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Chu Calls for Research on New Energy Sources

The United State's lead in energy innovation is being challenged by China, but with more investment and effort in research and development the lead will hold Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.

Chu, in a Washington DC presentation, said that Federal spending on energy R&D has fallen from its heights in 1979 to $5.1 billion in the 2010 budget. Also, total energy R&D is only 0.3% of the industry's revenue, compared to 18.7% in pharmaceuticals and 11.5% in aerospace and defense.

The Energy Department has set a strategy of funding high impact research projects that will be commercially viable without subsidies in about three years. Some Chu mentioned included developing artificial photosynthesis that would develop transportation fuels that could be directly blended into or substituted for gasoline or diesel and electric vehicle batteries that hold five times the charge of existing batteries, but at a third of the cost.

Chu also said DOE is researching building sciences that could improve energy efficiency four fold for new buildings and two fold for retrofits.

China's Emergence in New Energy Tech and Economics
Secretary Chu gave two examples of China's gains. In the 1990's it acquired two ultra-supercritical coal generators and learned the technology through reverse engineering. Ultra-supercritical generators burn pulverized coal at 1,400 degrees F., getting much more energy out of a ton of coal than conventional generators. By 2000 China was building its first ultra-supercritical coal plant and after 2000 it began exporting the advanced boilers.

Further, Suntech, a major producer of photovoltaic solar cells, has established its headquarters in China, importing raw silicon from US suppliers, processing the material into photovoltaics in China and then having the panels assembled in plants around the world.

From Secretary Chu's Nov. 29 presentation

This industrialized development of new energy technology has helped China overtake the United States as a leader in high-tech exports. In 1995, more than 20% of high-tech international trade originated in the United States, and only about six percent in China. In 2008 China's share of world-wide high-tech exports had grown to 20 percent and the US share had fallen to about 15 percent, according to the National Science Foundation's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2010."

Advances in BioFuel Research
Chu addressed two aspects of biofuel: advanced research into direct substitutes for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel; and corn-based ethanol.

First, he described research into artificial photosynthesis of transportation fuel. "Can we design, using nanotechnology, something that begins to replicate what a plant does?" he queried. "But we have an advantage; we have access to materials that the biological world does not."

In photosynthesis sunlight and carbon dioxide create carbohydrates, such as the starches or sugars that can be used to make ethanol. Chu suggested that advanced technology could create a process of artificial photosynthesis that is several times better at producing fuels than nature.

"We are focusing on ways we can go beyond ethanol," Chu said. "One thing we are focusing on very much is how to make biofuels, but make them direct substitutes for these fuels that can be blended in any ratio directly in the gas tank." Fuels with high concentrations of ethanol require changes in the way the fuel is delivered and the way it is burned in the engine.

Chu pointed out that some scientists have made advances in using the common e. coli bacteria and producing direct substitutes for engine-ready fuel. Research on the technique was published Jan. 28, 2010 in Nature magazine.