the world.”
Dr. Richard E. Smalley
Hearing on sustainable, low emission, electricity generation,
A video lecture by Professor Smalley is available on YouTube:
Columbia University Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center presents “Our Energy Challenge”
For a copy of the PowerPoint slides that Dr. Smalley used with his lecture
See: Our Energy Challenge (Powerpoint slides) size: 1 Mb – 21 pages
Or: Our Energy Challenge (Adobe PDF format) size: 2.3 Mb – 21 pages
The following lecture is presented here with Richard Smalley’s permission.
NANOTECHNOLOGY, ENERGY, and PEOPLE
by Richard Smalley
I’ve been increasingly absorbed into solving the world’s energy problems for the past six months. Almost every week I am surprised at the depth of this problem . The more I look at it; the problem just doesn’t get easier. But I believe that within this problem lies a magnificent opportunity for our nation, and the world.
The title my talk “Nanotechnology, Energy, and People” has the word “people” in it; and the more I’ve gotten into this, the more I think it is mostly a people problem.
Let me just jump to the chase here and tell you what the bottom line of the talk will be . Energy is, at least in the United States since 9/11, simply the single most important problem that faces humanity today, particularly when you think of the world as a whole and the time period of the next 50 years. What’s remarkable though (and I don’t know if it would have been true before 9/11) is that after a little bit of conversation in any group of American citizens, and probably any group of citizens in the world, I believe you will find that pretty much everyone will agree that energy is the single most important problem. I doubt if there ever was a time before when we would all agree, but now I think we do.
The second point is that I am confident we can solve this problem. But it will take revolutionary breakthroughs in physical sciences and engineering, fields that we haven’t been emphasizing enough in the past couple of decades, particularly in the United States. And when you look at the sort of breakthroughs that are going to be necessary, you’ll realize that most of them fit in the broad definition of nanotechnology. In order to make these breakthroughs happen, we will need to take this problem much more seriously than we have so far for any project we’ve confronted in this country since the Apollo project ( the result of Sputnik and the Cold War in the late 50s and 60s).
The problem is huge. When you think about the consequences of seriously addressing this problem, and particularly what the consequences will be with even a near success, it is a magnificent opportunity. The largest industry in the world (energy) will be transformed.
As a result of the program addressing this problem, American youth will enter the physical sciences and engineering in a way that they haven’t pretty much since the history of the country. They will be inspired not so much by the notion that they’re going to get rich, but by the inner sense of idealism that is so prevalent in youth, and their sense of mission. At least a few, perhaps just one half of one percent of all American boys and girls who are between the age of 10 to 20 right now, will accept this mission in life (like a Christian mission) to go out and do the hard things that are necessary to become a scientist or an engineer, not only to go through all those hard courses in high school, college, and graduate school, but also stick with it later in life as they go on to become professionals and have their impact on the world.
American boys and girls will have this sense of mission because they know that their generation is the one that has to solve this problem. I can tell you from the young kids that I’ve talked to that this sense of mission is strong. You can hear a special timbre in their voices when they talk about it.
I’m confident that we will succeed in solving this energy problem. But even if we don’t succeed, we would pursue the mission anyway because of the cornucopia of technologies that will certainly come out of this endeavor. And if we succeed, this will provide the underpinnings for vast new economic prosperity for the U.S. and for the world in general. For this is the single most important project I can imagine accepting for our nation’s youth.
I think many of us will agree with the point I’ve made on this slide . I’ve been playing with this for the past six months, to audiences big and small. When I have more time, I put up a slide entitled “Humanity’s Top Ten Problems for the Next 50 Years”. It is a slide that just has the numbers 1 through 10, with no entries. Then I ask the audience, at the spur of the moment, to suggest what problems they think ought to be on that list. I don’t always get the same responses, or in the same order, but the top seven that are on this list have always been there. And the remaining few are picked from a shortlist of a few more.
I have been testing three hypotheses as I do this, and they have been borne out every time. The first hypothesis is: whenever you gather a group of people together, or whenever three or more gathered together, and you ask them this question “What are humanity’s top ten problems for the next 50 years?”, the word “energy” will always appear.
The second hypothesis is: wherever the word “energy” appears on the list, if you move it to the top of the list and you imagine that through some miracle the energy problem of the world has now been solved, then you will find that you have an answer to at least five of the remaining nine problems on the list, where without that you could hardly imagine there could be an answer.
By “solution to the energy problem” I mean one where we now have abundant energy available in the amounts we need, universally around the planet at a low enough cost that we can do the things that we need to do during these 50 years for the billions of people on the planet. Right now, we have about 6.3 billion people on the planet and the expectation is we will have between 9 and 10 billion by 2050. Our job, with that number of people in that sphere, is to provide the technology base to allow these human beings to live a reasonably fulfilled life. If we don’t do it, we’re going to have hell to pay. That’s the challenge we are facing today.
Let’s just imagine there has been a miracle: we’ve found some new energy source that is vast and can be made available cheaply enough to solve the problem. Then, is it going to be true that this will now enable solutions for the other problems? Well, I’ve listed them here, in order of their relevance to energy and their overall importance.
I think most people would agree that if energy is the number one problem, then water is number two. Water is a great example of the importance of energy. Water is a very brutal problem: either you have it or you don’t. If you haven’t got it then you have to get it. Luckily we have plenty of water on the planet. But it has salt in it, and it’s often thousands of miles away from where you need it. We know how to take the salt out of water: you boil it. Alternatively, you could take a nano-membrane and do it with tremendous efficiency – and get really snazzy about it. Boiling works okay, but it takes energy to boil water. And for the amount of water we need, it’s a vast amount of energy. Then you need to transport it thousands of miles away to where it will be used. There’s the energy needed to pump it, there’s the energy required to manufacture the materials and so forth to build a pipeline. If you’ve got the energy, you can solve the water problem. If you haven’t, then you can’t.
Food. Clearly, with that number of people on the planet, food is a huge problem. For the food problem, my answer is: “see number 2: water – literally seawater”. Once again, you’re only going to solve the problem with energy. Of course, it’s more complicated than that: you need to have good soil, you need to have a reasonable climate to grow those things. If worse comes to worst, we could make greenhouses on a vast scale. Once again, it’s a vast energy-intensive operation to build just the greenhouses, and let alone service them. But if you have the energy, you can do it.
Environment. Most of our environmental problems come directly from the kind of energy we use and the way we use it.
Poverty. There is no single factor that determines the economic well-being of civilization more than the availability, quality, and cost of its energy.
Terrorism and war. A lot of our wars, particularly recently, have been literally fought over energy: That’s the reason Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the reason that the Germans went to Stalingrad. Energy has a lot to do with the root causes of the terrorism that we’re grappling with today.
The disease is dependent on your food supply, your lifestyle, how clean your water supply is, and your access to modern health care, all of which are determined by your economic wellbeing.
Education. Again, you can’t bother too much with education if you can’t eat and if you can’t take care of yourself. But with prosperity, as civilization develops, you can take time for education. If you can educate the females and give them free access to jobs, the fertility rate will go down. If you don’t, it won’t. Saudi Arabia is a great example of this.
Democracy is a much more complicated question; it’s not obvious you will solve a democracy problem with energy alone, but energy-induced prosperity, health, and education will certainly help.
The third hypothesis that I have in doing this is: if you take at random any other one of these ten problems on the list and you move it to the top, then you will not find anywhere near the cooperative ability to help solve other problems that energy has. Energy is unique. Not only in being the most important problem to solve, but in its ability to enable solutions to the other problems.
If there is an exception to this, it’s population. If you move the population issue to the top and you imagine that somehow this population problem is solved, then most of the other problems will go away. But how did you imagine solving the population problem? If you can get the population down to a level where we have enough energy for a prosperous, fulfilled lifestyle for all, we’d have to ask about five billion people to leave.
In the history of humanity on this planet, there’s never been a time, even during the Black Death in Europe, when the world population dropped to even half of its previous level. To solve the problems on this list using population reduction alone, you’d need a factor of 5 reductions. You’d need an apocalypse, a worldwide disaster of unprecedented proportion. So if you’re waiting for AIDS, or famine, or even wars of the magnitude of WW II to solve this problem, forget it. The problem is vastly bigger than that.
I’ve just been running this audience participation experiment with various groups for the past six months. I am very surprised and struck by the fact that at the end of going through this line of reasoning, all groups seem to agree: energy must be the single most important problem we confront today.
There is great power in this. If we can all agree on what the most important problem is, then we are already a long way toward solving it.
The sort of transformation that we’re talking about in the energy business is massive, and it’s demonstrated pretty clearly in these pictures . Here I have a plot of worldwide energy sources, using data from the International Energy Agency. The way we get our energy right now is mostly oil, coal, and gas as – they are the dominant players. The total amount of energy that we will consume in 2003 – if things go apace – will be about 210 million equivalent barrels of oil per day. If you add up all the energy we get by burning that oil in a year – and use the scientific term for energy, the Joule – and divide it by the number of seconds that are in a year, you will get a unit called Watts – for example, a 50-Watt light bulb consumes 50 Joules of energy in a second. We consume in one year around the world enough Joules that when divided by the number of seconds in a year gives an average consumption rate of 14 terawatts (TW). To give you an indication of how much that is, the city of Houston consumes energy at a rate of about 5 Gigawatts. Fourteen Terawatts, 14 thousand gigawatts, or 14 million megawatts is the world’s rate of energy usage today.
You can see that aside from the fossil fuels, there’s also fission – nuclear power – which is actually pretty significant these days and doing quite well in the United States. There are 409 nuclear power plants around the world.
Biomass. Most of this is burned in an unsustainable way (burning trees and brush that you’re not re-growing). There is all the cow dung burnt in the world inside that bar. Come to think of it, cow dung is renewable!
Hydroelectric is big but probably is not going to get very much bigger than it already is.
Over here are the solar, wind, and geothermal. In fact, most of what is visible here on this graph are geothermal from places like the Geysers – a little bit north of San Francisco. All the solar that we’re collecting around the world wouldn’t even be a line that you could see on this diagram.
That is our current energy technology.
In order to solve this problem, at the magnitude we need and in ways that would enable conditions of sufficient water and global prosperity, we need to solve the problem with vast new energy technologies. We have to resort to an energy portfolio that looks something like what is shown on the right-hand side of this slide. By the middle of this century will need somewhere between 30 and 60 terawatts. Here solar, wind, and geothermal, which are currently such a trivial part of our energy supply, will have to become the dominant source of energy.
The quantitative aspect of this issue is a big part of the whole thing, so let me just run for you an argument about the magnitude of the energy we need. This argument appears in a paper that was published in 1998 . Mostly, the paper was worried about the CO2 problem; but it was a great indication of how one estimates conservatively the need for energy in the future. This is very similar to the International Energy Agency’s very conservative projection .
It’s a pretty simple calculation: You take the population of the planet: what it has been in the past, and what it’s extrapolated to be in the future. This is on a log scale so it looks like a nice steady growth; in fact, if you did it linearly you’d see it is really rocketing up. At the time this paper was written, we were 5.3 billion people on the planet. It’s predicted to be somewhere around 9-10 billion by 2050, and 11 billion people by 2100.
Another factor is that for each one of these people on average, how much GDP (gross domestic product) they are producing. This is a way of calculating how much energy you’re going to need. In our history, this curve is the per capita GDP as a function of year. We had a little hard time (1920-1950) and then we had a real advancement here (1960-1970), and there’s an optimistic expectation that as the century unfolds we’ll continue this advancement: each person will be producing proportionally more and more wealth in the world than they had before at this steady rate.
The final factor is how much energy it takes to produce a dollar of GDP. The history of the world has been following pretty much this curve; so that for a while, as we industrialized, we were taking more energy to produce a unit of GDP; and then it kind of leveled off, particularly after the oil embargo of 1973. As we really emphasized efficiency, we began to make improvements, so we didn’t take so much energy to produce dollars in GDP (1970-1990). This is a very optimistic assumption that for the next 100 years we’re going to keep on making ourselves more efficient in producing GDP – as we did during the era of the oil embargo in the 70s and 80s and 90s.
If I take population and multiply it by “per capita GDP growth” times “energy cost per GDP”, then I come up with a prediction for how much energy I’m going to need for the rest of the century . Now, this is a very conservative prediction because we’re hoping that we keep improving in energy efficiency and that we keep on having people get more productive at a not much different rate than we have been.
Note that I’m not figuring anything new in here about China suddenly coming into the modern world – which is certainly going to happen in this next decade or so.
This is what’s called in the trade the “business as usual” scenario, and this is world energy consumption in my favorite units, TW; or in a more conventional method, in millions of barrels of oil equivalent per day. So we’re here somewhere around 200, 210 million barrels/day in 2003 and we have us going up to over 600 million barrels of oil equivalent per day at the end of the century. We’re consuming about 14 TW right now. By the middle of the century, we would be around 30 TW of power. Once again, this scenario doesn’t have China developing rapidly, or India, etc. There still is a planet made of maybe a fifth to a third of haves, fourth-fifths to two-thirds of have-nots.
Here is the projection of how we can possibly get this energy. The line that comes across here, WRE 750, is the level of carbon-producing fuels like oil, gas, and coal that you’d have to maintain in order to keep the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere from rising above 750 ppm. Right now, it’s 370 ppm. Most people who bother to read the literature about global warming agree that 750 ppm will produce a major change in the global climate. Even 550 ppm is probably high enough to kill all the coral reefs on the planet. So if you cared about CO2 (and I realize that we have a country these days that is in deep CO2 denial) and if you wanted to keep it from getting above these large levels, you would have to stop using carbon fuels to stay beneath these curves. So let’s take the position of the conservatives and let’s say: “Okay, I don’t care about coral reefs and I’ll accept 550 ppm in the atmosphere”. It means that by 2050 all of the world’s energy demand above what we use now in 2003 – an additional 16 TW — will have to come from some new energy supply that doesn’t put a single atom of carbon into the atmosphere.
Where can anything like that come from? That magnitude is greater than the entire magnitude of all the energy that the entire world produces now. By 2050, we have to have found the technology to make it and to implement it broadly across the whole world with the ten to hundreds of trillions of dollars it will take to do that.
Where is that magnitude of energy going to come from?.
Now, I encourage you to go back tonight and take some time reading and looking at this issue, because I think you’ll have the same experience I had. This problem just doesn’t go away. There isn’t a way of making yourself feel good about it. In fact, you can easily convince yourself that you need dramatically more energy than this by 2050: Not 30, but more like 50 or 60 TW of energy to avoid the other problems that you’re going to get into.
While I’ve got you in the reading mode (and since I’m still a Professor) I can give reading assignments . I very much recommend that you get a copy of the book, Hubbert’s Peak, by Kenneth Deffeyes, and read it. A lot of people think they know what it says, but I haven’t found very many people that have actually read it. King Hubbert was a geophysicist who worked for Shell Oil in their facility here close to Rice University in Houston. He predicted in the late 50s/early 60s that the U.S. oil production, in the continental U.S., would peak in the 1970s; and it did. The same approach applied to the world predicts that it will peak sometime within this coming decade.
I encourage you to read that book: look at Ken Deffeyes’ argument and tell me where the mistake in his argument is. It is going to be quite amazing if the world oil production doesn’t peak within this decade. It’s not that the world’s oil will be gone – we’ll still have at least half, if not two-thirds of it left – but it does mean that every succeeding year, with some exceptions, the amount of oil produced will be less than the previous one. In light of the demand going up, this is not a good scenario.
I think this next picture  is very vivid – we tend to remember things visually from speaking events more than the words. This is a plot that was shown in 1985 by John Bookout, who then was the President of Shell USA. I used to work for Shell and I have great admiration for this company. The talk he gave in San Antonio entitled “Two Centuries of Fossil Fuel Energy” was subsequently published in 1989. So here we see the world’s fossil energy. It shows oil and gas peaking about 2010 to 2015, and then tailing off. It shows us exploiting tar sands and oil shale; additional oil and gas in some other sources; and you see that actually even coal production peaks up in this demand scenario. Even from his example here given in 1985, it wasn’t clear how we were going to meet demand. The demand he projected is already wrong. It says that we should be at about 180 billion barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2003. But we’re really at 210. And this scenario increases much more slowly than what we currently consider a conservative estimate.
The question as to when we actually will peak in world oil production is really something of an academic argument since you can see here that the curve is actually pretty broad. It doesn’t matter if the peak is here or here from the standpoint of a person worried about 2050. Even if there were an entire new Persian Gulf we haven’t yet discovered, we won’t have enough oil for our needs by 2050. The problem, from the standpoint of kids that are 10 to 20 years old right now is that they’ve got to solve this problem by 2050 from some other primary energy source, with technology that simply doesn’t exist right now. And they have the responsibility to find it.
More immediate than the questions “Is oil going to peak?” and “Are oil prices skyrocketing?” is the problem of where the world’s oil currently comes from . Of course, the very present issue with this now is that oil comes from the Middle East. As time goes on, more and more of it will come from the Middle East – because this is where the big reserves are: in Saudi Arabia and right around the Persian Gulf. That fact is very unlikely to change.
Unfortunately, oil is the only way we have of making transportation fuel: all our cars, planes, and ships use oil. With current technology, we can’t replace that energy with coal or nuclear power. So this middle-east-dominated oil resource problem is of immediate and pressing concern.
Your second reading assignment for tomorrow  (as I know by these days you are very fast readers) is an excellent book entitled The Hydrogen Economy. That book provides an excellent analysis of the existing problems with energy and takes a look at the hydrogen economy that might be in our future. When you read the first chapter of this book, you may get the feeling that hydrogen might be a primary energy source. But it’s not, of course. There aren’t great mines where you can go collect pure molecular hydrogen. You have to take energy to split water apart to get the hydrogen away from the oxygen or get hydrogen from methane. But hydrogen is, after natural gas, probably what our future transportation fuel will be upon. And it probably is the principal energy storage medium that will be used in 2050.
Now to the crux of the issue: where are you going to get that energy? I have listed here all possible sources . The top one is conservation/efficiency. As I have pointed out, the extrapolations for our future energy needs have already figured into first order the effects of efficiency. We have already assumed that we will keep making advances in efficiency just as we did during the 70s and 80s when energy was very expensive; we knocked ourselves out. I’ve already assumed in the projections that we’ll keep up that rate of efficiency improvement for another hundred years. Conservation and efficiency will help, but they won’t be enough on their own.
Hydroelectric, biomass, wind, wave, and tide. My analysis is that this also is just not enough. It doesn’t pass the Terawatt challenge – with the exception of the wind. Wind can probably achieve a couple of TW. It’s not clear that it can or should be on the table for 10 TW or more. The big issue is that if you took that much energy out of the wind, wouldn’t you change the climate in the local vicinity? And, of course, you’d get awfully tired of looking at windmills and hearing the whop-whop-whop they go on. But of the contenders, in that top group, the wind is actually pretty impressive.
Natural gas and clean coal. If you believe we have a problem now with CO2, think of the middle of this century, and imagine we need to produce that amount of energy –16 TW – once more. If your answer is going to be natural gas or coal, you’ve got to do something with the carbon. We have a word that we very rarely use in any other conversation, but we now use in this field: sequestration. We have to find some way of taking that carbon and sticking it someplace where it won’t come back and get us. We have to stick it away for hundreds of years, and the amount of carbon you’re talking about is 10 to 20 gigatons per year. Year in, year out, you’ve got to stick it someplace and not have it come back. It’s not clear that there is any technology that can do that worldwide. But even if there were, could you do it at a cost that will be acceptable? Remember, we’ve got a whole planet’s energy needs to solve, and we have to have it at a low cost. It’s not clear there is a straight answer to this sequestration problem, but nonetheless, we will be conducting tremendous research to try to find it, because there are still plenty of fossil energy sources out there. We could do the hydrates because there’s a lot of that down there. But could we ever retrieve them with an overall technology that could do that at a competitive cost? That’s the big issue with the remaining fossils.
Fission and fusion. You know the problem with fission: the wastes are radioactive. And it’s the problem of nuclear weapons. And it’s really the question of cost. The capital cost to build a nuclear power plant now is much more expensive than a natural gas power plant. If you’re going to solve this problem with nuclear fission, 10 TW is the minimum amount of clean, new energy we would need by 2050. That would be equivalent to 10,000 nuclear reactors. And it couldn’t be 10,000 nuclear reactors of the sort we have right now, or else we’d burn through the world’s uranium supply in about 10 years. No, they’d have to be breeder reactors. And these 10,000 plus nuclear breeder reactors would be spread all over the world. Even if you could do it, what would the cost of those breeder reactors be? There’s a big Generation IV research program being started up by our government and others to develop alternatives. But not very many people even in the nuclear business expect that we could ever produce as much as 10 TW from that source.
Nuclear fusion. For 50 years we’ve been waiting for nuclear fusion to come and solve our energy needs. And it’s still something we need to put a lot of effort into. I wouldn’t back out of that at all. But there’s a central problem with nuclear fusion in that the only reaction we can get ready is deuterium plus tritium. This fusion reaction produces most of its energy in fast-moving neutrons – which are neutral particles. The only way to stop them is to slam them into things. The poor wall that holds the vacuum where this artificial sun is in place sits there with billions of watts of neutron power going through it – where every atom is being giggled. It’s called the “first wall problem” in the nuclear fusion business. So every year or two you’d have to rip the entire plant apart, take that highly radioactive material out, bury it someplace, and build the whole plant up again. It’s not clear that that is ever going to be cheap enough to solve our problems. And it’s not clear that we’ll ever be able to do it – it may simply be too difficult.
So what’s left? Geothermal (hot dry rock). There’s a lot of heat underneath your feet. It’s actually mostly nuclear energy stemming from the spontaneous fragmentation of the uranium and thorium that came when the planet was formed. It’s not a nuclear chain reaction reactor but it is nevertheless nuclear energy. You go down under most places on the Earth, about as far down as airplanes fly on an intercontinental flight, and you’ll find 300 to 500 degrees Celsius temperature. If you add up all the heat that’s around the planet, there’s plenty of energy there. But, there’s the question of cost. Could you do it? Could you drill down that far? And at as many places as you need to? Could you pump down water and pull the energy out at a cost-effective scheme? It’s a very interesting possibility and we should pursue it. But we will need transforming technology to make it possible.
The other possibility is the sun, collecting sunlight on the surface of the Earth – solar-terrestrial. The question is: could you ever do this at a competitive or acceptable cost? We’ve got to get enough of the energy to try to solve the water problem, health problems, and economic problems of billions of people. Could you ever do that?
One of the big problems of collecting solar energy on the surface of the Earth is that this thing called night happens. To get away from that problem, you can get off the surface of the Earth: You can imagine building satellites, giant solar satellites like those featured in a recent James Bond movie – not for zapping people but to guide the waves down to the surface of the Earth with sufficient power. Maybe we could do that: there’s plenty of energy up there. But could we do it at cost?
The most intriguing alternative to me is actually to go all the way to the moon: collect solar power on the moon, send microwave power beams back to Earth. Again the question is: Can we do it cheaply enough?
Energy is the biggest business in the world and we want to earn money at this business. Could you ever do this in a way that you could earn money?
Let’s just talk about solar here for a bit. Is there really enough sunlight going to the surface of the Earth? As shown on this slide , the answer is yes. Just like crooks rob banks because that’s where the money is, energy at the magnitude we need is to be found from the sun. Hitting the Earth every day is 165,000 TW of power – and we only need 10 to 30 TW. There’s plenty of energy here. And if you don’t mind going away from the Earth, there’s all the energy you’ll ever want in sunlight. We are bathed in energy.
If you were to take 3 TW – which is the entire U.S. consumption of energy right now – and if you covered an area of about this size with solar panels of 10% efficiency, you could generate 3 TW of power. In order to do this economically, photocells would have to be as cheap as paint. They would have to be somewhere between 25 and 100 times cheaper than they are today. If you look over the history of the drop of cost and the increase in the efficiency of photocells, you’ll find that we’re not going to get there anytime this century, unless we have a revolution. Of course, you can do it around the planet in various ways : There are lots of deserts, there are plenty of places to get solar energy that we need if we can do it efficiently and cheaply.
By far, the most intriguing and sort of wild idea that’s been promoted by David Criswell  – who’s in the audience here – is the notion of actually colonizing Space and beaming down microwave power, so the moon would look something like this to eye . We can see these little sites which are beaming power down to Earth.
I like this idea! This business of energy could take us to places and to technologies unlike what we’ve ever seen.
Nanotechnology, which is the lead in most of the areas where we need the revolutions, turns out to be the place where you’d have to get it . By definition, nanotechnology is simply the art and science of building stuff that does stuff on the nanometer scale. And if you did it with the greatest level of perfection, you would be doing it as nature does in life, that is placing atoms just where you need it with the ultimate level of finesse. That’s what goes on in living cells , and we are just now learning how to do this in physical sciences – just as nature has taught us to do in the life sciences. The wet side of nanotechnology is what I call biotechnology. The dry side is what is developing these days with the greatest newness, and that is to build things with this great perfection on the nanometer scale with matter like carbon, silicon, or germanium . Out of this, we get incredible properties you can’t get from the biological sciences: strength, high-temperature resistance, toughness, and most importantly the ability to conduct electricity. Of course, I’m particularly involved with these carbon nanotubes , because of what they can do. They are conductors of electricity: they are effectively quantum wires for electrons.
So what are these breakthroughs that we need? I’m going to list a couple of these  and then I’m going to get to my bottom line. We need a breakthrough in photovoltaics. If we’re ever going to do sunlight, we have to make them dramatically cheaper. We need somewhere between 10 to 100 reduction in the cost of “per installed Watt” of a photovoltaic cell, otherwise, it’s just not a player. Could you do it? We know of no reason why you can’t. What will it look like? I guarantee that it will be an innovation on the nanometer scale because in physics that’s where the photon turns high energy electro or some chemicals.
Hydrogen storage. We would love to do the hydrogen economy right now. But it’s not easy to store hydrogen. We need at minimum super-strong pressure vessels that we can pressurize it in. Or if we can have it, we’d love to have some magic new material that doesn’t weigh very much and that would absorb the hydrogen – so we can have it on our gas tank and not have to worry about it exploding on us. We need a breakthrough. Not an incremental thing, but an absolute breakthrough.
Fuel cells are magnificent, but they’re about a factor of 100 too expensive to replace the internal combustion engine in regular cars. Again, it will take revolutions, not increments.
Batteries and supercapacitors are just fine for golf carts and Segways, but not for a Porsche. We need – if we can get it – some photocatalytic reduction of CO2, so that we can cover West Texas in this material that could absorb CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into a fuel, like methanol. It would be terrific. Once again, it takes a revolution.
And all through this business are super-strong materials. If we’re ever going to go to Space, we need to lower the cost of getting there, so that these space-solar technologies become possible. We need about a factor of 100 reductions in cost. You can’t do that without super-strong materials. But it does appear that that’d all be possible. It’s in the cards to do.
More generally, nanoelectronics will revolutionize all computers, sensors, and devices. It runs all the way through this thing.
Also are high current cables that can transmit electrical power from here to there with great efficiency . There are high-temperature superconductors. We are now increasingly thinking about quantum conductors that transport electricity over large distances with hardly any loss at all. To rewire the electrical transmission grid of the United States, and ultimately the World, we need to get to the point where we can make an efficient electrical energy grid that will span the entire planet. You’re making energy over here and you’re sending it across the planet to some other source. It looks as though that’s possible. It is in the cards and comparably the discoveries of nanotechnology. We ought to be able to replace the windings in every electric motor in the world with quantum wires that will have essentially no eddy-current losses.
There are also thermochemical catalysts and schemes that generate hydrogen from water at moderate temperatures. But there’s a great problem in generating hydrogen as you have to get electricity first and then electrolyze things. You lose a factor of three in the energy cost just to generate electricity from heat. If we can go directly from heat to hydrogen, then that’s a big deal. That, when it’s done, I guarantee it will be nanotechnology that makes it possible.
Somehow I got light-emitting diodes as part of this. Let me say that lighting is another key feature. Of the power that goes into light bulbs, most of it just makes heat. There have been tremendous advances in the past decade. Basically, nanotechnology and light-emitting diodes are most certainly going to change this.
CO2 mineralization schemes: if we’re going to sequester, we have to have a way of turning CO2 into rock, and to do that efficiently.
Artificial intelligence-based nanoelectronics and robotics are keys to building massive structures. If you’re going to do it from solar or wind, you’d need massive construction projects. There’s a whole coupling to the information technology thing, and the robotics revolution that’s happening anyway will be vital.
But the key problem in all of this is people . We just don’t have enough American boys and girls going into the physical sciences. This is the history of people going into the physical sciences in physics ( chemistry, and engineering all look very much the same as this slide for physics). Over the last century, we’re going up to sort of smoothly. During the Second World War, quite a number of people who were going to get degrees didn’t because they were fighting in the war, or working on the Manhattan Project, or developing Radar. But later they got back into graduate school and got their Ph.D.’s, and that’s what this little bump is (the 1950s). But a huge surge here happened as a result of Sputnik. And then we sort of dropped off a bit (the 1970s), and we seemed to recover a bit (1980-1990), but most of this recovery is all from foreign nationals. In fact, the number of U.S. citizen students pretty much well leveled off.
More vivid is when you look at this trend as a function of the GDP (gross domestic product) . Of course, people who get degrees in the physical sciences and engineering don’t just go into universities; they go into all of our big companies. Pretty much all big businesses on the planet are dependent fundamentally on advances in the physical sciences and engineering. They are the basis for the wealth of the nation. This is physics, but the same trend is true in chemistry and physical engineering. You can see this is the Sputnik generation. These people now all look kind of like me: they’ve got gray hairs. They got into science and engineering because of Sputnik or because they heard about Sputnik. If you look at the authors of most scientific papers coming out now, they’re still from this bump here.
Look at what’s happening just recently in the U.S.. Look at this drop-off in Ph.D. production.
Instead, if you look around the world, you’ll find that Asian countries don’t seem to have any trouble getting kids into the physical sciences and engineering . In the U.S., we’re doing fine getting kids into computer sciences and information technology. We’re doing pretty well in the life sciences and biotechnology, too. But in the case of the physical sciences, we’re basically opting out. The people that are opting in are people in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Singapore. They’re going into these critical fields in record numbers. If this trend continues, by 2010 90% of all physical scientists and engineers — the people that are going to make the advances, if we’re ever going to make them – will be Asians practicing in Asia.
If the United States were a company and you saw this plot, the comparison of our workforce trend and what the competition is doing, you would short this company. You would fire the CEO and put in new management. You would do something dramatic.
So the bottom line is that I believe the biggest challenge for the next few decades is Energy. We need to solve this problem by developing the necessary technology and implementing it on a vast scale for this planet with 10 billion people . At a minimum, that will take an additional 10 TW, corresponding to 10,000 nuclear breeder reactors.
For world prosperity and peace, we have to make energy cheap. We simply do not have the way to do this with the current technologies. We don’t have the scientific base to do this. We need American boys and girls to enter the physical sciences and engineering as they never have – with the exception of those few years after Sputnik. By 1965, going into the physical sciences and engineering was no longer the most romantic thing you could do. In ’65, we were in Vietnam; there was the counterculture and the civil rights movement. That’s where the action was. It wasn’t with guys walking around with thick pocket protectors and slide rules.
But we need a new generation to come into the physical sciences and engineering now. And this time the motivation will be sustained because this Energy problem is going to get even more pressing with every passing year until it’s solved. We need to inspire this generation with this sense of mission: that of being a scientist.
Although it may seem corny, I think it’s true: Being a scientist can literally save the World.
In order to make this, we need a new Apollo level program to find that new energy technology and to do it as quickly as we can.
So here I have Rick Smalley’s nickel and dime solution for this biggest of all problems. Let’s nickel and dime it to death . For the next five years, let’s collect five cents – one nickel – from every gallon of gasoline, every gallon of fuel, or every gallon of jet fuel in the country and put it in a pot. That will generate $10 billion a year. And let’s direct that at frontier research in physical sciences and engineering that will give us that energy technology.
Go to your gas station and see these SUVs coming in there to fuel up. Are you going to tell me that there would be a big problem if you raised the cost of gas by five cents? Of course not. Money is not the problem; people are the problem. Money of the magnitude we need is easy to get if the purpose is to really solve the energy problem.
After ten years, increase the cost to a dime per gallon, from which we’ll get more than $20 billion per year. We’ll start making decisions about what things we ought to really beef up in the engineering to actually start the development part of this project.
I believe that a third of the money – roughly – should go into new energy research centers located on or close to major research universities.