A Tour of the Energy Future

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(DAVOS) — At a certain point during this year's World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos — just after the politicians and business potentates explained how to fix global warming, just before they stabilized Iraq and solved the Israel-Palestine conflict — the gusts of self-regard became a little too much to bear. I found myself wondering whether any of this high-minded talk was worth a dime. Fortunately, that's when something came along to remind me of what Davos is good for.

My breakthrough session turned out to be a guided tour of the future, held in the little basement fonduestube of a 137-year-old hotel. MIT had organized a dinner featuring three of its scientists and their alternative energy technologies, and you knew it was a hot ticket when you walked in the door. The grotto held only about 60 people beneath its vaulted stone ceiling, but among them were venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, Google co-founder Larry Page, and the shaggy, newly minted YouTube billionaire Chad Hurley. First Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist with a gift for the marketing of ideas, riffed about the coming clean-energy revolution." Green is the new red, white and blue," he said, "and this is not your parents' energy crisis." Once he'd warmed up the crowd, the MIT scientists took turns presenting their visions of the future. Professor Vladimir Bulovic, an electrical engineer who reveals miraculous stuff with an impish smile, introduced us to photoconductive fiber (why shouldn't your solar-powered suit be able to charge up your PDA?). Professor Greg Stephanopoulos, a no-nonsense chemical engineer, talked about lowering the cost of the enzymes needed to turn biomass — wood chips, switch grass and cornhusks — into ethanol to fuel cars. This is crucial work: cellulosic ethanol, as this stuff is called, is far more enviro-friendly than the corn-based brew, and the price of the enzymes needed to break down biomass has already dropped to 30 cents a gallon from as high as $3 per gallon; when the price falls to ten cents a gallon, Stephanopoulos said, it will be fully cost effective. He figures that will take five to ten more years. If he's right — and VC's like Khosla are betting that he is — we'll have a cheap, sustainable, carbon-neutral energy source that send petrodollars to the Midwest, not the Middle East. And that's not just talk.

Most amazing of all was Professor Angela Belcher, a young genius who is teaching bugs how to become batteries — in other words, she's genetically modifying viruses so that they learn to store energy. She began working with what she calls" biologically inspired manufacturing techniques" in the mid-1990s, when she was a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. She discovered that abalone builds its extraordinarily strong and beautiful shell by using proteins to form nanoscale tiles of calcium carbonate. She figured that using a similar process, other organisms could be taught to create other kinds of nanostructures — perfect microscopic building blocks that she calls" evolved hybrid materials." At the University of Texas and then at MIT, she got down to work: She exposed viruses to semiconductor materials and watched to see if any adhered. When one did, she inserted it into bacteria so it could replicate, then exposed the subsequent generations to the same semiconductor material, strengthening the binding trait. It's a forced and accelerated evolutionary process, and she showed us high-res slides of the result: perfect nanowires that can carry current, biologically directed organisms that can store electrical energy and should someday make superior laptop batteries, solar cells, and fuel cells for transportation. Amazing, amazing stuff.

No wonder Belcher was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2004. No wonder she has launched a nanotech firm, Cambrios Technologies, to bring her breakthroughs to market. And no wonder MIT President Susan Hockfield, seeing these sorts of discoveries taking place" in nooks and crannies" all around her Cambridge campus, decided to gather scientists into an Energy Research Council and declare war on the energy crisis — accelerating the switch to clean, efficient fuels. Solving this crisis, Hockfield told us as candles flickered in the little stone grotto in Davos," will take not one solution but a portfolio of solutions. It's a sprint and a marathon." Learning what her scientists are up to made me feel better about our chances in this race. And that's what Davos is good for — a helping of authentic, reality-based hope right when you need it the most.