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Exploring the Future of Energy: Energy Research at the University of Maryland

September 18, 2007 // 9:00am11:00am
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On September 18th, The Woodrow Wilson Center's Global Energy Initiative and the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC) jointly cosponsored a meeting on "Exploring the Future of Energy: Energy Research at the University of Maryland." The University of Maryland Energy Research Center uses state-of-the-art equipment and brings together a wide variety of disciplines to produce research on current problems and imagine solutions that respond to complex factors. They are committed to both technological advance and a better understanding of the ecological and geopolitical implications of our energy use.

Joseph B. Gildenhorn, chair of the Wilson Center's Board of Trustees, introduced the panel of four University of Maryland scholars who brought different but complementary perspectives to the question of the future of energy use. They explored the development of new sources of energy, the likely implications of current energy use for global climate change, and the shifting geo-political dynamics of energy. The presentations of Anthony Janetos, Greg Jackson, Steve Hutcheson, and Timothy Gulden emphasized the importance of multidisciplinary and long-term solutions to change the way we develop and use energy.

Professor Greg Jackson opened the sessions with a brief overview of UMERC, a university-wide effort focused on the energy future.

Dr. Anthony Janetos, who serves as Director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a collaboration between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University spoke on "Assessing the Future of Energy and Climate." Janetos explained that the changes in the earth's temperature since the Industrial Revolution are "almost certainly" due to both human influences and natural forces, with the accelerated use of hydrocarbons over the past hundred years being a major factor. The response by UMERC is a two-pronged research approach, both analyzing the long-term effects of climate change and pulling together several disciplines to look at human impacts in a new way. For example, drawing on the field of economics, we can see the amount of carbon we emit as a set budget for a period of years that becomes more demanding the longer we wait to reduce carbon emissions. Janetos concluded that we must not only bring emissions down, but also learn how to cope with the consequences already facing us. We need more information on regional variation, the impact on ecosystems, and the effects of current energy reform.

Professor Greg Jackson discussed the "Prospects of Fuel Cells and Hydrogen," focusing on the characteristics of hydrogen and its potential as an energy alternative. The main benefits of hydrogen-based energy are that it can be easily stored and can be created from several sources, lessening fuel dependency. There are two types of fuel cell technology for the utilization of hydrogen, protein exchange membrane fuel cells and solid oxide fuel cells. But, problems of cost and carbon-release in the production of hydrogen still remain. The former, PEM fuel cell systems, are estimated to cost around $75-100 /kW on the scale of automotive engines, which would make the total cost of such an engine about $7,000. The Department of Energy does hope to reduce this cost by more than half by 2010. The latter, the SOFC system, lends itself to the production of electricity in stationary applications, but has more flexibility to run on impure hydrogen derived from coal or biomass gasification. It is important, Jackson says, to look far into the future to develop new technology that can make hydrogen a more viable energy alternative.

In "Biomass to Fuel: Problems and Solutions," Dr. Steve Hutcheson discussed different kinds of biomass ethanol and their limitations. Currently, corn-based ethanol uses twenty-five percent of U.S. corn production, but is still not a significant portion of all transportation fuel use. There is potential for cellulosic ethanol, using biomass conversion from switch grass, forests, or estuaries, but this difficult process results in a wholesale cost of $3.75/gallon. The use of soybeans for biodiesel is more economical, but would require dedicating two-thirds the square mileage of arable land in the U.S. to meet just fifty percent of transportation needs. Hutcheson asserted that we must switch to new fuel sources, but we have a long way to go in developing new options.

Hutcheson also discussed the search for alternative methods of converting biomass into ethanol. His own research has focused on a bacterium from the Chesapeake Bay that has the potential to create hydrogen affordably. In addition to his position at the University, Hutcheson also serves as CEO and President of Zymetis, a company that intends to become a major supplier of enzymes for biomass conversion.

Finally, in "The Role of Nuclear Power and Policy Implications for the Future of Energy," Dr. Timothy Gulden explained that the energy problem has major geo-political dimensions. In a world of "asymmetrical threats," peace comes from equitable development. In a world of rapid transportation and global communications, there are still two billion people that live on less than two dollars a day. To raise the standard of living of the world's population to an adequate level, the energy supply must be expanded to two or three times its current level and be applied to the development challenge by the year 2050, even with significant improvements in efficiency. And, energy production will have to be 50% to 80% carbon free. Thus, we need to improve our energy system, expanding and reforming fission use and internationalizing the fuel cycle to lessen the potential for proliferation of nuclear materials. Gulden's long-term solution is the creation of internationally-controlled energy parks, which would contain all handling of nuclear materials and would guarantee access to all at an affordable price. He explained that we will need both technological and political progress to move forward, but the effort is worthwhile because of the severity of the problems we face and the importance of improved security.

Drafted by Jacqueline Nader

 

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