Fighting Global Warming
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
(energycenter.nd.edu), 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 (green.nd.edu) 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.