Grand Assemblage Addresses Grand Challenges

Our Michael Haederle reports live from El Paso, where academics gathered at a conference looking for practical innovations to address the big problems.
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Our Michael Haederle reports live from El Paso, where academics gathered at a conference looking for practical innovations to address the big problems.

Good afternoon, and welcome from the University of Texas at El Paso, which is hosting a two-day conference called Building Partnerships and Pathways to Address Engineering Grand Challenges.

It's a gathering of engineers, businesspeople and academics who want to talk about some big issues facing our planet, including low-carbon energy sustainability, biomedical innovation and dealing with decaying urban infrastructure. It's sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The panel members at the technical sessions come from universities throughout the United States, as well as private companies, NASA, the NSF and the Department of Energy, reflecting the importance of academic-public-private collaborations in tackling big problems.

Check out all of the reports from the "Building Partnerships and Pathways to Address Engineering Grand Challenges" conference El Paso, Texas:
Changing the Equations for Carbon, Biomedicine
Tell Me Where It Hurts, Mr. Highway
Pictures From a Poster Session

The genesis of the conference lies in a 2008 initiative by the National Academy of Engineering that identified 14 "Grand Challenges" facing engineers in the 21st century, says Richard Schoephoerster, dean of UTEP's college of engineering.

These include:

• Providing access to clean water

• Preventing nuclear terror

• Engineering better medicines

• Advancing health informatics

• Making solar energy economical

• Developing carbon sequestration methods

• Securing cyberspace

• Reverse-engineering the brain

• Managing the nitrogen cycle

• Providing energy from fusion

• Restoring and improving urban infrastructure

• Engineering the tools of scientific discovery

• Enhancing virtual reality

• Advancing personalized learning

"Building partnerships among all these different groups is going to be key to solving these problems," Schoephoester says.

The first technical session, "Energy Sustainability in a Carbon Constrained World," kicks off with a PowerPoint-fueled presentation from Robert R. Romanosky, advanced research technology manager at the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory. He starts by noting that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions total 6.3 billion tons a year.

"We've been taking a look at how do we mitigate the problem," he says. "We've been looking at two key areas. One is improving efficiency." The other major approach is carbon capture and sequestration. "No matter how we choose to do it, the factor at the end is we have to capture the carbon," he says.

Romanosky reviews a variety of new technologies that are currently being tested for their ability to capture pure carbon dioxide as part of the energy-production process. That CO2 can then be sequestered in geological formations deep in the earth.

For example, adding pure oxygen to coal combustion yields a pure CO2 stream and allows for greater efficiency, meaning plants could reduce the size of their boilers by 60 percent.

"The size goes down, the efficiency goes up," he says. "The emissions go to pure CO2." But, he warns, "Nothing is a done deal, and everything costs money."

Another area of investigation is Ultra Supercritical (or USC) boilers and turbines, which operate at much higher temperatures and pressures than conventional boilers, allowing them to achieve more than 45 percent efficiency (meaning less fuel is needed and less CO2 is produced).

Romanosky notes that every 2 percent efficiency gain equals 5 percent carbon dioxide reduction, which is why researchers are looking at improving the sensors and controls that run power plants.

The goal, he says, is ambitious. "We want 90 percent CO2 capture at the source," he says. "We want 99 percent storage permanence in the ground and less than 10 percent increase in electrical rates."

If we can develop ways to inject condensed carbon dioxide into unmineable coal seams, oil and gas fields and brackish aquifers, "We have hundreds of years of storage potential," he says.

Apart from the technical hurdles, one of the biggest challenges going forward is regulatory predictability. Power utilities and others need to know what rules they must follow. "Everybody's in a holding pattern until we know what happens," he says.

Next up is George A. Williams, senior vice president and chief operating officer for El Paso Electric, the local power utility, who offers an overview of climate change legislation - and a dose of sobering reality.

Williams says that nearly half the fuel used in U.S. power plants is coal (another 20 percent is nuclear and 21 percent is natural gas).

"I'm a big believer that we need to increase our use of nuclear power," he says. "In 50 years of using nuclear power, we've never had a serious accident. People say, 'What about Three Mile Island?' No one got hurt or killed in that accident." He adds that Three Mile Island spurred the development of new safety technology.

From an emissions perspective, coal accounts for 78 percent of the total, Williams says. If the country went to a fuel mix of 30 percent coal, 30 percent nuclear, 25 percent natural gas, 10 percent renewable and 5 percent hydro, we would reduce CO2 emissions by about 500 million metric tons a year, he says.

"People ask, 'Why aren't we building more wind or solar plants?'" Willams says. "The costs are still relatively high." Wind plants are 12.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, he says. Solar thermal technology is 32.9 cents and photovoltaic is 28.5 cents. Natural gas is 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, while nuclear power is 7.9 cents, and coal is 7.2 cents.

"We need to find better technology to get that cost down," he says. Meanwhile, climate change legislation is likely to require building more renewable energy projects. "Ultimately the cost will increase for the consumers," Williams says, "and that is going to be significant."

Chuck Kutscher, principal engineer of the Thermal Systems Group in the Center for Electricity, Resources, and Building Systems Integration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, starts his presentation by reminding his listeners that Al Gore did not invent global climate change.

He shows a clip from Meteora: The Unchained Goddess, a cheesy 1958 Bell Science Series episode (directed by Frank Capra no less!) that, presciently, shows footage of melting glaciers as well as an animation predicting that global warming would turn the lower Mississippi watershed into a shallow inland sea.

"Both ice caps are melting, contrary to what you've heard ... at a pretty astounding rate, actually," he adds. With atmospheric CO2 levels higher than those that can sustain ice caps, "[i]t raises the question of how quickly we have to go to carbon-free energy," he says. "I don't think we can afford to take anything off the table."

Nationally, we already generate 35,000 megawatts of wind power, he says, and there are some studies suggesting that up to 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs could be met that way.

Differing from Williams, he says wind actually can be produced for 6 to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it competitive with coal or gas. He acknowledges a need for increasing turbine efficiency and better modeling of local turbulence effects in multi-turbine wind farms.

Photovoltaic electricity production is significantly more expensive, he says, on the order of 16 to 32 cents per kilowatt-hour. Kutscher puts his money - and his research efforts - into using solar energy to generate steam with technologies like parabolic troughs that concentrate sunlight, raising temperatures as high as 750 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Because we're using heat, we can store hot molten salt after the sun sets and continue to provide electricity," he says.

Kutscher acknowledges there are up-front costs to developing and implementing these technologies, but they would be more than offset by savings elsewhere, to the tune of a net savings of about $82 billion a year.

Global climate change may not have anything to do with it, but severe winter weather has prevented panelist Louis Albright, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture program at Cornell University, from making the trip to El Paso. Still, he joins via a voice link and talks his audience through a remote-controlled presentation.

The impetus for his work arose from the first energy crisis in the 1970s, when it was forecast that rising fuel prices would make it prohibitively expensive to import fresh produce to the Northeast. He says his studies have shown that most produce travels close to 3,000 miles on average to reach a store in upstate New York.

Albright's CEA technology focuses on high-tech greenhouses that produce fruit and vegetables in otherwise inhospitable climates (like Ithaca, N.Y., in the winter), closer to where they're consumed.

His team has helped develop high-tech lighting to supplement sunlight, which is controlled by computers. "The energy input is high, but the productivity is high," he says. Production is actually higher per-acre than in California's San Joaquin Valley, he says.

Other benefits include reduced water use, elimination of pesticides and less environmental discharge. Plus, electricity, which can be produced via hydro or wind power, substitutes for burning diesel fuel in trucking produce all over the country.

With all these bright ideas, you have to ask: Where will the next generation of engineers come from?

In welcoming her guests this morning, UTEP president Diana Natalicio makes an impassioned pitch for the importance of educating underprivileged Hispanics to meet the challenge of producing a new generation of engineers.

"What we have to do is expand our thinking about talent," Natalicio says. "Replacing the engineers who are going to retire is impossible if we don't add a disproportionate number of Hispanic engineers."

Natalicio voices a serious commitment to make UTEP a Tier 1 research university, but notes that its students face serious hurdles compared to students from private institutions. UTEP draws most of its students from the upper Rio Grande Texas-Mexico border region, which is the poorest region in the state, with an average median income of $33,000 a year, Natalicio says.

Schools like UTEP typically show a poor graduation rate, because students who may have to take time out to work or support their families may not get out in the standard four years, Natalicio says.

"We have to challenge these sacred cows, so when somebody challenges you about your graduation rate, give them a lecture!"

UTEP is a fitting site for the meeting. Founded in 1914 as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, its college of engineering is a national leader in graduating Hispanic engineers. The campus, overlooking downtown El Paso, is nestled in the foothills of the Franklin Mountains. Its distinctive massive-looking buildings were inspired by the dzong architecture of Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.