SETTING THE CONTEXT

For the past half century, U.S. economic growth has been based partly on the availability of plentiful and cheap energy. The United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, is now consuming 25 percent of the world’s oil production.1 However, with oil production in many countries now in decline and demand predicted to double during the next two or three decades, the era of cheap oil is over. The same is true of natural gas. Coal could provide a solution, since the United States has 25 percent of the world’s proven supplies, but increasing U.S. dependence on coal for electricity generation could have unfavorable environmental consequences unless it is accompanied by carbon capture and storage. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that increasing emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases are leading to global warming and concomitant stress on the environment. As a consequence, whereas science in the second half of the 20th century focused its attention on launching the information age and in employing the revolution in molecular biology to design new classes of medical therapeutics and to solve the human genome, it is expected that during the first half of the 21st century, science will be called on to help address the massive task of transforming the global energy supply from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Many of the issues are political and/or economic in nature and therefore lie outside the scope of this report, but for the transition to renewable energy sources to occur on the required timescale, many scientific and technological breakthroughs will be necessary. These are global challenges, of course, but as the world’s most prolific energy consumer, the United States bears a responsibility to demonstrate leadership. Furthermore, with a growing energy deficit (Figure 3.1), the U.S. economy and quality of life are highly vulnerable to these inexorable trends.

The role of CMMP scientists in the energy challenge is to create more technical options for lawmakers to consider for the U.S. energy portfolio. The CMMP community is already contributing strongly to the technologies surrounding the energy sector, and it is well positioned to do so even more in the future. For example, CMMP will be able to exploit some of the exciting developments in nanotechnology in order to solve some of the most pressing problems (see Chapter 6). This can only happen, however, if there is a national commitment to meeting this energy challenge and if sufficient funding is made available. Both the urgent need to address this challenge in the coming decade and the scientific opportunity for CMMP to contribute to the solution motivate the choice of energy as a grand challenge by the Committee on CMMP 2010. Further, energy research offers an opportunity for answering basic questions about materials and advancing a fun-

1

For more information on international petroleum (oil) consumption, see http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/international/oilconsumption.html; last accessed September 17, 2007.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement