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How Dark Matter and Nanotechnology can Help Transform the Global Energy System


Fundamental scientific research lies at the heart of many energy-related breakthroughs that ultimately disrupt established social and economic systems. It can be overwhelming to look at the world’s looming energy and climate challenges, but Dr. Franklin (Lynn) Orr, Under Secretary for Science and Energy at the US Department of Energy remains optimistic despite the complexity of these dilemmas.

Under Secretary Orr looks after the main programs at 13 of the 17 US National Laboratories and one of his key missions is to leverage energy technologies to address climate change through emissions reductions commitments that facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. A long-time academic, Orr seems genuinely excited about the potential for positive energy system changes that are emerging from the programs he currently oversees.

“For the longest time we had taken energy so completely for granted that we didn’t recognize how fundamentally woven it is into every aspect of modern life,” he told Breaking Energy in a recent interview in New York City.

One of the things he did in his freshman and sophomore classes was to make the students carry around a pad for a day and write down every time they did something that involved energy in some way. “And I did it myself. It’s eye opening,” Under Secretary Orr said.

Of the 13 National Labs over which Orr presides, 10 are science labs and 3 are applied energy labs. “But the boundaries amongst those labs are not hard ones. The science labs all do some energy-related work and vice versa.”dark-matter-1024x717

Inventing Tools Future Energy Systems Need

Technology moves so fast these days it can take time to figure out applications for all the new things being invented. Just look at all the things controlled via smart phones or new uses for drones that seem to pop up on a daily basis. But innovation needs to maintain pace, if not accelerate, if we hope to conquer some of the world’s most pressing energy problems.

“For society as a whole, recognizing that we not only need to supply the energy the world needs to be economically secure – and all the national security aspects that go along with that – but we also need to do it in a way that protects the planet,” said Orr. “Those are big challenges and of course there is the part of the world that we don’t adequately supply now. So this really requires transforming the world’s energy system. And while I’m quite confident that we can do that, it is the kind of challenge that requires all the tools that we have available now plus some more we need to invent.”

And this is where Orr’s DOE purview comes into play. It involves a few main thrusts, he explained, with one of those being a strong fundamental discovery science effort. On the surface, however, it may not be clear how this relates to energy.

“But the truth is if you look around there are energy applications for many things that flow through those science programs. We didn’t necessarily go in saying ‘aha we’re going to do this because,’ but once the work gets done [applications for it become clear]. It ranges from material science to work on a new detector for some giant particle accelerator. Some things come out that find their way into the next batch of electronics that all of us have to carry around in our pockets.”

He used advanced turbine blade technology as an example of this phenomenon. “They are in all those jet engines that haul us around the sky and in every power plant in some sort or another. So we all have a pretty big vested interest in having those turbine blades be as inexpensive as possible, as strong and durable as possible. And so there are some new ways of using additive manufacturing to make very complicated parts out of tough materials and assembling them in ways that potentially reduce the cycling times and costs a lot,” Orr said.

Heat exchangers are another example of where nanostructures can improve the performance of energy-related systems we use every day. “In principal you can think about making shapes that are just too hard to do by machining or would be too expensive. Even something as mundane as heat exchangers – used everywhere from your automobile radiator to every kind of chemical plant and so on – but now you can think about making interpenetrating networks of flow channels that provide lots of surface area and better contact than traditional shell and tube,” he explained.

“A few percentage points on improving heat exchange ripples through energy systems in ways that are hard to predict.”

And while some of the research into future energy technology remains in an early stage, Orr assured me that very smart people at DOE are working on these things now. Electrofuels are an exciting concept in which abundant wind and solar energy could be stored as liquid fuel, for example. If that could be done in a way that eliminated carbon emissions it would truly be a game changer for the power generation sector and maybe even the transportation industry.

With regard to the US power grid specifically, Dr. Orr sees a future that involves a much larger fraction of renewable energy than we use today. The biggest question is the pace at which these energy sources will increase because many of the policy decisions that move the needle are made at the state level with initiatives like renewable portfolio standards. Of course we need to grapple more effectively with intermittency issues, grid control, balancing, storage and demand response, while figuring out how retail markets should work, he said. “All those play interlocking roles that will determine how fast it [renewable energy growth] happens.”

Most Exciting Possibilities?

That’s clearly a hard question for someone overseeing so much cutting-edge scientific research, but the Under Secretary was a good sport and played along. “There’s a lot of fundamental science stuff that I think is hugely exciting. The whole question of dark energy and dark matter and what the early universe can tell us about the physics that underlie everything else. That stuff is way exciting.”

Speaking about the power grid, which the National Academy of Engineering described as the greatest invention of the 20th century – he sees “real opportunity in our ability to analyze and model and understand and control very complex systems.” We need to make the grid a 21st century convention that “provides a much more reliable and secure environmentally benign electricity system,” he said.

“On the transportation side there is new and exciting work on advanced battery chemistries. I like the idea of being able to design materials, design catalysts, design nanostructures that use electrochemistry to do all kinds of things that we are just now beginning to be able to do. This can create whole new opportunity spaces for making fuels.”

History Repeats Itself

Under Secretary Orr draws a comparison to the early US environmental movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and today’s climate change discussions. In the 1960’s, improving air and water quality was a daunting proposition. Many said industry would never get on board, it would be too expensive and we’d go bankrupt in the process.

“But places like California said ‘well the heck with you feds, we’re choking to death and we’re going to do something about air quality.’ So California put some rules in place and other states started to go along and pretty soon industry and the congress realized that we would be better off with a national set of rules. The Clean Air Act passed and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act passed – in a republican administration – and here we are 45 years later and we haven’t solved every problem but it’s way, way better than it was. And guess what? We didn’t go bankrupt and the economy grew and we are all better off from a health standpoint. …And I kind of think that’s where we are now about this business of greenhouse gases and other aspects of clean energy. There will be plenty of ancillary benefits associated with being cleaner across the energy system.”

Orr remains cognizant of the challenges, but he is also optimistic given humanity’s inventive nature. The key is to properly frame the challenges and incentivize the pursuit of solutions. “It’s quite clear to me that we can solve these problems we are facing. We have to make up our minds to do it and we have to recognize the external costs and pay for it all, but I’m fundamentally confident that we will be able to do it. … We’ve left ourselves a lot of room to be better on the efficiency side so we should keep plugging away at that. We can do it all.”