Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain, is executive director of Service Women’s Action Network.
Made by the USA
America’s national labs are cooking up new ideas.
By Karina L. Edmonds
Can you imagine a world where solar panels are integrated into our clothes to power our mobile devices while we send commands with a wink of an eye? If history is any indication, this can be the future.
Technology has progressed hand in hand with the materials available to society. From the Stone Age to the Industrial Revolution to clean-energy innovations, humanity has used what’s available to press forward with better solutions to urgent problems. Some 500,000 years ago, for example, humans used flint, wood, and stone to discover fire. With a few common materials, they found something that would forever change the world.
Now we have that same opportunity—in clean energy. Without cost-effective silicon-wafer manufacturing, we couldn’t have today’s cell phones, laptops, iPods, and other portable devices. The same can also be said for clean-energy innovations, from better cathodes for batteries, membranes for fuel cells, or algae for biofuels.
The Energy Department is investing in the science that will drive economic growth in the years ahead, spurred by our national laboratories and universities. Over the past dozen years, the department has invested in both basic R&D and applied commercialization efforts that are delivering real benefits for American companies and the economy.
Take battery technology. Argonne National Laboratory has conducted research that has resulted in more than a 50 percent increase in energy-storage capacity over conventional cathode materials used in lithium-ion batteries, offering the longest-lasting energy available in the smallest, lightest package. As a result, better-performing electric vehicles are hitting the road.
Fuel cells, which can be used for everything from power generation to transportation, are also in development. Currently, platinum is the most efficient electrocatalyst for the cells, but platinum-based catalysts are expensive and not especially durable. To address this problem, Brookhaven National Laboratory has developed new ones that have high activity, stability, and durability, while containing only about one-tenth the platinum of the conventional catalysts used in fuel cells—significantly reducing overall costs.
At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and at DOE’s Bioenergy Research Centers, scientists have found that algae have several advantages over other biofuel sources. Because they consume carbon dioxide, algae can feed off the carbon emissions from power plants. And because they can digest nitrogen and phosphorous, they can also grow in (and treat) municipal wastewater. Eventually, algae-based biofuels can be an alternative to the fossil fuels used for transportation—and can possibly reduce dependence on imported oil.
These are just a few of the amazing scientific discoveries that can spur entirely new industries we have yet to imagine. Who knows? Fire has already been discovered, but clean-energy technologies have the same potential to change everything.
Karina L. Edmonds is the Energy Department’s point person for helping the private sector adopt new energy technologies and collaborate with the government’s national laboratories.
The Right Incentives
Pay for performance is standard in the private sector. Why not in schools?
By Michelle Rhee
When we think about innovation in our schools, what may come to mind are smart boards, tablets, and other high-tech devices. Something more fundamental, however, can play an even greater role in bringing progress into our classrooms: reforming teacher compensation.
The most critical factor that affects student achievement is teacher quality. It matters more than gadgets, class size, or the condition of the building. Yet the outdated and rigid way we pay teachers doesn’t reflect the importance of the profession.
Consider a real-life example. The starting salary for a teacher in Columbus, Ohio, is $42,333. Teachers there, like in most states, are compensated in lockstep, based on time served. After three years on the job, teachers receive a salary boost of about $1,700 a year. So it typically takes 13 years to earn a $60,000 salary, regardless of whether a teacher works extra hours, takes on added responsibilities, or teaches a hard-to-staff subject in a high-needs school. And, most important, the pay rises whether or not teachers help students make academic gains.
Now, imagine a world in which excellence in the classroom is rewarded with salary increases and bonuses. Imagine a world where highly effective teachers can earn $60,000—or much more—in just a few years. Districts across the country can do this right now, and they can use federal funds, through the Education Department’s Title II program. This money is available to both states and school districts for programs that improve teacher quality. Too often, though, recipients use the cash in ineffective ways, supporting generic professional-development programs that aren’t tailored to teachers’ needs. Policymakers and state and district administrators should rethink such practices and look to Title II funding to help build compensation systems that reward and retain great teachers.