MCCANN: Energy research evolving to meet massive demands

mccannEnergy research didn’t used to be so interesting or so diverse. What has changed is the grand challenge of enhancing climate security while meeting a 50-percent increase in global energy demand by mid-century, a direct consequence of increasing population and living standards.

Supplying sustainable energy for all is a dizzying challenge in scope and scale—from fundamental understandings at the subatomic level to production of devices, sensors and systems, to the economics and policy decisions of nations.

Our ability to use the full portfolio of energy resources and dramatically improve energy efficiencies is being enabled by breakthroughs in agriculture, biology, chemistry computational modeling, engineering, materials science and nanotechnology. Over the next several decades, global demand for energy will require new combinations of entrepreneurial innovation and scientific discovery, opening the doors for careers we can’t even name today.

As a professor and researcher at a global university like Purdue University, I see three major shifts in the academic environment.

First, we are diversifying our approach to education by training students to apply their deep knowledge gains in a specific discipline to address societal problems. Partnerships between industry board rooms and academic classrooms have transformed learning—from the curriculum that defines the educational experience to the deliverable research opportunities thriving in our labs.

Second, we are diversifying our approach to science. Teams of researchers from multiple disciplines have replaced the lone-wolf scientist or engineer shouting “Eureka” from her cluttered laboratory bench. Stronger ties between academia and industry will accelerate these research efforts.

Third is the much-publicized crisis in the number and quality of U.S. students entering the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To maintain a pipeline of leaders in this new energy economy, we must encourage—and even inspire—our elementary, middle school and high school students and expose them to the rewarding energy-related careers that await. Our partnerships with industry drive these efforts forward, too.

The oil and gas industry, for example, faces a labor shortage as a generation of petroleum engineers and geologists retires. From a peak of 11,000 students in geology and petroleum engineering programs at 34 universities in 1983, only 1,500 were enrolled in 17 programs by 2004, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission says. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that demand for petroleum and chemical engineers is projected to grow 18 percent by 2018.

State and federal government agencies play a major role in this new era of collaboration between industries and universities.

A U.S. Department of Energy initiative, creating Energy Frontier Research Centers, is pursuing viable alternative-energy resources, specifically renewables. The federal program includes a game-changing effort for advancing methods to convert plant lignocellulosic biomass–the bulk of the plant—to biofuels and other bio-based products currently derived from oil by the use of new chemical catalysts and thermal treatments.

If these high-risk, high-reward research programs are successful, we can reduce the need for large and expensive biorefineries and expand the range of biofuels beyond ethanol to advanced liquid hydrocarbon fuels.

Just as important, we also will see job creation on a much wider scale as these new technologies are implemented into the green economy.

In other cases, industry is taking the initiative. National leadership from the Semiconductor Research Corp. has established a $5 million initiative, teaming with companies ABB, Applied Materials Inc., Bosch, First Solar Inc., IBM Corp. and Tokyo Electron Laboratories Inc. These public-private partnerships will lead development of high-efficiency solar cells that can be made at low cost.

With recognition that the STEM pipeline begins with K-12 education, industry-academia partnerships are promoting learning opportunities beyond the classroom.

Duke Energy Corp., the nation’s largest electric utility, with a significant Indiana presence, is working with universities to inspire middle and high school students about the importance of STEM and its role in addressing our energy needs, and to consider energy-related careers in their educational and professional futures.

Partnerships between industry and academia act as a lens, focusing collaborative efforts on solutions to complex global energy issues.

As we apply this new perspective to training the next generation of scientists and engineers, technologists and teachers, we grow more and more optimistic about creating, diversifying and, yes, inspiring, the energy economy of the future.•


McCann is director of Purdue University’s Energy Center in Discovery Park and a professor of biological sciences. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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