A nickel investment for future’s grid will pay off

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July 9, 2004 -Energy is the single most important challenge facing humanity today.

As we peak in oil production and worry about natural gas supplies, life must go on. Somehow, we must find a basis for energy prosperity in the 21st century for ourselves and the rest of humanity.

By the middle of this century we should assume that we will need to double world energy production from its current level, with most of this coming from clean, sustainable, carbon dioxide-free sources. For worldwide peace and prosperity, it must be cheap. We simply cannot do this with current technology.

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We will need revolutionary breakthroughs to find the clean, low-cost energy necessary for advanced civilization of the 10 billion souls we expect to be living on this planet before this century is out.

The system most likely to meet that goal is an electrical-based grid that draws from numerous sources — solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, biomass and fossil fuels — for reliable energy. Nanotechnology will be a contributor, as well as other technologies, if we provide sufficient support.

Consider, for example, a vast interconnected electrical energy grid for the North American continent. 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: massive long-distance electrical power transmission, and local storage of electrical power with real-time pricing.

Storage of electrical power is critical for stability and robustness of the electrical power grid, and it is essential if we are to use solar and wind as our dominant primary power source.

The best place to provide this storage is locally, near the point of use. Imagine by 2050 that every house, business and building has its own local electrical energy storage device, an uninterruptible power supply capable of handling the needs of the owner for 24 hours.

Today using lead-acid storage batteries, such a unit for a house to store 100-kilowatt hours of electrical energy would take up a small room and cost more than $10,000.

Through advances in nanotechnology, it may be possible to shrink an equivalent unit to the size of a washer and drop the cost to $1,000. Among the approaches being developed today are nanotubes, nanowires and nanocomposites for batteries.

On another front, nanostructured membranes, nanohorn electrodes and nanocatalysts are helping to make fuel cells smaller, lighter and more affordable.

With research and entrepreneurial efforts, many schemes are likely to emerge to supply this local energy storage market that may expand to several billion units worldwide.

The grid can become robust with these advances, since local storage protects customers from power fluctuations and outages. With real-time pricing, the local customers have incentive to take power from the grid when it is cheapest.

This permits the primary electrical energy providers to deliver power to the grid when it is most efficient for them to do so, and reduce the requirements for reserve capacity to follow peaks in demand. Most importantly, it permits a large portion 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.

Nanotechnology in the form of single-wall carbon nanotubes (or buckytubes) forming a quantum wire may play a role in this electrical transmission system.

As wires, buckytubes are superb conductors, offering a current density far higher than today’s options. They’re also lightweight, stronger than steel and shrink rather than expand when heated.

Expanding wires cause power lines to sag, making them less efficient electricity carriers and fire hazards if they dip into tree limbs.

These technologies will allow primary power producers to 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 British Columbia, nuclear power from Washington, and solar power from the vast western deserts, etc., contribute power to consumers far away on the grid.

Everybody plays.

Such innovations in power transmission, storage and generation technologies themselves can only come from discoveries in science together with free enterprise in open competition for worldwide markets.

America 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.

At minimum it will generate a cornucopia of new technologies that will drive wealth and job creation. 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.

This column was adapted from Senate testimony given on April 27.

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