Back to Home Page
College Home
University Home
Past Issues
Contact the Editor
Signatures Cover
Download PDF of this Issue
Seeing the Big Picture
Talking Points
Taking Note
Making the Grade
Sharing Perspectives
Reaching Out
Staying in Touch
U.S. Geological Survey predictions suggest that, because of climate changes, by 2030 there will be no glaciers left in Montana’s National Park.

Fighting Global Warming

Joan F. Brennecke
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering


There are many reasons for all of us to be taking a hard look at the amount and types of energy that we use: rising gasoline prices, volatile natural gas prices, high dependence on foreign energy resources, national security issues, smog, and acid rain. While some of these reasons may demand our attention on a daily basis, the most compelling reason to reassess our energy use is undoubtedly the link between global climate change and the burning of fossil fuels. Al Gore aptly brought this link to the attention of the American public with the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”

In the United States, we use approximately 3.4 TeraWatts of energy — roughly one quarter of the energy consumed worldwide. Approximately 85 percent of that comes from fossil fuels — petroleum, natural gas, and oil. We use energy for transportation (e.g., gasoline), for generating electricity, and for heating and cooling, roughly in equal proportions.

There is no single “silver bullet” that will meet our energy challenges. The solution is to pursue all avenues. Conservation — like driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and using compact fluorescent lighting — is vital. Improvements in energy efficiency, both of consumer appliances and industrial processes, are other necessary steps. Capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) from existing and future fossil fuel (coal and natural gas) driven power plants is absolutely critical. Expanding safe production of additional nuclear power, that does not produce CO2, has even been endorsed by some environmental groups, despite concerns about nuclear waste disposal. Of course, dramatic improvements and growth in renewable energy sources must be the ultimate focus of our efforts.

Currently, renewables comprise only seven percent of our total energy use, with more than 90 percent of that being hydroelectric power and biomass (ethanol and biodiesel). Solar and wind combined meet only about two thousandths of our energy needs.

Even before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most recent report in February 2007, which shows that scientific data provides very high confidence that global warming has been caused by human activity, Notre Dame was working to develop new, more energy-efficient, and cost-effective methods for capturing CO2 from power plants. Current technology to capture CO2 would almost double the cost of electricity. Once captured, CO2 can be used for enhanced oil recovery or stored safely in underground geologic formations. Using some newly developed compounds called ionic liquids, Notre Dame researchers are working with industrial collaborators DTE Energy, Babcock & Wilcox, Air Products, EMD Chemicals Inc., Trimeric, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory on break-through technology to remove CO2 from flue gas. A $3 million project awarded from the Department of Energy last fall was the largest award given to an academic institution for new CO2 capture technology development.

The CO2 capture project is part of the Notre Dame Energy Center (, which also focuses on improvements in energy efficiency, clean coal technology, safe nuclear waste disposal, and renewable energy — especially efficiently capturing wind energy and developing the next generation of solar energy collection devices.

In addition to promoting research, the energy center administers the Slatt Fellowships for energy-related undergraduate research, has an active Student Advisory Board, and works with the University’s energy and environmental issues committee ( to implement energy conservation and green energy policies on campus. The energy center was instrumental in securing a donation of solar cells from General Electric for the roof of the new engineering building (see related article on page 25), as well as a microturbine for student research projects from NiSource Energy Technologies. In October, the energy center also hosted an energy conference on campus.

Through the energy center, Notre Dame is doing its part to fight global warming. What about you?

A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1989, Brennecke serves as the Keating-Crawford Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of the Notre Dame Energy Center.