Recruiting the next generation of top innovators into energy careers used to be a matter of oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and more nuclear. With renewable energy in the mix and planet-saving on the table, all four of those sectors (five, if you count nuclear twice) are jockeying to wedge themselves into the “clean” category. So, how’s that going?
Quantum Information Science & Renewable Energy
Fossil fuels are clearly at a disadvantage in terms of clean energy branding. That includes the self-styled “cleaner” one, natural gas.
The nuclear energy field is also contending with environmental hazards, public health risks, and cost issues, though it does have that thing about zero emissions in its pocket.
Nuclear energy also dovetails with foundational research in the renewable energy field, and with that in mind let’s take a look at a major new US Department of Energy initiative that launched last month, with the aim of establishing a network of several new research hubs in the field of quantum information science.
For those of you new to the topic of quantum information science, check out this explainer from the National Science Foundation:
Quantum physics, information theory, and computer science are among the crowning intellectual achievements of the past century. Now, as the twenty-first century dawns, a new synthesis of these themes is underway. The emerging discipline of quantum information science (QIS) is providing profound new insights into fundamental problems relating to both computation and physical science. The flourishing of this new field in the next century may guide the way to revolutionary advances in technology and in our understanding of the physical universe.
A National Energy Policy For The 21st Century
That tidbit from the National Science Foundation dates all the way back to 1999, by the way. It took about 20 years, but the vision of a full-fledged national QIS policy finally came to fruit last December.
If you caught that thing about full fledged, that’s full fledged as in codified into US law through an Act of Congress.
The new Energy Department QIS research hubs are part of the National Quantum Initiative, which was signed into law on December 21 last year.
Who signed it? Three guesses! There’s even a signing photo to prove it, though apparently no-one from the Department of Energy was invited to witness this historic event. After all, it’s not every day that the President of the United States of America signs one of the most significant pieces of new energy legislation in recent memory into the law of the land, with one swipe of the pen.
Come to think of it, for whatever reason the Commander-in-Chief was not eager to broadcast the nation’s newly forged commitment to QIS. December 21 falls squarely within the black hole of the holiday season (okay, so Christmas holiday season), where savvy public relations chiefs send material that needs to be public but doesn’t need to be noticed by too much of the public.
A Turning Point For Renewable Energy
Whatever. Anyways, the bill got signed and it is now Public Law 115-368, aka the National Quantum Initiative Act.
The new legislation establishes a highly detailed roadmap for education, training, and research. That includes specific instructions for the Energy Department to establish the new research hubs, as well as directives for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Meanwhile, it looks like the Energy Department is not waiting around for the grass to grow under its feet.
Aside from launching the new QIS research hubs, the agency just announced $75 million in funding for 66 projects at 51 universities across the country for something called “high energy physics research,” which involves “both experimental and theoretical research into such topics as the Higgs boson, neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, and the search for new physics.”
That follows a $2018 million round of QIS funding announced last fall, which coordinated with something called the he awards were made in conjunction with the “White House Summit on Advancing American Leadership in QIS.”
Oh, really? That’s pretty high level, right? Here’s the Energy Department with more on that:
The awards were made in conjunction with the White House Summit on Advancing American Leadership in QIS, highlighting the high priority that the Administration places on advancing this multidisciplinary area of research, which is expected to lay the foundation for the next generation of computing and information processing as well as an array of other innovative technologies.
New Life For Nuclear Energy?
Circling back around to that thing about competing for top talent, the sad condition of the US nuclear energy field doesn’t exactly make things easier for recruiters.
Last year the US Energy Information Agency took stock of the nation’s nuclear power plants and teased out some scenarios under which the US could add nuclear capacity.
However, a 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists painted a gloomier picture. The organization found that almost 22% of nuclear capacity in the US could evaporate, with almost 35% of nuclear power plants scheduled to retire or facing the risk of early closure.
On the other hand, with US states scrambling to set aggressive zero emission goals for electricity generation, the World Nuclear Association does see some opportunities for career-building in the US nuclear energy sector.
The new QIS initiative should help keep the nuclear talent flowing into research labs across the country, regardless of what happens in the power generation sector.
It also looks like the Energy Department is not taking anything for granted as far as recruiting goes. The agency has ramped up its recruitment efforts in the gender diversity area, though the effort seems to be on a collision course with a fresh spurt of state-level legislation in the area of women’s health.
Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is reaching out to NSF to get some more insights into the potential for the QIS field to facilitate even more of a revolution in renewable energy, so stay tuned for more on that.