Review: Smalley on Energy

Smalley on Energy

The following review was originaly published on sciscoop in November 2004.

1996 Chemistry Nobel prize winner Richard Smalley, discoverer of carbon fullerenes ("buckyballs"), has a new passion. For the last year or so Smalley has been traveling the US talking about what he believes to be the most critical problem deserving our attention in the world today: energy. On October 19th Smalley visited Brookhaven National Lab here on Long Island. What follows is a review of that talk, from the origins of his belief that energy is the critical issue of our time, to where he sees a need for technology investment now.

Around September 11, 2001, Smalley was already giving lectures around the country to many different types of groups; after the terrorist attacks he started a practice of, before getting into the meat of each talk, asking his audiences "what do you see as the world's most critical problems of the next 50 years"? He would state the basic assumption of a world smoothly evolved from our own, with roughly 10 billion people as generally projected for 2050.

The top ten problem areas raised, the top seven of which were suggested in some form by each of 14 audiences, were:

  1. Energy
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Environment
  5. Poverty
  6. Terrorism and war
  7. Disease
  8. Education
  9. Democracy
  10. Population

He found the word "Energy" in particular was always mentioned, since 9-11. No matter what order problems were suggested in, after discussion with his audiences, it always proved true that solving the energy problem also resolved at least half of the others raised. Here "solving the energy problem" means something like providing affordable energy (2 cents/kWh?) to everybody on the planet. For example, access to water depends on energy to pump and purify or, if necessary, desalinate. Access to food depends on adequate energy-intensive fertilizers. Environmental problems - other than CO2 if fossil fuels are the source - can generally be mitigated through energy-powered cleanup; reducing energy intensity of industrial activity also reduces environmental consequences, so those two solutions go together too. And so on.

The only other problem that, if tackled first, would similarly resolve half or more of the remaining ones is population. And that's not a solution Smalley finds acceptable. The sustainable level on the planet at US energy intensities is probably about 1 billion people: WHAT do you propose to do with the other 5.5 billion? Or the extra 9 billion there would be in 50 years? People who talk about solving the world's problems through reducing "population" are really talking about an apocalypse. Unfortunately, he's found audiences are extraordinarily receptive to his message, but far too ready to embrace the apocalypse as the solution!

Is this a natural human response? Smalley reminisced about going to sleep at night in the 50's praying for thermonuclear war so he wouldn't have to go to school - is that what's behind this? But the responsible thing is to figure out how to avoid it...

Smalley is convinced that the "energy problem" can be solved. Scientists and engineers have a deep responsibility here, particularly in the physical sciences. He has been working tirelessly to try to get the scientific community to take up the problem and work diligently at it.

Smalley works at Rice University, in Houston, the center of the oil and gas world. Until 1971, Texas was the biggest oil exporter in the world; today Texas is the biggest energy importer in the US. World energy demand is growing relentlessly, and today oil provides the biggest fraction of supply. Oil is a unique resource - there's more energy locked up in a liter of oil than almost anything not nuclear. Per unit mass hydrogen is better, but hydrogen requires more volume for storage.

Smalley showed a chart of projections from Shell from a decade or so ago, on oil supply. During the 1973/1979 oil shocks, oil was in fact there, but restricted by a cartel, just as the Texas railroad commission had, in earlier decades, had complete control of world oil prices through its near monopoly on cheap supply. More oil shocks will come this century, but they will be different: we will have reached the fundamental limits of inexpensive production, an irreversible peak in oil production.

Apparently in Houston rumors are going around that we may have already hit the peak. If not today, it is apparently unlikely to be more than 5 years away. Smalley referred to analysis by Matt Simmons, suggesting that Saudi Arabia's one vast field may be at peak production capacity now, and destined irreversibly downward.

What about natural gas? It used to be believed we had abundant supply in North America, but that conventional wisdom shifted last year: it is unlikely North America will ever be self-sufficient in natural gas again. Replacing oil with natural gas would require huge investments in new Liquefied Natural Gas shipping terminals, etc. - an investment that is actually happening already, despite possible new hazards LNG shipping may introduce.

Coal is also offered as an alternative to oil - however despite there being a lot of coal in the US, it's not necessarily economically accessible. Coal mining already produces massive environmental damage through mountaintop removal and similar large-scale open-pit style processes. And of course, coal being mainly carbon is an even worse greenhouse polluter than oil or natural gas.

Returning to the Shell projections, Smally pointed out that we are already surpassing projections from a decade or so ago due to the rapid growth of energy demand in China and India. Even this past year it's accelerated more. But economic development for 2 billion of the planet's people is a good thing, we shouldn't want that to stop!

The past century had abundant oil supply, energy sufficient for enormous growth in world wealth. This century is going to be dramatically different from the last one.

Beyond the basic need for affordable energy is the environmental impact of energy use. Smalley showed an interesting variant on the "hockey stick" graphs - plotting 1000 years of global population, atmospheric CO2, and temperature extrapolations on one plot. Whatever one thinks of the temperature data form 1000 years back, the fact that all three plots track together in a sharp up-turn over the past few decades is very, very dramatic. Anybody denying a correlation has their head in the sand - which, as Smalley pointed out, includes a large contingent of conservative business groups in CO2 denial.

So, by 2050 we'll have 10 billion people, and assuming reasonable economic growth for the world and modest energy efficiency improvements, that means somewhere around 30 to 60 terawatts (TW) of energy, or 450-900 million barrels of oil per day (current world energy use is about 200 million barrels of oil equivalent per day). Even if we can maintain fossil fuel use at present-day levels, that means we need 50% of energy production coming from renewables by 2050. Can solar, wind, geothermal meet this challenge?

Oil was the basis of prosperity in the 20th century. It cannot be oil in the 21st - what will it be?

Smalley talked about the "search for terawatts" in the new century. Energy is the planet's biggest business - several $trillion/year (second is agriculture at $1.5 trillion, military spending is third at $0.7 trillion). And this enormous enterprise is in need of a fundamental revolution - it cannot turn on a dime, so the problems need to be resolved much more immediately than by mid century.

Smalley reviewed the oil alternatives for the new century, classifying them in two main groups: "too little", and "nuclear".

too little

nuclear (including via the sun's fusion):

The point is - despite their cost and difficulties, we have to look at the solutions that are at least capable of scaling to the energy supply levels we need. Solar, in some form or another, is extremely promising. 165,000 TW hit the earth continuously from the sun. Smalley showed a map of the world with small boxes - 6 3.3 TW boxes can provide 20 TWe, and only take up a small fraction of Earth's land area.

What about transportation? The advantage of energy production as electricity is it can be transported long distances with low losses, and used directly, as opposed to transporting as mass (of hydrogen, methanol, say). Storage is more difficult. Smalley was very optimistic about 2000-mile high-voltage DC transmission lines, supporting a continental-scale system of energy production with millions of local generation and storage sites. The problem with all of this is that current technology is simply too expensive, by about a factor of ten, on both the solar generation and transmission/storage sides.

We don't have a lot of time for this - we should really have been working on this stuff, finding less expensive solar solutions etc, 15 years ago. But there's still some time to get it right - the future could be very bright.

To supply energy for 10^10 people we need 10 TW (electric) from new affordable clean energy sources by 2050. We don't yet have the technology to do this (the IEA's World Energy Outlook for 2004 agrees with this conclusion). Young people around the world should adopt this as a challenge - a sense of mission, a new "Apollo program" in energy technology.

Smalley's specific suggestion for funding this in the United States: a "nickel and dime solution". For FY05-FY10, add an additional 5 cents per gallon of oil, $10 billion per year, dedicated to frontier energy research among DOE, NSF, NIST, NASA, and DoD. In the following decade double the tax to 10 cents/gallon, with a similar "carbon tax" on coal and other fossil fuels. A third of the money should go to new energy research centers in US Research universities. At worst we'll get marvelous new technologies and new industries out of the investment. At best we may solve the energy problem by 2020, and lay the basis for energy prosperity for the 21st century, and perhaps even world peace.


While answering several audience questions, Smalley described his belief that there isn't yet a deep appreciation of the seriousness of the problem. This is as big as the cold war, and requires a response of that magnitude, not the tepid support alternative energy programs have gotten in recent years (a few token millions for ineffective programs).

Smalley's talk was stirring, and disturbing. The audience was mostly scientists and staff from a Department of Energy lab, but ironically very few there actually work on anything related to solving the energy problem Smalley described! Recent holders of the "Secretary of Energy" position have been political hacks with little real passion or understanding of the enormity of the problem here - can you imagine if "Secretary of Energy" carried the same weight as "Secretary of Defense"? We need to get beyond the token support for alternatives and put a full-out effort into all the "nuclear" solutions, but particularly addressing the cost issues for solar power. I am certain it can be done - do we have the will to make it so?

Created: 2005-01-17 21:18:03 by Arthur Smith
Modified: 2005-01-18 02:32:05 by Administrator