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A Challenge We Must Meet-II

by Rudy M. Baum
March 22, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 12

On last week's Editor's Page, I discussed the challenge of creating a civilization that was not based on burning fossil fuels for energy. The column was inspired by a book, "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil," by David Goodstein, which persuasively argues that the world faces an escalating series of crises as, first, global petroleum production begins to decline in the next few years, and then other fossil fuels follow suit later this century. In addition to severe economic dislocations, continuing to burn fossil fuels until they are gone almost certainly will have catastrophic global environmental consequences.

This week, I want to discuss the scope of that challenge. It is, in a word, daunting. The fundamental question we face is this: What scientific and technological breakthroughs are required to allow us to shift civilization from dependence on energy derived from fossil fuels to energy from, first, nuclear power and, ultimately, sunlight?

The good news is that there is enough energy available to make the transformation. A relatively small fraction of the total energy falling on Earth in the form of sunlight could meet all of the world's energy needs, if we knew how to harness, store, and distribute it. The bad news is that we have absolutely no idea how to harness, store, and distribute it.

"In the area of energy, being a scientist and saving the world actually makes sense."

Nuclear energy will be an essential component of any strategy for weaning humanity from fossil fuels. While fissile uranium-235 is also a limited resource, breeder reactor technologies exist for converting 238U to fissile plutonium-239 and thorium-232 to fissile 233U. Breeder reactors can extend the supply of Earth's fissile material several hundred fold, enough to last at least several centuries.

Yes, there are problems with disposal of spent nuclear reactor fuel. Yes, 239Pu is a problematic material that is all too easily harnessed to produce weapons. These are important problems that must be addressed, but they do not compare to the economic and environmental crises that our continued dependence on fossil fuels is guaranteed to engender. It is disingenuous for environmentalists to argue against nuclear energy and suggest that renewable energy resources can replace fossil fuels in the near to mid-term. They cannot. It is time for responsible environmentalists to abandon that canard and back significant R&D expenditures to expand the safe use of nuclear power in the U.S. and other advanced economies. R&D should also continue to be focused on fusion energy, although, as Goodstein notes, "nuclear fusion has been 25 years away for the past 50 years."

In the long run, we have to learn to live off the sun. We need to learn to harvest sunlight and turn it into usable forms of energy, to store the energy in a dispersed network so that it is available when the sun isn't shining, and to convert the energy into forms that can power vehicles. And it all has to be done cheaply.

Rice University chemistry and physics professor and Nobel Laureate Richard E. Smalley has been presenting (and refining) a lecture, "Our Energy Challenge," for the past two years. In it, Smalley says: "I do not think we have the basic enabling science to discover for this century what oil was for the past century. In order to get there, we need between one and 10 miracles--scientific and technical breakthroughs--and they are not just going to happen. We need young people to enter the physical sciences and engineering in numbers that they haven't since Sputnik. In the area of energy, being a scientist and saving the world actually makes sense."

Money, Smalley insists, is not the problem. "If you contributed a nickel for every gallon of gasoline, every gallon of diesel, every gallon of jet fuel, it gets you $10 billion, every year. That's enough to transform physical sciences and engineering research in the U.S."

Commitment and a sense of mission can change the world, Smalley says. Yes, they can. It is up to us, as scientists and engineers, to take the lead in urging society to take up this challenge.

Thanks for reading.


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