This week, the land rover Curiosity finished an interstellar journey of more than 350 million miles and safely touched down on the surface of Mars. The mission carried significant risk of failure – the landing involved complex, never-before-attempted maneuvers, including “seven minutes of terror” to slow the spacecraft’s speed from 13,000 mph to 2 mph upon entry into the Martian atmosphere. Its success, which has been characterized as a “flawless, triumphant technological tour de force,” has thus captured the imagination of the country. While NASA deserves the lion’s share of credit for the achievement, government supported research through the National Labs played a critical role. But not only do the Labs’ research and development successes underpin Curiosity’s early-triumphs, they also inform the ongoing debate over the role of government in clean energy innovation.
Much of Curiosity’s sophisticated equipment was developed by various National Labs. Scientists at the Los Alamos National Lab, for example, developed the ChemCam, a laser that will help the Curiosity determine the chemical composition of rocks. Oak Ridge National Lab “developed and fabricated the protective iridium alloy cladding that’s central to the generator that powers the rover,” according to a Lab report. And the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, essentially a nuclear battery that powers the rover and keeps it warm, was designed and developed by the Department of Energy (DOE) in partnership with private entities. Specifically, it was assembled and tested at Idaho National Lab and, according to DOE, the nuclear safety assessment was performed by Sandia National Labs. Thanks in part to the National Labs’ work, Curiosity will embark on a nearly two year-long effort to discover if Mars possesses, or once possessed, life.
When considered against the backdrop of high-risk and multiple technical challenges, the Curiosity project shares some similarities with America’s clean energy innovation challenges. Both endeavors are fundamentally in the national interest – Curiosity and space exploration can lead to scientific discovery, while clean energy innovation can lead to climate change mitigation, greater economic competitiveness, energy security and a cleaner environment.
Both endeavors are also defined by high capital costs, complexity, and time-intensity, which severely discourages private sector involvement. “Private enterprise can never lead a space frontier,” famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson notes. “It’s not possible because a space frontier is expensive, it has unknown risks and it has unquantified risks. Historically, governments have done this. They have drawn the maps, they have found where the trade winds are, they have invented the new tools to go where no one has gone before.” Though deGrasse Tyson was commenting on space exploration, the same argument applies to the energy market. Clean energy projects are often costly, especially to develop first-of-kind manufacturing and utility-scale projects. And next-generation clean energy is complex, as it includes a system of new material technologies, power electronics, new chemistries and electricity infrastructure as well as potential biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. In fact, there may be no better similarity than, like space exploration, government’s historic support for next-generation energy research and development. It was the government, after all, that developed nuclear power technology and advanced natural gas technologies over decades of support – something that the private sector was unwilling to do on its own.
Of course, it’s not a straight apples-to-apples comparison, as Mars exploration has a focused goal in mind whereas clean energy innovation is required in numerous sectors like transportation, buildings, and electricity. But given the immense potential benefits to society, a private sector that is generally unwilling or unable to take on the associated risks, and a government tradition of successful investment, there is a clear rationale for government involvement in clean energy innovation.
Fortunately for the nation, the Curiosity Mars rover has not been the only recent successful energy research product of the Department of Energy and the National Labs. The Oak Ridge National Lab, for example, has contributed to substantial advances in carbon fiber, and recent technology breakthroughs by advanced battery companies A123, Envia, and PolyPlus can be traced to investment by DOE and its high-achieving Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The future of clean energy – like Mars exploration – requires the continued investment and partnership of government to continue spurring successive waves of innovation for years to come.
Above: Artist’s concept of the Mars land rover Curiosity. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.