In the Fall of 2002 I attended a lecture by Richard Smalley, Professor of Chemistry at Rice University, in which he identified energy as the single most important issue we all face in the 21st century. I was inspired by his lecture to learn more about energy issues and their potential solutions. So, I followed closely a major report that was just released by a committee chartered by the US National Academies titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future."
The National Academies committee called for a comprehensive federal effort around two key challenges: creating new, high-quality jobs for all Americans in the 21st century; and providing clean, affordable and reliable energy. I found it particularly noteworthy that the committee, in Action B-5, made a very important, concrete recommendation: "Create in the Department of Energy (DOE) an organization like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)." It further said: "The new agency would support creative, "out-of-the-box," transformational, generic energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support and in which risk may be high but success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation."
I wanted to write a blog story on energy issues based on the National Academies recommendations, and since few have been more eloquent than Professor Smalley on the subject I wanted to reference his work and writings. As I was doing my research for the story, I learned that he had just died after a long battle with cancer, at age 62.
Rick Smalley received many honors, including the Nobel Prize in chemistry, awarded to him along with Robert Curl and Harold Kroto in 1996 for the discovery of buckminsterfullerenes a.k.a. "buckyballs," a new form of carbon with lots of potential applications in areas such as biotechnology, electronics and materials. This discovery is frequently cited as one of the earliest and most influential developments in nanotechnology.
In recent years, Smalley became a very strong advocate for the development of nanotechnology as a means of solving the world's energy problem. At the lecture on energy I heard him at, he was passionate and compelling, and he stated his points in very clear, simple language. His views are well captured in this article. He said that when he asked his audiences for the top ten problems we will have to confront in the 21st century, the list typically looked something like this: energy, water, food, environment, poverty, terrorism and war, disease, education, democracy and population. Not only is energy at the top of the list, but it is a key to addressing all the rest of the problems. For example, while billions of people in the planet live without reliable access to clean water for drinking and agriculture, we are surrounded by water in our oceans. We can solve the water shortages with energy, which would enable us to desalinate sea water and pump it vast distances.
Energy likewise plays the dominant role in determining the quality of our environment. It is also a key factor in the quality of life for people around the world, directly linked to preventing disease, education, and pretty much all items up and down the list. As he wrote, "In short, energy is the single most important factor that impacts the prosperity of any society." In 2002 testimony before a House Committee on Science hearing on future directions for the Department of Energy's Office of Science he said, "Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today," and went on to say, "I believe this should be the principal mission of the DOE Office of Science: to nurture and cultivate the science base out of which this new energy technology will come." This is very similar to the National Academies' recommendations mentioned above.
Professor Smalley's lecture and writings played a major role in my accepting an invitation to join BP's Technical Advisory Council a year later, where I have the honor to serve with and learn from top energy experts, including Steve Koonin, BP's Chief Scientist and former provost and faculty member at Cal Tech; Nate Lewis also on the faculty at Cal Tech; and Ernie Moniz, professor of physics at MIT and co-director of MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, and former Under Secretary of DOE's Office of Science. I totally agree that energy is the toughest, most important problem we all face today and that we need to seize the opportunity to attack this problem with a sense of mission, one that if properly organized could inspire young people in the US and around the world to enter careers in science and technology. In The World is Flat, Tom Friedman calls for (p 283) "a national science initiative that would be our generation's moon shot: a crash program for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in ten years," something he has also called for in his op-ed columns in The New York Times.
One of Rick Smalley's last research projects focused on "Armchair Quantum Wires" made out of buckyballs that could conduct electricity 10-times better than copper at one-sixth the weight yet be as strong as steel. He talked about this work in a speech this last May when accepting the Distinguished Alumni Award from Hope College, a speech he wrote from the Anderson Cancer Center outside Houston. I was really moved by this speech as Rick explained where his sense of mission came from, and how he reconciled his work as a scientist with his faith in religion in a particularly beautiful way that I think applies to everyone, regardless of their personal religious or spiritual beliefs. Let me conclude with a paragraph from this speech.
"I like to point out that this Armchair Quantum Wire endeavor is a "Faith-Based Research Project." It is based on the faith that when God made the universe he wired into the laws of physics and chemistry a path to make this Armchair Quantum Wire, and to do it with great cleanliness and efficiency. If so, then all I have to do is go find that path that God put there in the beginning. With the vast knowledge we have assembled over the years of physics and chemistry, and the sensational new instruments that are now available, we ought to be able to find that path pretty quickly."