On the frontiers of science, a place to park energy

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE  – Albert Migliori is bearing down on a part of the global energy problem for which Los Alamos National Laboratory has already laid some claims.

He’s not talking about the drilling problem or how far out on the continental shelf drilling should begin, although antique legislation and backward incentives that reward depletion of non-renewable resources do warrant criticism in his view.

“Our government is a disaster,” he said, speaking his own mind as a scientist about the Catch-22s of energy policy.

Nor does he emphasize the demand side, the sprawling inefficiencies of a society based on automobiles for every individual.

He does think one of those electric Tesla sports cars that gets 220 miles on a charge and accelerate from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds is more than you could ask for.

“I’ll tell you what you could ask for, a price tag less than a hundred ‘thou,’” he said.

Migliori is a Laboratory Fellow, and a physicist associated with the Seaborg Institute and the High Magnetic Field Laboratory. Although he has a broad portfolio of research, one of his main jobs at the laboratory is designing hydrogen storage solutions as a part of a national program.

While he thinks it’s great that New Mexico has so much potential for alternative energy schemes like solar and wind, he also sees major roadblocks in getting the power to the grid effectively and enormous inefficiencies in transmitting it, storing it and using it effectively on grids that have to maintain highly consistent power loads.

Migliori doesn’t find that the round-trip efficiencies for creating, storing and unlocking the energies of hydrogen add up yet, but he does see a promising avenue of research by combining new nanotechnology with new high-performance computer modeling, two areas in which LANL is positioned to excel.

He believes there are new catalysts and transmission and storage materials waiting to be found in the area of emergent properties, the unique behaviors of materials at the nanoscale.

“Nanotech is going to be a key tool,” he said.

With a nano-chunk of copper, for example, researchers haven’t been able to predict energy densities and reactions rates compared to what they know about a normal piece of copper. But with new visual computational abilities afforded by the laboratory’s Road Runner, “I can see under a microscope the time that object takes to come to thermal equilibrium.”

He offered some of his expert analysis in his talk, “Use it, lose it, save it,” speaking in the James A. Little Theater at the New Mexico School for the Deaf Thursday night. This was the second installment in the laboratory’s current Frontiers in Science lecture series that began with a talk in Los Alamos on Tuesday.

Migliori’s interested in the science of solving the energy problem. What breakthroughs are really needed at the level of basic research?

“There is no one silver bullet,” he said. “There are going to be 100 energy storage technologies and we’re going to need all of them.”

The public can still catch the talk free of charge in Albuquerque and Española next week: 7 p.m. Tuesday at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, 1801 Mountain Road N.W., in Albuquerque; and same time Thursday at the Nick L. Salazar Center for the Arts, Northern New Mexico College, 921 Paseo de Oñate, Española.