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'Technological Optimist' Sees Role for NASA in Alternative Energy Future
By: Jim Hodges

Don't count Martin Hoffert among those who believe the world will end when global warming melts enough ice to drown the planet's homes. Or even when the carbon dioxide content of the air stifles us and our food until we breathe our last or starve to death.

"I'm a technological optimist," Hoffert told a Colloquium assembly at the Reid Center on Tuesday. "I believe we can know the answers to the questions that are facing us, but even if we don't know, we are continually working toward that answer. And the way I know it is the technical society we live in."

Hoffert, a retired professor of physics and the former chair of the Department of Applied Science at New York University, came to NASA Langley in answer to a call for "green lecture" speakers, but also in search of some of those answers.

"We have to transform our energy technology system and we have a time constraint," Hoffert said. "By the middle of the century, we have to transform our energy system to one that's based on something other than fossil fuels that emit CO2 into the atmosphere, to something based on 'X,' and we don't know what 'X' is."

Marty Hoffert.Image right: Martin Hoffert says, "NASA has a pool of talented innovators, of scientists and engineers, thinkers about technology, thinkers about complex systems." Credit: Sean Smith.

The solutions aren't political, Hoffert said, except for the need for enlightened politicians.

"Many of their solutions are superficial, and they mainly represent sort of an economic approach like a trade policy or a carbon tax, how to pay for it," he said. "Most of the political leaders aren't very knowledgeable about science and engineering. Primarily their background is legal, and they know something about economics."

The last scientifically enlightened president of the United States was Jimmy Carter, Hoffert added. Carter was a nuclear engineer.

The answer also isn't industry.

"The truth is that you can't expect venture capitalists or even progressive corporations … to make investments in the future beyond which they can justify to their stockholders," Hoffert said, citing a requirement that most such investments have to pay off in three to five years.

The answer is some sort of combination of the two, with government leading through an energy policy and scientific and technological investment.

"That's what I hope will happen by energizing the scientists and engineers of this country and of the world," Hoffert said.

In that, NASA can take a role in helping to "mine" space, he said. "I believe it's time for Americans to understand that we derive benefits from space by exploiting the environment of space."

But, he added, "the most important thing is that NASA has a pool of talented innovators, of scientists and engineers, thinkers about technology, thinkers about complex systems."

The problem in finding energy solutions isn't money, Hoffert said, perhaps surprisingly.

"My opinion is that paying for it is the easy part," Hoffert said. "The hard part is doing it."

The U.S. invests about $120 billion a year in research and development, much of that spent on the military. Energy gets about $3 billion of that, he said. The need is for about $30 billion a year.

Without it, and without the will to invest in alternative fuels and fuel technology, society will exist through the end of the available petroleum, just beyond the end of the century.

But "if we do make it, is it going to be worth being here, or are we going to have so severely depleted a planet that it isn't worth it?" he wondered.

Hoffert said the world will survive and it will be worthwhile. A "technical optimist" has to believe as much.

NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Adams