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