Engineering Our Way Out of the Energy Crisis

Shirley Ann Jackson is the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A theoretical physicist, she has been described by Time magazine as "perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science." She was the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973, and has served as a professor of theoretical physics at Rutgers University and as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In 2007 the National Science Board awarded her the Vannevar Bush Award for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy." Jackson also serves on the boards of a number of companies and organizations, including the New York Stock Exchange, IBM, FedEx, Marathon Oil, and the Smithsonian Institution.

  • Transcript


Question: Do humans have a reasonable shot at engineering our way out of the energy crisis?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  We have to have a comprehensive energy security strategy.  I refer to it as a road map and it really has to do with scientific discovery and technological innovation and the application of that in the energy arena, and I love to talk about it and I will in a second.  But it also has to do with behavioral change and the behavioral change that is ideal if people can come to consensus on it.  But maybe people have to be incented or disincented in certain ways.  Maybe there has to be a price on carbon to get people to think about issues that relate to climate change.  And what ends up happening is some people believe in climate change; I’m one of them.  Others do not.  But the irony is in many ways, the same issues that one has to address for energy security are ones we need to address for climate change mitigation.  What do I mean by that?  Well, the whole scene with respect to fossil-based energy sources is changing in terms of many more players; a race around the globe for those; producer countries having much more control over energy supplies; these things playing out in the geopolitical arena; fluctuations and prices of gas at the pump, and so on.

So if one wants to be less subject to the vicissitudes of any evolving geopolitical landscape and the vicissitudes of a volatile market, then one has to think in terms of redundancy of supply, but diversity of source.  And so that means we both have to think about how we get more out of the sources we already have; how do we use them in a more environmentally benign way?  For instance, thinking about technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, if we’re using fossil-based sources particularly coal, for instance.  How we can get more efficiency out of what we do use, such as fuel efficiencies of car fleets, automobile fleets. But then how do we develop new sources of transportation energy, for instance.  How do we use conservation to take energy intensity out of what we do in our daily lives; whether we talk about more use of mass transportation; more use of information technology to control energy usage in our homes and businesses, et cetera.  How do we think about the development and investment in new renewable sources of energy and really push to the edge in terms of where we can and should go there?

So it’s not a "one size fits all." It’s thinking about yes, we’re very carbon-intense right now so maybe there needs to be an incentive, a true price on carbon to begin to change behaviors. But maybe even as we use such high carbon content energy sources, we need to think about how we can use less of them for the same thing.  And then, how do we mitigate the effects of them with things like carbon capture and storage.  But importantly, how do we develop new resources, more electricity-based generators that can depend on things like wind and solar.  How do we develop new bio-fuels if we think we still need liquid fuels for a particular kind of transportation sector, for instance the airline industry?  I don’t think the airline industry is going to become purely electrified shortly, whereas we can go a long way in that direction with ground-based transportation.  Because range is clearly an issue, even for automobiles if we think of battery technologies.  And so we have to push further on those sorts of undergirding technologies to be able to have a future.

Then we have this whole infrastructural issue.  We have old infrastructure in this country.  It needs to be rejuvenated, both to be more reliable and safe, for what we already use it for.  But as we do that, we need to think about how do we design it in a way to put more intelligence into the grid.  How do we design it in a way to be able to attach sources of energy that have more intermittency associated with them?  Do we understand the dynamics and how these things affect the stability of the electrical grid; whether it’s on a regional basis or nationally?  How do we have smart appliances that can connect to the grid?  How does the grid read those, but how can they be really smart enough, not just to dial back on energy use, but themselves can sense some of that dynamics and have less impact.

These are really hard problems, but they’re very exciting and important problems.  And so if we’re going to move to a more electrical transportation future, we’ve got to think about where that electricity is coming from.  How it gets connected into some broad based infrastructure that allows us to create a national system of transportation and so on.  And so there are problems that have to do with new materials; problems that have to do with modeling and simulation; problems at have to do with new types of computer controls; problems that have to do with new kind of devices.  And so all of these things, if you think about them, play across a broad front involving mathematics, computer science, physics, all different fields of engineering and material science.  And people are even thinking about using, you know, more biologically based organisms to help clean up things.  Even more biomimetic processes for manufacturing, new types of things at nano scales.  And if we can push these things, that helps as well, not only to come out with important new tools across all these fronts, but it also actually helps to take energy intensity out of what we do. 

So use what we have better, use less of it through conservation and efficiency, that’s a big gain and there are very clever things we can do today.  Think about new propulsion systems, new materials that allow us to have new propulsion systems and new storage technologies and ultimately develop and push the alternative sources of energy.

What alternative energy sources are most promising in the near future?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, people are already making a lot of progress with respect to wind energy.  There’s a lot more in terms of a design of turbines, new designs that look more like jet engines as opposed to the typical windmill, but whichever of those sorts of things people are contemplating, there’s been a lot of work on structural strength and stability because of using new types of and developing new types of composite materials that lead to better performance, but higher reliability.  So wind is one.  But we’re going to have to think about wind differently, that’s why people are thinking about new wind turbine designs because it’s not just about having, you know, the hundred-acre wind farm; whether it’s on land or, more controversially, on sea, but that’s one example.  But what people ironically are doing is well, is going back to... almost back to the future. And let me explain that.  We have a center at Rensselaer called the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology and it’s a joint venture between us and our School of Architecture and the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.  But the real point is to use clever use of materials, new nano-structured materials.  Use clever design of buildings.  Use embedded technologies to actually bring down the energy use of a building.

So, for instance, using creating walls that are made of hydroponic plants that, themselves can suck toxins—including, of course, carbon dioxide, but other toxins—out of the air and as they do that, they also help to create and bring down ambient temperatures.  Use nano-structured desiccant materials to take humidity out of a building.  It depends on the climate one is in.  Use embedded wind turbines to capture the barest streams of air convection, and use them to help cool the same building and to even generate some power.

So these are things that people are thinking about.  Developing new materials for solar panels that increase their efficiency and absorptive capabilities.  In fact, one of our faculty created what we call the world’s darkest material meaning material that is, as far as we know, is the most light absorbent of any material developed.  And so that has great implications when you’re thinking about solar energy.  Also has applications in other arenas as well.

How are energy issues interconnected with other environmental issues?

Shirley Ann Jackson: We’ve been talking about global population growth.  The number of people who live in poverty.  The people who don’t have access to basic energy and so energy security is about having reliable, sustainable, non-high-cost access to energy.  But what people are finding is an increasing issue has to do with water.  And so, in the end, we’re going to end up having a nested set of issues that relate to energy, climate change, water and health.  And they play off of each other.  It’s the phenomenon of what I call intersecting vulnerabilities.  And so the scarcity of water is going to be—and people believe it is already coming—increasingly dominant.  But again, how we deal with that can come out of the use of technologies.  Ones that allow people to have the energy to perhaps purify water, to desalinate water.  These are big, big projects. 

But also how one uses vegetation to preserve water, not unlike the sort of "grand cactus" idea.  But here’s one for you; using nano-structured desiccant materials that can draw moisture out of the air and then have that come through and drain into some reservoir to give people potable water. 

Thinking about how one can do cooling and inherently hotten hostile climates so in fact, there’s less water use that people need. 

How we can lessen the intensity of our water use which gets linked as well to the intensity of our energy use so as not to use up water, how can we recycle it more so that we don’t have to draw native sources as much. 

These are critical issues, these intersecting vulnerabilities and if we don’t have those taken care of, people cannot be healthy and we can’t have adequate food.

Recorded May 12, 2010
interviewed by David Hirschman