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More DOE Funding for Companies Who Don’t Need It



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Here’s the latest scheme from the DOE: a taxpayer-financed battery “hub” to further research into advanced battery technology. Via The Energy Collective:

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced yesterday that a consortium of companies and research institutions led by Argonne National Laboratory, known as the Joint Center for Energy Storage and Research (JCESR), has been designated as the new battery and energy storage hub of the U.S. Department of Energy.  The hub designation includes an award of $120 million over the next five years to fund research, development and commercialization of advanced battery technology.  Congratulations to NAATBatt members Dow Chemical Company and Applied Materials, which are commercial partners in the hub.

In announcing the award, Secretary Chu outlined his vision for how best to develop advanced battery technology in the United States.  He recounted how early in his career, he had opportunity to work with several veterans of the Manhattan Project.  Those veterans taught him that the key to success in a large technology project is getting the greatest minds across a number of disciplines together in the same room to work on a common problem.  This is the idea behind the new battery hub.

The new battery hub includes top battery scientists from six national laboratories, five universities, three major industrial companies (including Dow and Applied Materials), a start-up incubator, and an advisory council of venture capital firms.  Although the principal focus of JCESR will be basic science, the structure of the hub will encourage new technology developed in the laboratory to filter through several technical and business disciplines and move rapidly towards commercialization.

Where to start on what’s wrong with this? Well, for one, it’s another example of comparing a technology endeavor today inappropriately to the Manhattan Project of the 1940s. When the Manhattan Project began, the math and physics to make an atomic bomb were relatively straightforward and understood. The Germans were first to split the atom in 1938, and even helped us out by publishing their findings in 1939. It was the engineering to make the math and physics work that was a problem. Contrast that to today’s goal of an advanced battery. To make these new batteries, you not only have the mathematical challenges, but issues with the right combination of metals and materials, chemical processes and engineering obstacles.

The Manhattan Project was run by the military in secret without any Congressional oversight and is estimated to have cost close to $26 billion in today’s dollars. Are we to believe that a paltry $120 million in full public view with (alleged) Congressional oversight will accomplish a similar breakthrough?

Here’s a good post by John F. McGowan, Ph.D at Math-Blog.com arguing that the Manhattan Project’s success, historically, was a fluke. And to think that the Manhattan Project which McGowan calls success “on the first try” can be repeated is wishful thinking.

Secondly, why is taxpayer money funding this thing in the first place? Here’s the partial list of those receiving funding from The Energy Collective piece. None can be classified as “hurting for cash” shall we say:

The new battery hub includes top battery scientists from six national laboratories, five universities, three major industrial companies (including Dow and Applied Materials), a start-up incubator, and an advisory council of venture capital firms.

And the most important question of all: After this selected group of multi-billion-dollar corporations, labs, and universities receive this taxpayer-financed gift, where will they locate the “hub?”

Well, Chicago of course.



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