Energy's future

Wigner distinguished lecturer Majumdar says scale-up factor key to R&D success


Arun Majumdar, vice president of energy at Google, speaks at ORNL's Wigner Distinguished Lecture Series. Arun Majumdar, vice president of energy at Google, speaks at ORNL's Wigner Distinguished Lecture Series. (hi-res image)

Arun Majumdar's recent career stops in government and private industry have given him a unique perspective on the role of innovation in energy. The Wigner Distinguished Lecturer formerly led the Department of Energy's ARPA-E program to foster high-risk but potentially huge-payoff energy technologies, and is now vice president of energy at Google, a 100-percent carbon-neutral company despite the vast energy demands of its physical data operation.

At DOE his responsibilities were to determine which ideas stood the best chance of scaling up to a technology that will make a difference in the energy and environment sector.

"With energy, cost and scale are everything," Majumdar said during his talk at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Jan. 24. "If something does not scale up, and if costs are not reduced, it doesn't matter."

There are notable examples of successes. Majumdar said shale gas, thought too difficult to access a few decades ago, has raised natural gas's profile in the energy supply mix thanks to new drilling technologies. Petroleum is holding its own against demand due to technological advances that have boosted production and reduced consumption. Solar energy is overcoming its cost disadvantages as improvements in photovoltaic materials and energy storage reduce costs.

Majumdar cited examples of R&D toward new energy-saving technologies -- improved power electronics, new approaches to the power grid, research to reduce dependency on rare earth materials and new biological approaches to renewable fuels.

New technologies frequently stumble in the marketplace at first, or are regarded as fanciful or not practical. Nineteenth-century observers scoffed at the newly invented telephone's chances for success owing to the "plentiful supply of messenger boys," Majumdar noted.

Nevertheless, the phone company caught on. The collaboration of scientific research and industry are key to propelling new, scalable technologies to the marketplace. National laboratories are a natural nursery for these new ideas, he said.

Majumdar's advice for researchers and underwriters alike: "Give it a shot; take the risk as long as it doesn't violate the laws of physics."

Dr. Majumdar's lecture is on YouTube at the link

Former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu picks up the Eugene P. Wigner Distinguished Lecture Series in Science, Technology and Policy on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

 -  Bill Cabage,  865-574-4399,  January 28, 2014

We're always happy to get feedback from our users. Please use the Comments form to send us your comments, questions, and observations.