Engineering Sustainability

Thatcher Root--image credit: COE portraits Sources of renewable energy have become a hot topic in the news and in society more generally - and amidst all of the policy debate, Thatcher Root, associate professor of Chemical & Biological Engineering, is interested in the engineering behind the ideas. "Different people have different things that they think are 'the answer.' I've been thinking 'is there a single answer?' And 'who's going to do this?'"

After having developed a new senior elective on sustainability and renewable energy, Root applied for 2010 grant funding in order to "turn it into a real course, develop it more, and institutionalize it so that I can take it from my elective to something offered regularly." It is presently being taught as a section of CBE 562 - Special Topics, but is undergoing approval for its own course listing.

In the course, Energy and Sustainability, Root aims to survey the current field of renewable energy, asking questions about "our current production, current demand, sustainability, and alternative energy. By the end of the semester, I want students to have a sense of which alternatives are most viable short-term, which alternatives are more promising long-term, and which are just snake oil."

Root began developing the course as his research had turned towards renewable energy, and biodiesel in particular. "I'd gotten interested in renewable energy anyway," he says, and "then what struck me was that so much of what's being discussed out there should be very accessible to engineers."

In addition, he says, "I noticed that people often just quoted the conventional wisdom from news articles without really thinking 'what parts of this can I check?' There are a lot of controversies out there with renewable energy. People publish papers with results all over the place, so you can try to look into it a little more, judiciously decide where you're competent to add your own insight and make your own decisions. Engineers are going to have to solve these problems, so we can't just listen to people quoting other experts."

In one project, for instance, Root and his class focused on the idea of carbon sequestration - pumping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it underground. "I thought about how could we get carbon dioxide from exhaust stacks and compress it into a liquid that could be pumped," says Root. "That's a chemical engineering problem."

The class examined what kinds of technology would be necessary for such an endeavor, different alternatives for how it might work, and the costs of that equipment. "It was great because the students can now see what's involved in getting carbon dioxide from exhaust - or even the air - into the ground. We showed that going after low concentrations (in the air), when you've got high concentrations (like exhaust stacks) doesn't make sense," Root explains.

"This is what we do... We look at the ultimate limits and the practical limits of things like biofuels, biodiesel, ethanol. We look under the hood to see what's really involved," he continues.

Another class project involves using power meters to find out how much power different appliances draw.

"This experiment comes back to 'Trust but Verify'," he says, "Lots of people have gotten concerned about how much energy an appliance uses when it's plugged in but not being used. When you plug a transformer brick from a cell phone charger into one of these meters... you find out that it's almost nothing. On the other hand, other things like televisions do draw noticeable current even when they're off. I can bring this simple readout to lecture and say okay, let's check. I think it's great fun to do simple and meaningful experiments and demos like this."

Looking forward, Root hopes that the COE will soon offer a certificate in sustainability and renewable energy. He has been working with Giri Venkataramanan, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the recipient of another 2010 award focused on sustainability, and Paul Meier, director of the UW-Madison Energy Institute, to build a program that will allow students to specialize in this way.

Root sees his own course as a potential entry point into such a program. He notes that while several of the current courses on sustainability are specific to one problem or one type of energy, his course is very general, looking into many different issues.

For example, he says, "Giri's course is about wind power and making wind turbines. My course has one or two lectures on the topics that he'll spend a whole semester on. I think that's great because then students can get very different things out of the different courses."

In the end, Root argues, one of the most important skills that students can learn is how to be informed about and critical of the many interconnected issues surrounding sustainability and energy usage - from the science to the economics.

"These issues are not trendy. These problems are going to continue to be important throughout these students' careers... and they are the engineers who will be called upon to help solve them."


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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) National Academy of Engineering and UW-Madison Seminar on Sustainable Energy for Mobility - 10 April 2008, 1:00 - 5:00pm.

Featuring experts from across UW-Madison, the NAE, industry, and the broader scientific and engineering communities, this NAE seminar will focus on such topics as transportation infrastructure, emissions, petroleum, biofuels, and vehicle propulsion.

2) The UW-Madison Energy Institute Homepage.

The mission of the Energy Institute is "to provide an objective forum for exchange of ideas on energy issues, and to focus, integrate and transfer knowledge to better understand challenges and identify needs in energy resources, technology and sustainability." The Institute provides an archive of information and presentations about energy, as well as an excellent resource for those who are interested in pursuing energy-related courses, research, or community service opportunities within the university.