I definitely owe my readership this post from a few months back when I was doing a series on the Republican candidates and their viewpoints on scientific research.
My apologies for it being All Quiet on the Blog Front as I prepare to defend and apply for jobs. As a good friend reminded me earlier today: thinking about science policy does, on some strange level, make me happy.
Plus, Romney has pretty much snapped up the nomination and it’s about time we talked a bit about his science stance. Now also the reason that I hadn’t written about this earlier is that it’s pretty difficult to find his thoughts on funding scientific research. But then Paul Ryan and the House Republican Budget came out and this is what Romney said:
Romney: I’m very supportive of the Ryan budget plan. It’s a bold and exciting effort on his part and on the part of the Republicans and it’s very much consistent with what I put out earlier. I think it’s amazing that we have a president who three and a half years in still hasn’t put a proposal out that deals with entitlements. This President’s dealing with entitlement reform — excuse me — this budget deals with entitlement reform, tax policy, which as you know is very similar to the one that I put out and efforts to reign in excessive spending. I applaud it. It’s an excellent piece of work and very much needed.
There has been quite a bit discussed about the large slashes in corporate taxes and government programs that help the poor; but in addition to those detrimental cuts there are also many things in the budget that should be a concern to scientists and those involved in federally funded research.
The Obama Administration specifically listed the programs that involved in science, technology and innovation that the Ryan-Romney budget resolution would cut, with the House Republicans claiming massive duplications, bureaucratic barriers and red tape that are preventing job creation in these sectors.
The House Budget would cut programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science that provide the funding for future clean energy technology and advanced manufacturing initiatives. Specifically stating in the Path to Prosperity that renewable-energy interests are only for political gain.
The President has also stiﬂed domestic energy production by blocking or delaying production both onshore and offshore, destroying jobs and idling American energy sources. The stimulus alone allocated $80 billion of taxpayers’ dollars speciﬁcally for politically favored renewable-energy interests.
But, in fact, this statement is not true at all, that currently domestic production is at its highest since 2003. This Budget Resolution will reduce the current efforts to develop a clean-energy economy at a time when our international competitors are ramping up their investments. China is the world’s top investor in renewable energy projects investing over $120 billion between 2007-2010.
The House Budget resolution would also be detrimental to agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) by cutting the budget of those agencies by almost 10% on average. Cuts to these programs would not only eliminate basic research but as well as education grants and fellowships that help graduate students and postdocs pursue careers in science. OSTP indicates that this would be $670 million below 2012 enacted levels equalling 2,000 fewer competitive grants. But, Path to Prosperity does state that:
This budget would continue funding essential government missions, including energy security and basic research and development, while paring back spending in areas of duplication or non-core functions, such as applied and commercial research or development projects best left to the private sector.
ok, so then my question is where are all of these overflowing private sector investments in research and development and why haven’t they hired me yet? I am a competitive candidate with extensive laboratory skills and I am excited to do cutting-edge research. But what am I doing? I am applying for postdocs. How are postdocs funded? Exactly.
One of the largest sources of carbon, CO2, is emitted as a pollutant and is attributing to the rising climate temperatures. So then why are we not using CO2 as a feedstock? Well, for one thing is it very very difficult. CO2 is incredibly stable as it is a thermodynamic sink. Therefore, It requires even more energy to convert it into something else, and where does all of energy come from? Fossil fuels. Thereby generating even more CO2 to convert CO2 into something useful. But if we can find a means for converting or reducing CO2 into a commodity through a less energy intensive pathway, then there is potential to generate revenue from “waste” and reduce emissions.
Currently, the US generates 5,500 million metric tons/yr of CO2. Industries are currently capturing and using CO2, approximately 200 million metric tons/yr in the food industry and oil and gas industry, but a majority of this is released back into the atmosphere. Only about 0.5% of the CO2 that is captured is sequestered and not released.
We can think about carbon/CO2 utilization in two categories, 1.) carbon sequestration (burying in deep geological formations) and 2.) carbon as a useful feedstock. I am focusing on the second categories because investigations into into using CO2 as a freely available and abundant feedstock to develop commercial chemicals, plastics, and building materials has the potential to be an economically viable industry. Additionally, carbon sequestration has its limitations, and although it is being heavily federally funded, it’s large scale deployment has estimates in the range of $30-70/ton attributed to the new CO2 transmission lines that will need to be built. There are instances where CO2 cannot be transported to sequestration sites.
One of my favorite examples being investigated for CO2 utilization to generate commercial chemicals is the oxidative coupling of CO2 with ethylene to generate acrylic acid with molybdenum catalysts. This is work done at Brown University in the lab of Dr. Bernskoetter.
Acrylic acid is used heavily as the raw material for polymers, coatings and adhesives. Global production of acrylic acid is 3.4 million metric tons/yr and with 60% by weight CO2, that is over 2 million metric tons/yr of CO2 that could be resold and prevented from entering the atmosphere. The production of acrylic acid through a more economically viable method would be advantageous, so much so that Dow has begun similar efforts to generate acrylic acid through the generation of 3-hydroxypropionic acid with the use of a biocatalyst. They claim that their process is 25% cheaper and 75% less greenhouse gas intensive.
The current process for acrylic acid production is the oxidation of propene and is incredibly energy intensive because it not only requires reaction temperatures of 200 – 300 C but also multiple distillations to remove impurities. Dr. Bernskoetter’s catalysts can oxidatively add CO2 and ethylene slightly above, if not close to, room temperature. However, at the moment, the biggest challenge is the reductive elimination of the hydroxide to release acrylic acid from the metal. But once that can be done, unlike the use of catalytic microbes, organometallic catalysts can more easily (and usually cheaply) be modified to improve upon turnover rates and efficiency. I am especially excited and looking forward to Dr. Bernskoetter’s next publication on this catalyst.
In talking to many people, very few were as excited about the President’s budget rollout as I was. This is probably due to the dim prospects of it actually getting passed this year it being an election year. Well, without going into a debate about whether or not it will fly in Congress, I do want to write a post about it as I think that it clearly showcases the importance that President Obama places on a clean energy economy. And because of this, I also think that congress should at least consider (at least the R&D side) the budget because if some of the clean energy investments are passed, the benefits will trickle down to their substituents and create more jobs and industries in their own states. The rest of the world is on board with investing in clean energy, why are we not? Although, according to Bloomberg, in 2011, we finally surpassed China in our investments in clean energy with 55.9 billion dollars when China invested 47.4 billion dollars in clean energy. Lets increase this!
I was excited to read that the Department of Energy’s proposed R&D budget for FY 2013 is 11.9 billion, an $884 million increase (8% of 2012 enacted). Within this budget request, specifically for R&D, there is (nearly a) 30% increase ($2.3 million) in the budget for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Programs, as well as (almost a) 30% increase ($350 million) in the budget for Advance Research Projects Agency in Energy (ARPA-e). I am proud of these increases because energy efficiency programs and efforts are some of the most important things that we can do now to reduce our emissions and save on energy. It it amazing how much economic sense improvements in efficiency can have and yet we consistently under invest in these types of efforts. But, there is a great piece by psychologist Brandon Hofmeister, that perhaps describes the cognitive barrier between knowing that something that makes economic sense and actually doing what makes economic sense. Nonetheless, more efforts to encourage consumers to be energy efficient and for utilities to reward their consumers when they are energy efficient is a very good thing.
As disappointed as I am with the fate of Solyndra, what I am even more disappointed in is the public and media’s immediate response to take this example as the penultimate example as the Administration going about clean tech the wrong way. Wrong in that we are investing in it at all with “precious tax dollars”.We do not need this now. We already do not have the push we need to invest heavily in Clean Energy Technology so that it can be deployed widely as well as the incentives to fund research in these technologies that will make a difference and alleviate our dependence on oil.
I decided to add my blog to the plea/screams/challenge made in David Roberts’ great piece in Grist. What he said scares me:
“What Solyndra gives them is a symbol, something to use as a stand-in to discredit not just the DOE loan program, but all government support for clean energy and indeed clean energy itself.”
Seeing the relationship to “Climategate”, Roberts’ says this:
“This left the field entirely open to a massive attack from the right, coordinated among ideological media, staffers, lobbyists, and pols. When the left finally stirred itself to action, all that emerged were a bunch of long, boring investigations into the details and good-faith efforts to be fair about how both sides a point.”
So then I thought to myself then, why are we, clean energy and environment advocates, not louder! Here, I am adding my voice. Because this is important. We cannot stop these investments. (Granted, we should invest in a company that adapts, how can installing individual glass tubes be cost effective?! That’s another story. It was innovative, I might give them that.) But in order to avoid Solyndra to be the symbol of failed clean technology, I add my voice. We cannot have that happen. Now, all of the the clean energy technology companies that the Administration has supported is being called into question. The media measuring their success based purely on job numbers and calling out the potential influences of campaign support of these other energy technologies.
I bring up this question, since just 2 months ago, we said “good-bye” to our space shuttle program: Did we not back the $200 billion investment in the space shuttle program? We did. Adamantly.
There is always a risk with new technologies. For a program meant to make spaceflight cheap and frequent, there were 131 shuttle missions flown between 1982 – 2010 and two tragic disasters. And yet, the American taxpayers, after 30 years, are devastated by its end.
Why can we not give Clean Energy the same chance? We became attached to space exploration and everyday use the materials and science that came out of the research to get us there. But why is it not the same for Clean Energy Technology? Do you not find it strange that we are not as attached to protecting our current home when we have not even found a new home yet?!
There still continues to be many many defendants of space exploration, and I am one of them, but why are the advocates of clean energy/alternative energies not as adamant?
“Both the American public and policymakers should recognize that spaceflight programs represent a “risky, expensive and long-term commitment,” Pielke said. He also emphasized the need to design programs with greater flexibility than the shuttle and station, so that the programs could evolve based on changing circumstances.”
Despite the risk and setback significant funds are going to research and in educating the next generation of engineers to take us to space. I don’t understand why there isn’t the same fight and same excitement in new energy technology. What is so different?
Many argue that the benefits of space flight that cannot be measured in dollars. I feel that this is the same for energy. How can you measure cleaner air and healthier people? An energy security in which we are not at war over resources that are limited? An economy that thrives due to new innovation.