Materializing the Future
By Ryan KozinClick PDF version
Boston, MA, USA – The US Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) late last year to deliver his comprehensive discourse on the current state and future of US Energy Policy, Winning the Clean Energy Race. Highlighting historic examples as well as recently implemented policies under the Obama Administration, Dr. Chu made the case that United States is positioned to regain its manufacturing leadership through new materials that can be used in carbon-free technologies. And by recapturing this premier positioning, he suggested, help create a more energy-efficient world.
A Beginning: The Afternoon and then the Future
Few and far between are willing to argue that world is not precariously positioned with respect to energy consumption—according to Enerdata, for instance, not since 1973 has world energy usage increased, in percentage terms, as much as it did in 2010. However, such urgency for a new direction is not unfamiliar. After the expectant formalities and cordial introductions, Dr. Chu opened the afternoon by reminding the audience of a few very important examples when science has changed the course of history and in some cases, saved us from ourselves—after all, to cite a cliché, necessity is the mother of all invention. He started by highlighting a number of innovations and “Transformative Technologies” in agriculture and later went on to touch on other sectors such as information technology and transportation, ultimately arriving at his prescription for our current energy predicament, new materials.
Coming Back from the Brink: Innovations in Agriculture
For his first example of past “Transformative Technologies,” Dr. Chu reached back over a century to 1898 when Sir William Crookes issued a dire warning to the western world. At the time, England was importing nitrogen based fertilizers from South America in order to enrich nutritionally-depleted soil, a consequence of over-farming. The trouble was that even the reserves were starting to run low and unless an alternative was found there would be widespread famine. Specifically, Crookes stated the following:
“England and all civilised nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. As mouths multiply, food resources dwindle. Land is a limited quantity, and the land that will grow wheat is absolutely dependent on difficult and capricious natural phenomena… It is the chemist who must come to the rescue… Before we are in the grip of actual dearth the chemist will step in and postpone the day of famine to so distant a period that we and our sons and grandsons may legitimately live without undue solicitude for the future.”
The underlying message was clear: The pace of consumption was unsustainable and millions would starve unless an alternative was discovered. It’s also clear that Crookes was issuing a challenge to science. But he wasn’t doing so blindly. While Crookes based his claims on the early work of Wilhelm Ostwald, it was the notorious Fritz Haber that answered his call when he successfully fixed nitrogen from air and turned it into ammonia, which is then used to produce nitrogen-based fertilizers, in 1918 (for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize). Thirteen years later, Carl Bosch, was also awarded the prize for industrializing the process. As it’s know today, the Haber Bosch process is not only estimated that have been responsible for feeding half of the world’s 700M at the time of the Industrial Revolution (~1750), but according to Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food, it is estimated to currently sustain about one-third of the world’s population. But, in 1960, the equation changed. It looked as though Haber and Bosch had merely postponed an inevitable crisis. The worry was articulated by Biologist Professor Paul Ehrlich who, largely echoing the l “Malthusian Catastrophe”—which predicted an inevitable regression to subsistence-level conditions as a consequence of population growth outpacing agricultural production—issued the following statement in his 1968 book The Population Bomb:
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
While the essence of Ehrlich’s words still rings true today and should not be disregarded—it’s commonly stated that 15 million people die every year from starvation—, his prediction was ultimately wrong. In fact, just two years after Ehrlich’s dire prophecy Normal Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on breeding disease-resistant as well as dwarf strains of wheat with thick stems that could support heavier kernels that allowed plants to support the rapid growth spurts caused by nitrogen-based fertilizer in poor soils, which has had a undisputable impact on fighting starvation despite its environmental controversy (namely, that it lead to mono-cultures and fertilizer-intensive farming). It’s as if additional solutions have been discovered almost as needed. Nevertheless, the worlds’ population is continuously growing. And so the question arises, what happens next?
Climbing to the Plateau: Population Stabilization
In order to understand the urgency of energy policy reform, we need to understand population trends. And compared with growth rates from the last two centuries, the world’s population has been increasing exponentially and is set to grow by another billion over just the next 13 years. But before we answer the next question, does this mean starvation en masse is inevitable? How are we to cope with an ever-increasing world population and limited resources? Dr. Chu continued:
“It turns out that when populations get wealthier, when the women get more educated […] and when the infant mortality rate drops—people stop having families of 10, 12 and 15 because they expect their children to grow up from infancy to adulthood… and the fact that in wealthy populations you have to spend money to put your kids through college might have something to do with it… but, in any case, what happens is that in developed countries and the wealthier parts of the population actually are going down to negative population growth—the fertility rate is actually less that 2.1% or 2.2%, which is what you need to break even.”
In other words, the world population might peak sometime in this century—which is timely for both agriculture and energy. Projections by the United Nations have it peaking towards the beginning of the 22nd century. And Dr. Chu was in complete accordance and went on to say that he expects it to plateau and then even decline: “My feeling is that if we can just get over this hump,” he offered with modest humor, “we can make it… It will occur naturally [population stabilization] due to a lot of other things, but certainly education and wealth are huge in that”. It seems as though a higher global standard of living will lead to decreased population growth and therefore allow for a more sustainable population. But the intelligence of our energy policy is not dependent solely on how we produce food or how many of us there are.
Tying population growth trends into the general thread of his discourse, Dr. Chu moved onto innovations in information technologies and pointed out that it is the cell-phone that is the most “desired luxury item on earth,” and then gave a detailed explanation of the “transformative technology” of how vacuum tubes developed by Bell Labs ultimately led to solid-state transistors and from there the integrated circuit, intel-chips and optical fibers which make wireless communication possible and as an example of technology ingenuity before moving on to touch on examples in other areas.
Bright Ideas Take Flight: Getting Transportation Technologies off the Ground
Illustrating how transformative manufacturing techniques can serve as a template for how the United States can lead the way in clean energy usage and manufacturing, Dr. Chu shifted gears and said simply: “Let me tell you a little about airplanes.” He went on to explain that in 1898, Samuel Langley received $50,000 from the War Department and $20,000 from the Smithsonian to develop a human piloted heavier-than-aircraft. However, after the second take-off and subsequent crash, he decided to abandon his efforts for the sake of the pilots’ lives. Interestingly enough, though, only 9 days later on December 17th, 1903, in Kittyhawk, SC, the Wright Brothers were successful in their efforts. Flight was born; and shortly thereafter the United States Military became their largest customer. However, even the Wright Brothers were unable to make flight flawless and when these technologies made their way across the Atlantic to Europe by 1917, the United States had fallen behind and was no longer the leading designer or manufacturer of airplanes.
“So what did we do? Now, did we say ‘we invented it, production is off-shored, but that’s okay, we invented it?’ No. The United States said ‘we’re going to get back the lead’’. And that is exactly what the United States did. By allowing private companies to carry the mail, the US government effectively opened up the space for competitive innovation, which when coupled with constant demand—the military continued buying planes—led to a hot marketplace and progressive engineering. Furthermore, the United States government put in place regulations to make flight safer, which led to the development of a passenger business. Chu’s argument was clear:
“Federal support is critical to technology leadership.”
But what exactly do the Wright Brothers have to do with “Winning the Clean Energy Race”? The simple answer is that each of these examples serves to not only illustrated timely innovation but also serve to lay out the methodology the United States should use in moving towards renewable energy. And a great example of what we need to do now in order to increase our manufacturing of clean energy technologies can be found, ironically enough, by looking at the history of the automotive industry.
Innovative Manufacturing: “They’re Henry-Fording us”
Offering another historic example of American ingenuity, Dr. Chu called to memory Henry Ford, reminding the audience that: “Henry Ford did not invent the internal combustion engine, or automobile. Dailmer and Benz did. Ford [improved] the assembly line and [developed] the ability to create high quality, low cost automobiles.” And, he continued: “America became the dominant automobile manufacturing force in the world by increasing production efficiency.” Essentially, Ford created what Dr. Chu refers to as “a market for the multitudes”—which is what’s needed now in order to grow our clean energy industry.
Fast forwarding a couple decades, Dr. Chu actualized his model by touching on Suntech, currently the world’s largest manufacturer of photovoltaic solar modules. He explained that the company was founded in 2001 by an Australian citizen with a Phd in Electrical Engineering who came up with a better way of producing silicon solar used to produce the modules. China, where founder Zhengron Shi was born, aggressively invited Suntech to set up their headquarters in the city of Wuxi as well as a number of manufacturing plants throughout the country. Besides the obvious relevance to clean energy and the painful reminder that China is out-investing the United States by leaps and bounds, what’s particularly interesting about Suntech is how they go about manufacturing their solar panels. First, Suntech imports raw silicon crystal material from US suppliers, then they manufacture solar cells in an automated plant in China. And while they are building assembly plants around the world, in countries such as Germany, Spain and the United States, they are keeping the “high tech stuff” at home. Or, as Dr. Chu put it: “So, what did Suntech do and what is China doing?”
“Well, they’re Henry-Fording us. That’s what we did to Dailmer and Benz. So, it was high tech manufacturing and quality production that dominated the market.”
Dr. Chu closed out this section by returning to the advent of automotives, drawing one last parallel—that there is even more to be learned from the rapid adoption of automobiles, one of “the fastest transformations we’ve ever seen”. When you consider the infrastructure required for large scale manufacturing of automobiles the question of what drove this rapid adaptation arises naturally. And the answer is encouraging. Automobile technology was superior to horse-power and would have replaced it eventually, but it was also more environmentally friendly which accelerated its rate of adoption. Chu elaborated that in 1880, there were approximately 160,000 horses that produced 3-4 million pounds of horse manure every day in New York and Brooklyn (1.27 billion pounds per year). Consequently, by the 1920s, most major cities were becoming increasingly dominated by automobiles; and by the 1940s most urban areas were entirely dominated by automobiles. In other words, the new technology was more quickly adapted because of an environmental pollution issue. There was an environmental concern. There was a necessity for innovation.
“Well,” Dr. Chu said, confidently setting up the next section of his lecture, “here’s another environmental concern—”
Suess: Why Do We Really Need Clean Energy Anyways?
It’s our warning—it’s our wake-up call and it should be our impetus. It’s the proof as to why the need for clean energy is both necessary and urgent. The definition for the Suess Effect, named after Austrian physicist Hans Suess who first noted the phenomenon, is as follows:
“The relative change in the 14C/C or 13C/C ratio of any carbon pool or reservoir caused by the addition of fossil- fuel CO2 to the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are devoid of 14C because of the radioactive decay of 14C to 14N during long underground storage and are depleted in 13C because of isotopic fractionation eons ago during photosynthesis by the plants that were the precursors of the fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of fossil fuels is thus virtually free of 14C and depleted in 13C. The term Suess effect originally referred to the dilution of the 14C/C ratio in atmospheric CO2 by the admixture of fossil-fuel produced CO2, but the definition has been extended to both the 14C and 13C ratios in any pool or reservoir of the carbon cycle resulting from human disturbances.”
In layman’s terms, while advances in assembly line production allowed us to create high quality, low cost automobiles more easily, it also resulted in an unprecedented spike in greenhouses gases in the atmosphere—i.e., carbon dioxide emissions—; and also nitrous oxide. Furthermore disconcerting, these increases mirror population growth and industrialization. In short, global warming looks to be more of a direct correlation than a coincidence. It’s manmade.
By reminding the audience of this evidence (that the warming of the earth’s climate is a consequence of human activity rather than a result of a natural process), it seems as though Dr. Chu wanted to reiterate the need for some of the policies and new materials he would go on to lay out in greater detail. Also, he keeps in tying all advances in “Transformative Technology” to a catalyst: Just as starvation served as the catalyst for the Haber-Bosch process, it’s the Suess Effect that is serving as the catalyst for the development of carbon free technologies.
Making the Answers: Innovation Materials Processing
Before getting to core of his argument for building a better future, Dr. Chu wanted to exemplify how we can improve on materials that we are already using. And for this, another story. In 1884, the Washington Monument was capped and the material chosen was aluminum. What might explain for using aluminum versus say bronze coated in gold on such an important monument? Cost. The cost of aluminum at the time was $1/oz whereas the cost of gold was $20/oz. Aluminum was a cheaper, alternative Precious Metal. And the price differential can be attributed to a new and more inexpensive process for refining aluminum that was invented.
The Electrolytic Process (using electrolysis in an industrial capacity to refine metals or compound at a high purity and low cost) is a great example of how materials processing will allow for incredible energy savings particularly with respect to today’s commonly used materials such as titanium:
“If we can make titanium through a similar electrolytic process as we use for aluminum, it gets to be close to the price of aluminum. So, we are working on this, we are funding this. To make aviation-grade titanium, we’ll see a 9X reduction in energy, and we’re thinking perhaps a 5X reduction in cost […] Here’s an example of where materials processing could really revolutionize things the way it did with aluminum.”
And these innovations in materials processing could have a profound impact on fuel consumption. Over the last 40 years or so we have seen commercial jetliners become increasingly efficient in this regard. Today’s Boeing 707, for example, uses only 30% of the fuel of its predecessor, the 787. But the goal is to make airplanes even more efficient, which is currently being addressing through a new idea that has just recently come forth: Out-of-the-autoclave manufacturing, a substantially cheaper process to the autoclave.
But the potential fuel and production cost savings don’t end there: “If you substitute the steel we use predominately in us cars today with higher tensile strength steel [tensile strength: the maximum stress a material can withstand], you can reduce the average weight of the car by 25- maybe up to 30%”. And if you reduce the weight of the car, you can make the engine smaller. Yet another example of where the US needs to look to other countries; Asia and Europe have been transitioning over the last decade or two to a higher tensile strength, roughly 4 -5X higher strength per weight. In short, if you can make a lighter automobile—that is nonetheless safer—you can dramatically increase fuel mileage therefore decreasing fuel consumption on a national level. Sadly, “there is one manufacturer of this high-tensile strength steel in the United States… it’s an Indian company; there’s a Russian company that wants to build a factory and there’s a Swiss company that wants to build a factory.” And, echoing the point he made on photovoltaics, Dr. Chu said poignantly:
“We’re missing a U.S. company.”
This should be a major focus for the United States as we refocus our automobile industry. Not only are we undermining the marketability of the automobiles that we manufacturer here in the states by not further incorporating high tensile strength steel, but it’s part and parcel in our dependence on foreign oil—which has multitudinous geopolitical implications. We need to minimize our total oil consumption, currently listed as ~6.9 billion barrels per year according the U.S. Government. And when you consider that 72% of those almost 7 billion barrels (i.e., 4.9 billion) are allocated for transportation purposes (45% for “light duty vehicles”) a great way to decrease our total per capita consumption is by requiring automotive manufacturers to achieve higher Miles Per Gallon standard. Dr. Chu not only insinuated that the advent of a U.S. manufacturer of high tensile strength steel is soon to come by alluding to the new measure passed by the White House this summer that requires all passenger cars and light trucks to achieve a combined average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 when he closed out this section by saying: “There was no incentive [to move to high tensile strength steel] when the fuel standard was 25 MPG; there’s now a big incentive when you go to 55 MPG.”
Building Better Buildings: Incentivizing the Initiative
Lowering our dependence on fuel and our CO2 emissions by using lighter steel, or reducing the energy required to manufacture airplane wings and fusil lodges are a great way to get us where we’re going more efficiently, but what about our buildings? This time more directly citing an energy achievement of the Obama administration rather than a goal, Dr. Chu took a moment to announce the details of a new energy initiative known as the Better Building Challenge that seeks to make commercial buildings more 20% energy efficient by 2020 (i.e., use 20% less energy). This is to be achieved by calling on CEOs and university Presidents to either build more energy efficient buildings or retrofit existing buildings. While the incentive for the former is clear—if you build a more efficient building you reap the benefits of lower operating and utility costs—, adoption has been slow. The sad truth is that although the technology used in building more energy efficient buildings is the same in cost as less energy efficient technologies, most architects and structural engineers aren’t aware of it:
“The biggest obstacle [to building more energy efficient buildings] is a lack of knowledge.”
It’s unfortunately appropriate that the biggest obstacle to there being more energy efficient buildings is a foundation of awareness, but the administration has acknowledge this knowledge absence and address is through the Better Building Case Competition. The program challenges university students to reduce the “persistent barriers to energy efficiency that have limited the energy efficiency market.” Because the barriers are high: “How do you induce industry, commercial – sector, whatever, to build a more efficient building when the payback period is 1 to 5 to 10 years?” Hopefully the fact that buildings can be made to consume 50% less energy and still be equally comfortable will prove to be enough incentive.
This is an encouraging example of steps in the right direction and is in-step with the European Union’s “Directive on Energy Performance of Buildings (2002/91/EC),” which likewise seeks a 20% reduction in Greenhouse gases emissions by 2020 and a sister energy savings of 20% for that same year. As Dr. Chu went on to point out, however, as the United States continues to take steps in the right direction we are going to have to dig deep—we are going to have dig deep in terms of investing, innovation and, lastly, quite literally.
Rare Earth Metals: Rarely Found Outside of China
Definition: The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) defines rare earth metals as a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table; these are the fifteen lanthanides, as well as scandium and yttrium.
To put it simply, rare earth metals are a collection of 17 elements that are used to perform highly specific task for many current and emerging alternative energy technologies including electric vehicles, batteries for automobiles, photo-voltaic cells, energy-efficient lighting, and turbines for wind power. The problem, however, is that the majority of rare earth metals are being mined in China. Or, as Dr. Chu put it: “the only problem with the rare earth metals is that China produces over 95% of them”. Consequently, the availability of these materials becomes greatly limited because China naturally wants to use these rare earth materials in their products, thus driving prices up significantly. China has all of the rare earth materials and they want to use them in Chinese products, so we need to find substitutes. In other words, China has effectively monopolized the market, which is bad for prices as well as availability and therefore the adoption of energy efficient products and technologies. The answer, once again, to a limited a fix demand, is to find an alternative source and or increase supply.
While the United States holds approximately 13% of the world’s total REEs in deposits located across 14 states, there is only one American REE company—Molycorp—and mining is just now restarting. So, it might be a while before a direct market impact is felt. Moreover, that’s a small percentage compared to the 37% China is purported to hold in reserves. So, what else are we doing? Dr. Chu asked, before again answering his own question: “We’re also looking at how to use rare earths sparingly and it turns out there is one approach where you take a nano-particle of rare earth and put it in a soft magnetic, that’s easily magnetized by the permanent magnet, and if you space the nanoparticles correctly in a 3-dimensional ray […] you get a magnet that is more powerful than the rare earth magnet at a fraction of the cost because you’re using the expensive stuff very sparingly. The problem is that you can do this is small samples, but you need bulk. Again, it becomes a matter of manufacturing thing.”
The importance of REEs on adoption rates of clean energy can’t be stressed enough given the range of products that require them. Plus, the amount of energy consumed in the United States and the stranglehold that China has the REE market—thereby causing somewhat of an international “hassle” to advanced adoption of the technologies made from those REE—the stage is set for the United States to become a leader in clean energy technologies.
Moving on to underline the importance of quantities, Dr. Chu shifted gears back to photovoltaics, illustrating the inverse relationship of production cost to volume—i.e., the Marginal Cost. Dr. Chu went out to make another poignant comment that can be applied to all of the materials and necessary manufacturing methods in question:
“[…]if you plot the cost of production on an alogorithmic scale in terms of cumulative [production] volume what you find in virtually every technology is the cost begins to decline [as a consequence of greater manufacturing].”
And this has held true for silicon solar modules. Over the past 2 ½ years, the cost-per-module has decreased 70% from $4 per unit to just over $1 per unit. Furthermore, the DOE’s SunShot Initiative supports efforts by private companies, national laboratories and numerous universities to drive down the cost of solar electricity to about $0.06 per kilowatt-hour in order to enable solar-generated power to account for 15 – 18% of America’s electricity generation by 2030.
(It should be pointed out that prices for REEs fell this past summer due to large American, European and Japanese companies moving operations to China, reducing inventories, using alternative materials and even curtailing production to avoid paying the high prices. Buyers of Chinese REE effectively reduced demand in order to cause prices to drop, resulting in a market surplus—which manufacturers have been trying to offset by halting production.)
The Future: When Does It Begin?
The future has begun. But in many respects, the United States is behind where it should be in terms of technology adoption and policy implementation. And given the United States potential capacity for manufacturing and therefore expanding the market of greener technologies, this is problematic. But it’s also changing. What it all comes down is cost. At the moment, solar energy, for example, is cheaper than gas energy but only because of subsidies. More troubling, there is somewhat of an aversion to these newer technologies. Many view outfitting the home with solar panels as inconvenient. This was addressed by Dr. Chu when he said sweepingly “you have to take away the hassle”. In other words, as Dr. Chu pointed out when speaking of innovative manufacturing, demand has to be greater for the solution than for the problem—we have to have more demand for the right materials rather than the wrong materials. We have to make using renewable energies a “no-brainer” and it has to be done soon.
So, how do we “take away the hassle”? Dr. Chu drew the audience’s attention to a few success stories. The first of which was national business model. Simply Solar is the leading source of Solar Energy and how they’ve gone about acquiring that title is particularly inspiring. Recognizing this “hassle,” Simply Solar offers a progressive new idea known as “Solar Leasing”. What this means is instead of having to make the investment in solar modules (photovoltaics) yourself, Simply Solar leases the equipment to the clients for no upfront costs and even provides maintenance; the lease is transferable, if desired, and the cost of energy is lower than commercial rates. And to its credits, there are no federal funds supporting the program. This is a standalone example of where innovation responds to a new marketplace and entrepreneurship takes over. Furthermore encouraging, they have increased solar installation tenfold in the state of Arizona, which is indicative of a larger trend:
“Solar will cross over to levelize the cost of electricity with gas in one to two decades—and in the sunbelt, probably one decade.”
For the next and last success story, Dr. Chu moved on to talk about Brazil’s sugarcane fuel production as an example for biomass collection and production—a way to make biomass energy cheaper. Brazil has done an amazing job of building its bio-mass fuel industry. From 1970 to today they have increased the yield-per-hectare 3x. And the way they have gone about this is through mechanization. Brazil has industrialized and streamlined not only the collection of sugarcane, which has greatly decreased production costs. Instead of machetes to cut and collect sugarcane, now they are harvester but they have also improved on transportation—“[they then] put stalks in these little truck, little truck goes to the big truck, automatically dumps it and big truck goes to the plant”. This drives energy and cost inputs down. Again, examples for the United States to follow.
“And,” Dr. Chu went on, “this is what we need to do for plants [biomass] engineered for energy,” suggesting that by using a wider catch-radius we can drive down the production costs and make the final price of biomass fuels cheaper for buyers.
Policy Prognosis: Where Are We Headed?
The policy prognosis for the Obama administration in particular and the United States in general is increasingly positive, but the US isn’t quite the global leader (although the US does commonly rank in the top 5 countries in terms of “New Capacity Investment” and “Renewables Power Capacity”). Just as it’s necessary to break China’s monopoly on the REE market—through either fabrication methods, domestic mining and/or finding more alternatives—in order to widen the parameters of products being and the ease with which they’re produced, we also need to convenience consumers that these products are superior. All of which is necessary if the US hopes to achieve Chu’s prediction that in the next century renewable energy will account for 70 – 80% of total energy.
We’ve had our industrial revolution, our transportation revolution and our information (i.e., digital) revolution all of which were great sources of economic growth and brilliant ingenuity that positively changed people’s lives across the globe. Now it’s time for a full-out clean energy revolution. The federal government needs to keep setting targets and entrepreneurs need to keep finding ways to hit them. It’s time for the US to invest more time, money, and intellectual resources in developing “Transformative Technologies” for the clean energy space. After all, the obsolescence of fossil fuels is axiomatic and as Dr. Chu said to close out the afternoon: “We still have the opportunity to lead in the clean energy race […] this, in the end, will be the seeds of our future prosperity”.
For more on Dr. Steven Chu and Clean Energy:
Click here to see Dr. Chu’s “Winning the Clean Energy Race” live on MIT TechTV.
Click here to see Dr. Chu explain why we should all paint our roofs white on his 2009 visit to The Daily Show.
Click here for the Renewables 2011 Global Status Report