GAITHERSBURG, Md., Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Science will have to solve several fundamental challenges as society begins to revamp its economy and move away from fossil fuels, energy experts said Tuesday.
Assuring a secure energy future is one of the coming decade's major research efforts at the Department of Energy's Office of Science, said Patricia Dehmer, associate director of science for basic energy sciences. The office's full 10-year plan, part of the Energy Department's new 25-year strategic plan, should be finalized by March of next year, she told members of the Basic Energy Sciences advisory committee.
"(We will) articulate the four or five most important broad science challenges, which should capture two-thirds or more of our program resources," Dehmer said. Performing science at the nanoscale -- manipulating atoms and molecules -- and taking full advantage of advanced computer systems are other items on the office's list, she said.
As for energy research, a just completed BESAC-sponsored workshop gathered scientists from academia, government and the corporate world. The group examined research needs in topics such as renewable energy, nuclear fusion and transportation, said Linda Horton, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher and vice-chair of the meeting. The group's efforts were almost too successful, she told the committee.
"Even though the workshop went on for three and a half days, most of the groups were unable to finalize their proposed research direction," Horton said. "One of the things we identified is that we need follow-up work in the area of biological opportunities in energy research."
The follow-on group will gather in January, Horton said, for discussions on research into photosynthesis, the process by which plants use light energy into create their food, as well as the possibility of biology-based photovoltaic systems, which turn light into electricity. The group's final recommendations will be ready by February, she said.
The workshop identified several recurring themes in considering energy research, Horton said, such as studying materials at the nanoscale to create light-emitting structures and other materials for extremely efficient lighting systems.
Similar levels of fundamental understanding are needed to improve fuel cells, which create electricity from the chemical reaction that forms water. In particular, scientists need to develop better membrane systems for drawing extra electrons, and therefore more current, from the reaction, Horton said. Further study of methods for efficiently creating and storing hydrogen go hand-in-hand with that fuel-cell work, she said.
The workshop group focusing on transportation singled out the need for more study of lightweight materials, Horton said, in order to devise better methods for assembling them into more efficient vehicles. Creating improved systems for storing energy onboard vehicles -- such as batteries -- is another important research focus, Horton said.
The science behind nuclear power plants also needs bolstering, the workshop concluded. Better understanding of the chemistry involved as nuclear fuel is used up could lead to a sustainable program for recycling the byproducts instead of leaving them as waste, she said. Priorities for fusion research include creating models of how materials might change under the stream of radiation from such a reactor.
Although BESAC is involved in long-range planning, it also must keep shorter-range priorities in mind, Dehmer said. She instructed the group of 29 representatives, drawn from universities, national laboratories and industry, to draw up their fiscal year 2005 budget recommendations for discussion Wednesday.