"It may be a greater challenge for us than the Cold War...to make it possible for 10 billion people to live the lifestyle you are used to in a way that doesn't cause unacceptable impacts on the environment," he told an audience of scientists at the International Electron Devices Meeting taking place in San Francisco this week. "There is no escaping the problem. The consequences will be terrorism, pestilence, famine."
Smalley, who is mostly known for his work with carbon nanotubes, is part of a growing cadre of scientists and technicians focusing on what happens as oil, coal and gas supplies shrink over the next two decades. Nobel prize winner Stephen Chu, for instance, left Stanford to head up the federally funded Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in part he said, to promote energy research.
Meanwhile, a growing number of venture capitalists, such as Erik Straser at Mohr Davidow Ventures, now focus on so-called clean investments into companies promoting solar power or water purification. Oil companies such as Shell and BP are also examining alternatives.
The problem comes from a dire conflict between supply and demand. The world population and energy demand is growing, but supplies of fossil fuels are inevitably declining. Earth's 6 billion people now consume about 14.5 terawatts of energy a day - the equivalent of about 150 million barrels of oil, Smalley said.
By 2050, the world's population will rise to 10 billion, and energy demand will rise to between 30 terawatts and 60 terawatts (450 million to 900 million barrels of oil a day), according to United Nations data. Unfortunately, oil production will likely peak by 2020 and start declining. Without a change, developing countries will ultimately be left in the dark, and developed countries will struggle to keep the lights on. Conflict is inevitable.
Untapped reservoirs of coal exist, but converting it to oil creates carbon dioxide, and no sound way for sequestering CO2 has been established. Wind, wave and hydrothermal power have mostly been tapped.
Solar energy stands as one of the most promising alternatives, he said. About 165,000 terawatts of energy strike Earth a day. Some companies, such as Konarka Technologies and Nanosys have already conducted some promising research ideas, he said, but tremendous amounts of research need to be performed. Funding is also short.
"When we are serious about disease, we put $30 billion into it. What we are putting into energy is less than a couple of billion," he said.
A major beneficial side effect of such a program would be the reverse of the U.S. decline in the physical sciences. Fewer U.S. - and even Japanese - students are getting Ph.D.s in the hard sciences than in the past. By contrast, the number in other Asian countries is growing. The trend will drive the center of progress from the West to the East.
"Thomas Edison said, 'This is our game.' We are about to enter a decade when this is no longer our game," Smalley said. More funding can't guarantee jobs to students, but it can help. Throwing down the gauntlet on a major scientific challenge can stimulate the collective intellect of students.
Now comes the hard part. There's no guarantee that any of the alternatives will work well. Hydrogen may only have limited applications, he noted. "There is no guarantee that Mother Nature, when she made the laws of physics and chemistry, put (an alternative to oil) in there," he said.
Storage and transmission technologies will also have to be developed. To top it off, history shows that people don't generally get motivated to solve a problem until it hits.
"My guess is that this won't become a big issue unless there is a thalidomide event," - he said. "We will have to see in the rear-view mirror that we are past the peak in worldwide oil production."