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Q&A: Mark Little, Head of GE Global Research

GE is pushing the smart grid and thin-film solar, but don’t expect new kinds of nuclear reactors.

Mark Little, head of the $6 billion-a-year research effort at GE, sat down with Technology Review recently to talk about his company’s latest technologies and how GE will respond to pending carbon emissions caps, such as those proposed in the Waxman-Markey energy and climate-change bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Global research: Mark Little, the head of research at GE.

Little is the director of GE Global Research, a massive, 2,600-person research organization based in Niskayuna, NY, that employs about 1,000 PhDs. The company’s research funding includes nearly $1.5 billion directed toward “clean tech,” such as wind turbines and hybrid locomotives. Little says that advances at GE in thin-film solar, the smart grid, coal gasification, and capturing carbon dioxide emitted by power plants will prove key to meeting future emissions goals.

The company also has a heavy investment in nuclear power, including an improved design now working its way through the regulatory process. But the company’s latest models are essentially simplified and less-expensive versions of existing reactors, not radical departures such as pebble-bed nuclear reactors or smaller reactors that can be manufactured and shipped to power-plant sites. Those more advanced designs still don’t look financially attractive, Little says.

While impending carbon caps are helping to drive research at GE, direct federal funding is helping too. Little describes two projects–a $2 million stimulus-funded smart-grid demonstration and a $100 million battery factory–that GE hopes to receive funding for this year.

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