america labs


This is actually terrific news:

“The Obama administration’s push to solve the nation’s energy problems, a massive federal program that rivals the Manhattan Project, is spurring a once-in-a-generation shift in U.S. science.

The government’s multibillion-dollar push into energy research is reinvigorating 17 giant U.S.-funded research facilities, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory here to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. After many years of flat budgets, these labs are ramping up to develop new electricity sources, trying to build more-efficient cars and addressing climate change.

In fiscal 2009, the Obama administration increased the funding by 18%, to $4.76 billion, to the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which oversees 10 national labs and funds research at another seven. The office will receive $1.6 billion in government stimulus spending, as well, much of which it will also channel to these laboratories.”

We have had a series of incremental gains in various technology. What we need is a major breakthrough in Physics — on a fundamental level — in solar energy efficiency, battery storage, transfer technology, wind resources, wave/tide conversion, etc.

Energy Push Spurs Shift in U.S. Science
WSJ, NOVEMBER 25, 2009

Category: Energy, Research

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

31 Responses to “Multibillion-Dollar Push Into Energy Research”

  1. ironman says:

    BR wrote:

    We have had a series of incremental gains in various technology. What we need is a major breakthrough in Physics — on a fundamental level — in solar energy efficiency, battery storage, transfer technology, wind resources, wave/tide conversion, etc.

    Not necessarily. A number of solar technologies have sufficient efficiency in generating energy to be viable in that respect – the main challenge now lies in developing manufacturing efficiencies, as most of these technologies still cost too much to produce profitably.

    Battery storage and transfer technology is a different story – here, there’s still quite a bit of opportunity for basic science to make progress.

    Wind resources and wave/tide conversion are unlikely to be serious contenders due to their basic operating limitations. Of the two, wave/tide offers greater consistency in power output (wind is highly variable.) Note: Solar has this problem too (clouds, night, etc.), but offers the advantage of providing its peak power output at peak consumption times during mixed or ideal conditions.

    Of course, if we’re talking about R&D programs to produce solar power generation and transmission satellites, which wouldn’t have the same performance limitations, then there’s still quite a bit of work that might be done with solar.


    BR: Damn yes!

    Orbiting solar collector/converters beaming energy to substations — thats the ticket!

  2. super_trooper says:

    In theory a great idea to invest in energy research. However, as a frequent user of NSLS (National synchrotron Light Source) at brookhaven, NY. I have frequently talked to various members about their desire to build NSLS-II. They have so far lacked a “killer-application” that would warrant that size of an investment. It looks like you don’t need a killer app when you’re facing a great recession… I personally have to say it’s inefficient use of money. Yes it’s always great to have new facilities, whoever that’s what Argonne national laboratory is there for. It really comes down to them allocating the money right. I can see numerous field, including structural genomics/macromolecular crystallography that has NO need for new instruments (the beamlines are already too hot). Moreover, is this just a 2 year investment similar to the extra 10billions to NIH (a disaster in making)?

  3. There are still huge gains that need to be made in old energy industries protecting revenue turf. Keeping them from flooding energy markets with supply in order to suppress prices and undercut alt. energy competition could be a problem. Maybe throwing some subsidies their way to get them behind the development of new tech. will help. Maybe that is already happening but I am thinking that things will go a lot smoother with biz/gov partnerships than without

  4. What was that machine in Back to the Future? Mr. Fusion? Yeah that’s it. Get us that. I have a lot of garbage piling up here. The sooner we get waste to energy going the better off our cities will be…..except, of course, all the garbage truck drivers we’ll put out of work. :roll:

    I’ve got to think that at some point food, energy and housing will become virtually free. Of course, we’ll still be paying 25 bucks for a movie! :twisted:

    With everyone doing microlifting and the cost of production cut to low levels what will people do for income? Skits on you tube? I guess getting a house built will be like the way the Amish put up a barn. 1000 people show up one weekend and BINGO! you have a new house! :)

    That would be very cool. Great for community spirit. A Star Trek economy

  5. David Merkel says:

    This is only good news if it works. Away from that it is a waste. Major breakthroughs are rare, and don’t usually come through standard sources.

  6. FrancoisT says:


    There is a breakthrough for MIT that may become the game changer everyone has been looking for. It involves the generation of hydrogen for fuel cells from the solar system installed on an ordinary house at a very competitive price.

    It resolves the thorny problem of hydrogen distribution while scoring a twofer; energy for the home AND the car. Fascinating stuff!

    BTW, the inventors at MIT (and their famed patent attorneys, to be sure) are already in negotiations with one of the biggest solar manufacturer in the world for development of an integrated device.

  7. S Brennan says:

    I want to praise Obama for this, but I believe his neo-liberal economic theology/ideology blinds him from seeing where the bottlenecks are.

    Here’s an example of a technology that could be dusted off…but as the article points out:

    ” Scientists have long considered using thorium as a reactor fuel — and for good reason: The naturally occurring element is more abundant, more efficient and safer to use than uranium…But there’s just one problem: The nuclear power industry has already built its infrastructure around uranium and has little reason to invest in changing it, according to Mujid Kazimi, director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems…This is a market economy so the economics will have to be in favor for thorium to move that way,” said Kazimi. “It could take another 50 years for us to reach the level where uranium prices are so high that thorium looks attractive.”

    Good technologies have to wait until industry groups say so…regardless of the national interest.

  8. michaeld says:

    Given all the innovative research labs available, I am pretty sure breakthroughs can come fairly soon if the incentives focus the research in this field.

  9. torrie-amos says:

    back in early 90′s, or was it late 80′s, when they ditched funding for the super collider in waco texas you knew there was a shift in mentality of funding experiments………..looking back imho, this really should be a priority…….makes one wonder if there was a shift in less grants and higher college tuitions

    either way, good news is good news,

  10. Jojo says:

    Here’s what I don’t understand:

    There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of scientists working across all areas year after year and yet, we are not seeing any big breakthroughs that are game changers for the human race.

    - We still haven’t cured cancer or heart disease.
    - We haven’t figured out how to clone hair or stop it from turning gray.
    - Our battery technology still sucks
    - We’ve got terabyte hard disk storage but if you want to back up a terabyte disc, you’d need at least 20 blu-ray DVD’s.
    - We don’t understand why we dream or how the brain really works
    - We spend a gignormous amount of money to build the Large Hadron Collider to investigate what happened in the first few seconds of the Big Bang instead of focusing on getting fusion to work.
    - In the space program, we’ve given up on the space shuttle and instead reverted to boosting a little capsule on a big rocket (like we did back in the 1960′s) to get into humans into space.
    - 40 years after the first Moon landing, we still don’t have a Moon base and haven’t made any real progress on getting people to Mars or further.
    - And of course, we still don’t have anti-gravity, food generation machines or flying cars like the Jetsons had!

    What are these scientists actually doing with their time and resources?

  11. Patrick Neid says:

    Hopefully something happens before the ethanol boondoggle, another great government idea, really gets out of hand.

  12. flipspiceland says:


    About to ask the same question. Until the method and oversight for funding these projects is streamlined they will always follow the dictum, “Work expands to fill the available time to complete it”.

    The amount of waste, politics, human inefficiency and larceny that seem to be a part of any project undertaken by large bureaucracies will prevent actual cures from happening because these projects have as their aim, not the final result, but extending the process so as many people as possible can that perpetuate the institution can ‘score’.

    Deadlines, progress metrics, and manageable groups staffed by the best possible candidates are essential.

    But if past if prologue, the most ineffiecient, the most connected, the most politically savvy, and the least effective somehow manage to defeat the objective rather than claim victory. Because after victory
    the funding dries up and the need for the resources, human and others, is no longer required.

    Basically, the INCENTIVES need to be structured correctly.

  13. VennData says:

    Comical… all the above unsupported “gov’t research doesn’t work” spiels are typical of day-traders trying to comment on science.

    What they refuse to believe are how their GOP heroes kill promising projects for political gains, for example, why don’t they mention how Bush made the study of stem cells illegal even for private business? Where is any mention of how Reagan killed all alt energy research×3552926

    … or Bush killed the New Generation of Vehicles

    etc… etc… It would be interesting to know where we’d be now if the party-of-no hadn’t ruined so many promising programs. But we won’t. Thanks GOP.

  14. VennData says:

    …And how proud the GOP genuflectors must be to know one of their own is making such poignant analysis of our First Lady.

    Michelle Obama racist image

  15. randyt says:

    a question for mr. ritholtz ( or the board). having been in germany recently, is it true that photo-voltaics (solar) makes up a large percentage of their power grid. not huge industrial solar farms but smaller individual systems at each home or business. germany doesn’t have many resourses as far as power generation. on the whole i think the german people are smart and efficient, i don’t think they would waste time and duetch marks on something in- efficient or unreliable. jmo cbw hbb.

  16. rtalcott says:

    Piles of money into national labs is a very inefficient way to get results…these are extremely expensive environments not know for practical results….

  17. MRegan says:

    Thermal depolymerization, anyone?

    Try finding Waldo in this interesting tidbit from the article (which I recommned):

    [Because depolymerization takes apart materials at the molecular level, Appel says, it is "the perfect process for destroying pathogens." On a wet afternoon in Carthage, he smiles at the new plant—an artless assemblage of gray and dun-colored buildings—as if it were his favorite child. "This plant will make 10 tons of gas per day, which will go back into the system to make heat to power the system," he says. "It will make 21,000 gallons of water, which will be clean enough to discharge into a municipal sewage system. Pathological vectors will be completely gone. It will make 11 tons of minerals and 600 barrels of oil, high-quality stuff, the same specs as a number two heating oil." He shakes his head almost as if he can't believe it. "It's amazing. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't even consider us waste handlers. We are actually manufacturers—that's what our permit says. This process changes the whole industrial equation. Waste goes from a cost to a profit."

    He watches as burly men in coveralls weld and grind the complex loops of piping. A group of 15 investors and corporate advisers, including Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, stroll among the sparks and hissing torches, listening to a tour led by plant manager Don Sanders. A veteran of the refinery business, Sanders emphasizes that once the pressurized water is flashed off, "the process is similar to oil refining. The equipment, the procedures, the safety factors, the maintenance—it's all proven technology."]

  18. william says:

    No mention of nuclear power?

    “From China to Brazil, 53 plants are now under construction worldwide, with Poland, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia seeking to build their first reactors, according to global watchdog groups and industry associations. The number of plants being built is double the total of just five years ago. ”

    How about the US? Obama defunded Yucca Mountain and the left has stymied any attempts to approve construction of new power plants.

  19. alexp says:

    Reply to JoJo:

    As time goes by, “major breakthroughs” are much more difficult to achieve. Thomas Edison picked a lot of low-handing fruit, right? He didn’t need to understand biochemistry, genetic sequencing, or quantum physics.

    The nature of science nowadays is that SO MUCH knowledge is required that teams of scientists working across disciplines are required to even make incremental progress. And that’s where we are, making steady-but-incremental progress. Hoping for a deux ex machina coming down from a research lab & saving mankind isn’t realistic.

    Our choice is:

    1) Work very hard for small gains.
    2) Give up on science, and focus on something else (or maybe we should give up on zero-sum day-trading, and focus on something else?).

    I also think you’re seriously underestimating how much progress has been made the past couple decades.

  20. ashpelham2 says:

    Want to really know why we don’t have a solution to those problems? Look no further than many of the stocks you and I currently hold, as long as we are willing to hold them.

    We expect returns from those investments, appreciation, dividends. If a cure for cancer is found, many of those drug companies that have THE drug that helps during the treatment of cancer go away. Solution found, the drug is obsolete.

    What about energy? I own XLE, and that fund would be in bigtime danger if we stated we found the ultimate alternative to fossil fuels. That fund heavily owns Chevron, Texaco, et al. Make no mistake: BP Amoco says they are committed to a cleaner, more efficient future, but only if it makes them money. Oil is their main revenue. That’s not going away.

    What we are all asking for is a utopian society where we all work for non-profits, and all of our needs are supplied by the giant Orb in the Sky. It’s Sci-Fi, it’s unrealistic, and it’s not going to change markedly for another 100 years.

  21. Wes Schott says:

    we need nuclear for electricity

    peak oil was in 2005

    it will be a long time and expensive before we could convert the surface transportation fleet to electric

    we need an alt fuel for transportation. interesting is anhydrous ammonia – apparently can fuel a combustion engine with little or no modifications

  22. constantnormal says:

    No mention of Dr Bussard’s Polywell fusion reactor? It has quietly received a trickle of funding from the Navy for years, and the latest incremental effort puts them at the brink of a 100 MW powerplant …

    If the W8 incremental step is successful, and the W9 is built, every nuclear powerplant under construction or operating today suddenly looks very old, very inefficient. The Polywell fusion design produces little/no hard radiation (with the proper mix of fusion fuels), is reasonably compact, and inherently fail-safe.

  23. Good news indeed! However there are techologies that are ready to go, like the Desertec project where private German banks and other companies will pony up 400 billion euros to make it happen. Have to hand it to those Germans, when they believe in something they are all in… Now where is the US equivalent ? I sorta miss the moonlanding mentality…

  24. DL says:

    So Iguess there was something useful amid all that pork.

  25. sinomania says:


    The reactor of choice was designed here – the WEstinghouse AP1000 – but it will benefit the rest of the world since our politics gets in the way. China is building another 4 AP1000 reactors in the next year or so and plans to generate 400 Gigawatt with nuclear power plants or over 20% of its electricty by mid century. Where will the USA be then? Let’s hope wind and solar do take off here…

  26. patfla says:

    This is an almost futuristic grid-related project that’s occurring now (it also has the appeal of being huge – people like that):

    One (of many) applications would be to transfer intermittent Texas wind power to locations in the US distant from Texas.

  27. MSimon says:

    Carbon nanotube wire would be an extremely good place to put some money. We are one or two production breakthroughs away from wire that is cheaper than aluminum or copper. Stronger than either and about 5X as conductive. It could greatly lower the cost of long distance transmission. If it was strong enough (and it very well might be) it could greatly reduce power outages from downed transmission lines.

  28. CTB says:

    Having flown over vast tracts of uninhabitable, sunny desert land on the way to Las Vegas, I’m fairly certain there is a lot of potential in solar.

  29. bman says:

    Lots of nitpicking naysayers here on this thread. I think any money that is spent on Bankers, Wall Street traders, Iraq, and Aghanistan is a waste. spending money on engineers and engineering projects is where our long term hope lies, That said here’s some thoughts and counter thoughts.

    @Ironman Consistancy is not a requirement for energy production. If you have adequate efficient means of storing the energy. Transmitting energy from space is pointless, go up there and make use of it if you want to gather it up there, there’s plenty energy already on the surface, above and below.

    @SuperTrooper umm what is your point?

    @FrancoisT TaDa!! who says it can’t be done :)

    @SBrennen Did you hear about the Three Mile island nuclear release last week? they were just sawing through some pipes when *Alarm* Forget nuclear, what is needed is distributed clean energy production, storage and redistribution.

    @Jojo If you bash the Large Hadron Collider, you’ll never understand anything.