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Energy Security: The Innovation Challenge

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Earl Bakken Science Education Lecture
The Bakken Museum
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Thursday, March 8, 2007


I will start by setting the stage — with the Academy Awards and "Green Limousines" which carried some of the stars to the Oscars last month.

As you know, former Vice President Al Gore's global climate change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," was an Oscar nominee — and the ultimate winner in that category — so there was a great deal of interest in arrival of the stars to the red carpet in "green limos."

Of special note was the Tesla Roadster — a so-called electric "road-rocket" which is powered by 6,800 lithium ion batteries. I have yet to test-drive the Tesla Roadster, but news accounts report that the new vehicle can go from 0-60 in four seconds with a top speed easily in the three digits. The barely audible 182-kilowatt AC-induction motor is capable of an astonishing 13,500 rpm. It takes three-and-a-half hours to charge the batteries which will take you 250 miles. Time magazine called it one of the best inventions of 2006. The price is under $100,000...barely under.

Of course, there is much that we do not know about this vehicle — and other experimental vehicles. Although the Tesla does not use gasoline, we do not know the full extent of "carbon footprint" upon the environment of producing and operating the Tesla Roadster — or of most experimental vehicles. And this is important, of course, because of our growing realization of the true impact of human activity upon our planet.

This interesting all-electric vehicle is an entry point to understanding something about our world — namely, that addressing the world's energy needs in a safe, secure, and sustainable manner is, indeed, the central challenge of our time.

While we often speak of "energy independence," I prefer the terminology "energy security." There is no energy independence. Let me explain.

Multiple, interrelated factors with international dimensions link our energy security to global energy security. These include global trade — including energy trade and markets; international travel, terrorism, political turmoil and instability in export countries, wars, piracy, natural disasters, and overall supply chain vulnerabilities. Energy today is interrelated, interdependent, and global.

So, what is energy security?

It may be easier to understand energy insecurity.

We are energy insecure because of rapidly changing world conditions. Consider the growth in energy demand. The economies of India and China have been growing at 7-10 percent per year for more than a decade. With a combined 2.5 billion people, they represent a staggering appetite for energy. India and China are not the only countries rising. Competition for energy supplies is growing. Daniel Yergin, of Cambridge Energy Associates, has pointed out that "rising demand and constrained supplies mean that North America can no longer be self-reliant, and the U.S. is joining the new global market in natural gas, which links countries, continents, and prices together."

We are energy insecure because humans today consume energy at a rate 13 times higher per capita than in pre-industrial society. That is the average rate per capita. Now consider that there are still 1.6 billion people — 1 in 4 around the globe — who have no access to electricity. It is in our economic and national security interest for their standards of living to rise. If their economic development follows a path similar to ours, however, where U.S. carbon emissions per capita are hundreds of times higher than in the least developed countries, there will be major environmental consequences.

We are energy insecure because of the fluctuating price at the pump, rising utility bills, lack of market predictability, and geopolitics. The price of oil can threaten our economy, because of the inverse correlation we see between gasoline prices and consumer confidence, between the price per barrel of oil and the financial markets. So, when Hurricane Katrina damaged 140 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico last year, we felt energy insecure. When Venezuela or Iran or Russia threatens to use oil blockages or market manipulation as a political tool, we feel energy insecure. This reverberates throughout our national economy, and stirs underlying global geopolitical and security questions.

We are energy insecure because of our nation's aging, inadequate, and vulnerable energy infrastructure. The United States has more than 160,000 miles of crude oil pipelines, 4,000 offshore oil platforms, 10,400 power plants, and 160,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines. When the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield closed down, recently, due to pipeline corrosion, Americans felt insecure. In August 2003, when electrical grid failure shut down power plants causing blackouts across the Northeast, our entire Rensselaer campus in Troy, New York, lost power, too, and everyone — affected and unaffected — felt insecure.

Consider, again, the relationship between energy and development. For any country, affordable energy, especially access to electricity, enables better health care, improved education, and greater food production. Infant mortality decreases, life expectancy increases, living standards rise. Citizens live longer, and earn higher wages.

In rapidly developing countries, massive population growth, the huge influx of people to cities, excessive water use, and increased numbers of automobiles (against a backdrop of skyrocketing air travel volume) are combining to make energy security the critical challenge of our time. In short, more global development requires more global energy.

Why should other countries not wish to develop as we have? We expect this. But, without new approaches, more countries will be competing for finite resources.

Therefore, a narrow focus on U.S. energy interests alone — without regard for the energy interests of other countries — is neither practical nor productive.

Moreover, if we fail to address the energy needs of the poorest countries, millions will remain in poverty — with scarce water and food, lack of basic education, inadequate health care — unable to function in the "global innovation enterprise." They will continue to feel, keenly, the imbalance in the distribution of wealth and privilege. This can lead to a sense of humiliation, to unrest and instability — conditions easily exploited by extremist groups, increasing the global threat of terrorism — or, to human rights abuses, corruption, despotism, and other forms of poor governance.

Failure to address energy security, on a worldwide basis has global and local repercussions. A collaborative, innovative and global response will be required if we are to achieve a sustainable global energy framework.

While addressing the issues nationally and internationally, the focus has to be on redundancy of supply and diversity of source. Yes, we do need strategies to reduce U.S. "dependence" on a particular supplier — or energy source — to eliminate economic and/or political vulnerabilities. However, true economic opportunity and true national security are contingent upon global energy solutions which can be applied nationally and locally.

These unprecedented challenges — to our nation, and to our world — demand the most potent innovation, if we are to resolve them. Our future as a nation, and as a planet, depends upon this critical, creative capacity.

True energy security, therefore, requires innovation — innovation in the discovery, extraction, and transportation of fossil fuels; innovation in lessening the environmental footprint of fossil energy sources; innovation in conservation; and innovation to develop alternative energy sources which are reliable, cost-effective, safe, and environmentally benign.

I am an optimist, and I contend that, when fused with discovery and innovation, these same challenges will offer unmatched opportunities.

Let us look at several examples of energy innovation. I have chosen examples which relate to electricity, to honor our venue here at the Bakken Library and Museum, and many of these examples are the focus of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — my institution.

We often think of energy in terms of powering vehicles. But, it may surprise you to learn that buildings are responsible for 39 percent of all U.S. energy consumption. Interdisciplinary researchers at Rensselaer are developing integrated building envelope systems, by integrating architectural knowledge with science and engineering expertise. The application of new technologies and integrated systems can help to mitigate heavy energy consumption, and can exploit locally available energy.

Active building envelopes, as one example, integrate thermoelectric and photovoltaic technologies into a building's exterior surfaces, using solar energy to warm or cool the building. While conventional materials depend upon the thickness for insulation, the new systems use "active thermal insulation materials." Researchers at Rensselaer are studying thin-film thermoelectric systems, and thin-film photovoltaic systems which can be applied to transparent building coverings, such as glazing.

In one breakthrough which was announced last week, Rensselaer researchers have come up with a material through which light passes with little or no reflection. This could be used to improve solar paneling, capturing more of the sun's energy, and losing less to reflection.

Another Rensselaer researcher has developed systems — called integrated concentrator solar modules — to concentrate solar energy for intelligent building envelopes. The system uses a miniaturized solar cell which produces both electric and thermal energy, as well as building shading.

A photovoltaic cell the size of a postage stamp, integrated into a translucent shading module, produces exponentially more energy savings than can large-scale systems. The (IC) Solar Module concentrates the solar energy onto a miniature Gallium Arsenide-based solar cell within two panes of glass. When arranged in multiple arrays within the façade or an atrium, the system both shades the interior, and, at the same time, generates electricity and heat for the building's lighting, heating, hot water, and mechanical cooling systems. The modules track the angle of the sun, and do not impede views to the outside.

About 21 percent of current electricity use is consumed in lighting, and about half of it can be saved by switching to more efficient, cold, solid-state semiconductor sources.

An example of semiconductor-based lighting is the LED.

LEDs or Light Emitting Diodes are being sold for Christmas tree lights, automobile tail lights, traffic signals, and other uses. But their development is just beginning and will make the incandescent and fluorescent bulbs we use in our homes today seem like the kerosene lamp era.

The Rensselaer Lighting Research Center is the world's leading university-based research and education center devoted to lighting. The goal is to develop and engineer ultra efficient, solid-state lighting systems which are fully tunable in spectral content, color temperature, and polarization. The result promises revolutionary advances in lighting, imaging, communications, displays, biotechnology, and quality of life.

Researchers expect that further savings can be achieved with new enabling technologies which optimize spectral power distribution for specific lighting needs. There is evidence that such spectral tunability could provide tremendous advantages, enabling new energy conservation strategies, light detection and conversion, communications, and imaging over a wide range of sensitivity, spectral distribution, and spatial resolution.

Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) have the potential to offer even brighter and more energy efficient lighting panels than semiconductor LEDs, and can be manufactured on flexible surfaces with huge potential for display applications.

Rensselaer researchers have developed a cost-effective, load-shedding ballast device (The DaySwitchTM) which can harvest daylight automatically. The DaySwitchTM is an alternative to traditional dimming ballast systems which adjust light levels by reducing the lamp current. Traditional systems have high initial cost and difficult photosensor programming and installation. As a result, they are not widely used. It is estimated that the DaySwitchTM will reduce lighting energy consumption by 30 percent in buildings with significant daylight contribution through windows or skylights.

Innovations in the way we manage the electric grid have the potential to make it more efficient and more secure.

To accomplish this, utilities must invest in "intelligent power grid" technologies, which deliver reliable and economical power with information flow and secure communications. The technologies — including data integration and analytics software — enable utilities to optimize the use of the grid assets and their life cycles — containing costs, and providing more secure power delivery. Using business intelligence and optimization tools, utilities can better manage advanced decision-making both for their automated equipment and for their staffs.

Intelligent grid systems use distributed sensing devices to monitor power quality and reliability. They measure demand distribution so loads can be balanced. They can detect and locate failure-monitoring transformers, circuit breakers, and tap changers. They can detect downed live power lines, arcing faults, high impedance and underground cable faults, and stray voltage.

In non-real-time, intelligent grids integrate financial and other data to optimize operations, maximize asset utilization and replacement, manage life-cycle aspects, support planning for strategic and capital expenditure, as well as customer satisfaction, system performance metrics, and regulatory reporting.

A related issue is smart management of power use in buildings. Traditionally, buildings have been relatively uncoordinated consumers of electricity. Yet, smart control systems can leverage the Internet to adjust building power use, and exploit Internet-based price broadcasting to vary power consumption, triggering strategic reductions in building energy use. Such systems can trim and coordinate power use based on specific criteria, such as energy-trading, conservation, air quality, emissions trading, brownout prevention, or tapping sustainable energy sources.

The building management software can be coordinated with Internet-based, demand-response systems.

A similar capacity can be employed in customer homes — again, automatically lowering energy use when rate structures (i.e., costs) are high. These systems can send a signal directly from a meter to a utility's outage management software when it detects an outage.

We began by speaking about an all-electric vehicle, but there is much that can be done to intelligently manage transportation. This would combine information and communications technologies with transport infrastructure and vehicles, enabling a region to better manage the of number of vehicles, loads, routes, flow and speed — at any given time — improving safety, wear, time, fuel use, and costs.

This approach can utilize mobile phone networks which can be programmed to supply "floating car data" (FCD, or "floating cellular data"), to create anonymous traffic probes which provide a variety useful information about the road network. Cellular phones in vehicles continuously transmit location information to the network. Measuring and analyzing triangulation enables the collection of localized data — speed, direction, time, traffic flow. This works particularly well in metropolitan areas with a high concentration of vehicles with mobile telephones.

This system requires effectively no new infrastructure and little maintenance, is less expensive than sensors or cameras, provides greater coverage, can be initiated quickly, and works in nearly all weather conditions — as important in Minnesota as it is in upstate New York.

Of course, some may be concerned that privacy may be compromised, but the ability to deploy such an approach in special or emergency circumstances could be invaluable.

The Tesla Roadster uses 6,800 lithium ion batteries. At Rensselaer, we are studying hybrid propulsion systems and fuel cell battery chemistry which promise to provide cleaner, more affordable, less cumbersome transportation alternatives.

Fuel cells efficiently convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy, with low pollutant emissions. To be useful and gain a significant share of the electrical power market, fuel cell technologies must address cost, form, durability, and manufacturability.

The primary research and development in fuel cells have focused on engineering and design of the fuel cell components. But the materials used have remained virtually unchanged. The goal at Rensselaer, now, is to create a new efficiency paradigm through design, synthesis and engineering of novel high-performance materials. Rensselaer researchers are exploring revolutionary approaches to polymer membrane technology, a key fuel cell component, which plays a critical role in determining the fuel cell efficiency. The polymer membrane facilitates ion conduction from the anode to the cathode, and simultaneously prevents direct mixing of fuel and air.

The research team is exploring radical ideas in the high throughput research and development of new materials — through the use of ordered intermetallic compounds as electrocatalysts, combinatorial synthetic methodology for new electrocatalytic materials and nanostructured membranes, electrodes and reformer catalysts in "one pot" synthetic approaches using block copolymers.

There are other ways to use energy more efficiently. Communities in Seattle, Boston, Chicago, New York, Bellingham, Washington, as well as some communities in Canada, and Europe are experimenting with ways to share vehicles to reduce the number of cars on the roadways. Often these vehicles are equipped to run on biofuels. Six years ago, there were approximately six vehicle-sharing services in the U.S. offering 400 members the use of some 25 vehicles. In 2005, however, the number of services rose to 17, offering more than 75,000 members more than 1,100 vehicles for sharing.

The examples I discussed reflect only a limited aspect of the transformative energy security research and innovation taking place at Rensselaer and at other research universities around the world. It will be innovations such as these, and others in the whole spectrum of applicable technologies, which will begin to make a difference and bring us to the next level in global energy security.

But, who is going to do — to continue — this transformative, innovative research? Innovation, on this scale, requires consistent investment in research and development (R&D), and consistent investment in human talent — i.e. in the "intellectual security" of a robust American science and engineering workforce.

The cohort of American scientists and engineers who brought us atomic energy, jet and rocket propulsion, space and communications technologies, television, computers, semiconductors, microchips, laser optics, fiber optics — indeed, whole new industries — are beginning to retire, and we are no longer turning out sufficient numbers of new scientists and engineers to replace them. We have always depended upon, and benefited from, the exchange of people and ideas — across geographic and cultural boundaries to address key issues. But, the ready flow, to the U.S., of talented international scientists and engineers, and graduate students is slowing, as other nations invest in their own education and research enterprises, and as globalization offers employment at home, or elsewhere.

Enrollment of American students in the sciences, mathematics and engineering has declined.

These factors define the true crisis — what I have been calling the "Quiet Crisis."

The "Quiet Crisis" is "quiet" because it takes decades to educate a physicist or a nuclear engineer, so the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time. And, may I say, parenthetically, that in the past three years, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has granted more undergraduate degrees in nuclear engineering than any other university in the country.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries and innovations create the new industries that keep our economy thriving, improve our health, maintain our standard of living, and mitigate the global scourges that breed suffering and global instability. Without innovation we fail — as a nation, and as a world.

And so we must ask — where will the discoverers, inventors and innovators come from? Our own demographics are shifting dramatically, and there is a "new majority" — comprising young women, and the racial and ethnic groups, which traditionally have been underrepresented is engineering and science. These young people — even the brightest among them — often are not specifically encouraged to take the preparative coursework which would enable them to pursue an engineering or science degree at the advanced level — even though enrollment in higher education is increasing.

There are not enough faculty and upper-class students within the "new majority" to serve as role models and mentors to shepherd and encourage these nontraditional students.

And yet, if we are to build a future cohort of engineers and scientists, this is where we must look. It is one of the major challenges to our entire education system — K-12 and higher education — to reach out to the underrepresented majority, to inspire and encourage them and help them stay in the pipeline. This must occur against the backdrop of encouraging all (and I do mean all) of our young people to take on the challenge of science and advanced mathematics — in primary and secondary school, and to consider engineering, science, and related majors in college and beyond.

The leaders of the most advanced countries (the G-8), themselves, have acknowledged that innovation is critical to sustainable progress in the 21st century, and that education is the key driver of innovation. They committed, at a recent summit in St. Petersburg, Russia to invest worldwide to develop the "knowledge triangle" of education, research, and innovation.

Much of the rise in U.S. federal support for basic research in the last decade has been driven by increases in support for biomedical research. Over the same period, support for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering, until very recently, has been in decline. More recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) support for biomedical research has plateaued. Many of the most important problems and the most important advances are inherently interdisciplinary, and combine the physical sciences, engineering, and the life sciences — as Medtronic does today in its business, as it works to save and improve lives. Therefore support for research and development must be across a broad spectrum of fields. Moreover, since research and education potentiate each other, lack of basic research support has a deleterious effect on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

I have been calling for a national conversation and national leadership on the "Quiet Crisis" to address our nation's capacity for innovation. I do this because President John F. Kennedy galvanized our nation in the 1960s in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. He inspired an entire generation to become scientists and engineers. We could do the same again with respect to energy security — indeed, energy security is the space race of the 21st century.

Reports, by major corporate, academic, government, and private sector entities all have recognized these trends and warn of the consequences, if we fail to act. The national conversation is engaged.

Throughout last year, the President (of the U.S.), and Members of the Congress from both parties, acknowledged the need to do more. Many efforts to increase basic research funding, to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and to address energy security were introduced. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate heeded the call when they voted to pass the FY07 joint continuing resolution. The measure freezes funding for most domestic and foreign aid programs. However, there are modest but critically needed funding increases for research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. The President signed this bill last month. In addition, the President's recently released fiscal 2008 budget proposal would continue investments in his American Competitiveness Initiative. It proposes provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act to improve mathematics education and require science proficiency of all students by 2020.

It is time to move from proposals to action — from rhetoric to reality. What is needed is a focal point — a galvanizing issue to build a national consensus to act. That focal point is energy security.

We began with an intriguing, new all-electric vehicle. I would like to close with another. I, also, began by addressing the young people in our audience, and I would like conclude in the same way.

Two years ago, inventor Woody Norris won the Lemelson-MIT award — the top prize in the United States for invention, netting him a half million dollars. His winning invention is the AirScooter — an individual, easy-to-fly aircraft with motorcycle-type handle-bar controls. It would be guided by a computer software program developed by NASA, utilizing satellites and global positioning systems, called "Highway in the Sky." Mr. Norris hopes for a price under $50,000, although AirScooter is not currently in production.

I must add, again parenthetically, that last month at Rensselaer awarded a $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize to a young graduate student who invented an ultralight, handheld terahertz (or T-ray) spectrometer which can detect cracks in space shuttle foam, image tumors in breast tissue, and spot counterfeit watermarks on paper currency. He has a patent pending on what he calls the Mini-Z.

Whether or not we soon are to see airborne automobiles, or affordable battery-powered roadsters, we may be sure of one thing — which I think Woody Norris put well when he said, "This stuff that we're surrounded by — that we think is so cool — is caveman. The good stuff is coming. The really good stuff is coming."

As I conclude, I would like to leave you with two thoughts. One is that it is important how we think about a challenge such as energy security and the global breadth which we bring to the challenge. How we think about energy security will determine how we meet the challenge.

The other, which is just as important and just as challenging, is that, in the end, how we meet the energy security challenge is really about the kind of human society we want to build.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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