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Russian Science Gets Attention

More than 15 years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia finds itself at a crossroad.

More than 15 years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia finds itself at a crossroad. The forces of free markets are moving aggressively into the streetscapes of Moscow and St. Petersburg, while outlying communities remain stuck in the middle, waiting for what’s next. The uncertainty is of grave concern in the country’s scientific community, where experts in nuclear weaponry and energy systems are left out in the cold, wondering where to turn for their future. That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy formed the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program, designed to encourage U.S. businesses—through matching fund grants for research—to invest in using Russian scientific expertise for peaceful means, while avoiding the potential for rogue states to get their hands on volatile defense systems information. One automaker jumping on board the program is General Motors, forming its own science office in the country in late 2004 focusing on hydrogen storage system and fuel development projects. The move is part of an on-going program to expand GM’s research and development operations outside the confines of its Warren, MI, technical center—which has seen its ranks dwindle by nearly one-third since 1986—and beyond U.S borders. Alan Taub, executive director of science at GM’s R&D labs, points out the move to Russia comes after the automaker has already made significant commitments to research in Canada, China, India, Germany and other parts of the world. “I would call Russia one of our second round plays. It took us a while to learn how to get in here because the scientists were cut off and so it took a lot of work to find out what was happening here,” he says, adding the Warren labs now account for only 70% of GM’s total research endeavors, a sharp decline from the 95% level typical several years ago. Networking through a team of scientists in Israel, GM was able to get a clearer picture of the knowledge base that exists in Russia. What they found was a group of highly dedicated and curious scholars eager to find ways to commercialize their expertise, while at the same time relying on real-world laboratory results as opposed to computer-generated solutions, an area Taub says is a key benefit of the Russian knowledge base. “These guys don’t just solve problems; they know what happens along the way. It’s not just brute force,” Taub says.

Along with their expertise in nuclear technologies, Taub says Russian scientists also excel in aerospace, heavy metal processing, dry machining and catalysis. GM is currently working on several projects throughout Russia, including two at St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University—with up to four more projects on the drawing board—focused on hydrogen storage and new material classes. The university has already completed a project with the automaker on manufacturing gear sets using plastic deformation, which improves gear durability although the cost to install the manufacturing process on a mass scale remains cost prohibitive.

The university also is working on projects to develop clean hydrogen along with solid oxide fuel cell systems, which GM admits it has lukewarm interest in due to the size and operating temperature requirements for a solid oxide solution. Scientists are also busy at work alongside faculty and students at the St. Petersburg State Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics on automata-based programming for adaptive cruise control systems and engine control modules, reducing the time it takes to develop source code and control algorithms for a number of electronics, including telematic and communication systems. In the Russian capitol, Moscow, GM is working alongside nuclear energy experts at the historic Kurchatov Institute—home of F-1, the first nuclear reactor built in Russia shortly after the U.S. successfully completed the Staggs Field Reactor in Chicago, IL. Here, scientists are working on extracting hydrogen from nuclear energy, which could be generated at a rate of 500,000 tons per year per reactor. “The most economical and technologically feasible way to generate hydrogen is from nuclear power because of the amount generated from each reactor and the minimal amount of energy needed to create it,” says Nikolay Panomarev-Stepnoy, vice president of the Institute, who predicts it will take at least until 2020 before the global hydrogen economy will take root. Admittedly, GM may not seem like a worthy candidate to be interested in generating hydrogen from nuclear energy, but the automaker says it is looking at all facets of the hydrogen economy and how it will impact the energy infrastructure of the world. The wide-ranging impact is a critical reason why GM also is involved in research alongside Russian energy concern Yukos—which was broken up by the Russian government after alleged tax violations in 2004—through its now independent research & development center in Moscow. The automaker is working with scientists at the center to develop a new generation of fuel cells, while also developing dense ceramic membranes to extract hydrogen from fossil fuels. Russia has nearly 6% of the world’s oil reserves within its borders, making it the second-largest crude oil producing nation behind Saudi Arabia, with most of the production located in western Siberia, another region where GM is expanding its reach. Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city located in the Western Siberian Plain, was selected by former Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev as the hub for Russian space exploration and energy development programs because of its isolation from the population centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Today, the remote city is the center of exploration on catalysis as more than 450 researchers spend their days toiling away devising new catalysts to boost fuel cell efficiency, with the team currently working to develop a catalyst that can extract hydrogen from methane. Taub and his team hope all of these projects will help GM gain a foothold over its competitors when it comes to engineering the next generation of mobility, whether it be hydrogen fuel cell or hydrogen-based hybrid vehicles. The global outreach also helps to attract a new pool of talent into the GM family as the automaker plans to host at least two Russian interns from existing projects at its U.S. labs this year. —KMK