Xiaofei Wang

Peabody Energy Corporate Fellow

McKelvey School of Engineering: Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering | PhD


Cohort 2009


Graduated 2014

Partner University:

Fudan University


Career: Postdoctoral Fellow | University of California-San Diego | San Diego, California, USA

Scholar Highlights

What Can We Expect from Energy Research?

Energy is an extremely hot topic nowadays. Over the past few years gasoline prices have been soaring, and climate change looms as a major global issue. Obviously, people prefer neither to pay more for gas or electricity nor lower their living standard by reducing energy consumption. At the same time, I also firmly believe that most people do not want the atmosphere to become polluted.

Is there any way to address all of these problems? In trying to answer this question, many people turn their eyes to energy research. They expect this research to discover new energy sources that are cheaper and cleaner than the ones we have today. That is why the
U.S. Department of Energy and a large number of companies provide so much funding for the study of energy.

But in my view it is important not to have overly high expectations for solutions from such research. To see why, let us first review how research changes humans’ lives. Starting from the 18th century, the introduction of steam power gave rise to the first industrial revolution. Then, in the latter part of the 19th century, the invention of the internal combustion engine and electrical power promoted the second industrial revolution. A half century ago, computer and information technology also changed humans’ lives greatly.

Obviously, it is technology innovation that led to these great revolutions. But the question is: What led to these great technology innovations? Did they arise directly from the needs or desires of people? It is apparent to me that this was not the case. The needs and desires of people may create some new technologies. However, they cannot play a major role in revolutionary technological innovation, such as steam power and the Internet.

Fundamental revolutions are usually driven by curiosity and imagination of human beings, and they occur quite randomly.

Thus it is impossible for people to plan them.

Another interesting fact is that before the invention of a revolutionary technology, people almost never realize that they are in need of it. For instance, before the telephone was invented, no one could imagine that people could talk to each other through electrical wires. And when the telephone first became commercially available, some people still doubted its usefulness, saying that “a telephone is useless except for lovers.” The Internet provides another example of
this. In the 1980s even the inventors of the Internet did not realize that it could change our society so deeply. From today’s perspective it might appear that the reason for the invention of the Internet was that scientists and engineers like playing online games and sharing their photos on Facebook, but such a view would obviously be mistaken.

In contrast to cases where a desire for something emerged only after it had been invented, people apparently do have some desires a priori, such as the possession of gold. Thus, for centuries, people devoted their lives to alchemy in an attempt to create gold out of other elements. And just as is the case today, some 200 years ago, people wanted to have access to energy. Therefore they tried to invent the perpetual motion machine. There are many examples of this sort from history, and we cannot find a single revolutionary innovation of technology that was directly driven by the needs and desires of people.

In today’s world we obviously do need clean and renewable energy. It is a fundamental challenge for human beings. Any solution to this problem must be considered a revolution. Governments and companies want to demonstrate to people their concern for energy and environmental issues, so they provide large amounts of funding for energy research. For example, solar cell researchers receive a lot of funding because almost all studies of solar cell potential argue that solar cells are very promising and hence we need a way to store the energy they produce. However, the fact is that commercial silicon solar cells first appeared in the 1950s and solar cells on the market today are still of this type. But until now, they have been unable to provide us with the energy we need.

Biofuels are another hot topic despite the fact that the theoretical maximum efficiency of photosynthesis is approximately 11 percent – much lower than even solar cells can achieve. Scientists have been working on biofuels for a very long time, and, if they were really promising, this promise should have yielded commercially viable products by now. Unfortunately, when scientists in these areas apply for funding or talk to the public, they typically omit such discouraging facts. From the perspective of those interested in sponsoring energy research, there are actually not many areas from which to select. As a result money still flows to these “old” energy research areas.

In conclusion, we should not have overly high expectations about current energy research. It is often not as promising as it would appear. Indeed, we need to be more attuned to false hopes and even misleading claims of those with a vested interest in the research since we do not want to waste taxpayer money. A further caution needs to be made about training too many PhD students in these areas. They may not find jobs upon graduation, because we did not recognize the fundamental point that major innovation sometimes cannot be planned in response to pre-existing demand.

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