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The Successes of Government Science and Technology

by Sam Rosenbloom on Wed, October 30, 2013

Sorry due to allocation we can serve no more gasoline today

Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous speech “Citizenship In A Republic” starts by saying “it is not the critic who counts;” What makes the speech poignant is that all too often it is the critic who counts because we see time and time again the media pointing out “how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

Too often we only hear about failures and waste in government, yet the contributions and success of government-funded science and technology are ubiquitous and often under-reported.

Mission X

Anyone who is old enough remembers President Nixon making a phone call from the oval office to Neil Armstrong on the moon. At the time, it was an almost superhuman feat of engineering. Yet today no teenager would be amazed because today they can take a cell phone out of theirpocket and place a call to the international space station…if we only knew the number. In fact, school children routinely have video conferences with our astronauts as part of NASA’s policy. The NASA space program of the 1960s helped make modern communications possible. By helping to create the integrated circuits and by re-purposing the missile technology of the cold war to launch satellites, NASA engineers deserve special praise. They deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. In my mind they already are.

A topic also not receiving the fanfare it deserves was recently noted by Pete Domenici, senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and past Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Domenici recently wrote an article about the early history of advanced gas and oil recovery from shale that involved the Bureau of Mines. He writes:

 “In the early 1970s wells were drilled into the resource, the fuel was ignited, air was pumped in one well, and gas or oil was extracted from another. All instrumentation was at the surface; the engineers had little information of what was going on underground. Starting in the late 1970s, we instituted a research program at two national labs, and the investigators eventually began development of down hole instrumentation.

Exposed Marcellus Shale  Sandia National Lab was a good place to conduct such research because the instrumentation Sandia had proposed to apply to oil and gas wells had been developed for underground nuclear testing: a short duration test occurring at a known time. It was then applied to hydraulic fracturing, which is similar in principle. and development that enabled companies to “see” the oil and gas reserves in tight formations using microseismic imaging technology. The first systematic research into microseismic fracture mapping, conducted by Los Alamos and development that enabled companies to “see” the oil and gas reserves in tight formations using microseismic imaging technology. The first systematic research into microseismic fracture mapping, conducted by Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) in the 1970s, was related to fractures in geothermal wells. Later, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) collaborated with Sandia National Laboratory to build and deploy receivers for testing similar mapping technology. Throughout the 1980s and the 90s, this system was used at the NETL Multiwell Site experiment in Colorado, where major fracture experiments were successfully monitored”.

Sandia National LaboratoryAgain, anyone who is old enough remembers the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and how helpless we felt when waiting for rationed fuel in a line at the gas station… a block long.

GAS SHORTAGE! Sales Limited to 10 GALS. of GAS. per customerToday the U.S. is one of the world's largest energy producers and our ascendancy in oil and gas production is no less a miracle of technology than making a video call to the International Space Station. What a contrast to the ‘70s when the U.S. felt the pain of the oil embargo, and our leaders subscribed to a near-term notion of peak oil. Yet today we firmly have dominion over our energy future. In my mind, Pete Dominici and the technologists who dared to use nuclear weapons technology for advanced oil and gas exploration also deserve special recognition in the Hall of Fame.

Oil Embargo Effects, 1973

There are many many more examples. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and DOE laboratories have studied advanced nuclear fuel cycles for electrical power production and the application of nuclear power for biofuels processing and fertilizer production.

Shale ExtrractionThe U.S. Department of Energy, through its National Laboratories has been at the forefront of collaborative research that, to say the least, is underreported and yet is of such significance that the resulting products are those that define us as a nation. The Los Alamos and Oak Ridge laboratory sites were chosen during World War II because they were remote and therefore nuclear weapon secrets could be protected. Today, we live in a much different environment where the importance of secrets and isolating information has been far overtaken by the need to share information. Through technological innovations, the physical isolation and remoteness of Los Alamos is no longer a barrier to communication. In fact the electronic environment of media, high speed search and data retrieval has begun the obsolescence of entire physical library systems.

Genome ResearchEvery day, we see the collaboration and exchange of ideas among scientists working in government, universities and industry. Through technology and open information platforms, the obstacles of distance and even language barriers have been minimized allowing ever faster advancements. Many of these pursuits are seemingly quixotic but from time to time we see advancements in technology that impacts the quality of our lives, yet sometimes the integration is so seamless that it is hardly noticeable. In the span of a generation, it would have been impossible for our predecessors to imagine shopping on-line, storing an entire music library on a micro SD card, a prescription for a smart pharmaceutica tailored toyour genome, a talking auto navigation system or a blind person making use of a self-driving car.

research tools developingWhere do the tools of innovation come from? To complete any job it is essential to have the right tools. Individual companies have competing and conflicting interests and being profit making enterprises will necessarily compartmentalize and protect information. Therefore, it has historically been the role of government to make available the tools of research and and innovation. Perhaps the underlying foundation is in our form of government which is supportive and open. The government agency that consistently leads the way is the Department of Energy, and, through the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) and its laboratories, plays an integral role in providing critical research tools developing and maintaining an integrated information infrastructure available to all. In my mind, they are enabling a special Hall of Fame to be populated.


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Sam Rosenbloom's picture
Sam Rosenbloom

Nuclear Engineer, Department of Energy