Discover Dialogue: Chemist Rick Smalley

We are used to a world where we are rich in energy, driven by low-cost oil. That will not go on for much longer

By Edward Rosenfeld|Sunday, February 06, 2005
RELATED TAGS: ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

Rick Smalley shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for his pioneering research in nanotechnology. He discovered carbon 60, which he named buckminsterfullerene—buckyballs for short—because the molecule carries the structure of geodesic domes created by Buckminster Fuller. Buckyballs have led to the development of carbon nanotubes, used in many contemporary developments in nanotechnology. Smalley, who teaches at Rice University in Houston, is using his Nobel Prize as a bully pulpit to discuss energy, an issue he calls the most important problem facing humanity.

What is the energy problem, and why are you, a chemistry professor, so concerned about it?

S: The core of the energy problem is that we have a lot more people on this planet than we used to have. Right now most of the billions of people in the underdeveloped world are not consuming energy at any significant rate, yet they certainly will as time goes on. Either we find a way of enabling energy prosperity for everyone on this planet, or we will inherit a plague of troubles. 

Such as?

S: Prosperity is determined by the abundance, quality, and cost of energy. We are used to living in a world where we are incredibly rich in energy, driven primarily by low-cost oil. That will not go on for much longer. It cannot because rapid economic development in China, India, and Africa, combined with increasing demand for fuel in the developed world will soon outpace worldwide oil production.

What will happen as energy costs climb?

S: The cost of energy going up will cause prosperity to go down. There will be inflation as billions of people compete for insufficient resources. There will be famine. There will be terrorism and war.

Why are you the right person to take this on?

S: The answer to these problems has to come out of the physical sciences and engineering. If I can’t see the answer, who can?

Why don’t more people seem to care about this?

S: Cheap oil. Our biggest problem for the past 20 years has been low oil prices.

Do you think it will require another shocking event like the 1970s oil crisis?

S: I’m afraid it will. I have dedicated much of my time to trying to bring this issue to the top of the agenda, hoping that the Bush administration would realize the political poetry of launching a grand new challenge to solve the energy problem. If that doesn’t happen, then we will have to wait for events to bring this issue to a raging crisis.

What should we be doing?

S:  We should concentrate on finding a new energy resource and a new energy infrastructure to augment and ultimately replace oil, natural gas, and eventually coal. It’s a huge enterprise. Worldwide, energy is a $3-trillion-a-year operation, twice the size of global agriculture and four or five times larger than all the world’s military expenses.

What about the energy companies?

S: Many people working in the big energy companies have great hopes that there are vast resources of natural gas around the planet that will keep us going for many decades. I share their hope, but I believe it is wishful thinking.

So where should research be focused now?

S: One area is in the transmission and storage of electrical energy. It would be transforming to have much more efficient electrical energy transport by wire over continental distances in hundreds of gigawatts. It would also be transforming to have electrical energy storage on a vast scale. I believe it’s best to do this locally in our houses and small businesses. We need to be able to pull electrical power off the grid when it is cheapest and tuck it away somewhere so that it is available for use later, whenever that home or business needs it. Long-distance electrical power transfer would allow primary energy producers to market their energy thousands of miles away. Imagine vast solar farms in the deserts. You know, if you look at the planet, virtually every continent has deserts. Those deserts have tremendous energy resources in the form of sunlight. Even if we find a way of generating the electricity, you’ve got to transport that energy from the deserts, where people don’t live, to other places on the continents where they do live, and you’ve got to shift the time when the energy is available. I’m confident that the best answer is going to be enabled by nanotechnology.

What can nanotechnology do?

S: Let’s talk first about transmission. The angle I’ve been devoting my efforts to is a new kind of conducting cable made of what are called armchair quantum wires: single-walled carbon nanotubes [buckytubes] with a particular structure. These are quantum wave guides for electrons. I am confident over time we will be able to find new ways of spinning continuous cables using such technology. This approach could yield cables with the conductivity of copper but with a strength greater than steel at one-sixth the weight. Carbon nanotubes are capable of handling incredible levels of electrical current, as much as a billion amps per square centimeter. That’s compared with conventional cabling material, which can carry only a couple thousand amps per square centimeter. In storage, our hope is to develop new batteries. The chemistry of batteries needs to be improved at the nano level and brought up to the macro level. The best candidates include buckytubes in lithium ion batteries, flow cells, and hydrogen fuel cells.

How far away are we from being able to store and transmit energy these ways?

S: I believe if we launch a major national research program, we can have the necessary enabling scientific discoveries—little miracles and big miracles—within the next 10 to 15 years.

Solar doesn’t work very well now. Why are you so keen for it?

S: If you survey the sources for primary energy at the massive scale that we’re going to need, there are only a few places you can find energy of that magnitude. Nuclear fission power plants, if you were willing to have thousands of breeder reactors around the world, would be perfectly adequate. Hydrogen fusion would be perfectly adequate. Both are probably going to be too expensive, but we ought to push them anyway.

Can any other energy sources help us until we develop solar better?

S: Coal. But we cannot burn coal much longer without somehow sequestering the resultant C02. Unfortunately, I doubt that we will ever be able to do that on a global scale in a practical, reliable way at the required rate of tens of billions of tons per year, year after year. That sends us right back to solar. There is thousands of times more solar hitting the earth than we will need to power 10 billion people. The only way to do it cheaply is with photovoltaics or a photocatalytic agent that is as cheap as paint. There’s a lot of buzz around about nano entities that can be coated onto photovoltaic films cheaply.

So research dollars should go to solar first?

S: Yes, together with electrical power transmission and local storage. We ought to stomp on it. I realize that we’ll need miracles to get there, and we can’t guarantee that all those miracles are possible within the laws of physics and chemistry as we now know them, but I have faith that somehow we will find a way to make it work.

How much time do you think we have?

S: Well, we should have dealt with all of this back in the 1980s. The challenge we face is to provide for a doubling of worldwide energy production by midcentury. Right now the world runs on about 14 terawatts of power, the equivalent of 220 million barrels of oil per day. By midcentury, most analysts agree you have to at least double that to more than 440 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or 28 terawatts.

Can we do that?

S: Not by burning things that put CO2 into the atmosphere—too much risk to the planet. What we need is clean energy that is cheap enough to permit the development of India, China, sub-Saharan Africa, and South America. We need it at no more than three cents a kilowatt hour. If I knew how to do that now, and I turned on one such new carbon-free 1,000-megawatt power plant tomorrow, and then the next day another plant and the next day another plant, I would have to do that for 27 years each and every day in order to just get 10 more terawatts. And we need more than that.

It seems hopeless. . . .

S: Addressing this challenge will be good for us. Even if we fail to find the miracles that allow us to make and then transport hundreds of gigawatts of power over 3,000 miles at pennies per kilowatt-hour, and even if we can never find photovoltaics that are as cheap as dirt, the enterprise of trying to do it will push our science and our engineering so far forward that we’ll generate a cornucopia of unexpected new technologies that will be the basis of vast new industries.

What will inspire us to do it?

S: Presidential leadership. A president could inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers, a new Sputnik generation that would be of tremendous benefit to this country and to the world. This bold new enterprise would be good business, good politics, and most important, good for the soul.

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