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Smalley on the Energy Stump


Prof. Richard Smalley of Rice University shared the Nobel Prize in 1996 in Chemistry for the discovery in 1985 of fullerenes -- stable spheres of carbon atoms, also called buckyballs. These have become the foundation for many rapid advancements in nanotechnology.

(Nifty background on the research and the award from the Nobel Poster adapted for the Web here.)

Last year, he began speaking out, sometimes with Matthew Simmons, the energy banker, on the urgency of solving the impending energy crisis. A sample of one his talks is here.

He also makes the gloomy point that at the time we need science and technology more than ever, we are seeing a drop in the number of scientists. This point is also made by a new coalition of research universities and high-tech companies of which Smalley is a member.

The coalition, which includes the American Association of Universities, as well as high-tech and scientific groups, said the $5 billion per year the federal government spends on basic research in the physical sciences and engineering has been flat for 30 years, adjusted for inflation, and has fallen by 37 percent as a percentage of gross domestic product.

They want to see that figure double in five years. The Bush administration, however, has proposed a 2 percent cut in light of the rising federal budget deficit.

The group noted that the Internet, magnetic resonance imaging, global positioning systems and lasers were all developed out of federally financed basic research.

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Gus Grissom character in The Right Stuff.

Here are some of Smalley’s needed enabling nanotech revolutions for energy directly related to mobility.

  1. H2 storage: lightweight materials for pressure tanks and/or a new lightweight, easily reversible hydrogen chemisorption system

  2. Batteries and supercapacitors: improvement by 10-100x for automotive and distributed generation applications

  3. Photocatalytic reduction of CO2 to produce a liquid fuel such as methanol

  4. Thermochemical schemes of producing H2 from water that work efficiently at temperatures lower than 900 C. Direct nuclear heat → hydrogen gas at high efficiency would be a very big breakthrough

  5. Superstrong, lightweight, materials for automobiles that can replace steel, titanium, and aluminum in as many places as possible

And quite a few others in the broader areas of electricity generation, materials and conservation.


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