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Obama’s State of the Union: The facts about clean energy and broadband access

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Caltech, solar, Obama, ETHIt’s debatable that the U.S. is feeling the same sense of unity and resolve toward technology that it did more than 50 years ago when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite and won the race to space. Regardless, as President Obama pointed out during last night’s State of the Union Address, a Sputnik-like response is in order if the U.S. is to develop the technology needed to address a number of significant challenges the nation faces in the coming years—in particular clean energy and ubiquitous broadband communications.

Understandably, given the breadth of topics he needed to cover, the President mentioned but did not provide much detail about several key technology initiatives underway. Scientific American fills in some of the blanks related to key statements Obama made last night.

"At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars."
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in July announced an award of up to $122 million over five years to establish an Energy Innovation Hub directed by Caltech chemistry professor Nathan Lewis. The organization will include a multidisciplinary team of scientists aimed at developing new methods to generate fuels directly from sunlight. Caltech is leading the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) in partnership with the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to develop an integrated solar energy-to-chemical fuel conversion system and move this system from the bench-top discovery phase to a scale where it can be commercialized.Caltech, ETH, solar, Obama

Also at Caltech, researchers are developing a new reactor to capture solar energy and use it as a catalyst to convert carbon dioxide and water into fuel. Led by Sossina Haile, a professor of materials science and chemical engineering, Caltech scientists have built a 61-centimeter tall prototype reactor with a quartz window that acts as a magnifying glass to focus sunlight coming into the reactor, whose inner cavity is lined with ceria, a metal oxide commonly found in self-cleaning ovens. When the cavity absorbs the concentrated sunlight and is heated the ceria acts as a catalyst, releasing oxygen from its crystalline framework. When the cavity is cooled a chemical reaction produces carbon monoxide and/or hydrogen gas. The hydrogen gas can be used to fuel hydrogen fuel cells, whereas the carbon monoxide, combined with the hydrogen gas, can be used to create synthetic gas.

"At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities."
Oak Ridge researchers are using the DOE’s largest supercomputer—the XT5 Jaguar—to build a 3-D virtual reactor that they can use to figure out how to generate energy more efficiently and with less waste.

"Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer."
In March, Santa Clara, Calif.–based Applied Materials opened its Solar Technology Center in Xi’an, China. At 400,000 square feet, this facility is indeed the world’s largest non-governmental solar energy research facility, with laboratory and office buildings for research and development, engineering, product demonstration, testing and training for crystalline silicon and thin-film solar module manufacturing equipment and processes.

China’s Tianhe-1A supercomputer at the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin has achieved a performance level of 2.57 petaflops per second (a petaflop is one quadrillion calculations per second). This ranks the Tianhe-1A ahead of the former number one system—Oak Ridge’s Jaguar, which has achieved a tope performance level of 1.75 petaflops per second.

"Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do."
It’s true that two studies last year—the first by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the second by the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and Cisco Systems—ranked the U.S. 15th among developed nations in terms of universal broadband access. However, the U.S.’s performance is the result of a number of factors, not the least of which is the country’s physical size. The U.S. has more broadband subscriber lines than any other country, and it also has a lot more territory to cover than say, Japan, which is number two in terms of broadband subscriber lines, according to the GAO report. Japan is about the size of California. Likewise, top-ranked South Korea’s infrastructure needs to cover a landmass only slightly larger than Indiana.

"Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans."
About 75 percent of households have a broadband connection today, and those connections have average download speeds of about 9.6 megabits per second and upload speeds of about two megabits per second, according to the Saïd–Cisco study. The GAO study estimated that more than 90 percent of U.S. households have broadband access.

Images courtesy of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich science and technology university, which has collaborated with Caltech on the solar reactor

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 7:41 am 01/27/2011

    I find it impossible to believe that 90% of all households in America have broadband access when the wireless carriers in America price themselves out of reach of the common household. AT&T and Verizon’s reasoning for their high pricing – $69.99 for unlimited talk, down from $99.99, "We direct our service and air time more toward private business." It costs AT&T .03 of one cent to send a text message over their very slow 3G network and they charge customers 0.25 cents. Other carriers offer you a multitude of dead zones for the same price. If you have to feed a family in this economy, you cannot afford that.

    I also find it difficult to believe that America is a leader in clean energy when we are second in pollution caused by dirty fossil fuel burning power plants and transportation. It is like America has been demonizing our scientists and placing them on the society’s scale lower than a worm. Greed is causing America to regress instead of progress. How can our scientists achieve anything great when they hear our government say, "We don’t have the money to give to research." and then turn around and give billions to war to kill people in foreign countries and billions to fossil fuel companies who are making billions of dollars in profit. Greed for money is killing America and if President Obama can’t stop it, we will plunge back into the deepest recession this country has ever known and our scientists will become a subculture.

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  2. 2. poweringanation 12:55 pm 01/27/2011

    While all the aforementioned talking points make sense, it seems hardly possible to achieve the goal of 80% of U.S. energy coming from clean sources by 2035. Laudable, but likely to be just fluff if both parties don’t come to somewhat an agreement on the economics of energy.

    Luca Semprini

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  3. 3. rtaylortitle 4:17 pm 01/27/2011

    Advocating wind and solar enery is inane and ludicrous. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal and natural gas. Wind energy costs 7 to 10 times our regular sources and solar costs 20 or more times as much and neither is reliable. Spain is a perfect example of so-called ‘green energy’ failure. Most jobs that are created from green energy will disappear as soon as govt. subsidies (which are unconstitutional to begin with) are dropped. We need to end govt. grants (political favors) to universities, save the taxpayers millions of dollars and let the free market sort it out.

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  4. 4. rtaylortitle 4:21 pm 01/27/2011

    Solution..end the govt. grants for research, end these stupid, murderous undeclared & unconstitutional wars, close the nearly 900 military/CIA bases abroad. The taxpayers will save billions and investors will take the place of govt. handouts to political-based science. Let the market reign with a much, much smaller govt. and there will be untold millions for investors to place in research projects.

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  5. 5. bobandpat 4:25 pm 01/28/2011

    Over simplification and failure to learn history.
    * While ending war would be great, what are you gonna do with the military when they are not longer employed?
    * Most of our advances have had a start with educational institutions. Granted, it is a greedy mess the way it is done now, but the answer is to clean house, not end support for university research.

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  6. 6. ttheobald 7:42 am 01/31/2011

    Good summary, bobandpat. The free-market-fundies tend to miss out on the fact that public-works projects are the ones that enable discovery of new tech when there is too much risk to generate interest on behalf of corporate interests. But then, they also forget that their two-packs-a-day goddess sat on Social Security and Medicare payments for the last four or five years of her life, too.

    Actually, I don’t think 25 years is too little time for such a conversion – but that’ll depend largely on how one defines "clean" and just how much opposition the multi-trillion-dollar oil/coal/gas industries will throw into the gears of progress just to protect their cash cow. Pragmatically I don’t see 25 years happening. But on a scale of "possible," yeah, I could see paths that lead there from here.


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  7. 7. khangwer 8:08 am 02/28/2011

    I like the idea of capturing solar energy and use it as catalyst to convert carbon dioxide and water into fuel. It sounds very clean.
    I would like to know more about this technology.
    My question is;
    Where is the water going to come from to power all these homes and cars? Are we going to desalinate the sea? Is that not going to create more problems over a long period of time?
    My second question is:
    Where is the carbon dioxide going to come from? Are we going to use the excess atmospheric carbon dioxide we dumped into the atmosphere when we were burning fossil fuels? Once this atm CO2 is depleted to normal levels; where is the next cheap source of CO2 going to come from? If we continue to deplete the atmospheric carbon dioxide, won’t the earth then lose its ability to regulate its temperature? Without greenhouse effect, huge problem arise.
    I know it will probably take a long time to deplete these resources into abnormal levels but I am sure when people started drilling for oil and mining for coal they never thought we will deplete them, and they never thought it will have huge consequences today on the status of our earth.

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