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Energy Research Sputters

Experts say too much funding is going into hydrogen at the expense of near-term technologies.
March 9, 2006

High oil prices and the dangers of global warming have some experts hoping that President Bush’s State of the Union address tonight will redirect energy research priorities. The president, they say, needs to start funding a wider range of promising technologies, including ones that could have a near-term impact on both fuel costs and emissions.

“There clearly are serious issues about the balance of the [research] portfolio,” says Ernest Moniz, former undersecretary at the Department of Energy and now professor of physics at MIT, where he co-chairs the Energy Research Council, set up to spearhead energy research.

Moniz says there “is a huge amount” of money going into research on new technologies, especially for transportation, that use hydrogen for fuel. Yet such hydrogen technology “is a very long way into the future, if ever, whereas lots of other kinds of work that could have very profound impacts in the shorter term are not being funded.” In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush proposed $1.2 billion for hydrogen research.

According to Moniz, shorter-term technologies that deserve more funding include advanced internal combustion engines and new techniques for burning fossil fuels more cleanly in power plants. Advanced engines could improve fuel efficiency by 15-20%, he says, significantly easing the demand for oil, while simultaneously decreasing emissions.

One promising candidate is homogeneous charge compression ignition, known as HCCI, a technology that uses sophisticated controls to combine the best elements of diesel and gasoline engines. Since the advanced controls make the engines tunable for running on different fuels, they could further decrease dependence on oil by burning ethanol, biodiesel, or even hydrogen.

Further research for HCCI is needed to refine controls, increase power output, and identify the optimal fuels. But “a problem in this area for everybody has been reliability of funding,” says William Green, a chemical engineering professor at MIT. The lack of a commitment “has slowed down the whole country’s research on this. People have been reluctant to hire postdocs and expand their graduate programs because they weren’t sure how many years of support they’d have,” he says.

In spite of much rhetoric about the need for new energy solutions, overall energy-related research at the Department of Energy is actually less, in constant dollars, than it was in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s, according to an analysis of this year’s budget by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Overall funding is more or less flat from 2005 to 2006, with 5.9 percent increase in fossil fuel research, but a 10.5 percent decrease in solar and renewables research. Also, conservation research was cut by 16.7 percent, according to the report.

Green traces the funding woes back to the late 1990s, when oil prices were very low. “Almost all energy research got killed, because nothing you could do research on could possibly beat oil at $20 a barrel. The whole infrastructure of energy research was really cut dramatically.”

Now oil prices have more than tripled of course. And yet this hasn’t translated into more actual dollars for energy research. “I’ve seen more interest,” says Green, “but I haven’t seen that big of change in what’s actually getting funded.”

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