Posted by Big Gav
The Houston Chronicle reports that Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley, discoverer of fullerene and the carbon nanotube, has passed away.
Richard Errett Smalley, a gifted chemist who shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of buckyballs, helped pioneer the field of nanotechnology and became Houston's most notable scientist, died this afternoon after a six-year struggle with cancer. He was 62.
Smalley possessed prodigious talent both within the lab, where he cobbled individual atoms together like tinker toys, and outside academia after he won science's greatest prize. In the decade since he became a Nobel laureate, Smalley pushed Rice University and Houston to the forefront of nanotechnology research.
"He was a person with extraordinary intelligence," said Neal Lane, President Clinton's science adviser. "But more than that, he was a real civic scientist, one who not only does great science, but uses that knowledge and fame to do good, to benefit society, and to try and educate the public. He had a palpable wish to solve some of the world's problems."
Smalley, along with Robert Curl at Rice and Sir Harold Kroto of University of Sussex, discovered a new form of carbon. This fullerene, or buckyball, contained 60 carbon atoms arranged in a perfect sphere.
Few scientists had expected to discover a new arrangement of carbon atoms because the element already was so well-studied.
"It was an absolutely electrifying discovery," said James Kinsey, then a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later became dean of natural sciences at Rice. "Within a year or two, you couldn't pick up a chemistry journal without one-third of the articles being about fullerenes."
The new carbon material proved to be surprisingly strong and lightweight, and had almost magical electrical properties. The buckyball's discovery helped fuel today's explosion of nanotechnology research, in which scientists are racing to exploit the unique properties of myriad nanomaterials, with applications for everything from medicine to bulletproof vests.
After discovering the buckyball, Smalley's research group found a method to produce large quantities of carbon nanotubes, a cylindrical material also made of carbon which has eclipsed the buckyball in utility.
And then, in 1996, Smalley, Curl and Kroto won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Besides being a famous chemist, Smalley was also a keen observer of energy issues. Energy Bulletin posted a good excerpt a while ago from a paper by Smalley called "Future global energy prosperity: the Terawatt Challenge" (pdf) which looked at peak oil and the top 10 global challenges. Energy topped his list of the challenges facing us (he noted "energy is the key to solving all of the rest of the problems—from water to population"), with the others as follows:
6. Terrorism and war
Smalley's comments on peak oil:
There are three core problems that I think the president ought to address, all of which are connected with and impinge on the major issue of energy prosperity: inspiring the next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers, developing replacements for the dwindling fossil fuel resources that have provided a majority of our energy in the past, and finding a solution to global warming.
At some point, almost certainly within this decade, we will peak in the amount of oil that is produced worldwide. Even though there will be massive amounts of oil produced for the rest of this century, the volume produced each year will never again reach the amount produced at its peak. This year, 2005, might very well end up being the historic date of that global peak. Oil, along with gas, is tremendously important. The history of oil is basically the history of modern civilization as we have known it for the past 100 years. As our principal transportation fuel, oil has been the basis of our country’s power and prosperity. What will we do when there is no longer enough oil and gas? We do not yet have an answer.
While he did not have an answer to the peak oil problem, he did have a number of ideas (and I won't quote the whole paper - you should read the whole thing yourself when you have some free time), in particular what he called "The Distributed Energy Grid". The key (and missing piece) to the distributed energy grid ? Localised energy storage - or in other words - large capacity household scale batteries, and improved efficiency in power distribution.
How, then, around the year 2050, are we going to transport energy over vast distances while minimizing the costs and getting the amount of power we need? The best answer would be to transport energy as energy, not as mass. Instead of storing energy in some chemical form, keep it as pure energy. There are essentially only two ways to do that. We could microwave energy up to a satellite and bounce it back down, or we could run it along wires on the earth’s surface. We will do both, but mostly we will use wires.
Enabling the Grid: Local Energy Storage With this energy distribution model, the entire North American continent, all the way from the Arctic Circle down to Panama, would be wired together in a giant interconnected electrical energy grid. Indeed, we are already very close to that now, except that in the new grid, by the middle of the century, there would be two critical additions. The first would be local energy storage. Every one of the hundred million or so sites consuming energy in this grid would have its own storage unit—the equivalent of an uninterruptible power supply that not only gives a home computer a few minutes of power during an outage, but also can supply each of our houses or businesses with 12–24 hours of full operation.
Commercializing Local Energy Storage: I believe that creating an efficient local storage solution should be one of our prime energy targets. Let us develop what effectively would be a new major appliance industry. Since our proposed unit is very small, it could be easily marketed to each one of those hundred million or so energy customers who are seeking local storage. Since the unit would have to be inexpensive — a few thousand dollars at most — customers who were not satisfied could replace their units or trade up to a better model, as they do now with other technical products such as computers. It would be a way to “PC” this critical aspect of the energy industry.
Then, every one of those sites in the electrical energy grid would be able to use one of these units to buffer the grid’s energy fluctuations. Real-time pricing for individual electrical power usage would give each customer the incentive to buy a unit that could absorb the power needed to generate 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the six-hour time period when energy is cheapest on the grid.
Basically, this local unit would solve the energy storage problem. With that solved, it would now be possible to get most of the energy on the grid from “unreliable” or episodic sources, like wind or solar.
Completing the Grid: High-Voltage Transmission Lines In addition to a local system, one other innovation is needed on the grid to make it work. We need the capability to transport electrical power in hundreds of gigawatts over thousands of miles. High-voltage transmission lines would be very efficient for this purpose...If, through new technology, we could figure out how to transport electricity over wires that would deliver power thousands of miles away from where it is generated, and do that for several pennies per extra premium, we could make the whole North American continent energy– self-sufficient.
Everybody Gets to Play: That goal is not as impossible as it might seem. There are places on this continent that experience extremely intense solar radiation that is very reliable. There are also highly remote places that most people would not object to as sites for nuclear power plants—places that would not be in anybody’s backyard.
Of course, the distributed energy grid is a vision that is shared by many other people, with Jamais at WorldChanging running occasional pieces on what he calls "Smart Grids".
Moving to a post-fossil energy infrastructure is no small task. Leave aside the politics of the problem for a moment, and look at the logistics: replacing coal, oil and gas-fired power plants with cleaner, renewable technologies isn't simply a matter of unplugging one and plugging in the other. Renewable sources often requires wide spaces to generate useful amounts of power, and need to be situated in areas most conducive to their generation needs (sunny regions for solar, windy for turbines, the ocean for wave, etc.). Moreover, there is great value in adding in small, local generation (often referred to as micro-generation) to the mix, from wind micro-power, micro-hydro and rooftop solar panels to more exotic technologies like Stirling Engines, plug-in hybrids, and potential future developments like photovoltaic curtains.
Such a model of diverse, widespread sources of power generation is typically called "distributed energy," and it has some definite advantages over the current, largely centralized infrastructure. Distributed power can be more robust against accident or attack on the power grid: knocking down a 5 megawatt wind turbine would be bad, but not nearly as disastrous as abruptly taking a 1,000 megawatt coal power plant off the grid. Distributed power also allows greater resource flexibility: the more varied the resources used to generate electricity, the less likely are disruptions resulting from limited availability of one of them. This latter is particularly important due to the variable nature of wind and solar. Output from a given wind or solar farm will rise and fall with local conditions, but the overall availability of electricity from multiple locations and resources can still be consistent.
But distributed energy is currently more costly than centralized power. Some of that cost comes from managing the complexity of variable power generation, changing usage patterns, and a multiplicity of sources. Distributed energy resources will have to be managed more like a computer network, complete with abundant routers and switches. The success of distributed energy is ultimately dependent upon the increasing availability of computer-enabled power networks, or "smart grids." And smart grids for distributed power, in turn, will increasingly rely upon the availability of distributed computing.
It's likely that smart grids are coming, even without an aggressive shift to renewable energy. On top of dealing with variable, dispersed inputs, smart grids allow more efficient routing of power, with fewer idle or wasted generators; smart grids would, in principle, allow an overall lower level of generation to support continued levels of use (or, more hopefully, a growing level of use of in turn more efficient buildings and devices). Smart grids are, in the end, a fundamental part of building post-oil, bright green communities.
In a more recent piece at WorldChanging, Joel Makower looked at how to make the grid "smart" last week.
The realization that America's electricity infrastructure is shakier than a palm tree during a hurricane hits us every few years, when some blackout or rolling brownout reminds us of our electro-vulnerability.
But to truly understand what we're up against, it's important to step back for a moment to see just how vast -- and how vulnerable -- our electricity infrastructure is:The North American electric power industry comprises more than 3,000 electric utilities, 2,000 independent power producers, and hundreds of related organizations. Together, they serve 120 million residential customers, 16 million commercial customers, and 700,000 industrial customers. [...] The continent has 700,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, owned by about 200 different organizations and valued at more than $160 billion. It has about 5 million miles of medium-voltage distribution lines and 22,000 substations, owned by more than 3,200 organizations and valued at $140 billion. The North American electric power industry will purchase more than $20 billion in grid infrastructure equipment in 2005, nearly one quarter of the worldwide total of $81 billion.
That analysis comes from a report released today: "The Emerging Smart Grid" (PDF), produced by the Redmond, Wash.-based Center for Smart Energy. According to the report, as much as $45 billion is up for grabs by new advanced technologies for modernizing the electric power infrastructure.
The notion of a smart grid is familiar to WorldChanging readers - the idea is to make the existing grid work more efficiently - so much more, in fact, that it could reduce the need for additional power plants, or for costly redundant systems designed to work "just in case" of peak demand. That's the vision of a growing corps of researchers and companies working on grid optimization, a term that describes a wide range of information technologies that better understand and analyze exactly what's going on in a complex energy system on a minute-by-minute basis, then optimize the system in a way that's cost-effective.
If you're interested in reading more on the subject, have a look at The Energy Blog on "High-Temperature Superconductor Discoveries", Wired on "The Energy Web" and "Surfing Through the Power Grid", the BBC with "Micro grids as peer-to-peer energy" (commented on by WorldChanging and Slashdot) and Tidepool on "How to make the North West a smart grid leader".
Two years ago this August the worst blackout in North American history left 50 million people from Broadway to Detroit without power and inflicted $6 billion in economic damages. In its wake came calls to rebuild an aging U.S. power network with advanced digital technologies to catch it up with economic sectors ranging from retailing to manufacturing already revolutionized by computerization.
This smart, digital grid indeed has great promise. Digital information and management systems will bring significant new capabilities to the grid, among them:
* To anticipate and thwart power disturbances and to automatically re-route power and "self-heal" when troubles occur.
* To shift and shave peak power demands, thus reducing need to construct tens of billions in peaking power plants and wires over the next 20 years alone, with huge implications for power rate control.
* To manage and control a multitude of cleaner, distributed energy resources including solar panels and wind farms with their varying and often unpredictable output.
There has been some movement toward the smart grid. An improved network of sensors is now providing better information to Northeast power grid operators, offering potential to catch problems before they rapidly cascade across entire regions as occurred Aug. 14, 2003.
But overall, most observers agree, progress toward developing a 21st century smart grid rich in digital intelligence and distributed energy supplies is encountering obstacles. This translates into continuing power reliability threats. Columbia University power grid researcher Roger Anderson, citing an increasing frequency of blackouts since 1998, comments, "If present trends continue, a blackout enveloping half the continent is not out of the question."