Tuesday, July 24, 2012

My Project Abstract

Dear CNS fellows,
So far this internship has brought valuable skills and experience to my career development. Since the internship started I was hoping to gain experience and improve my writing and public speaking skills. The internship has had great emphasis in these two fields and has given me very valuable knowledge and confidence. The other gain that I am still developing is to keep building my professional network, talk to professionals in the field and gain knowledge of my future career steps. So far the CNS colleagues have been wonderful and have given me an irreplaceable experience. I am very thankful to my mentor Roger for choosing me and for all his unconditional help. Thank you to Cathy, Dr. McCray, and all the CNS colleagues. I know I will always remember this experience.

I leave you with my project abstract. I hope you enjoy it and we could talk about it more tomorrow after the presentation. Happy reading!

Green Nano-Visions and Their Policy Consequences
            My Project analyzes how environmental visions of nanotechnology impeded policy makers from seeing many of its environmental risks and implications. Between the mid-1980s and 2000s, key figures such as Eric Drexler, Nobel scientist Richard Smalley, and National Science Foundation administrator Mihail Roco all promoted nanotechnology as a tool to solve pressing environmental challenges. They envisioned a world where nanotechnology made anthropogenic activity more environmentally sustainable. For instance, in 2000, when the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) began, Roco declared nanotechnology would boost crop yields, desalinate water, provide sustainable energy, and diminish pollution.
            In the years just after the NNI began, these visions about nanotechnology’s environmental applications impeded scientists and policy-makers from seeing its potential implications and environmental consequences. Although, today, nanotechnology does include beneficial applications like water remediation and solar energy absorption, much remains unknown about nanotechnology’s environmental, health, and safety (EHS) implications. Despite numerous studies revealing the likely toxicity of some nanomaterials to humans, soils, plants, and other organisms, only 3% of the NNI budget is dedicated to EHS implications. Nanotechnology’s earliest advocates promoted their visions of environmental applications so effectively that EHS concerns about nanotechnology went underexplored during the crucial earlier years of the American nanotechnology enterprise.  By uncovering the early environmental visions of nanotechnology, this project helps explain why American efforts to explore nanotechnology’s EHS issues remain delayed and underfunded.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Welcome CNS Summer Interns

Greetings to our CNS-UCSB summer interns for 2012. Since arriving on June 18, the four interns have worked closely with their graduate student mentors on projects furthering the aims of their Interdisciplinary Research Groups.

The interns themselves will tell you more about themselves and their work in their upcoming blog entries. So for now, I'd like to briefly introduce them, and urge readers to check out their bios  on the CNS Website.

Gianna Haro is working with mentor Roger Eardley-Pryor (IRG 1) to explore metaphors shaping the regulation of nanotechnology policies.

Kelly Landers is working with mentor Galen Stocking (IRG 2) to map the nanoenterprise and nano educational opportunities in California.

Eddie Triste is working with mentor Cassandra Engeman (IRG 3) to identify non-governmental organizations (NGOs) addressing nano regulatory issues in the U.S. and internationally.

Bryan Phillips is working with mentor Zach Horton (X-IRG) to  describe the aspects of the  innovation process that help and hinder the development of the nano-solar industry.

Stay tuned for further details about this exciting work.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Educating Scientists and Engineers About Social and Ethical Implications of their Research

The Congress on Teaching the Social and Ethical Implications of Research was held in Tempe, AZ on November 10-11, 2011. Approximately 120 educators from universities and science museums met on the campus of Arizona State University to share innovative ideas for educating scientists and engineers to think critically about the social impacts of their research. About half the group were involved in nanoscience education, as the conference was scheduled immediately following the annual meeting of S.Net: the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies.

Presenters discussed the benefits and challenges of various approaches to science ethics training, in formats such as traditional classrooms, online training programs, virtual worlds, service projects in developing countries, and international engineering contests.

Several young scientists also discussed student-led efforts to promote ethics training and action through organizations such as Student Pugwash and the Graduation Pledge Alliance. Museum-based informal science educators from the NISE Network (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) were on hand to discuss Nano Days and showed several videos and hands-on exercises used to engage the public in

What became clear from the two days of discussions was the difficulty of integrating ethics education modules into highly structured science and engineering programs, particularly at the graduate level. In an environment where productivity is measured by number of publications and patents, having students take time away from their lab work to think about the societal impacts of their work can be seen as something that is at best a nuisance, at worst an impediment to achieving their own and their lab's goals. Even those faculty and students who are enthusiastic about participating in societal impacts education programs can face difficulties justifying their participation to peers and superiors in the University. So one takeaway from the conference is that if universities care about producing ethically responsible nanocience graduates, they need to restructure their incentive systems to recognize and encourage the importance of this training.

Another takeaway from the meeting was the point made by several speakers that language counts. Talking about "ethics" or "ELSI"(ethical, legal, and social implications) education sounds abstract to science students and their faculty mentors, and can be a turnoff. Some conference participants noted that framing these issues as being "policy"-related was a more effective way of getting attention. As much university-based research is government-funded, scientists and engineers are attuned to the importance of understanding the policy process and are willing to learn more about it.

Overall, the Congress was a stimulating two days spent in the company of people who care passionately about the roles played by science and technology in bettering social relations and the quality of life. Their dedication to helping the next generation of researchers use their knowledge and skills to advance the societal welfare was inspiring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Long-Term Energy Generation Costs: Calculating Risk

The multiple-reactor accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following its catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 12, which may turn out to be one of the most damaging nuclear plant accidents in history once again tragically highlights the hidden (that is, uncalculated) costs of differing energy technologies. The difficulty of calculating certain ancillary costs of power production, such as potential risk and long-term environmental cleanup and recovery leaves both government and industry partially in the dark when making important decisions regarding power generation investment and policy.

The simplified formulas used to calculate total lifetime cost of power plants, because they generally leave out longer-term and risk-based costs, dis proportionally effect perception of solar and wind energy solutions. These technologies are generally more expensive than coal, oil, and natural gas to install initially, but contain far fewer long-term environmental costs. However, because these costs are precisely the ones omitted from projections, the result is a skewed picture of solar costs via-a-vis other technologies.

Coal plant costs are perhaps the easiest to calculate because their design is relatively stable and standardized, and coal supply is domestic in the U.S. and also relatively stable; however, such calculations rarely (if ever) include the potentially massive costs of future environmental cleanup or mitigation. Though we know that these costs (coal is a significant contributor to global climate change) are enormous, they are notoriously difficult to quantify, and thus official projections of long term cost rarely contain a numerical indication of costs beyond construction, materials, and regulatory fees. Oil, natural gas, and nuclear power plants all pose similar potential environmental costs that aren’t included in cost projections—due not only to the direct difficulty of quantification, but also to the difficulty of projecting risk probabilities of accidents. The 2010 Gulf Oil spill will cost at least $30 billion in the long run, but none of these costs were figured into the development of BP’s fleet of wells and oil rigs in the Gulf Coast. Neither were the costs of containment and environmental cleanup factored into the construction of the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukushima Daiichi power plants. Such accidents are extremely rare, but their costs can exceed the lifetime construction and operating costs of a plant by many orders of magnitude, and clearly should be factored in to overall projections of lifetime costs.

Researchers are the Argonne National Laboratory, run by the U.S. Department of Energy, have begun to address this problem with the formulation of a new model for calculating solar’s Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE). Their formula is essentially an extension of one developed by industry that utilizes a Monte Carlo simulation to statistically select from probability distributions to account for uncertainty in a number of variables. These are precisely the variables that would otherwise drop out of the equation or be replaced by arbitrary constants. Thus this work provides a concrete methodology to extend LCOE calculations to complex, uncertain features of long-term energy cost. While this is enormously helpful for anyone calculating costs of solar energy generation, similar models need to be developed for other industries for an accurate comparison of costs to be possible. Still, a publicly-funded (and thus not serving any particular segment of industry) effort of this sort in an enormous step in the right direction: by highlighting the problem with previous formulas and blazing a trail toward more accurate models that account for uncertainty, the Argonne researchers are helping to institutionalize a new, more accurate and complete form of energy cost calculation.

Their full paper was published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Evolution and Desire

Watch the full episode. See more Botany of Desire.

"The Botany of Desire," a PBS documentary, directed by Michael Schwarz and based upon journalist Michael Pollan’s 2001 book of the same title, explores human-plant symbiosis and coevolution “from the plants’ point of view.” The documentary closely follows Pollan’s book, heavily featuring the author as he attempts to represent the history of four plants that have evolved to maximally appeal to humans: the apple (playing on the human desire for sweetness), the tulip (desire for beauty), cannabis (intoxication), and the potato (control). The film’s extensive macro cinematography and high production value perhaps tends to fetishize these plants as much as it anthropomorphizes them, yet is nonetheless curiously effective in its exploration of symbiosis as desire for the same reason. The history of each of these plants is indeed fascinating, and the film fully embraces their hybrid nature: as products of evolution within a “natural” environment, as social constructs, as the outcome of human genetic experimentation (breeding and genetic engineering) as economic entities (goods, services, objects of speculative bubbles) and as political objects.

Ultimately, it’s a story about innovation. Some plants come out winners (the virus-infected Semper Augustus tulip in 1630s Holland, “sexually frustrated” marijuana plants), others losers (sour apples after the temperance movement took root in America). Essentially, each of the plants explored here is the nexis of an innovation ecology that involves social, political, and biological actors. Structural effects, such as the vulnerability introduced by monocultures, are treated extensively. The Irish Potato famine stands in as the primary lesson here: it was the result of an extensive monoculture of “Lumpers.” Schwarz and Pollan are quick to note that “monocultures on the plate lead to monocultures on the land.” That is, innovation and cultivation cannot be considered outside of their social contexts. Ultimately, the film figures innovation as diversification and notes that most of our attempts at agricultural innovation currently consist of inventing ever more elaborate technological methods of protecting increasingly vulnerable monocultures, a losing game and evolutionary dead end.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Google's Innovation Pathway: Some Classical Ingredients

Everyone acknowledges the role of "serendipity" in the progress of science and technology, where the term means "making desirable discoveries by accident."  Picture it as Google co-founder Sergy Brin enjoying zero-gravity at left - a major breakthrough is often something you bump into while happily floating somewhere else.

Google has marched from a search algorithim developed by graduate students at Stanford to a search engine and into a dominant position in web advertizing and onward to a global information empire now encompassing the past as well as the future -- with a diplomacy wing being incorporated into Google Ideas.  In spite of Google's ubiquity in the global information cloud, was its success in fact an accident? 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Competing with China's solar export subsidies: Push-Pull disparity

As someone completely new to the subject, I’ve been reading up a bit on China’s government strategies regarding CleanTech exporters. These are my initial impressions and thoughts.

China’s solar and wind manufacturers benefit generally from conditions in China (low labor costs, faster and cheaper construction, expanding engineering base through universities), but also specifically from government aid targeted at their industry: land grants to companies, cheap state-supported loans (from government run banks), streamlined permitting, restrictions on rare-earth exports (raising costs for their foreign competitors), and currency manipulation (making their exports more economically favorable). Additionally, Chinese manufacturers have benefited from rapidly falling silicon prices. The Chinese market seems to be dominated by first generation solar technologies.

On one hand, the Chinese government seems to be doing everything right in promoting its manufacturing companies, which are growing rapidly (nearly doubling capacity each year). On the other hand, their practices may be hurting worldwide innovation.

The Mid-Term Effect on R&D Funding

Now what for science and technology funding?

The situation was already rather mixed.  Democrats failed to make a case for a major innovation boom based on a serious increase in public funding.  They left public spending in the twilight zone of the last-resort safety net, and now a repositioning will come too late. The Financial Times reported that the Republican victory killed flagship elements of Obama’s innovation policy for at least for the next two years. In “Corporate America welcomes power shift" (print title), the FT observes that cap-and-trade and net neutrality are gone, to be replaced by coal-and-oil and the cable cartels.  The same goes for defense conversion, which would have helped research-and-development funding of the kind conducted at universities. The New York Times' Frank Rich has pointed out that neither party offered a coherent storyline in which clear solutions follow well-described problems. In spite of its favorable stance towards science, the Obama Administration does not have a serious innovation policy that aims at supporting the creation of both knowledge and middle-class jobs. And neither party has a plan for supporting and expanding public universities.

Is this what people voted for? There is no popular support for the abandonment of renewable energy, or for the economic inefficiencies of the inequality boom, or for a recovery limited to the top end of the financial industry, or for a recovery based on the Fed reinflating asset bubbles, or for tuition increases at double to quadruple the consumer price index.  But the funding news is not good. The AAAS has a useful comment (scroll down to "Post-Election Outlook on Federal R&D Funding"). This table shows that energy research at the DOE would take a particular hit if the Republicans make good on their pledge.

Our ASU and CSPO colleague Dan Sarewitz has a good comment on the general issue, which is that funding levels get too much attention and social purposes not enough.
Boosting funds for basic research is also safer politics than actually tackling a national problem. . . . Doubling the NSF budget makes good politics. But what about good policy? Although few would question the value of a robust basic-science enterprise, we just don't know how marginal increases in basic-research funding affect a nation's capacity to solve social and economic problems. On the other hand, decades of research on the links between science and innovation in areas ranging from jet engines to medicines show that basic research best contributes to economic and social goals when targeted at areas that can directly benefit from additional fundamental knowledge.

If Congress wanted to allocate scarce new R&D resources wisely during a protracted period of budgetary austerity, it wouldn't adopt a doubling strategy, but would instead take a more surgical approach to set priorities. It would focus investments where links between science and application are well established, to deliver short- to medium-term benefits. Alternative energy, for example, offers many technological options where basic research can improve performance.
Sarewitz is here pitching "Pasteur's Quadrant" in vital areas rather than basic research. I think he hammers basic research mistakenly at the end ("I know that such an approach would be fiercely opposed by the leading voices of the scientific community, who will never abandon the long-falsified belief that basic research is most valuable to society as a bottom-up enterprise driven only by inherent scientific interest.")  But I share his distress at the refusal of politicians -- and science policy leaders -- to articulate social goals and then fund R&D that addresses them.

The U.S. is the only major power where socially-beneficial tech development is hamstrung by a deep political phobia about industrial policy.  Our lunch is being eaten in solar energy and other domains by the country with the most systematic industrial policy in the world - China.  This is a bad time to push for science policy rooted in social development -- something only public agencies can do.  But it is also even more urgent now than it was when Obama was elected two years ago.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Glowing trees, keeping the streets safe

"Can street lights be replaced by trees? Taiwanese scientists believe that they can using gold nanoparticles to induce luminescence in leaves." (http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/ChemTech/Volume/2010/11/leaves_glow.asp)

Far out!  The first mental image this conjures up for me is pretty spectacular. Luminescent, tree lined suburban streets. But, the mental image that follows includes confused lightning bugs, trees in continual photosynthensis and other bizarre consequences for the entire tree ecosystem. Plus, what does this mean for backyard astronomers?  Would it confuse airplane pilots?  I'd like to see this trees-as-streetlights idea explored in a sci fi film, complete with stunning visual effects.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Missing Moonshots

I've been wanting an energy moonshot for years, so it was a real pleasure to see Tom Friedman using his New York Times column this morning to say that other people have moonshots so why don't we?  Of course it's China he's referring to (that's Tianjin's high-speed rail station at left, sometime next year).  Friedman identifies the electric car industry as a moonshot the US needs to have.  The twist is that it would be a joint moonshot between the US and China.  This would involve levels of cooperation and information sharing that the world hasn't seen before. It would include the sharing of intellectual property at early stages of development.

The U.S. is internally divided about intellectual property.  The business community generally wants uncrackable IP, in large part because empires have been built on secret formula that can't be imitated and made more cheaply in a process that undermines the originator's market. Think Microsoft DOS and Windows, Google's page rank algorithms, Apple, Coca-Cola, and so on. These companies support limited forms of "open innovation," largely where they help build their own product ecosystem.  On the other hand, everyone knows that various firms competing for control of the best (and uninfringable) IP isn't nearly enough.  Bill Gates, leading venture capitalist John Doerr, and others recently called for a tripling in federal funding for energy research.  And yet Doerr sees development largely as a Darwinist competition for the fittest technology among a large number of firms, and in a competitive environment firms naturally rely on trade secrets, undisclosed licenses of patents, and every kind of leveraging of their IP. Top officials sometimes call for the suspension of IP in strategic or early-stage areas, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu did early in his term.  How does this square with maximum commercial competition that generally seeks exclusive rights?

China now has a huge advantage over the U.S. in the sheer scale of public funding. I would argue it has also an imagination advantage as well -- the scale of its vision for new infrastructure and public devices outstrips anything now seen in the West. I believe it has a third advantage as well: the creation of massive de facto patent pools for the sake of collective goals that are simultaneously social and economic. The sheer scale of this coordination is necessary given the size of the challenge, and yet it is currently unimaginable in the United States. In spite of our faltering recovery, and the simply uncompetitive state of much of our infrastructure, American leaders seem to feel little urgency.  The U.S. is not now leading the energy revolution, and unless we face reality and adapt our IP practices to support massively multi-user collaboration systems, we may soon not qualify as partners.

For concrete examples of next generation IP and technology transfer practices, see in particular the Gerald Barnett and Carol Mimura presentations posted on our Lyon Workshop page.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nano for gamers

There's a new kid on the nano education block - 'NanoMission' is a new science-based action-adventure video game designed to teach nano concepts and application areas.  From the game's website, "The game's plot is to save the world from destruction by Dr.Nevil and his army of nano-machines and nano-materials, whilst the player stealthily learns about real world nanotechnology. The game hero (player) supported by Dr. Goodlove and his assistants use nano-imaging, create nano-machines, develop nano-materials, and utilise an extraordinary shrinking machine to shrink the player to the nanoscale to stop Dr. Nevil and save the world."

Sounds pretty fun.  Not sure if a stereotyped professor (balding Caucasian man with white hair and beard) is the best way to inspire the gaming generation to think about a career in nano, as is the game's goal, but at least they traded the lab coat for a more modern look - latex gloves.

The developer, PlayGen, is working with a team of scientists to be sure to get the science right, including 'realistic physics' in the game environment, but probably more important from a gamer's point of view, the quality of the visual effects and interface is supposed to be up to the standards of current commercial games.  The company aims to make the game free to all high schools and colleges - definitely a plus, although wouldn't it be great to see a science-based action-adventure game take off in popularity in its own right?

You can download some of the game modules from the website, www.nanomission.org.  If you check them out leave a comment here about what you think.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Much Has Changed for Science under Obama?

President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters who focus on foreign policy or the economy by continuing many of the practices of the Bush administration with which he had promised to break.  Science policy has seemed like an obvious exception, in which the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, both respects science and is willing to pay for it.  For example, in a keynote address to the European Research Council last year, AAAS president Alan Leshner claimed that American science "is back," and that the US will again be a reliable research partner for the rest of the world.

But there have been warning signs as well, including mixed signals on renewable energy research (as in boosting nuclear and offshore drilling at the same time).  In the past several days, two stories have claimed that scientific data and argument remain at the mercy of politics and message control.  A piece at the Huffington Post notes that the new rules to promote "scientific integrity throughout the executive branch" are a year late, and that a George Washington University survey found that "most government scientists interviewed did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration." 

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times ran a long article called "Scientists Expected the Obama Administration to be Friendler."  It claimed that many "Scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out," and offered a number of examples.

The conflict between the open circulation of data and message control has been on parade for weeks in the BP gulf oil disaster.  UC Santa Barbara scientist Ira Leifer, a member of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group, has reported on the difficulty his group has had getting access from BP to reliable data on oil flow, and on the contrast between BP's repeatedly inaccurate claims and their own findings. 

Open access is crucial for both the assessment of social impacts and the advancement of research itself.  Since the Obama administration has suffered enormous damage from its association with the BP spill, it should step up with rules protecting scientific integrity and enforce a much higher standard for access than we have seen in recent years.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Moonshot Sentiments

Most people have thought I am a little nuts for wanting a moonshot on renewable energy research and development in the U.S. Nuts or not, the idea is for a flood of money on the scale created by John F. Kennedy's ten-year goal of a moon landing by the end of the 1960s. The current version could be an order-of-magnitude increase over a 2-3 year period for the full range of renewable energy research -- from say $300 million for photovoltaics in the current year, according to our forthcoming report, to $3 billion by 2013. By comparison, the full cost of the Apollo mission was recently estimated to be $170 billion (in 2005 dollars), or about $10-15 billion per year - around 50 times greater than photovoltaic research today.

The moonshot concept means much more money, and also more than money. It means infrastructural development, government procurement, patent pooling, and strong anti-trust enforcement to assure multiple sources for various energy components.

The energy moonshot would need to do many things that the Apollo moonshot did not. It would need to imagine multiple technology pathways, interact constantly with social demand, imagine future needs in an enriched sociocultural context, and be constructed bottom-up rather than top down.  In these ways, it would need to be radically different from the Apollo mission.

A moonshot is the opposite of the incrementalism that is plaguing renewable energy research.  We have long been getting small annual increases that neither accelerate research breakthroughs nor create interest among private investors.  Energy R&D has also been plagued by political instability, as can be seen in this graphic from the Dooley DOE report linked above.

Oil price spikes in the 1970s lead to a spike in energy R&D, which then collapsed almost as quickly.  Direct energy research has been a pitiful also-ran ever since.

Happily, commentators are increasingly fed up with this pattern.  They are explicitly targeting instability and incrementalism as huge problems for energy progress. An organization of technology heavyweights, led by Microsoft's Bill Gates, has called for an immediate tripling of energy research to $16 billion per year (over all energy categories).  In the introductory video clip for their American Innovation Energy Council, John Doerr notes that Americans spend more money on potato chips than they spend on energy research.  In his own clip, he goes on to note that only 4 of the 30 leading companies in a few key energy sectors are in the U.S.  The clip is pitched to scare policymakers into better funding with the prospect of U.S. economic decline in what Doerr calls the most important market of the 21st century.

And Bill Gates: "we're missing the basic innovation that would give us this whole new way of making energy." 

Gates also stresses the need to draw in about ten times more bright minds into the research, which is "fun work."

In a similar vein, Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog recently had a particularly good post on the funding problem. It caught my attention because it linked energy breakthroughs back to quantum dots, a science domain dear to my heart. But Revkin carries on with a series of links and comments from various analysts on this theme:
One key to a sustained national  energy quest, is greatly boosting direct federal support for basic research in relevant sciences. For decades, there’s been  bipartisan disinterest in such a push. Current investment in this area is so modest that just  a 2 cent rise in the federal gas tax would triple the activity.
 Many useful arguments follow on the dangers of instability and incrementalism alike.

It's good that these arguments for moonshot funding are increasingly visible. Real funding change is going to take an outside catalyst greater than even the BP Gulf oil disaster has been so far - some major triggering event.  The history is clear on this: Apollo is the son of Sputnik.  The Soviet's satellite success spawned NASA as an agency and then its moonshot out of a sense of a Cold War military urgency. Sputnik had a similarly dramatic effect on US education.  What kind of 2x4 upside the head will focus our attention this time?

The top picture is of Buzz Aldrin setting up a Solar Wind Collector on the moon.   It's time for the follow up.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Nano in CBS program

Those of you who are interested in nanotechnology and popular culture/risk perception might want to check out the most recent episode of the CBS program Eleventh Hour (title: "Electro"). The show features a scientist who works with the FBI to solve emerging health crises using scientific logic to find the source every week (think McGuyver meets CSI meets X-Files).

This past week's episode featured a slew of Massachusetts residents who were getting hit by lightening well above what we'd expect by chance alone. The source of the problem was traced to a fictional company working on "nanofilaments" that were found to be growing throughout people's skin and therefore making them more conductive. This is the most pronounced discussion I've seen on prime time thus far.

You can view the full episode here at the CBS web site.



Thursday, February 19, 2009

Risk Perception Write-Up

Here's a nice writeup of CNS director Barbara Harthorn's team's research on nano scale risk perception

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

Alternative energy businesses and their financing got completely hammered in the second half of 2008: the Wilderhill New Energy Global Innovation Index fell at almost twice the rate of the Dow (down nearly 34% for 2008). But there's some good news:

New Energy Finance's Newsletter for Dec 9-15, 2008 reports that thin-film PV module manufacturing costs are approaching the $1 / watt mark. This puts price pressure on crystalline silicon-based PV, which is bad for the industry right now. But it's good for research.

The nutty green jet guy isn't a nut after all. Air New Zealand just test-drove a 747 running on a mix of jet fuel and the jatropha plant.

A zero-carbon city is due to arise in 2009, not in the US or EU but in the UAE - with major funding from the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company.

Lots of bad 2008 trends will continue, but 2009 will be an interesting year for energy research. At it looks like this research will be more globally distributed and multi-polar than every before.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Solar on the Ground

A nice example of what can call solar's policy slump appeared in the Baltimore Sun over the weekend. It's about a possible increase in tax credits for solar installations in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Note the very small numbers involved in the tax credits: "The tax credit would be for 50 percent of the cost of a system or $2,500, whichever is less," although the actual cost of an installation can be $30,000. The program's virtue in tough economic times is that almost no one uses it: "The current solar panel tax credit cost the county a little more than $11,000 in the past 18 months."

US solar is a patchwork of local efforts, and those continuing now have to compete head to head with "gap" payments to the staff of convalescent hospitals and the like. Nothing is more obvious than the need for a policy of national scope.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Renewable Energy Policy Moment

Writing at Renewable Energy World, Scott Sklar offers a helpful summary of the market forces currently battering renewables - declining energy demand, postponed investments in response, and more subtly, the declining impact of tax credits as the recession reduces companies' existing tax obligations.

Mr. Sklar's main solution is greatly improved procurement policies. Given the fragmented, labyrinthian nature of the federal government's programs, plus of course those of the 50 states, he writes the following:
To reorient existing federal capital (loan, guarantee and bond programs) and existing procurement programs would requite a totally new approach by the Obama Administration. New procurement tools would need to be fashioned not only to accelerate procurements but aggregate procurements and leverage them regionally in concert with other state and local government procurement programs.

This would require White House coordination with mandatory participation by OMB, GSA, DOE's Federal Energy Management Program, and even DOD to insure these procurement and coordination tools could be realized
Nice understatement. Effective procurement requires a kind of revolution in the federal bureaucracy. It would be interesting to know if the upside of the Obama appointments' bias toward the thinking of the 1990s would be some capaciaty for massive consolidation and coordination - the Manhattan Project that energy needs.

There are some good ideas coming out of the transition team. For example, read the transition team co-chair John Podesta's piece on Green Recovery.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mid-Level Innovation

The New York Times has a good piece this morning about Amar Bhidé’s new book, The Venturesome Economy. His main argument is that the innovation that creates economic value comes not from basic research but from creative business applications. Those of us in innovation studies should think less about quantum dots and academic labs and more about Wal-Mart's brilliant logistics.
The piece is good because it also points out a key problem with this presentation:
The flaw in Mr. Bhidé’s thesis is that it amounts to a “false choice,” said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. Most of the economic gains from technology, Mr. Atkinson agrees, do come from its innovative use. “But that doesn’t mean that the basic research is not critical,” he said.
But my favorite quote is from Bhidé, who says value really comes from “all the various forms of knowledge generated by the massively multiplayer innovations game that sustains economic growth.”

This puts the question back where it belongs: not with an either-basic - or-applied question, but with the kinds of institutions that link them together in ways that are effective because they really do pool the multiple players by treating the players equitably.

BTW, for a good overview of the Obama campaign's use of their massively multiplayer online environment, listen to this "To the Point" episode (featuring Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital and John Palfrey, author of Born Digital, among others).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Info Problems

Our group often talks about the difficulty with telling research from publicity in high-tech world in general. I first ran into this in the mid-1990s when reporters from Silicon Valley started to call me in Santa Barbara to talk about workplace conditions in famous SV companies whose employees wouldn't give them the time of day. They were upset that I didn't each in a business school.

Greentech has a kind of funny piece about the problem with compnay information - "Greentech's Top Eight Paranoid Companies." They actually understate the problem.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Future of Science Literacy

Here's a nice n depressing review of basic educational level stats. The author is right to wonder where we can go without a better base than this!

On a happier note, Chris Mooney, the author of The Republican War on Science, says the war on science is over and that science has won.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Solar "Panic"

From Reuters, November 12:

Chinese solar cell maker JA Solar Holdings Co Ltd said on Wednesday the global economic slump had triggered a "panic" in the solar market, prompting it to slash its sales forecasts and sending its shares down more than 30 percent.

Sales of solar cells and panels have risen sharply in recent quarters as companies such as JA Solar ramped up production of the clean power source, but the global economic slowdown has caused that growth to slow, leading to a supply glut.

"At this moment the market reaction has been panic," Samuel Yang, chief executive officer, told a conference call.

The company, which posted a quarterly loss from its ties to defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers, said it had cut back on output of the cells that turn sunlight into electricity and would seek to renegotiate its polysilicon supply contracts.

That effort to cut costs for polysilicon, the key material in its cells, was an attempt to offset an expected 20 percent price decline in the average selling prices of its products.

"Just recently the euro depreciated dramatically, more than 23 percent. So we have to adjust our ASP (average selling price) to support our customers," Yang said.

Europe is the largest market for photovoltaic solar equipment because of the subsidy programs set up by the German and Spanish governments.

JA Solar's stock plunged as much as 32 percent to $2.27 following the announcement, bringing its loss since the beginning of September to nearly 90 percent.

"We do not believe in the 'disaster scenario' implied by the stock's sharp drop during today's session," Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov said in a client note, noting that the stock was trading nearly 40 percent below its book value. "JA Solar's low cost structure and healthy balance sheet place it in a strong competitive position."

JA Solar said it would seek a 20 percent drop in the price it pays its suppliers for polysilicon in 2009, and that it had already won price concessions for 2008. The company would seek to push its contracted costs for silicon below the spot market price of about $200 to $220 per kilogram.


The company cut its 2008 revenue forecast to between $849.5 million to $878.9 million from the $1.05 billion to $1.17 billion it had forecast in October, and said its earnings per share would be near break-even.

It also cut its 2009 revenue forecast to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion from the previously issued $2.0 billion to $2.2 billion.

Fourth quarter growth margins would drop to 5 to 7 percent, the company said, from 21.6 percent in the third quarter and 23.3 percent in the second quarter.

JA Solar said it lost a net $21.0 million, or 36 cents per American Depositary Receipt, in the third quarter. In the same quarter a year ago it earned $24.4 million, or 17 cents per ADS.

Excluding one-time items, the Hebei, China-based company reported earnings of 25 cents per share, just short of Wall Street analysts' average forecast of 26 cents per share, according to Reuters Estimates'

Total revenue rose to $312.3 million from $125.2 million, and beat estimates of $302.1 million, according to Reuters Estimates, as the company more than doubled its solar cell sales.

JA Solar posted a one-time loss of $100 million in investments it made with Lehman, a $7.3 million loss from the derivatives deals with the bank and a 1.1 million share dilution based on shares lent to the collapsed investment bank.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Renewable Energy - So Three-Months-Ago

This piece from the Financial Times is one of a series of reports about falling investment in the renewable energy sector. The sector is getting squeezed between the crisis in the financial markets on the one hand, and falling oil prices on the other.

When a group of us spoke in June to physicist and 3rd-Generation solar photovoltaics researcher Alan Heeger, he said he thought much of the investor motivation was driven by the high price of gasoline and not by a sincere commitment to alternative energy development. I thought this was a bit cynical at the time, but he is turning out to be correct.

The test will be what happens when the global recession keeps oil prices weak as the credit markets stabilize. If alternative energy investment doesn't come back then - even when helped by large state investment in China and perhaps even in the US - then Prof. Heeger will be, to his great sorrow, proven correct.

I personally believe the last line of the piece below.

Clean energy investment falls sharply

By Fiona Harvey in London, Richard Waters in San Francisco and Sheila McNulty in Houston
Published: November 10 2008 18:08 Financial Ties

Investment in low-carbon technologies is suffering its first reversal after several years of record growth, as the financial crisis dims the sector’s prospects.

Worldwide investment in clean energy companies and new clean energy capacity fell sharply in the third quarter of 2008, compared with the previous quarter, according to New Energy Finance, a market analyst company.

Venture capital and private equity investment totalled $4.4bn in the third quarter, down 24 per cent from the $5.8bn in the second quarter of 2008.

Brent Goldman, partner at BDO Stoy Hayward, said: “We are seeing less activity across the whole market.

“There will be more and more businesses without enough funds, and they will struggle.”

Clean technology investment has soared in the past four years, on the back of high conventional energy prices and fears over climate change and energy security. The cost of renewables has come down and governments have increased their subsidies.

But many clean technology companies are at an early stage, and have found it more difficult to raise funds. Longer established companies have suffered less, but some have found it harder to find funds and credit for expansion.

Capital raising in the public markets was down in the third quarter, at about $2.6bn of new money raised – most of which came from convertible issues rather than flotations or rights issues – compared to $4.9bn in the second quarter.

The biggest public capital raising was by EDF Energies Nouvelles, the French renewable energy company, raising $734m through a secondary issue.

The biggest IPO recorded by New Energy Finance from July to September, at $87m, was Energy Recovery, a Californian energy efficiency specialist.

M&A activity among clean technology companies also fell, by 21 per cent to $2.9bn in the third quarter.

But the financing of new capacity in the clean energy market, such as the building of new wind farms, remained strong at $19bn in the third quarter, only marginally down on the $23bn in the second quarter of this year.

However, as clean technology investment remained relatively strong for the first half of this year, new investment in clean energy worldwide is likely to be only about 4 per cent lower in 2008 than last year, according to New Energy Finance.

Michael Liebreich, chief executive of New Energy Finance, predicted investment would return to its previous high levels next year.

He said: “There will be a hiatus of about six months, but then capital will return. The fundamentals of this business still look good.”

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Energy Policy

Here's Obama the candidate offering a good short summary of his energy and innovation policies. It will be interesting to see how the program holds up.

Renewable Energy World's morning-after summary is pretty sensible.
  • Hope 1: "“President-elect Obama is the first national presidential candidate who has explicitly campaigned for renewable technologies and green jobs."
  • Hope 2: "Some renewable energy experts and analysts say that Obama may use the job-creating opportunity that the renewable energy industry holds as a way to usher in a stronger economy while bringing more solar and wind power into the energy mix."
On the latter point, the strongest, clearest advocate is Van Jones, whose organization and new book should be injected without dilution into the Obama administration.

Obama's Tech Team

At least one technology member of Obama's transition team has been tentatively identified by the Washington Post: Julius Genachowski, a former counsel to the Democrat side of the FCC, a managing director of Rock Creek Ventures, and a friend of Obama's from law school. He seems connected, and draws comments like this:
"Julius is a true believer in the power of technology to change lives and I think that bodes well for the Obama administration that someone like him is part of the transition team," said Rick Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel.
But the web material on him is paper-thin - I'll try to find something more concrete.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A New Consensus on Innovation?

This year, the journal Nature has been running monthly commentaries on the innovation process. In August, their editorial on the series claims that we have seen a paradigm shift in our understanding of innovation. We've dropped the "linear model" in which knowledge moves from bench to bedside, from basic research to marketplace, in exchange for bundled processes that are non-linear, interactive, multi-directional, discontinuous, and decentralized. Here's their formulation.
A more accurate picture is that of a nonlinear ‘ecosystem’, in which innovation is driven by multiple players, forces and feedback loops working simultaneously. Such an ecosystem cannot be managed — at least, not in the conventional sense of top-down control. But it can be cultivated, in the way that a gardener can try to create the right conditions for plants to grow, while accepting that unforeseen
elements ultimately dictate the outcome.
The explosive idea here is that the actual, non-linear ecosystem "cannot be managed." We do say this regularly, but do we practice it? Is cutting-edge science becoming more democratic, or at least more self-organized? Have our institutions changed to allow this?

I would answer no to all of these. We can see the next paradigm but we haven't moved there. Our practice is in between paradigms. And when we talk about gardeners, we can assume that our metaphors and implied models also have a way to go.

More on this topic soon.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


As I now add nano-products to my "impulse-buy" list at Home Depot, I decided to flip the extra money and get some new Nano-Glue. With childood memories of eating the thick tasty white goo between nap-times in kindergarten, picking up this tube of glue had quaint nostalgia with the "new-and-improved" force of American innovation behind it. Excited, I ran home to fix my sunglasses and enjoy a tastey nibble, only to find out the stuff just sucks. But I have found a valuable metaphor... just like glue, my nano research is globby, sticky, never goes where I want it to, and the more I play with it, the harder it is to get off.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Lead or Leave"

I don't get to say this too often, so I'll enjoy it while I can: Tom "Flat Earth" Friedman has an excellent column today on the dumbfounding stupidity of US energy policy. After pummeling George Bush for a while, he calls for a floor of $100 / barrel for oil and $4.50 for gasoline. It'll take more than that to get renewables moving at the speed we need, but it would help. And the anger might help us jump the tracks that lead to the cliff.

It reminded me of a report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates last month about construction costs for power plants, which have more than doubled since 2000. Even if we can afford the fossil fuels to put into the plants, it's not clear we can afford to build conventional plants anymore.

Unfortunately, wind turbines have also doubled in cost since 2005. It's that much more pressure on us to do far better with conservation and efficiencies at the consumption end.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Germany's Solar Valley

While the entire Center for Nanotech nology in Society was having its site visit from our funders, the National Science Foundation, the New York Times published a piece about one of the solar companies our Innovation Group has been watching, Q-Cells of Thalheim, a town in the former East Germany. Q-Cells "surpassed Sharp last year to become the world's largest maker of photovoltaic solar cells." Some people are calling the area around Thalheim "Solar Valley." Germany gets 14% of its energy from renewable sources, has half of the worlds total PV installations, and is the third largest producer of PV modules (behind only China and Japan).

Why is solar doing so well in Germany? Q-Cells is a sample beneficiary of public support for renewable energy that is far better in Germany than what we have in the United States. One part of our lagging support is direct R&D investment. During my presentation yesterday I showed a chart from a paper of one of our partners, David Mowery, showing the literally invisible chunk of US federal R&D spending devoted to energy - about $3 billion a year in 2006, for all energy research, including under $70 million for carbon capture and sequestration. Less than one-tenth of the already small amount of $3 billion goes to all forms of renewable energy in the US.

But another piece of the story is procurement.

At the heart of the debate is the Renewable Energy Sources Act. It requires power companies to buy all the alternative energy produced by these systems, at a fixed above-market price, for 20 years.

This mechanism, known as a feed-in tariff, gives entrepreneurs a powerful incentive to install solar panels. With a locked-in customer base for their electricity, they can earn a reliable return on their investment. It has worked: homeowners rushed to clamp solar panels on their roofs and farmers planted them in fields where sheep once grazed.

The amount of electricity generated by these installations rose 60 percent in 2007 compared with 2006, faster than any other renewable energy (solar still generates just 0.6 percent of Germany’s total electricity, compared with 6.4 percent for wind).

Solar has been hurt for 25 years by "market failure" - the failure of markets to provide financial returns that support socially-desirable investment. Germany has overcome solar market failure as well as anyone. Even as the Merkel government proposes undoing this, the US should implement its own versions of feed-in tariffs that will support consumer switching.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Alternative Energy and Federal Credits

So many people mentioned this Tom Friedman piece on upside-down energy policy that I had to link it. Friedman is right about how stupid it is for Congress to have continued credits for gas and oil and stopped those for solar and wind. It's also worth noticing the testimonies in the piece about how alternative energy in the US, especially wind, attracts investment capital only with tax deals to offer investors.
“It’s a disaster,” says Michael Polsky, founder of Invenergy, one of the biggest wind-power developers in America. “Wind is a very capital-intensive industry, and financial institutions are not ready to take ‘Congressional risk.’ They say if you don’t get the [production tax credit] we will not lend you the money to buy more turbines and build projects.”

Friedman's ending is painfully true: "The McCain-Clinton proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious — the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way."