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June 2001

The Laboratory
in the News

Commentary by
Lee Younker

Turning Carbon
Directly into

Research in State
and Beyond

This Nitrogen
Molecule Really
Packs Heat

Goes to Work





Lee Younker
Associate Deputy
Director for Science
and Technology

Addressing the Energy–Environment Challenge

CALIFORNIA'S current energy crisis has put energy issues onto the front page again. Our society’s immediate concerns have focused on ensuring adequate power supplies, avoiding rolling blackouts, and reducing stratospheric energy bills.
At the same time, a growing number of people have cited the environmental and public health consequences of unfettered energy consumption. The rising debate over the environmental aspects of the energy crisis has many elements, including the buildup of greenhouse gases, the recent Kyoto accords on limiting nations’ atmospheric emissions, spills and leakage of fuels, and the general environmental degradation associated with extracting and transporting our energy resources.
The events, discussions, and debates of the past few months have again vividly demonstrated that the nation wants energy that is cheap, reliable, and clean. We do not want to be forced to choose between having adequate energy supplies and enjoying a healthy environment.
Clearly, one of the nation’s most pressing challenges is solving our energy needs while lessening the environmental effects of energy production and consumption. Several trends have emerged that are leading to a national mandate to address the coupled energy–environment issue. These trends include the increasingly strong evidence of climate change, a continuing reliance on fossil fuels, the unrelenting
U.S. energy appetite, the possibility that the developing world will dramatically increase its consumption of fossil fuel, and growing international pressures on the U.S. to curb its carbon dioxide emissions.
Lawrence Livermore possesses a wide range of technical assets that position us to comprehensively address the energy–environment issue. They include the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison, the development of carbon-sensitive energy production and conversion technologies, carbon-cycle and climate simulation, terascale computer hardware and expertise, and expert knowledge in risk assessment and decision support. Together, these assets provide a deep understanding of the energy–environment issue as well as innovative energy and environmental remediation technologies to address the issue.
The recent merger of Lawrence Livermore’s Energy Directorate and Earth and Environmental Sciences Directorate into the Energy and Environment Directorate has enhanced the Laboratory’s capabilities to combine traditional lines of research in energy and in climate. In that light, Livermore scientists are pursuing several integrated initiatives to advance scientific understanding of the energy–environment issue. The initiatives include integrated climate and carbon-cycle prediction,
a zero-emission steam technology research facility, solid-oxide fuel-cell technology development, methane-hydrate risks and opportunities assessment, and carbon sequestration in the ocean or subsurface.
One of the most promising long-term technology options is direct carbon conversion, featured in the article entitled Turning Carbon Directly into Electricity. Future energy technologies must be cost-effective, meaning that the technologies must be modular and scalable and not as capital intensive as previous technologies. They must also be clean and efficient to minimize injury to the environment and facilitate the mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions.
Direct carbon conversion fuel cells offer the potential to be economical, clean, and efficient while using the vast fossil energy resources of oil, coal, natural gas, and biomass. The technology offers high electrochemical efficiency with the added advantage of controlled emission of carbon dioxide that can be disposed of in an environmentally acceptable way. It is a breakthrough based on a new understanding of how to use carbon fuel particles that are extremely small and have a high degree of disorder on the atomic scale.
Many challenges remain to be overcome, including how to use dirty fuels, scaling up the technology to significant size, and performing thorough systems engineering. Nevertheless, direct carbon conversion is a promising candidate for the nation’s energy future.




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UCRL-52000-01-6 | July 23, 2001