December 15, 2004 4:16 PM PST

Nobel laureate rings energy alarm bell

Richard Smalley, a Rice University professor who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996, is calling on the United States to mount a multibillion-dollar campaign to fund research into alternative energy or else face the consequences.

"It may be a greater challenge for us than the Cold War...to make it possible for 10 billion people to live the lifestyle you are used to in a way that doesn't cause unacceptable impacts on the environment," he told an audience of scientists at the International Electron Devices Meeting taking place in San Francisco this week. "There is no escaping the problem. The consequences will be terrorism, pestilence, famine."


Richard Smalley
1996 Nobel laureate

Smalley, who is mostly known for his work with carbon nanotubes, is part of a growing cadre of scientists and technicians focusing on what happens as oil, coal and gas supplies shrink over the next two decades. Nobel prize winner Stephen Chu, for instance, left Stanford to head up the federally funded Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in part he said, to promote energy research.

Meanwhile, a growing number of venture capitalists, such as Erik Straser at Mohr Davidow Ventures, now focus on so-called clean investments into companies promoting solar power or water purification. Oil companies such as Shell and BP are also examining alternatives.

The problem comes from a dire conflict between supply and demand. The world population and energy demand is growing, but supplies of fossil fuels are inevitably declining. Earth's 6 billion people now consume about 14.5 terawatts of energy a day--the equivalent of about 150 million barrels of oil, Smalley said.

By 2050, the world's population will rise to 10 billion, and energy demand will rise to between 30 terawatts and 60 terawatts (450 million to 900 million barrels of oil a day), according to United Nations data. Unfortunately, oil production will likely peak by 2020 and start declining. Without a change, developing countries will ultimately be left in the dark, and developed countries will struggle to keep the lights on. Conflict is inevitable.

Untapped reservoirs of coal exist, but converting it to oil creates carbon dioxide, and no sound way for sequestering CO2 has been established. Wind, wave and hydrothermal power have mostly been tapped.

Solar energy stands as one of the most promising alternatives, he said. About 165,000 terawatts of energy strike Earth a day. Some companies, such as Konarka Technologies and Nanosys have already conducted some promising research ideas, he said, but tremendous amounts of research need to be performed. Funding is also short.

"When we are serious about disease, we put $30 billion into it. What we are putting into energy is less than a couple of billion," he said.

A major beneficial side effect of such a program would be the reverse of the U.S. decline in the physical sciences. Fewer U.S.--and even Japanese--students are getting Ph.D.s in the hard sciences than in the past. By contrast, the number in other Asian countries is growing. The trend will drive the center of progress from the West to the East.

"Thomas Edison said, 'This is our game.' We are about to enter a decade when this is no longer our game," Smalley said. More funding can't guarantee jobs to students, but it can help. Throwing down the gauntlet on a major scientific challenge can stimulate the collective intellect of students.

Now comes the hard part. There's no guarantee that any of the alternatives will work well. Hydrogen may only have limited applications, he noted. "There is no guarantee that Mother Nature, when she made the laws of physics and chemistry, put (an alternative to oil) in there," he said.

Storage and transmission technologies will also have to be developed. To top it off, history shows that people don't generally get motivated to solve a problem until it hits.

"My guess is that this won't become a big issue unless there is a thalidomide event," he said. "We will have to see in the rear-view mirror that we are past the peak in worldwide oil production."

12 comments

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"Running on empty"
According to some current estimates, at the rate of current consumption known U.S. oil reserves will be depleted by 2012. If world wide oil production will peak in 2020, we are looking at a very bleak future in a very short period of time. If $2.00 gal. gasoline didn't slow down the U.S. economy, you can bet that double or triple that price will grind it to a halt. The middle east will literaly have us over a baarrel in less than a decade if nothing is done to eliminate a majority of the "worlds" dependence on oil. Alternatives must be found ranging from heating to transporation to electric generation.

I would certainly like to be able to forsee what direction these alternatives are headed in order to be able to hedge against this pending crises by investing equity positions in the companies that prove to have a viable alternative for the future.
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"Running on empty"
According to some current estimates, at the rate of current consumption known U.S. oil reserves will be depleted by 2012. If world wide oil production will peak in 2020, we are looking at a very bleak future in a very short period of time. If $2.00 gal. gasoline didn't slow down the U.S. economy, you can bet that double or triple that price will grind it to a halt. The middle east will literaly have us over a baarrel in less than a decade if nothing is done to eliminate a majority of the "worlds" dependence on oil. Alternatives must be found ranging from heating to transporation to electric generation.

I would certainly like to be able to forsee what direction these alternatives are headed in order to be able to hedge against this pending crises by investing equity positions in the companies that prove to have a viable alternative for the future.
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Energy. Population
I'm sorry, but I can't become enthusiastic about alternate energy sources, Conservation, etc., etc., etc., unless we civilized human beings also, or instead, significantly reduce our number.

If we do not do this, none of alternate energy sources, Conservation, etc., etc., etc., will matter in the least, because all they will do is permit us to pack even more of ourselves into existence. Energy "shortages", along with "terrorism", global warming, pollution, etc., etc., etc. -- essentially all of the "major problems" we face are but symptoms of the excess number of us.

It is time for us to address our excess population.

If we manage to significanly reduce our population, most or all of the present "major problems" we face will likely disappear, and the "quality of life" of everyone and the ecosystem will improve greatly.

If we fail to significantly reduce our population ourselves, the ecosystem will soon, and certainly, do it for us, because we will eventually compromise the ability of the ecosystem to sustain us. We are abosolutely dependent on the ecosystem, as has been demostrated by the failure of every attempt to make an "isolated ecosystem" capable of sustaining human beings.

The infrastructure of civilization will fail soon after we have "broken" the ecosystem. Without the working infrastructure of civilization, at least 629 out of every 630 people will starve as the human population of our planet is reduced from the present 6.3-billion of us to no more than about 10-million -- the estimated number of human beings who supported themselves by hunter-gathering in the not ruined ecosystem before civilization started.

===============

About 10,000 yeara ago a small group of human beings devised a method to "disable" for themselves the ecological mechanism that had heretofore limited their population. The descendants of this group eventially named their group "civilization", and considered themselves to be "civilized". Thus began the process of converting the biomass of our planet into civilized human beings.

Almost every action of the civilized in the intervening 10,000 years has had just one "effect" with regard to the potential for survival of the ecosystem of our planet and thus our civilzed selves. This "effect" has been to increase the efficiency of our long-ago initiated process that converts the bio-mass of our planet into civilized human beings.


The increae in efficiency of our conversion process has been profound. We have increased the population of human kind by a factor in excess of 630 (from about 10-million to about 6.3-billion).

Far more dangerous to the ecosystem, and thus ourselves, is the simultaneous, almost infinite increase in our population growth rate (from an initial almost stable population -- i.e., infinite time to double our population -- to the present rate of population growth rate which has recently demonstrated its capability to double the world population of human beings to 6-billion in just 36 years (1963 to 1999).

The 50-year estimated exhaustion of petroleum at present use rates will actually be much less if/when China gears-up auto production in the next years.

Obviously, this means that it up to all people living now to reduce the population of human kind -- significantly -- or many of the people already living -- i.e., our already living young -- will be the ones who starve in the chaotic aftermath of civilization.
Posted by (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Exactly
Im sure glad Im not the only one who sees where this civilization is going.

Oh and I think the latest models show fuel shortages to start as soon as 2008.

The main problem we have is that capitalistic economic systems are based on growth. Without it they cannot exist.

The only way any society is going to survive is by creating a socialist or (true) communistic society immediately and enforce zero or better yet negative population growth.

But those with the authority to avert this impending disaster by implementing such changes have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo even if they are clinging to a sinking ship.

So Im thinking that millions will have to die after the chaos starts before anyone will be able to encite a group to revolt and implement a sane economic and governmental system.

Though by then it will probably be too late.

But then again Im a bit of a pessimist.
Posted by Fray9 (547 comments )
Link Flag
Humans are a virus on the world
Interesting point you make. I seem to remember reading several articles that if it weren't for viruses humans would not have evolved over the many millions of years. In fact much of our DNA is discarded virus DNA. (I think I read it in discovery magazine and the science journal).

This little tid-bit of scientific information if abstracted and correlated to humanity's onslaught on the biomass of the world could be seen as an aggressive virus infecting and consuming its host, the world.

Natural disasters, plaques, AIDS, take your pick. You could see this as the world's antibodies trying to keep the virus at bay. Once we have consumed our ecosphere and made it unable to sustain life we will spread out into the rest of the solar system and the universe like a locust feeding on the life of the universe.

Wahahha!

Ok sounds kind of crazy, however history seems to support my rather colorful view of humanity.
Posted by zeroplane (286 comments )
Link Flag
You contribute only to the entropy of ignorance
The poster of "Energy.Population" and those contributing the two replies to it truly do not understand much about energy, its impact on human existence, and the inverse relationship.

To sum up the original poster's stance, we should not care about conservation because we're all going to kill ourselves anyway in a few hundred years -- that disaster is only averted by decreasing population.

Perhaps you are right, we could use fewer people. In fact, I think it would be very beneficial for anybody who agrees with the defeatest philosophy, however, to do the environment a favor... to do something about the overpopulation problem ASAP. I urge Mr. Spies to lead the charge, to legally and civilly lower the population by his own one, and to be the example for all who share the view. Before you do, please do not reproduce.

Energy problems have something to do with population, but more to do with poor decisions of those who overpopulate. Frugality truly is a virtue, and lowering the footprint on an ecosystem is far more constructive than throwing your hands up and saying, oh well, I won't get excited about conserving resources because we're all doomed anyway.

If you do not help out the overpopulation problem with your own extinction, then at least take the time to calculate the amount of energy the sun sends us every second, per square meter. Multiply that by the number of square meters in the beautifully empty and pristine deserts in the southwestern US. How interesting that we can sustain our energy NEEDS just by what has been provided to us by our nearest star. Note, however, I didn't say our energy GLUTTONY. The difference between GLUTTONY and NEEDS is degree, and frugality lies in understanding and applying the difference.... in conserving, and decreasing your footprint on your ecosystem, and keeping the footprint that remains reversable with time.

To the poster that stated that socialism and communism will save the planet... How despicable it is that you use a result of innovation (the PC and the internet) to spew an idea that would stifle innovation-- that same innovative motivation that in someone with far more intelligence will improver our future and sustainability as a species and as a planet. Socialism and communism would only speed up any destructive course. Capitalism works the other way, through rewarding innovation and sustainability.

HOWEVER, to the poster who stated that resources do not run out in a free-market, perhaps you misunderstand the idea of LIMITED RESOURCE.... oil WILL run out. USABLE ENERGY WILL NOT. Right now, the free market will foster innovation to make use of energy sources that are not from decayed organic carcasses. There is enough coal in the US to sustain the energy needs of the US for a couple hundred years. But is coal the solution to the bigger, environmental problem? Probably not.

To the poster who mentioned that we'll kill this planet, and then spread to the rest of the solar system to kill those planets too... please, for heaven's sake, read a little about astronomy and the solar system before you propose such ideas. This is the only planet we will ever call home. That is not defeatest, it is an unavoidable conclusion based in the truth about the nature of space, distance, and the nearby planets.

I hope that those who have posted to this, an interesting article, do not represent even a small fraction of the CNET readers. I am hoping that those that really understand simply do not post as often.

Regards, and at the least, keep thinking.
William
Posted by wewpubadd (2 comments )
Link Flag
Energy. Population
I'm sorry, but I can't become enthusiastic about alternate energy sources, Conservation, etc., etc., etc., unless we civilized human beings also, or instead, significantly reduce our number.

If we do not do this, none of alternate energy sources, Conservation, etc., etc., etc., will matter in the least, because all they will do is permit us to pack even more of ourselves into existence. Energy "shortages", along with "terrorism", global warming, pollution, etc., etc., etc. -- essentially all of the "major problems" we face are but symptoms of the excess number of us.

It is time for us to address our excess population.

If we manage to significanly reduce our population, most or all of the present "major problems" we face will likely disappear, and the "quality of life" of everyone and the ecosystem will improve greatly.

If we fail to significantly reduce our population ourselves, the ecosystem will soon, and certainly, do it for us, because we will eventually compromise the ability of the ecosystem to sustain us. We are abosolutely dependent on the ecosystem, as has been demostrated by the failure of every attempt to make an "isolated ecosystem" capable of sustaining human beings.

The infrastructure of civilization will fail soon after we have "broken" the ecosystem. Without the working infrastructure of civilization, at least 629 out of every 630 people will starve as the human population of our planet is reduced from the present 6.3-billion of us to no more than about 10-million -- the estimated number of human beings who supported themselves by hunter-gathering in the not ruined ecosystem before civilization started.

===============

About 10,000 yeara ago a small group of human beings devised a method to "disable" for themselves the ecological mechanism that had heretofore limited their population. The descendants of this group eventially named their group "civilization", and considered themselves to be "civilized". Thus began the process of converting the biomass of our planet into civilized human beings.

Almost every action of the civilized in the intervening 10,000 years has had just one "effect" with regard to the potential for survival of the ecosystem of our planet and thus our civilzed selves. This "effect" has been to increase the efficiency of our long-ago initiated process that converts the bio-mass of our planet into civilized human beings.


The increae in efficiency of our conversion process has been profound. We have increased the population of human kind by a factor in excess of 630 (from about 10-million to about 6.3-billion).

Far more dangerous to the ecosystem, and thus ourselves, is the simultaneous, almost infinite increase in our population growth rate (from an initial almost stable population -- i.e., infinite time to double our population -- to the present rate of population growth rate which has recently demonstrated its capability to double the world population of human beings to 6-billion in just 36 years (1963 to 1999).

The 50-year estimated exhaustion of petroleum at present use rates will actually be much less if/when China gears-up auto production in the next years.

Obviously, this means that it up to all people living now to reduce the population of human kind -- significantly -- or many of the people already living -- i.e., our already living young -- will be the ones who starve in the chaotic aftermath of civilization.
Posted by (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Exactly
Im sure glad Im not the only one who sees where this civilization is going.

Oh and I think the latest models show fuel shortages to start as soon as 2008.

The main problem we have is that capitalistic economic systems are based on growth. Without it they cannot exist.

The only way any society is going to survive is by creating a socialist or (true) communistic society immediately and enforce zero or better yet negative population growth.

But those with the authority to avert this impending disaster by implementing such changes have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo even if they are clinging to a sinking ship.

So Im thinking that millions will have to die after the chaos starts before anyone will be able to encite a group to revolt and implement a sane economic and governmental system.

Though by then it will probably be too late.

But then again Im a bit of a pessimist.
Posted by Fray9 (547 comments )
Link Flag
Humans are a virus on the world
Interesting point you make. I seem to remember reading several articles that if it weren't for viruses humans would not have evolved over the many millions of years. In fact much of our DNA is discarded virus DNA. (I think I read it in discovery magazine and the science journal).

This little tid-bit of scientific information if abstracted and correlated to humanity's onslaught on the biomass of the world could be seen as an aggressive virus infecting and consuming its host, the world.

Natural disasters, plaques, AIDS, take your pick. You could see this as the world's antibodies trying to keep the virus at bay. Once we have consumed our ecosphere and made it unable to sustain life we will spread out into the rest of the solar system and the universe like a locust feeding on the life of the universe.

Wahahha!

Ok sounds kind of crazy, however history seems to support my rather colorful view of humanity.
Posted by zeroplane (286 comments )
Link Flag
You contribute only to the entropy of ignorance
The poster of "Energy.Population" and those contributing the two replies to it truly do not understand much about energy, its impact on human existence, and the inverse relationship.

To sum up the original poster's stance, we should not care about conservation because we're all going to kill ourselves anyway in a few hundred years -- that disaster is only averted by decreasing population.

Perhaps you are right, we could use fewer people. In fact, I think it would be very beneficial for anybody who agrees with the defeatest philosophy, however, to do the environment a favor... to do something about the overpopulation problem ASAP. I urge Mr. Spies to lead the charge, to legally and civilly lower the population by his own one, and to be the example for all who share the view. Before you do, please do not reproduce.

Energy problems have something to do with population, but more to do with poor decisions of those who overpopulate. Frugality truly is a virtue, and lowering the footprint on an ecosystem is far more constructive than throwing your hands up and saying, oh well, I won't get excited about conserving resources because we're all doomed anyway.

If you do not help out the overpopulation problem with your own extinction, then at least take the time to calculate the amount of energy the sun sends us every second, per square meter. Multiply that by the number of square meters in the beautifully empty and pristine deserts in the southwestern US. How interesting that we can sustain our energy NEEDS just by what has been provided to us by our nearest star. Note, however, I didn't say our energy GLUTTONY. The difference between GLUTTONY and NEEDS is degree, and frugality lies in understanding and applying the difference.... in conserving, and decreasing your footprint on your ecosystem, and keeping the footprint that remains reversable with time.

To the poster that stated that socialism and communism will save the planet... How despicable it is that you use a result of innovation (the PC and the internet) to spew an idea that would stifle innovation-- that same innovative motivation that in someone with far more intelligence will improver our future and sustainability as a species and as a planet. Socialism and communism would only speed up any destructive course. Capitalism works the other way, through rewarding innovation and sustainability.

HOWEVER, to the poster who stated that resources do not run out in a free-market, perhaps you misunderstand the idea of LIMITED RESOURCE.... oil WILL run out. USABLE ENERGY WILL NOT. Right now, the free market will foster innovation to make use of energy sources that are not from decayed organic carcasses. There is enough coal in the US to sustain the energy needs of the US for a couple hundred years. But is coal the solution to the bigger, environmental problem? Probably not.

To the poster who mentioned that we'll kill this planet, and then spread to the rest of the solar system to kill those planets too... please, for heaven's sake, read a little about astronomy and the solar system before you propose such ideas. This is the only planet we will ever call home. That is not defeatest, it is an unavoidable conclusion based in the truth about the nature of space, distance, and the nearby planets.

I hope that those who have posted to this, an interesting article, do not represent even a small fraction of the CNET readers. I am hoping that those that really understand simply do not post as often.

Regards, and at the least, keep thinking.
William
Posted by wewpubadd (2 comments )
Link Flag
People do not realize that gas, in a free market, does not suddenly run out
Gas does not suddenly, in a free market run out. Prices today reflect expectations of the available supply and demand for goods and services today and tomorrow. If, for instance, the expectation is that oil supply will decrease or will be less than demand in ten years time, it will influence oil prices today. Prices today will go up. People will have the incentive to conserve (demand will decrease) and to develop new alternatives. Actually, we are probably conserving too much, because of OPEC and Governments taxations are keeping prices higher than they otherwise would be. That oil soon runs out is a political slogan that keeps coming up to keep politicians busy. This political slogan sounds true and will, therefore, in the political market sell. Only true markets can handle this sort of complex things. Compared to markets, Governments are too simple minded and primitive, because of the fact; they lack the essential tools that are needed to solve these kind of problems. They primitively, for example, regulate car manufacturers (and in the end consumers) to produce cars which improve gas mileage and impose upon people speed limits, without knowing if these actions are good or bad. Only markets can tell if conservations are good or bad, because market prices gives people the necessary signals of supply and demand, and people can therefore compare these prices to their own values if they are profitable or not to realize. The essential tools that are needed (which Governments are always lacking) are, as mentioned, market forces and the market price mechanism. Without these mechanisms nothing can be done. For example, a scientist will not reach the truth in trying to calculate physical available quantities and compare that to what he expects physical demand will be. It is silly, it is static and mechanistic. Every individual and every business around the whole world, with all different knowledges, all the time, and in all possible situations, and which are directly influenced of higher prices, will conserve and try out alternatives. Even people and businesses that are not directly influenced of higher oil prices, also, have incentives to find out alternatives. These things happen all the time with all goods, services, capital and raw materials, and it run smoothly without us even noticing it. If Governments were going to replace the markets, we would probably end up with no available goods and services at all! In a sense, this would solve the conservation problem (joke). To make an example of this lack of knowledge and the belief that you can ignore markets, look at the so called Club of Rome, a group that made fools of themselves in the 70s with their book
Limits to growth (<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.answers.com/the+club+of+rome?gwp=11&#38;ver=2.0.0.453&#38;method=3" target="_newWindow">http://www.answers.com/the+club+of+rome?gwp=11&#38;ver=2.0.0.453&#38;method=3</a>). If they were right, we would probably barely, even, live today!

Björn Lundahl
Göteborg Sweden
Posted by Björn Lundahl (253 comments )
Reply Link Flag
People do not realize that gas, in a free market, does not suddenly run out
Gas does not suddenly, in a free market run out. Prices today reflect expectations of the available supply and demand for goods and services today and tomorrow. If, for instance, the expectation is that oil supply will decrease or will be less than demand in ten years time, it will influence oil prices today. Prices today will go up. People will have the incentive to conserve (demand will decrease) and to develop new alternatives. Actually, we are probably conserving too much, because of OPEC and Governments taxations are keeping prices higher than they otherwise would be. That oil soon runs out is a political slogan that keeps coming up to keep politicians busy. This political slogan sounds true and will, therefore, in the political market sell. Only true markets can handle this sort of complex things. Compared to markets, Governments are too simple minded and primitive, because of the fact; they lack the essential tools that are needed to solve these kind of problems. They primitively, for example, regulate car manufacturers (and in the end consumers) to produce cars which improve gas mileage and impose upon people speed limits, without knowing if these actions are good or bad. Only markets can tell if conservations are good or bad, because market prices gives people the necessary signals of supply and demand, and people can therefore compare these prices to their own values if they are profitable or not to realize. The essential tools that are needed (which Governments are always lacking) are, as mentioned, market forces and the market price mechanism. Without these mechanisms nothing can be done. For example, a scientist will not reach the truth in trying to calculate physical available quantities and compare that to what he expects physical demand will be. It is silly, it is static and mechanistic. Every individual and every business around the whole world, with all different knowledges, all the time, and in all possible situations, and which are directly influenced of higher prices, will conserve and try out alternatives. Even people and businesses that are not directly influenced of higher oil prices, also, have incentives to find out alternatives. These things happen all the time with all goods, services, capital and raw materials, and it run smoothly without us even noticing it. If Governments were going to replace the markets, we would probably end up with no available goods and services at all! In a sense, this would solve the conservation problem (joke). To make an example of this lack of knowledge and the belief that you can ignore markets, look at the so called Club of Rome, a group that made fools of themselves in the 70s with their book
Limits to growth (<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.answers.com/the+club+of+rome?gwp=11&#38;ver=2.0.0.453&#38;method=3" target="_newWindow">http://www.answers.com/the+club+of+rome?gwp=11&#38;ver=2.0.0.453&#38;method=3</a>). If they were right, we would probably barely, even, live today!

Björn Lundahl
Göteborg Sweden
Posted by Björn Lundahl (253 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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