Energy Secretary Chu Promotes New Detroit-based R&D Partnership With Military

Nothing like a semi-serious Steven Chu joke to start your morning.

Speaking at an energy conference in Detroit today, the U.S. Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winner recalled as a boy in the 1950s the Soviet Union launching Sputnik into space.

“It was very disconcerting. The German rocket scientists living in the Soviet Union were better than German rocket scientists living in the United States,” Chu said, as the crowd snickered.

Chu was referring to how German scientists, not American or Soviet, were responsible for the best rocket technology at the time.

Ironic that Chu referenced the space race between the Cold War foes, as the United States, who one-upped Sputnik by sending men to the moon, recently retired its space shuttle program. In its place, the United States is engaged in a great “energy race” with other countries like China to develop next generation energy such as solar and biofuels, Chu said.

“Despite the fact that times are tough, we have to think about the future,” he said. “If we don’t get moving, we will be importing these technologies instead of exporting them.” The Energy Secretary was also in Michigan to tour lithium battery maker A123 Systems’ new facility in Romulus, MI, made possible with federal stimulus money.

To that effect, Chu announced a new Detroit-based alliance between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S Department of Defense (DOD) to boost development of cleantech technologies for the military, including lightweight composite materials for vehicles, alternative fuels, and advanced combustion engines.

Detroit makes sense to anchor the partnership for a number of reasons. The city’s Big Three Automakers-Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors-frequently collaborate with the DOE. The U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is also based in Warren, MI.

The military needs Detroit’s help, DOD officials say. Last year, the armed forces spent $13 billion on energy, consuming about 5 billion gallons of diesel fuel. Most of that fuel is consumed by tanks and armored vehicles and electric generators that power tents, radios, and computers at forward operating bases in the battlefield.

In order for the United States to continue to project military power throughout the world, the country needs to find more efficient ways to supply fuel to bases and troops in war zones, DOD officials said.

“We need to diversify our energy infrastructure,” Chu said. “We have only one source of energy [diesel fuel].

But the partnership can also help the private sector, including automakers, by speeding civilian adoption of technologies, Chu said. Like global positioning systems and the Internet, the military has a history of being an “early adopter” of cutting edge technologies that eventually find their way into the consumer market.

With its large size and huge purchasing power, the military can find ways to drive down cost so they can be attractive down the road to the average consumer, Chu said.

For example, the military is exploring armor made of lightweight composite materials that can still protect vehicles from roadside bombs but also generate better fuel efficiencies. In addition, the armed forces is developing portable solar technologies that allows soldiers to generate and store energy in the field. All of this has potential consumer applications.

“We need to push these technologies into industry,” said Underscretary of the Army Joseph Westphal, who also spoke at the event.

Alan Taub, vice president of global research and development for Detroit-based GM, says automakers and the military share similar goals for their vehicles, including next generation engines powered by hydrogen and biofuels.

“The technology is viable,” Taub said, “but we need a cost structure in which the consumer can see the payback.”

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