May 03, 2011

Summer Reading List 2011

getting warm outside. Tornadoes have already devastated swaths of the country.
Gas prices are climbing. Summer is nearly upon us. And as we care deeply about
how you spend your long summer nights and vacations, the natural security team
decided that we would provide you all with 2011 summer reading lists. This week
we’ll roll out the first three, and in later weeks, as the summer drags along,
we’ll recommend additional good reads.

beach sceneGiven
that magazines are often the best reads for beachy endeavors, our list will
start with the new Scientific American and end with the
current issue of Foreign Policy. I’ll
throw in a must-read book in between.

month’s SciAm hosts a cover feature
on “7
Radical Energy Solutions
.” The focus is breakthroughs. Think DARPA

opening editor’s note introduces it this way: “…big ideas are part of a
portfolio of technologies to address national and global energy needs….None is
probably the ‘ultimate’ answer – in fact, they all share a high risk of
failure. But they could be part of a rational combination of technologies and
policies.” Well stated.

as the title indicates, the editors pick seven concepts that would bring
transformational effects to our energy use – if they are ever produced and
commercialized. These seven are: fusion-triggered fission; solar gasoline;
quantum photovoltaics; heat engines; shock-wave auto engines; magnetic air
conditioners; and clean(er) coal. Each of these concepts is ranked in terms of
its likelihood and its potential impact – a handy guide for considering energy

have to say I was surprised to see the fusion-fission combo listed. Its
potential is huge. But this one sticks out. The technical hurdles, cost and
safety measures that are part of the National Ignition Facility are
National Lab-ish in scale. Regardless of feasibility or impact, the ability to
commercialize this technology even if it is developed successfully seems
far-fetched as compared to the other six concepts. I was even more surprised to
see “clean” coal listed. I guess it would count as a breakthrough, but that
doesn’t necessarily mean that pumping billions of dollars into this rather than
renewable energy technology is wise.

important, I read about these chosen 7 thinking about whether they would have
major applications for DOD energy use,
given our long work on that topic. The one that really sticks out is the solar
fuels concept, which makes synthesis gasoline from sun, water, and some kind of
catalyst (rusty metal parts in the design outlined in SciAm). The article highlights research that DOE has funded for the
Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, a Cal Tech & Lawrence Berkeley
National Lab venture. Just think about the possibilities for reducing long and
dangerous fuel convoys if DOD was operating in an area with plentiful water and
sunshine, and could create fuel on-site. Not a cure-all, as scale would I’m sure
remain a challenge, but having options other than trucking or flying in
petroleum could build in some flexibility and resilience.

heat and shock-wave vehicle engines would also be welcome technologies for DOD
in leveraging more energy from the fuel burned in the thousands of vehicles the
department operates. Finally, the article highlights a concept for magnetic air
conditioners that could cut energy requirements by about a third without using
chemical coolants. This would be great news especially for the Army, given its
wise new goal of making some of its bases energy
. My only caution for this one is that it’s completely reliant on
neodymium-iron-boron magnets, which would require the U.S. taking account of
the raw materials that would be involved given the degree to which minerals
have been affecting American interests
as of late.

in summary, pick this one up for your beach bag or a long flight. SciAm is always a great read. And with
this cover feature, you won’t even feel like you’re slacking from attention to
work-related topics.

Photo courtesy of Flickr-Creative Commons.