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Chu: Cleantech innovation race vs. China is America's 'Sputnik moment'

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U.S Energy Secretary Steven Chu says China's clean energy innovation represents America's "Sputnik moment." Plus, six technologies that threaten to leave us behind.

U.S Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on Monday that China's success in mobilizing its economy to support clean energy innovation represents America's "Sputnik moment" -- that is, the sobering spark that will help light a nation's competitive fire.

"When it comes to innovation, Americans don't take a back seat to anyone -- and we certainly won't start now," Chu said. "From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead."

Speaking at the National Press Club, Chu outlined how his department -- and its 17 national laboratories -- was working to give entrepreneurs an edge through investments and other support.

"It's time for America to do what we do best: innovate," he said. "As President Obama has said, we should not, cannot, and will not play for second place."

Chu described several research efforts underway. The first was funding for startup Fluidic Energy, which is working with Arizona State University to develop a new generation of "metal-air" batteries that can store much more energy than standard lithium-ion batteries, allowing an electric vehicle to go 500 miles without a charge.

Using ionic liquids, high energy metals and a design that "breathes" oxygen from its environment, the development promises batteries that weigh less, cost less and last longer. The project is receiving support from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.

Chu also outlined a project underway by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers at the California Institute of Technology working to turn sunlight into fuel. The project: an integrated system modeled after photosynthesis that can convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into usable fuels such as gasoline.

Their target is an artificial process that's 10 times more efficient than the natural one, which would do much to boost America's burgeoning biofuel industry.

But it was China that stole the limelight of the evening. Chu recognized the country's rapid, large scale deployment of new technologies, saying that it was both a positive -- scientific partnerships, for example -- and a negative, threatening American innovation and economy.

Chu outlined six technologies where the U.S. must innovate or risk falling far behind.

Those were:

  • High voltage transmission. China has deployed the world's first ultra high voltage AC and DC lines, including one capable of delivering 6.4 gigawatts to Shanghai from a hydroelectric plant some 1,300 miles away in southwestern China.
  • High-speed rail. In six years, China has transformed from a major importer to exporter of this tech. The world's fastest train is a nice coup, but it's the world's largest high speed rail network title that's really worth concentrating on, slashing train travel from Beijing to Shanghai (in the U.S., roughly New York to Chicago) from 11 hours to 4 hours. At risk: business.
  • Advanced coal tech. Solar and wind may get all the attention, but it's advancement with fossil fuel tech that's really of concern. China is rapidly deploying efficient (45 to 48 percent) coal combustion plant; meanwhile, the most efficient U.S. plants are at 40 percent. Until renewable energy becomes the norm, fossil fuel improvements are what's fueling this race.
  • Nuclear power. China has more than 30 nuclear power plants under construction, more than any other country in the world.
  • Alternative energy vehicles. China's planning to invest $17 billion in research for fuel economy, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles. Target: 5 million new energy vehicles and 15 million fuel-efficient conventional vehicles by 2020.
  • Renewable energy. Coal plants aside, China's also pouring money into renewables. It's installing wind power at a faster rate than any nation in the world, and is home to three of the top 10 turbine manufacturers in the world. It also manufactures 40 percent of the world's solar photovoltaic systems, and is home to five of the top 10 PV manufacturers.
  • Supercomputing. The world's fastest supercomputer? The Tianhe-1A, developed by China's National University of Defense Technology. The U.S. remains ahead in applying this power for scientific research, but there's plenty reason to look over one's shoulder.

You can watch the full presentation on C-SPAN. (It's about an hour long.)

On the final slide of his presentation, Chu noted that "wealth creation is driven by innovation."

The question: is America game?

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure