Science Beyond the Stimulus: America needs to 'reignite innovation ecology'

By Steve McGregorSeptember 15, 2009

To build a national economy based on sustainable energy, the nation must first "reignite its innovation ecology," Argonne National Laboratory Director Eric Isaacs told members of the National Press Club last week in Washington, D.C.

The innovation ecology is the network of collaborative partnerships among researchers at universities, national laboratories and industrial labs that produced past inventions, such as the transistor, laser and Internet. These inventions created millions of high-quality jobs, fired national economies and raised quality of life around the world.

"The basic pieces are still in place," he said. "We have very strong Department of Energy funding for physical sciences, very strong National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health funding for science, but what's missing now is the corporations. We've lost the ability to do mission-based research."

Industry funds about two-thirds of this nation's R&D, he said, but only about 4 percent of industry's R&D spending supports basic research. In 2007, the latest year for which the National Science Foundation has estimates, industry outspent government 2.5 to 1 in total R&D, but government outspent industry 4 to 1 in basic research.

The dream of lithium-air

Isaacs cited the lithium-air battery as an energy-storage technology with potential world-changing impact because, on paper, it has the potential to store almost as much energy as a tank of gasoline of the same size. "If the United States could covert all our cars and light trucks from gasoline and diesel to electricity, we could save 7.2 million barrels of oil a day. That would cut national oil consumption about one-third and reduce the well-to-wheels carbon footprint of our light-duty fleet nearly 25 percent."

Argonne is committed to developing the lithium-air battery, he said, but the problems are formidable. "In order to make the lithium-air battery reality, it's gong to take real innovations in materials, real innovations in chemistry and real innovations in engineering."

The same is true, Isaacs said, of every sustainable energy technology. A few examples include:

  • Solar electricity needs basic materials research to improve performance by a factor of 10 or 20 before it is competitive with base-load electricity.
  • Solar fuels need basic research in chemical processes to understand photosynthesis and improve on it.
  • Advanced nuclear energy systems need new materials to stand up under extremes of heat, pressure, radiation and corrosion.
  • We also need better climate models to understand how various mixes of new energy technologies will impact the global climate.

And, he said, we need to invest in research on a broad portfolio of sustainable energy technologies because we don't know enough about them to pick winners and losers, and we'll probably need a number of them in the end.

We are at the dawn of a new era, he said, in part because we have computational capabilities that we've never seen before. We are moving toward an era in which we can design new materials and chemistries for specific needs. We will be able to predict the behavior of materials that have not yet been made, and then make them with atom-by-atom chemical precision.

Science beyond the stimulus

To reignite the innovation ecology, Isaacs said, the nation needs to muster the kind of political strength and will that backed the Manhattan and Apollo Projects. "Successful science is a widespread, collaborative process. It requires a critical mass of laboratories, instruments, and a lot of … highly educated people.

"Fortunately," he said, "the pieces are still there. We have very strong government labs…, we still have the strongest academics in the world, bar none, and we still have very strong industry, but unfortunately, industry right now is not investing heavily in the types of research that I'm talking about today.

"The vision," Isaacs said, "is to achieve the national needs with sustained investment in basic science, to achieve the breakthroughs, both in materials and chemistry, and in engineering for next-generation energy technologies. The reward will be tremendous, which will be… clean energy and the understanding of that energy on climate, and ownership by this country of energy technologies.

"So in the end," he said, "it's great to talk about science and technology, it's great to talk about investment by the government, but without the people—the excellent investment in the quality people—this isn't going to go anywhere. So it's key that the basic research is there, not only to do the seed-corn work, but also to attract the best and brightest young people, and without them, we don't have a chance."