Engineering Our Way Out of the Energy Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

So use what we have better, use less of it through \r\nconservation and efficiency, that’s a big gain and there are very clever\r\n things we can do today.  Think about new propulsion systems, new \r\nmaterials that allow us to have new propulsion systems and new storage \r\ntechnologies and ultimately develop and push the alternative sources of \r\nenergy.

What alternative energy sources are \r\nmost promising in the near future?

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

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

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

How are\r\n energy issues interconnected with other environmental issues?

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded May 12, 2010
interviewed by David Hirschman

We need to use what we have better, use less of it, and develop credible alternative sources of energy.

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