Engineering for a New World
SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York
Good evening. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here at this illustrious and select gathering of the nation’s top engineers. I am engaged by the knowledge that you—chosen because you are the best, the brightest, and at an age when you have accomplishments to your credit and productive years ahead—are here to be challenged.
I have always noted that it is risky to make predictions about the future, especially on a global scale. The impact of key events of the past five years—the terrorists attacks of September 2001 in the United States, the SARS epidemic, and the recent earthquake and tsunami—tell us that the twenty-first century may turn out much differently than our best prophets could have predicted.
One key challenge of the twenty-first century rose up and looked us directly in the eyes a few weeks ago when Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast. And now Hurricane Rita is threatening to do the same. As we know, Hurricane Katrina swamped cities; cut power lines; closed shipping ports; damaged oil drilling and refining facilities, knocking out about 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity (Lucchetti et al., 2005); and left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. The mass relocation of people, many have said, is the largest since the Dust Bowl out-migration of the 1930s or the dislocation caused by the Civil War.
The disruption of key energy systems in the Gulf region rippled throughout the nation and the economy. The oil industry strained to recover oil rigs and refineries. There were some gas stations without gasoline, long lines at others,
and gasoline prices soared into uncharted territory. The U.S. Postal Service turned away mail addressed to zip codes in the affected areas. Wire services advised against e-mailing to southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama because of “bounce-back” volume. The educations of 75,000 college students in the region were interrupted. The effects are still being revealed, understood, evaluated, and comprehended.
Among many lessons—some that will be long discussed and debated—the storm brought home to the U.S. population, perhaps in a new way, the costs, both economic and social, of a major disruption of our basic infrastructure. As oil and gas companies and utilities struggle to get “back on line,” Hurricane Katrina clearly illustrates our dependence on a readily available, inexpensive, uninterrupted supply of energy.
Yet, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on U.S. energy supplies only made clearer a global situation that is steadily building—namely, the critical need for energy security, not only in this nation, but, indeed, throughout the entire world.
GLOBAL ENERGY OUTLOOK
Although a looming global energy-security crisis was laid bare by disaster, it is being accelerated by a positive force—extraordinary economic growth in many developing nations. This growth is enabling them to provide their populations with the common necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and education—necessities to which many never had access before. This unprecedented growth is both enabled by energy availability, and, at the same time, causing a heretofore unparalleled demand for energy in all of its forms. Global energy consumption is projected to increase by 57 percent from 2002 to 2025 (EIA, 2005). But another point to consider is that for every two gallons of petroleum-based fuel consumed, one gallon is discovered.
In the past 35 to 40 years, worldwide energy consumption has nearly doubled, driven by population growth, rising living standards, the invention of energy-dependent technologies, and consumerism. Energy consumption has increased nearly everywhere, with the most dramatic percentage increase in China and the rest of Asia. Coal usage has decreased marginally, but consumption of every other major energy source has increased markedly. Electricity use has nearly tripled. If these trends continue, global energy consumption will double again by mid-century. Fossil fuels will continue to dominate, and the share of nuclear power and renewable energy sources—wind, solar, and geothermal energy—will remain limited (IEA, 2004).
Although the planet has enough energy resources to meet this demand beyond 2030 (IEA, 2004), it is less certain how much it will cost to extract and deliver these fuels to consumers. New energy infrastructure will require vast amounts of financing. Fossil fuels are projected to account for about 85 percent of the increase in consumption. Major oil and gas importers—including the
United States, Western Europe, and the expanding economies of China and India—will become more dependent on supplies from Middle East members of OPEC and Russia. As international trade expands, the vulnerability to disruptions will increase, and geopolitical turmoil may exacerbate surging energy prices. In addition, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will continue to rise, calling into question the sustainability of current energy usage models.
An estimated 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity (IEA, 2004). One-sixth of the world’s population does not have safe drinking water (Osborne, 2005); one-half do not have adequate sanitation; and one-half live on less than $2 per day. A reliable energy supply—especially electricity is a prerequisite for addressing these needs—and is the basis of the United Nations Millennium Goals that were set five years ago.
In many developing countries, the energy-poverty levels are severe. China, however, is a success story in the making. Throughout the 1990s, Chinese electricity generation grew at an average rate of 8 percent per year. In 2003, electricity generation in China increased by 16 percent, and in 2004 the rate of increase was even higher (~18 percent) (IEA, 2004).
The increase in oil consumption in China, from 2002 to 2003, accounted for more than 18 percent of the increase in global oil demand—and, in the process, China surpassed Japan and became the second largest oil consumer. In fact, China is the second largest consumer of primary energy overall—not to mention the second largest economy and the second largest contributor to energy-related CO2 emissions. If projections hold, China will continue to dominate growth in energy demand. It should come as no surprise, then, that the 10th Five-Year Plan of the Chinese government, covering the period 2001 to 2005, puts energy conservation near the top of the energy policy agenda. In fact, China is about to introduce more stringent fuel-economy standards for new vehicles than those in force in the United States (IEA, 2004).
The real paradox is that something to be celebrated—the continuing progress of developing nations and the human progress it represents—has yet to command the attention of the global community, which must deal with the issues of global resources and energy distribution and the need for alternatives to fossil fuels. Attempts so far have focused only on certain aspects of the problem. The new solutions, however, will require a holistic approach.
This is just a thumbnail sketch of a vast, complex, and interconnected issue. It is not my intention to discuss the complexities and exigencies of the near-term energy crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina. Rather, I will use the energy squeeze Katrina caused as an example that should compel us, as engineers and scientists, to step up to the challenge. And, in so doing, we must strive to be truly international—to think in a global way. We have a moral and social responsibility to address this issue, not just for a single nation or for a temporary fix, but to solve one of humanity’s most urgent challenges. The science and engineering commu-
nities should be well positioned to do this because they have been global communities for hundreds of years.
Energy security underlies all progress, because, of course, virtually all technological advances in the past 150 years have been predicated upon readily available energy sources and technologies. Energy security is, then, a key global challenge—one that will require global perspectives, global thinking, global solutions, and innovation of the highest order. Indeed, this same perspective and approach must prevail as we seek solutions to other global “threats without borders,” including infectious diseases—such as SARS, AIDS, and avian flu. Like Hurricane Katrina, the threats include natural disasters, such as last December’s tsunami in Southeast Asia. They include global climate change, species extinction, and acid rain, among others. They include terrorism and the myriad challenges facing a significant segment of the global population that does not have the basic needs of life—sufficient food, clean water, health care, and education.
The global nature of these challenges provides a measure of the urgency of advancing discovery and innovation to resolve them. It is a given that, at least in the long term, no single “solution” will ensure abundant, clean, and inexpensive energy for the global community. There is likely to be a “mix” of solutions, including innovative extractive and transportation technologies for fossil fuels, innovative conservation technologies, and innovative alternative-fuel technologies.
I will not attempt to review the full spectrum of energy technologies currently under consideration, some of which you are discussing at this symposium, but I will examine a few—nuclear power, hydrogen and fuel cells, and fusion.
I will start with an old/new technology—nuclear power, which currently generates 16 percent of global electricity—about 20 percent in the United States; 17 percent in Russia; 3.3 percent in India; 2.2 percent in China; and about 30 percent in Western Europe (provided by about 150 nuclear power plants) (ElBaradei, 2005). Nuclear power produces virtually no sulfur dioxide, particulates, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, or greenhouse gases. The complete cycle, from resource extraction to waste disposal—including facility and reactor construction—emits only 2 to 6 grams of carbon equivalent per kilowatt-hour. This is about the same as wind and solar power, if we include construction and component manufacturing. All three are two orders of magnitude cleaner than coal, oil, and natural gas.1
Worldwide, if existing nuclear power plants were shut down and replaced with a mix of non-nuclear sources proportionate to what now exists, there would be an increase of 600 million tons of carbon emissions per year (IAEA, 2004)—equivalent to about twice the amount experts estimate will be avoided by adherence to the Kyoto Protocol in 2010.
Support for nuclear power and specific plans and actions to expand nuclear capacity in a number of countries are influencing global projections among nuclear insiders. The near-term projections released in 2004 by the International Energy Administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency were markedly higher than they were just four years ago. The most conservative projection predicted 427 gigawatts of global nuclear capacity in 2020, the equivalent of 127 more 1,000-megawatt plants than previous projections (ElBaradei, 2005).
Nuclear expansion is centered in Asia. Of the 25 reactors under construction worldwide, 17 are located either in China (including Taiwan), South Korea, North Korea, Japan, or India. Twenty of the last 30 reactors completed are in the Far East and south Asia (Langlois et al., 2005).
With 40 percent of the world population and the fastest growing economies in the world, the demand for new electric power in China and India is very high. The Chinese economy is expanding at a rate of 8 to 10 percent per year, and although China currently gets only 2.2 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, that percentage is scheduled to increase. By 2020, China plans to raise its total installed nuclear generating capacity from the current 6.5 gigawatts to 36 gigawatts, which will equate to 4 percent of total Chinese electricity supply (ElBaradei, 2005). India, which currently has nine plants under construction, plans to expand its nuclear capacity by a factor of 10 by 2022 and plans a 100-fold increase by mid-century. This sounds huge, but it works out to an average of about 9.2 percent per year, well below the pace of global nuclear capacity growth in the 1970s, which stood at 21 percent, but above the 1980s average of 8.7 percent (ElBaradei, 2005).
Although no U.S. plants have been ordered since the early 1970s, U.S. nuclear vendors have introduced technological innovations, such as advanced reactors, for certification by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which they have been marketing to other countries. The construction and operational experience of these vendors, and the experience of other multinational vendors, as well as countries developing indigenous designs, have kept nuclear technology moving forward.
The U.S.-led Generation IV International Nuclear Forum—a collegial effort by 10 countries—has published a road map for research and development on six innovative reactor concepts, such as the molten-salt reactor and the supercritical-water-cooled reactor. Innovative reactor and fuel-cycle technologies that address vulnerabilities related to safety, security, proliferation, and waste disposal and generate power at competitive prices are the most likely to be built. New nuclear plants will rely on passive safety features, fuel configurations with tighter con-
trol of sensitive nuclear materials, and design features that reduce construction times and lower operation and maintenance costs.
For nuclear energy to be considered a realistic solution to the energy needs of developing nations, a key feature will be size. Traditionally, nuclear plant designs have grown larger to take advantage of economies of scale. But smaller plants (less than 300 megawatts) that allow for more incremental investment, are more suited to smaller electrical-grid capacities and can be adapted more easily to other industrial applications, such as heating, seawater desalination, and the manufacture of chemical fuels.
A few of these designs are moving toward implementation. Russia has completed the design and licensing of a floating (barge-mounted) nuclear power plant, the KLT-40S, that takes advantage of the country’s experience with nuclear-powered icebreakers and submarines. South Korea is making progress with a system-integrated, modular, advanced reactor (SMART). The Korean government plans to construct a one-fifth scale (65 megawatt) demonstration plant of this pressurized-water reactor by 2008, but has not yet announced a commercialization date for the full-scale (330 megawatt) plant. Among gas-cooled reactors, the South African pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR), which features billiard-ball-sized self-contained fuel units and uses liquid sodium to transfer heat, is well under way. Preparation of the reactor site at Koeberg has begun, and fuel loading is anticipated for mid-2010. More innovative designs, still in development, employ modular cores that only require refueling every 30 years. This would address concerns about proliferation and reduce infrastructure needs.
A number of countries continue to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, and, in most cases, use it for the production of mixed-oxide fuel (MOX), which is then used as a reactor fuel for power generation. Because MOX requires plutonium, there are concerns about the proliferation potential of MOX, but France and Japan, among others, are proceeding nonetheless.
Transmutation, an idea that has been around for some time, is another approach to waste management. The basic goal is referred to as partitioning and transmutation—that is, trying to separate out the long-lived transuranic radionuclides (actinides, such as neptunium, americium, and curium, in particular), and using neutron bombardment in an accelerator-driven system (ADS) to burn up the nastiest bits of waste, making more electricity in the process. If these actinides could be converted into shorter-lived radionuclides, high-level radioactive waste would be much easier and less expensive to handle and dispose of. In addition to the actinides, longer-lived fission products, like technetium-99 and iodine-129, could also be burned up in an ADS.
HYDROGEN AND FUEL CELLS
Hydrogen has been much touted as an important fuel for the future. Hydrogen, the most abundant element, is used in liquid form to propel NASA space
shuttles and other rockets and is the focus of national and international efforts to build the early stages of a hydrogen-based economy. Hydrogen fuel cells power the shuttle’s electrical systems and emit water, which is reprocessed for the crew to drink. And, if hydrogen is produced by renewable processes, hydrogen-fueled applications do not create greenhouse gases.
However, hydrogen does not occur naturally as a gas; it occurs only in combination with other elements. Gaseous hydrogen to be used as a fuel can be made by separating it from hydrocarbons, usually generated by fossil fuels (or by electricity generated by fossil fuels) in a process called reformation. Hydrogen generated by this method is three to four times as expensive as gasoline as a transportation fuel, and because the hydrogen is generated from carbonaceous molecular systems, the reformation process still generates greenhouse gases. Hydrogen also can be created by combining zinc with water in the form of steam, which strips the oxygen from the water and leaves hydrogen. The challenge for industrializing this procedure, however, is finding an inexpensive way of turning the resulting zinc oxide back into metallic zinc so the material can be recycled (Economist, 2005).
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have created a solar-power tower laboratory in which 64 mirrors track the sun, focusing its rays into a beam with a power of up to 300 kilowatts (Economist, 2005). The beam heats a mixture of zinc oxide and charcoal (pure carbon), which reacts with the oxygen in the zinc oxide and releases the zinc, which vaporizes and is then extracted and condensed into powder. The process does not produce green-house gases.
The powdered zinc can be used in zinc-air batteries which, though still experimental, might someday exceed the performance targets set by the U.S. Department of Energy for battery power and energy density in electric vehicles. With no moving parts or external tanks, the cell operates at room temperature and is simple to construct from readily available materials. The new zinc-air battery could be easily renewed at service stations and thus give electric vehicles the same driving range as gas-fueled vehicles, while eliminating exhaust pollution (Zyn Systems, 2005). But whether or not this method will reduce the cost of producing hydrogen for fuel has yet to be determined.
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are examining ways to develop materials for the next generation of fuel cells. The focus has been on hydrogen generation and storage, catalysis, electrochemistry, and polymer science. Another area of research is the application of nanomaterials in fuel cell and hydrogen research, including new materials to improve reliability, efficiency, and cost. New electrodes are also being developed, as are techniques for imaging an operating fuel cell.
Polymeric materials are central to proton-exchange membrane—or PEM—fuel cells. However, PEM fuel cells must be constantly hydrated, and maintaining the proper hydration level results in expensive and complex control schemes,
which lead to reliability, cost, and robustness issues. In addition, PEM cells raise environmental issues, such as low-temperature operation.
Researchers at RPI have turned to a polymer called polybenzimidazole, or PBI. Currently, PBI fibers are used in protective apparel, such as turnout coats for firefighters and spacesuits for astronauts. PBI fibers have no melting point and are mildew resistant, age resistant, and abrasion resistant. At RPI a new generation of PBI has been developed, one that does not depend on the fiber process, does not require water for proton conductivity, and can operate at significantly higher temperatures than conventional fuel cells, thereby making it tolerant of impurities (e.g., carbon monoxide) in the fuel stream.
Fusion has long captured the imagination as a source of virtually unlimited energy—if it could be contained and controlled. Efforts to create nuclear fusion using strong magnetic fields or large lasers to contain the plasma in which the fusion occurs have so far failed to produce more energy than they use.
One Rensselaer researcher is looking into sonofusion, a new form of nuclear fusion. In sonofusion, deuterated acetone, in which hydrogen is substituted with deuterium, is placed in a flask. The rapid contractions and expansions of a piezo-electric ceramic ring on the outside of the flask send pressure waves through the liquid. At points of low pressure, the liquid is bombarded with neutrons, creating clusters of bubbles, which greatly expand during the low-pressure conditions, and then, as the pressure begins to increase again, implode, sending shock waves toward the center of the bubbles. This creates very high pressures and temperatures in an extremely small region of the collapsing bubbles. Careful measurements show that deuterium atoms located there have fused, releasing additional neutrons into the liquid and creating tritium.
When the research team first announced successful sonofusion in 2002 in the journal Science, their paper was met with skepticism (Taleyarkhan et al., 2002). But two years later, the team announced that it had successfully duplicated its results using more sensitive instrumentation (Taleyarkhan et al., 2004). At least five other research groups are now trying to reproduce the results, and one recently announced independent confirmation (Xu and Butt, 2005).
Although the amount of energy being produced with sonofusion is extremely small, researchers hope that the process can be scaled up successfully. A recently formed consortium—the Acoustic Fusion Technology Energy Consortium (AFTEC)—is exploring the potential of sonofusion. Members of the consortium include Boston University, UCLA, the University of Mississippi, the University of Washington, Purdue University, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Rensselaer.
Although much more research is needed, if sonofusion reactors ever are able to produce usable quantities of power, the process might become a major energy
source that operates without producing the radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission reactors. Fusion power will require methods of scaling-up the process and making it self-sustaining.
THE “QUIET CRISIS”
The reality is that we can no longer just drill our way to global energy security. We must innovate our way to energy security—we must find new technologies that uncover new fossil energy sources, that conserve energy, that protect the environment, and that provide multiple, sustainable sources of energy. It is clear that the technological developments I have outlined are a long way from being viable energy “solutions.” But, innovation itself is a kind of energy that multiplies insights and advances discovery, enabling the best minds to work—in concert—on what may appear to be overwhelming challenges.
Nurturing our human capacity for innovation requires a configuration of elements in which multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and cooperation and collaboration interface. Indeed, this is the future of engineering. It is the future of science. It is the future of discovery and innovation. And, this concept is at the core of this symposium. With achievements to your credit and time for future achievements, you are the present and future of engineering.
But, who will come after you? Engineering of the future requires people, and we are no longer turning out a sufficient number of people to replace the ones we have now. Enrollment of American students in physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering has declined severely over the past decade. Unless and until we have cohorts of young people who are ready to step into the laboratories and design studios to replace the scientists and engineers who will soon be retiring in great numbers, we will not have the capacity for the kind of innovation we need. At the same time, as other nations invest in their own education and research enterprises, and as globalization offers employment for their scientists and engineers at home or elsewhere, the flow to the United States of talented international scientists and engineers and graduate students is slowing.
The net result is that the American innovation enterprise, which has fueled and sustained our economic growth, our standard of living, and our security and has made us a global leader, soon may lack the critical mass of scientists and engineers necessary for the next innovations upon which new industries will be built and upon which solutions to global challenges depend. I call this urgent situation the “quiet crisis,” because the forces have come together over a period of time, with little notice, and have accelerated recently.
We need young people whose curiosity has been whetted, whose imaginations have been sparked, whose eagerness for science and mathematics has been awakened, and who are ready to be nurtured as they pass through the engineering and science pipeline. Where will they come from? The demographics in this country have shifted dramatically over the last couple of decades. A new major-
ity now comprises young women and the racial and ethnic groups that traditionally have been underrepresented in engineering and science. These young people—even the brightest among them—often are not encouraged to pursue preparatory coursework that would enable them to pursue an engineering or science degree at an advanced level—even though their enrollment in higher education is increasing faster than the enrollment of traditional engineering and science students. In addition, we do not yet have faculty and upperclassmen from the new majority who can serve as role models and mentors to shepherd these nontraditional students.
And yet, if we are to build a future cohort of engineers and scientists, this is where we must look. One of the major challenges to our entire education system—K–12 and higher education—is to reach out to these students, the underrepresented majority in science, engineering, and technology, and help them find their way in and help them stay in for the duration. This must be done against the backdrop of encouraging all of our young people to take on the challenges of science and advanced mathematics in primary and secondary school and to consider engineering, science, and related majors in college and beyond.
The “quiet crisis” is finally being noticed. In the four or five years since I have been working on and speaking to this issue, a growing understanding and concern has developed—in every sector—that the issue is real and must be addressed—and quickly. More and more sectors and organizations are asking that attention be paid to the matter and that practices be changed to address it.
The need to address the long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina could very well increase awareness of this concern, and one would hope that the need for new energy sources and resources will inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists in the same way the Soviet launch of Sputnik inspired the young people of my generation. It should be clear that a sustainable global energy framework capable of meeting the energy needs of citizens without causing irreparable environmental damage will require continuing technological advances that modify our current production and uses of energy.
The challenges of energy security and the challenges of other threats without borders that beset our young century and are disrupting global security require new strategies, new alternatives, new approaches, and new ways of thinking. Every profession will be challenged to find new ways to work and think, to plan and collaborate, to innovate and discover.
This challenge might be called a “hidden benefit”—a silver lining, perhaps. The challenge is forcing us to move into a higher sphere where more is at risk, setting the bar higher for humankind. I believe humankind will rise to the challenge. I believe you will rise to the challenge.
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Zyn Systems. 2005. Technology Commercialization Opportunity: Zinc-Air Battery. Available online at: http://www.zyn.com/flcfw/fwtproj/ZincAirB.htm.