Furthermore, an array of technological advances could cut costs, and the industry is working on these advances. For example, seismic technology can provide a good snapshot of fractured rock at depth to enable large areas underground to be connected, creating what is essentially a heat exchanger. Advanced drilling, control, and high-temperature technologies are all being investigated.
Today the Energy Department spends only $20 million per year to pursue this option. “This effort should be significantly expanded,” said Reicher. “The Australians, who lead the world in this technology, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars. There are 30 companies in Australia working at this today, and we’re playing catch up.”
Orbach also discussed ways of generating energy that will require what he called “transformational discoveries” in basic research. Over the past 5 years the Energy Department has conducted a series of workshops on basic research needs for a secure energy future, examining such topics as superconductivity, the hydrogen economy, solid-state lighting, advanced nuclear reactor designs, energy storage, and materials science. Using scientific and engineering research, Orbach asked, “What can we do to break out of the straightjacket in which we find ourselves?” For example, he mentioned studies of photosynthesis as a possible way to take advantage of techniques that living things have evolved to meet their energy needs. “It really comes down to how nature works,” he said. “Plants are almost 100 percent efficient at room temperature. Is there any way for us to mimic what nature does so well?”
The technologies of this century will be rooted in the ability to direct and control matter at the molecular, atomic, and quantum levels, according to Orbach. Research challenges include the synthesis of new forms of matter with tailored properties, predictions of the properties of novel materials, and the fabrication of manmade nanoscale objects with capabilities that rival those of living things. Incremental changes will not be sufficient, Orbach said. Transformational discoveries and disruptive technologies will be essential.