Panel: Balance of Low, High Risk Energy Action to Further Sustainability

Striking a balance between lower-risk, near-term improvements and high-risk, long-term innovations in materials and manufacturing science is the most promising path to a sustainable energy future for the United States and the world, according to a report released June 22 by the Energy Materials Blue Ribbon Panel convened by The Minerals Metals & Materials Society (TMS).

“Linking Transformational Materials and Processing for an Energy Efficient and Low-Carbon Economy: Creating the Vision and Accelerating Realization,” (pdf) also called the “Vision Report,” culminates the first phase of work in a two-part study commissioned by the Department of Energy (DOE) Industrial Technologies Program (ITP) last February. The studies will support the development of a core materials science and engineering (MSE) research and development portfolio to meet the nation’s energy challenges.

"The strategic opportunities and solutions identified in the report point the way toward truly transformational advances in new materials science and engineering," said Isaac Chan, acting program manager for the DOE/ITP. "Our challenge ahead is to move this work forward in order to convert the ideas into a blueprint for action that can speed our movement toward a more energy-efficient and low-carbon society."

While the Vision Report addresses an array of technologies in which new materials and processing breakthroughs can lead to future transformational advances, it also highlights improvements in energy materials that can deliver significant payoffs in the near term. Of these, materials science and engineering applications supporting increased vehicle and industrial efficiency offer the greatest potential near-term impact, according to the report. Nuclear fission was likewise identified as a high-priority, near-term energy solution. Batteries for energy storage not only emerged as a leading focus in the foreseeable future, but also as the highest priority for MSE innovation in the longer term.

Other high-priority energy technologies identified as yielding benefits in the long term included nuclear fusion, as well as fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. Solar technology, while being designated as a moderately important MSE opportunity in the near term, would grow as a higher priority over time by virtue of development focused on alternatives to silicon and increasing energy conversion rates, according to the report.

“The Blue Ribbon Panel's work has confirmed in my mind what professional engineers can accomplish,” said Diran Apelian, Energy Materials Blue Ribbon Panel chair and 2008 TMS President. “Their work is significant because it calls for national investments in materials processing and synthesis (manufacturing) as a path forward to reducing our nation’s carbon footprint and developing renewable energy sources.”

TMS will commence Phase II of the project by convening Technical Working Groups in September. Charged with identifying and prioritizing the highest impact research and development areas that address the Vision Report’s recommendations, the groups will develop technical roadmaps, with a final report consolidating these recommendations and addressing interdependencies due to be published by the end of the year.