Producing Game-Changing Innovation to Benefit the Nation, As Fast and Effectively As Possible
It's a question almost as old as the scientific method itself: What's the best way to conceive and manage the process of scientific inquiry? On one side are those we might describe as "blue sky" gazers, who value the unlimited potential of basic science. Their philosophy: explore the physics and chemistry of nature, and good science will reward you with unexpected insights — some more profound than you ever could have imagined.
On the other side are the pragmatists among us, who might in turn respond, how can we achieve an end result if we don't first define it, then work steadily toward that goal?
As a scientist and director of the nation's only national laboratory devoted solely to clean energy research and development (R&D), the question of how to most effectively perform our work is one I grapple with every day. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is renowned as an Applied Energy Laboratory. Our purpose is to directly impact the energy industry. While that suggests the results-driven model of science and technology, experience tells us we must employ every tool available to us. What we've learned through more than three decades of successful renewable energy and energy efficiency technology R&D is that there is no inherent dichotomy between pure science and use-driven science. Each works best when both work together.
This approach might best be called "deliberate science". Everything we do at NREL is deliberately focused toward helping the nation reach its clean energy goals. How we get there, however, doesn't come about in a straight line. Rather, it's a complex, dynamic process. The insights we gain through the basic science we perform is essential to our applied technology R&D, and that in turn greatly shapes how the technology moves on to commercialization and deployment in the market.
You'll see how this process guides work in each of our research fields as you read the articles in this, the second issue of Continuum.
For the dedicated professionals who I'm privileged to work with at NREL, this is the best of both worlds. Our highly specialized research teams dive deep to answer the fundamental questions of science. Their colleagues forge those new insights into workable concepts for breakthrough technologies. Teams focused on systems integration, and testing and validation, then reduce risk of new technology to the point where private industry can make the investments needed to commercialize and deploy it.
At NREL we utilize the whole toolkit of science, with a specific, market-relevant use in mind. Deploying valuable new energy technology may always be the overriding end goal. Yet getting there in the most efficient way possible means that there is no bright line where basic science ends, and applied R&D begins. Each step informs the other; it all works together.
The field of biofuels is a great example of how this works in practice. Our first relatively crude forays into turning plants into fuel were based on centuries of knowledge about how to make beer and wine. We used those lessons of fermenting to make alcohol fuels like ethanol. Today, we're applying modern approaches such as electron microscopes, advanced computer modeling, and other tools of basic science, to truly understand the incredibly complex processes at work. These insights allow us to develop new technologies that produce energy-rich hydrocarbons that closely mimic fossil fuels like gasoline, but do so using renewable, sustainable and environmentally-friendly biomass resources. Read more about producing Better Biofuels through Computational Analysis.
The overarching question is how to best marshal national resources to surmount our most critical energy challenges. As a member of the Advisory Board of the Energy Research, Development, & Deployment Policy Project (ERD3) at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, I have seen first-hand that all models of research do not produce equal results. The ERD3 Project's just-released study, Transforming U.S. Energy Innovation, found that to achieve our national goals, energy innovation will require a clearly defined mission, exceptional managerial talent with proven technical expertise, much stronger partnerships between federal researchers and private industry, and finally, world-class research institutions supported with consistent and sufficient public funding. We look forward to working with the U.S. Department of Energy and our many stakeholders to put such findings to good use.
At NREL, we are proud of our comprehensive, integrated, and deliberate approach to clean energy R&D. But the more I've learned about how to produce valuable new technologies — and do so in the best, fastest and most cost-effective ways possible — the less I'm truly surprised. After all, hasn't necessity always been the mother of invention?
Cover image courtesy of BioMed Central, originally published January 26, 2011, in the article, In planta expression of A. cellulolyticus Cel5A endocellulase reduces cell wall recalcitrance in tobacco and maize by Roman Brunecky, Michael J Selig, Todd B Vinzant, Michael E Himmel, David Lee, Michael J Blaylock and Stephen R Decker.