Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2276th Meeting

President Robin Taylor called the 2,276th meeting to order at 8:31 pm December 3, 2010 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Ms. Taylor made some administrative announcements and then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. William F. Brinkman of the Department of Energy. Mr. Brinkman, who directs the Office of Science of DoE, spoke on “Science for Energy.”

Mr. Brinkman seemed proud of his Office. He pointed out that it provides 40% of Federal support in the physical sciences. It supports more than 27,000 Ph.D.s , students, engineers, and staff. It supports 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers, three Bioenergy Centers, and one Energy Innovation Hub. Their user facilities serve 26,000 users a year. They are designing new particle accelerators and colliders, x-ray and neutron scattering facilites, supercomputers, and many specialized facilites. The Office supports research at more than 300 U.S. institutions. He quoted a statement made early on by President Obama, who doubled the budget of the DoE Office of Science.

He pointed out that the United States is falling behind in publications. Europe has passed us; Asia is rising fast. U.S. publications lean toward social and health subjects, Europe’s are balance, and China’s are decidedly hard-science oriented.

He discussed the global climate crisis. He presented data on the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, the decrease of ice mass on Greenland, and on global average temperature.

If business follows the existing pattern, fossil fuels will continue to supply most of the energy used in the world. The development of shale gas promises to be a large factor in the future.

He showed a really nifty graphic of what sources energy comes from and where it goes. Several members asked for copies after the talk and called the recording secretary at home for it.

Petroleum, coal, and natural gas are the big sources. Nuclear, biomass, and hydro are small sources. Wind, geothermal, and solar are nominal sources.

Transportation uses the most energy; then industry, third is residential use, and commerce is fourth. Fifty seven per cent of the energy produced in the U.S. is wasted.

The pattern is similar for carbon dioxide emission.

Major changes are required to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. To prevent global average surface temperature from rising more than 2.5C by 2050, we mus emit less than 1000 GT between 2000 and 2050. But our emissions rate from 2000 - 2010 was 33 GT a year. We must reduce our emissions by a factor of eight between 2010 and 2050.

He advocates developing new technology to address this. Current developments are in electrical energy storage, the “smart grid,” and end use efficiency.

He said the cost competitiveness of solar energy is improving. Nanoscience is contributing to this by increasing the amount of the energy that hits the solar cell that gets converted to electricity.

Carbon capture is another research front. He spoke of sequestering about 10 GT of CO2 a year underground.

He also mentioned new materials that may aid in capturing CO2. They are researching metal-organic frameworks that act as “crystalline sponges.”

Trucks use a lot of fuel. There are 1.3 million Class 8 trucks on the roads. Three hundred thousand of them are sold annually. They average 6.7 miles a gallon.

Analysis of the fluid dynamics of the air flow around these trucks has been done using DoE’s “Jaguar” Cray XT-5 computer at Oak Ridge. Indications are that some simple add-ons to the rigs could reduce drag by 20% and increase fuel efficiency by 6.9%. These add-ons would be big, probably plastic, structures to guide the air around the “dirty” parts of the rigs such as the cab-trailer gap and the wheels. If all the 1.3 million vehicles were so equipped, they could save 1.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel and about $4.4 billion a year. The CO2 reduction would be 16.4 million tons.

He closed by saying that gives us a glimpse of the kinds of things his Office does.

The first questioner said energy is a fundamental factor in wealth and noted the enormous investment of the American people, through taxes, in nuclear power. He discussed conversion of our energy system to a profit sharing system to give taxpayers a return on their investment.

Mr. Brickman demurred. He said he spent most of his life in private industry and believes that it “works cheaper,” even though he now works for the government.

Another question was about synergy between green energy technology and exploration technology, such as space exploration technology.

Not in “quite those terms,” Mr. Brinkman said. It does come into play, for example, on the truck research. A NASA facility was used to complement the computer analysis with physical tests.

There was a question about use of thorium instead of uranium in nuclear fission. Mr. Brinkman said there are potential advantages. It is, however, tricky, he said. It appears to be easy to get unwanted effects, such as transmutation of thorium into other metals.

Someone noted that the heating of the planet may be a more important question that warming. The melting of the ice masses masks the heating. He also suggested carbon sequestration in the form of diamonds and a fresh look at the matter of cold fusion.

Mr. Brinkman agreed about the masking of the heating by ice melting. He thought sequestering CO2 as diamonds would be difficult. About cold fusion, he said it is “not a fact.”

Space-based solar power was mentioned. Mr. Brinkman doubted its practicality.

Finally, someone brought up the possibility of using the hydrogen that lies in much higher relative amounts high in the atmosphere.

“An interesting idea,” Mr. Brinkman thought.

After the talk, Ms. Taylor presented a plaque commemorating the occasion. She made some housekeeping announcements. She introduced candidates for offices. She announced the next meeting.

Finally, at 9:50 pm, she adjourned the 2,276th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 81
The weather: Cold, slightly cloudy
The temperature: 1°C

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary

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