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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."[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Then we have this whole infrastructural issue.  Wern have old infrastructure in this country.  It needs to be rejuvenated, rnboth to be more reliable and safe, for what we already use it for.  But rnas we do that, we need to think about how do we design it in a way to rnput more intelligence into the grid.  How do we design it in a way to bern able to attach sources of energy that have more intermittency rnassociated with them?  Do we understand the dynamics and how these rnthings affect the stability of the electrical grid; whether it’s on a rnregional basis or nationally?  How do we have smart appliances that can rnconnect to the grid?  How does the grid read those, but how can they be rnreally smart enough, not just to dial back on energy use, but themselvesrn can sense some of that dynamics and have less impact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How arern energy issues interconnected with other environmental issues?

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded May 12, 2010
interviewed by David Hirschman