Next week I will be attending the Materials Challenges in Alternative and Renewable Energy conference in Clearwater Beach, Fla., and as was doing a little background research, I came across across a timely report related to energy materials from a blogger at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. (Not all of the national labs maintain a blog, but those that do are pretty good, so check them out.) Sabin Russell, a science writer for LBL and its TechStream blog, posted an interesting story on a meeting held in San Francisco in late January where representatives from private industry and the 17 national labs met for two days in a conference to discuss topics linked to developing advanced materials.
Rather than focus on the technical content of the meeting — which organizers titled “Materials for Energy Applications — Russell reflects on some of the internal dynamics going on in the meeting and the interaction between private industry representatives and other stakeholders in attendance. Her initial take on the meeting is that it underlined the shift that has been occurring in where research occurs. She correctly notes that while basic science and early-stage applied science research are still conducted by private industry, federal labs, academia and nonprofits, the center of gravity of this work has shifted over the years away from the private sector and more towards the other groups. This is especially true with basic science work.
Russell writes, “There once was a time when the kind of basic research that takes place in the national laboratories was common in industry as well. [DOE Secretary Steven] Chu and Berkeley Lab director Paul Alivisatos are both alums of Bell Laboratories, renowned in its prime for making fundamental breakthroughs. Chu won a Nobel Prize in Physics for work he did there. Today, the thinking goes that the national laboratories and universities are the last sanctuaries for basic research, and the private sector is solely for research that can turn a dollar. … The level of corporate scientific brainpower on hand at the Materials for Energy Applications conference made it clear to me that extraordinary research is still occurring in the private sector. However, the flavor of it has changed, and the differences between the two cultures were discussed frankly. ‘If this had been an industry presentation, we would not just be focused on the science,’ said Simon Bare, a Honeywell research fellow. ‘There would be something on the screen with dollar signs all over it.’ “
Russell gets to the meat of the matter when she recalls how there was “an interesting subtext threading through much of the discussion. Basic research — rarefied, elite, expensive, and even described as ‘sexy’ — sometimes does not compute for industrial engineers intent on solving intensely practical questions on which the success or failure of new products may rest. As one General Motors battery scientist exclaimed, ‘It never occurred to me what an X-ray laser could do for me.’ “
She reports that the participants eventually found common ground once the conversations started rolling. “[The private sector] just needs a better sense of what is actually going on in those public labs, where to find out about it, and how to access it more quickly,” she writes. “Despite differences in focus over the proprietary nature of research, national laboratories are reaching out to license their own technologies to the private sector, and business leaders made it clear they would simply like to speed up the process.” ARPA-E’s recent “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator” competition is an example of proactive efforts by DOE to get its technologies out into the private sector.
I anticipate that many of the threads of thought Russell mentions will be flowing through the upcoming MCARE meeting I mentioned at the top of this post. As in the DOE meeting, it appears that the MCARE participants will be a cross-cutting group from academia, the national labs and private industry. Speakers include industry representatives from Dow Corning, GM, GE Global Research and Lockheed Martin, plus plenty of speakers from the Departments of Energy and Defense various projects and labs, along with researchers from institutions, such as CNRS ICMPE (France), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany) and many universities from the U.S. and around the world.
Likewise, I suspect that there will be a lot common ground discovered before the four-day MCARE conference concludes.