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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Creative Energy: PNNL researchers are generating real-world solutions to a global problem

Meeting supply and demand challenges head-on

Mike Davis joined Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as director of the Energy Science and Technology directorate in January 2005, bringing to the Laboratory 30 years' experience spanning public and private sectors. Mike oversees PNNL's energy research totaling $93 million, which includes research and development for clean and efficient "energy supply" as well as technologies for reducing "energy demand" and increasing efficiency. These activities range from development of new materials for solid oxide fuel cells, hydrogen storage, next-generation lighting and abatement of auto emissions to technology advancements targeted at energy-smart buildings, an efficient, secure power grid and near-zero emission electricity from coal. Under Mike's leadership, PNNL is building on its extensive demand-side energy research portfolio with an expanded reach into the supply side of the energy equation. Here, Mike discusses one of these new efforts and his vision for how PNNL's expertise will help move our nation toward energy independence and a better environment and economy.

(Photo caption: ESTD Director Mike Davis)

There are many schools of thought regarding the path forward to address today's energy challenges. What is your overarching philosophy?

There's an ancient Native American proverb that reads "Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children." Our quality of life depends on energy-how we produce it, how we use it. Historically, economic drivers tended to trump environmental concerns. Our challenge today, however, is how to meet growing energy demands with domestic resources in a manner that's efficient and economical yet compatible with our environment.

How do you characterize today's energy challenge?

It's one of the biggest challenges facing our nation today. Demand for energy has doubled in the last 50 years and is projected to increase through 2025. Approximately 85 percent of that demand both domestically and globally is met through use of hydrocarbons, such as crude oil, natural gas and coal. Domestic oil production, however, has been on the decline since 1970, resulting in increased reliance on oil imports during a time of decreased global security. We're seeing the resulting hit at the pump. A barrel of oil was priced at approximately $25 just three years ago compared to the $60-$70 range we're experiencing today-a 260 percent jump. The wealth transfer to foreign countries is staggering. Every $5 increase we pay on a barrel of oil represents $100 million moving from other areas in our economy to pay for the same amount of oil, 60 percent of which goes directly out of our country. This is a wealth transfer offshore of $219 billion per year. No economy can sustain this level of wealth transfer. And just imagine what we could do with these billions if they were inserted back into our economy.

In addition to the economic and security concerns, the environmental impacts are real. Without technology advancements and commercial processes, we'll put more carbon, a byproduct of using hydrocarbon-based energy resources, in the air in the next 50 years than we have in the last 200. That prospect, along with our unsustainable wealth transfer, should motivate our best efforts for solutions.

Where does the solution lie?

Energy sources such as renewables, hydrogen and nuclear power will play an increasingly prominent role in our nation's energy supply, but these resources are 25 years away from scaling up to meet global energy demand. Today, we need a clean, secure "energy bridge" to help transition the global economy to a future renewable, nuclear and hydrogen energy base. At PNNL, we're assessing what we believe to be a promising contender for this bridge-domestic hydrocarbons used in air emissions- and water-neutral manner.

While the world may be approaching peak production of readily accessible, high-quality hydrocarbons such as sweet/light crude oil, the United States has substantial reserves of lower-quality hydrocarbons such as coals, oil shales and biomass. Our challenge lies primarily in cleanly and economically converting these resources into liquid transportation fuels to reduce our reliance on oil imports. The conversion concept focuses on gasifying the coal versus burning it and capturing and sequestering the CO2 normally released in the process. The resulting end product would be a type of liquid fuel that could be sent to conventional refineries for conversion into finished chemicals or fuels. The U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world's coal supplies, yet we import millions of gallons of oil per day. Finding a way to use our coal resources cleanly and economically to meet our growing demand for transportation fuels holds great promise for reducing our dependence on imported oil.

What does PNNL bring to the table?

PNNL has been actively involved in assessing the business realities surrounding expanded use of our coal and biomass resources, working closely with state and federal governments. From a technical perspective, the science base at PNNL is in direct alignment with capabilities and expertise required to address the challenges I see throughout this 50-year bridge. In addition to our leadership role in carbon capture and sequestration research, our expertise in gasification, separations, chemistry and catalysis positions the Laboratory central to the solution. We also are expanding linkages with the private sector. These partnerships are critical to ensuring that the output of the science base provides solutions that work within existing infrastructures in real-world environments and markets.

What's your vision for the future?

I envision broad, clean and efficient use of our domestic resources, which will result in relief from our overdependence on imported oil and serve as a secure bridge to a viable, clean and independent energy future. If we can accomplish this, we may have answered the call of leaving the world a better place for generations to come.

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