Hype and fanciful predictions are distracting society from finding realistic solutions, say William Banholzer and Mark Jones

Technological advancement comes from converting a scientific discovery into a practical innovation. But few discoveries make this transition. The discovery of buckyballs was an amazing scientific feat, well worthy of the Nobel prize, but it is also amazing that a new, beautifully symmetric form of carbon has no real practical use, especially when compared with the uses of graphite and diamond.

Necessity’s offspring

Curiosity driven research has provided many great advances. No one anticipated the very practical applications of lasers at the time of their discovery, and many of the products we use today are made using chemistry whose final applications could never have been guessed when the reagents were first added to the flask. However, the distinction between invention and innovation is significant. Invention reveals what is possible, but innovation turns it into a practical, useful product. 

Most folks would say the inventors of the light bulb, the automobile and the telephone were Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell. But Edison was not the first to produce light from a filament; he engineered a way to make it long-lived enough to be practical. Ford did not invent the automobile; he applied engineering to make their production economic. Bell was not the first to transmit sound over a wire; he turned it into a practical device. We associate these men with these technologies because they were the innovators that found a way to make inventions practical, reliable and economical. Unfortunately, we seem to be dangerously unaware of this distinction. 

Bottom lines, not headlines

Today, the entwined societal problems of energy, climate change, water and food security dominate the public consciousness. As a result, mainstream and scientific media are eager to present new discoveries as the answer. Scientists are asked where their new discovery fits in the puzzle; to extrapolate from early stage research to impact, from possibility to practicality. Sadly, often both reporters and scientists don’t get it right: when put on the spot or hungry for a headline, sound scientific principles are frequently neglected. 

We cannot afford to waste resources on ideas that will never be practical

A recent flurry in the press provides a good example. Lockheed Martin scientists learned to punch holes in graphene sheets in a controlled way. They then extrapolated that thin, strong sheets with small holes would make excellent filters, enabled by the extremely fast kinetics of water movement through an atomically thin hydrophobic membrane. Thus, they stated, the filters would be useful for desalination membranes, where the enhanced kinetics would reduce the energy requirement by over 100 fold. 

Sadly, membrane desalination is not a kinetically controlled phenomenon and the kinetics of water movement do not determine the energy requirement. Entropy increases when salt is dissolved in water and the reversible heat absorbed during dissolution must be resupplied to separate the system. The minimum work required to create fresh water from seawater is approximately 0.75kWh/m3 of water. Currently, the most common reverse osmosis configuration is a wound membrane operated at 50% recovery. In this configuration, the minimum energy requirement for the membrane is approximately 1.1kWh/m3 for a single module system (the additional energy being consumed through irreversible losses, pumping and friction). There simply is no factor of 100 improvement to be had, whether with graphene or other materials. 

Our recent article1 offers this example and others of where the search for clean, abundant energy proved ripe for hype. There is a long list of technologies that have promised much but, sadly, delivered little. The broad lack of understanding of thermodynamics, energy density, scale and finance likely lead to erroneous beliefs that using CO2 or biofuels are near term and practical solutions. 

Scientists and engineers must do a better job assessing and explaining the difference between the subset of discoveries that offers practical solutions and the set that is simply possible. The world has a finite GDP and we cannot afford to waste it on ideas that, while possible, will never be practical. We advocate using fundamental engineering principles to differentiate between possible and practical, as in the graphene membrane example. This approach can aid society in prioritising the deployment of resources to solve the challenges we face. 

Stories that leave the general public believing we have found a silver bullet for our global challenges commit a disservice. Excessive extrapolation of discoveries made during curiosity motivated research must be done carefully. Attention is taken away from actually solving the issues and, in the worse cases, funding is channeled away from practical solutions. Scientists and engineers must be on the vanguard, helping society to sort out the hype and harnessing efforts to yield practical solutions.

William Banholzer is chief technology officer and executive vice president, and Mark Jones is executive external strategy and communications fellow at the Dow Chemical Company