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Originally published September 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 17, 2008 at 10:43 AM

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Guest columnists

Scientific breakthroughs needed to unlock nation's energy potential

America has given itself a tall order. We are determined to meet growing energy demands while reducing our reliance on imported oil and curtailing greenhouse gases.

Special to The Times

America has given itself a tall order. We are determined to meet growing energy demands while reducing our reliance on imported oil and curtailing greenhouse gases.

But these commendable goals are being overrun by reality. The U.S. is showing few signs of reducing its dependence on fossil fuels such as petroleum and natural gas. Crude oil alone supplies more than 40 percent of U.S. energy demands and almost all of our transportation fuels, and we import 60 percent of it.

Meanwhile, rapid economic growth in developing nations is causing U.S. prices to soar — prices for fuels used for transportation, electrical power generation and industrial manufacturing. And environmental impacts resulting from fossil-fuel combustion are becoming even more severe.

Can renewable energy save the day? Solar, hydrogen energy and plug-in hybrid vehicles are gaining ground. Studies show that the United States could grow and convert enough biomass to replace nearly a third of the nation's current gasoline use. And carbon capture and storage technologies show tremendous promise for reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants.

These are all good alternatives. The problems are the time scale and the costs. It will take decades before these technologies can be tested and deployed at a large enough scale to significantly displace the dirty carbon-based sources we use now.

Some energy solutions are stymied by an inadequate scientific understanding. Current processes to convert biomass to fuel are inefficient. Up to 90 percent of biomass is "burned up" in the combustion process, yielding only 10 percent fuel. The science to make the process economical and efficient is still in its infancy.

In the meantime, the energy industry is feeling the pinch. Domestic reserves of light crude oil are being depleted. To meet soaring fuel demands, energy producers are being forced to turn to unconventional resources such as heavy oils, tar sands, shale oil and coal, which yield less fuel than light petroleum and contain more challenging contaminants such as sulfur and nitrogen.

According to Paul Allinson, vice president of Chevron Energy Technology, new processes must be developed to supply a more-diverse resource base for future energy supplies. "Molecular transformation techniques are required to convert unconventional resources into clean transportation fuels," he said.

A new report ("Basic Research Needs: Catalysis for Energy") by some of the nation's top chemists and chemical engineers, recently delivered to the U.S. Department of Energy, points a way out of this dilemma.

The authors focused on the most foundational aspect of energy conversions. Catalysis — the essence of speeding up and directing chemical transformations — is the key to unlocking the full potential of today's and tomorrow's energy sources.

Industry uses catalysts to convert oil, natural gas and coal into fuels, and to make products such as plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Breakthroughs in catalysis could make it possible to efficiently convert heavy fossil-energy resources and biomass into transportation fuels. Catalysis could lead to technologies for converting carbon dioxide and water into fuel feedstocks. In the future, it might even be possible to convert water and hydrogen to liquid fuels without producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

Government, the research community and industry each play a role in harnessing these chemical transformations. The federal government invests in basic research at universities and national laboratories, where new discoveries are born. The energy industry applies those discoveries to engineer commercial technologies for new and better fuel sources. All three groups agree that basic research in chemical transformation, including catalysis, is crucial for alleviating America's energy woes.

What's not as clear is how to get there.

The current state of catalysis science is like a pole vaulter poised at the end of the runway, contemplating a 50-foot high bar. With gradual improvements in training and equipment, he can clear a few more inches than his previous 15-foot record. But he can vault 50 feet only by radically transforming himself or the sport.

In the same way, scientists need a leap of discovery to design and build effective catalysts with atom-by-atom precision, unleashing the full power of today's and tomorrow's energy sources.

President Bush has proposed significant funding increases for catalysis research — a good start but insufficient for the enormous challenge at hand. Congress needs to appropriate the funds requested for 2009 and more in subsequent years.

The leap forward is daunting. But with a sustained commitment of leadership and investment, the United States will be positioned to meet the energy needs of the 21st century and beyond.

Alexis T. Bell is professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Bruce C. Gates is professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Davis. Douglas Ray is deputy laboratory director for science and technology and director of fundamental and computational sciences at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. The three co-chaired the U.S. Department of Energy's nationwide Basic Energy Sciences Workshop last year.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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