Advanced energy, nanotechnology and computing needed for US to compete

Future high-tech manufacturing research and development needs to focus on three critical areas: hydrogen energy development, nanomanufacturing, and intelligent and integrated networks and computing.

Advanced products on those areas will help the US compete in the fast-paced global community requires rapid innovation, research and production methods to cost-effectively bring products to market, according to a 102-page report issued this week titled “Manufacturing the Future: Federal Priorities for Manufacturing R&D.”  The report was authored by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Manufacturing R&D of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Committee on Technology.

“Our objective was to focus on issues of national importance, and to identify manufacturing areas that have the potential to deliver major benefits to the economy,” said David Stieren, executive secretary of the IWG and technology deployment manager of the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The report describes the significance of each of the three critical manufacturing R&D areas, details the challenges essential for progress, provides recommendations for future research. For example:

·          Hydrogen Energy Technologies: In order to improve energy security and clean air, the US government is committed to replace petroleum with alternative energy technologies including hydrogen to power cars and light trucks. Meeting this challenge requires developing low-cost, high-volume manufacturing processes to produce affordable and reliable fuel cell vehicle technology and to build and maintain a hydrogen fuel infrastructure. Other manufacturing challenges include standardizing components and systems design for production, overcoming the technical problems of delivering hydrogen and mass producing fuel cells, and developing high-volume storage tanks.                

The Hydrogen Fuel Initiative commits $1.2 billion over five years (2004–2008) to reverse the Nation’s growing dependence on foreign oil by developing the technology needed to establish commercially viable hydrogen-powered fuel cells — a means to power cars, trucks, homes, and businesses without producing pollution or greenhouse gases. In addition to several other Federal programs, the effort leverages the FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership, a joint undertaking involving U.S. automakers, five energy companies, and the Department of Energy. 

·          Nanomanufacturing: Nanotechnology is expected to be a critical driver of future economic growth, affecting potentially every industry from aerospace and energy to health care and agriculture. Nanomanufacturing encompasses industrial-scale production of materials, structures, devices and systems with nanoscale components whose unique properties derive from engineering at the nanoscale (roughly 1 to 100 nanometers or billionths of a meter). In order for nanomaterials to be mass produced reliably and affordably, scientists and engineers have to overcome hurdles relative to miniaturizing devices and structures to their smallest possible sizes and building nanostructures and nanodevices from the ground up by using tiny building blocks.                      

The decreasing size (and increasing density) of transistors manufactured by the semiconductor industry is an example. Nanomanufacturing R&D also includes technologies and processes where complex structures are built with atom-by-atom control. In such mechanically based nanosystems, nanoscale cogs, gears, and bearings are integrated to make nanoscale robot factories, probes, and vehicles that mimic the sophisticated nanoscale machines typical in cell biology. 

·          Information technology: Information technology can reshape almost all features of manufacturing, from product development and design, through distribution and customer support. Intelligent and Integrated Manufacturing applies computer software, controls, sensors, networks and other information technology to the entire process. This includes using software to rapidly design and test new products, or linking “smart” supply chains to make sure there are always enough raw materials to build products and efficient methods to get them to customers on time. These computer-enhanced processes are central to creating a hydrogen-powered economy, improving national security, developing innovative real-world applications of nanotechnology and to other national goals for the future. Increasing computing power and the availability of inexpensive sensors and network devices opens the door to designing new processes to optimize capabilities, performance and value, the report states.               

The report mentions a number of key areas that more work needs to be done. Among them include what it calls Large-Scale Networking. Where the goal is to pave the way for leading-edge networking technologies, services, and techniques to enhance performance, security, and scalability. For example, the LSN projects include development of technology that can handle near-real-time petabyte and above data transfers, by 2008, to support science cooperation and modeling in high-energy physics, bioinformatics, weather, astrophysics, and other areas and overcoming scalability limitations of current technology and the Internet Protocol. The group is also looking at developing technology to optimize application performance over networks. Research and development topics include wireless and sensor networking, end-to-end network performance, measurement, and network security, the report stated.                

The Cyber Security and Information Assurance initiative focuses on developing technologies that prevent, resist, detect, respond to, and/or recover from actions that compromise or threaten to compromise the availability, integrity, or confidentiality of computer-based systems. Topics of particular relevance to intelligent and integrated manufacturing include secure process control systems, wireless security and secure RFID Applications. The evolution toward intelligent and integrated manufacturing will elevate the importance of maintaining a secure and reliable communications environment, the report stated.  

The report comes on the heals of a scathing Government Accountability Office study that found many advanced technology research and development projects were over-extended or not returning much on investment.  For example it said while the US Department of Energy has spent $57.5 billion over the past 30 years for research & development  on advanced energy technologies such as Ethanol, solar and wind power the nation’s energy usage has not dramatically changed—fossil fuels today provide 85% of the nation’s energy compared to 93% in 1973.   

Many technical, cost and environmental challenges must be overcome in developing and demonstrating advanced technologies before they can be deployed in the US with greater impact.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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