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Physical Chemistry

Grand Science Challenges

by Rudy Baum
April 14, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 15

One of the numerous presidential events at last week's ACS national meeting in New Orleans was a session titled "Energy Research: Future Challenges & Opportunities." The symposium was jointly sponsored by ACS and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (see page 10).

The keynote speaker at the session was Raymond L. Orbach, undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy. In his talk, Orbach said there "are the two questions that loom over humanity today: How will we supply all this needed new energy, and how can we do so without adding dangerously to atmospheric greenhouse gases?

"The energy and environmental challenge confronting us in the century ahead is truly monumental. It may be one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced.

"Incremental improvements in our current technologies will not be enough to meet this challenge. To provide an answer to these two great questions, we will need transformational breakthroughs in basic science that provide the foundation for truly disruptive technologies that fundamentally change the rules of the game."

During his talk, Orbach referred to a January 2008 DOE report, "Directing Matter & Energy: Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination." The report was prepared by the Subcommittee on Grand Challenges for Basic Energy Sciences, which was cochaired by Graham Fleming, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Mark A. Ratner, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University.

It is a remarkable document. In many places it reads more like a physical chemistry textbook than a DOE report. I do not say that in a pejorative way—I found "Directing Energy & Matter" to be one of the more engaging and enlightening scientific reports I've read in some time.

"It is frequently said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," the report begins. "Modern science stands at the beginning of what might seem by today's standards to be an almost magical leap forward in our understanding and control of matter, energy, and information at the molecular and atomic levels."

The report continues: "For the future, imagine a clean, cheap, and virtually unlimited supply of electrical power from solar-energy systems modeled on the photosynthetic processes utilized by green plants, and power lines that could transmit this electricity from the deserts of the Southwest to the Eastern Seaboard at nearly 100% efficiency. Imagine information and communications systems based on light rather than electrons that could predict when and where hurricanes make landfall, along with self-repairing materials that could survive those hurricanes. Imagine synthetic materials fully compatible and able to communicate with biological materials. This is speculative, to be sure, but not so very far beyond the scope of possibilities."

The five grand challenges laid out and discussed in detail in the report are the following:

How do we control material processes at the level of electrons?

How do we design and perfect atom- and energy-efficient synthesis of revolutionary new forms of matter with tailored properties?

How do remarkable properties of matter emerge from complex correlations of the atomic or electronic constituents and how can we control these properties?

How can we master energy and information on the nanoscale to create new technologies with capabilities rivaling those of living things?

How do we characterize and control matter away—especially very far away—from equilibrium.

Each of these challenges is discussed in detail in the following chapters of the report. Chapter 2, for example, on the quantum control of electrons in atoms, molecules, and materials, discusses the transition from a science of understanding how electrons behave in materials to a new science of quantum control in which the properties of materials are engineered through direct manipulation of electrons.

It is a challenging and visionary report that is well worth your time.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

Thanks for reading.

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