In a speech at the National Press Club, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the success of China and other countries in clean energy industries represents a new “Sputnik Moment” for the United States, and will require a similar mobilization of innovation to enable the US to compete in the global race for the jobs of the future.
Secretary Chu observed that China’s investments in clean energy technologies represent both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States. While China’s experience with rapid, large scale deployment of technologies makes it an important global testing ground and creates opportunities for scientific partnerships between the two countries, it also means that the US cannot afford to take its scientific leadership for granted. Secretary Chu stressed that US economic competitiveness depends on jump-starting the next round of American innovation in clean energy. Specifically, Secretary Chu highlighted several crucial technologies where the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind, such as:
|The original Sputnik Moment|
|On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union placed Sputnik—a 184-pound satellite—into a low earth orbit. The first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, Sputnik beat the US and its Project Vanguard to space.|
|Two generations after the event, words do not easily convey the American reaction to the Soviet satellite. The only appropriate characterization that begins to capture the mood on 5 October involves the use of the word hysteria. A collective mental turmoil and soul-searching followed, as American society thrashed around for the answers...|
|Almost immediately, two phrases entered the American lexicon to define time, pre-Sputnik and post-Sputnik. The other phrase that soon replaced earlier definitions of time was Space Age. With the launch of Sputnik 1, the Space Age had been born and the world would be different ever after.|
High Voltage Transmission. China has deployed the world’s first Ultra High Voltage AC and DC lines—including one capable of delivering 6.4 gigawatts to Shanghai from a hydroelectric plant nearly 1,300 miles (808 miles) away in southwestern China. These lines are more efficient and carry much more power over longer distances than those in the United States.
High Speed Rail. In the span of six years, China has gone from importing this technology to exporting it, with the world’s fastest train and the world’s largest high speed rail network, which will become larger than the rest of the world combined by the end of the decade. Some short distance plane routes have already been cancelled, and train travel from Beijing to Shanghai (roughly equivalent to New York to Chicago) has been cut from 11 hours to 4 hours.
Advanced Coal Technologies. China is rapidly deploying supercritical and ultra-supercritical coal combustion plants, which have fewer emissions and are more efficient than conventional coal plants because they burn coal at much higher temperatures and pressures. Last month, Secretary Chu toured an ultra-supercritical plant in Shanghai which claims to be 45 to 48% efficient. The most efficient US plants are about 40% efficient. China is also moving quickly to design and deploy technologies for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants as well as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
Nuclear Power. China has more than 30 nuclear power plants under construction, more than any other country in the world, and is actively researching fourth generation nuclear power technologies.
Alternative Energy Vehicles. China has developed a draft plan to invest $17 billion in central government funds in fuel economy, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles, with the goal of producing 5 million new energy vehicles and 15 million fuel-efficient conventional vehicles by 2020.
Renewable Energy. China is installing wind power at a faster rate than any nation in the world, and manufactures 40% of the world’s solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. It is home to three of the world’s top ten wind turbine manufacturers and five of the top ten silicon based PV manufacturers in the world.
Supercomputing. Last month, the Tianhe-1A, developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology, became the world’s fastest supercomputer. While the United States&mash;and the Department of Energy in particular—still has unrivalled expertise in the useful application of high performance computers to advance scientific research and develop technology, the US must continue to improve the speed and capacity of its advanced supercomputers, Chu said.
There are differences between the original Sputnik event of 1957 and the current Sputnik Moment, Chu said:
- While the US is competing for leadership in energy innovation, it has much to gain by cooperating with China, India and other countries.
- In the next two decades, China will build new infrastructure equivalent to the entire US. 80% of India’s infrastructure in 2030 does not exist today. These countries present the US with potential new markets, and a laboratory for innovation.
Chu called for increased support of energy R&D, especially where private investments don’t recoup the full value of the shared social good or when a new technology would displace an embedded way of doing business. He also called for “sensible”, long-range energy policies that have bipartisan support to guide the private sector of US.
Secretary Chu detailed a number of promising research efforts supported by the Department of Energy now underway, including:
500-mile EV batteries. With the help of Recovery Act funding, Arizona-based Fluidic Energy is working with Arizona State University to develop a new generation of higher energy density metal-air batteries (metal air ionic liquid batteries, MAIL). To date, the development of these batteries has been blocked by the limitations of using unstable water based solutions that break down and evaporate out of the battery as it breathes. Fluidic Energy’s approach involves ionic liquids. If successful, the effort could yield batteries that weigh less, cost less, and are capable of carrying a four passenger electric car 500 miles without recharging, at a cost competitive with internal combustion engines.
Solar fuels. Through a newly established Energy Innovation Hub led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers are working to create an integrated system modeled after photosynthesis that can convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into usable fuels such as gasoline. The goal is to create a system of artificial photosynthesis that is ten times more efficient than traditional photosynthesis in converting sunlight into fuel, paving the way for a major expansion of the US biofuel industry and reducing dependence on oil.
“Sputnik Moment” presentation at National Press Club