Energy is vital to dynamic societies and healthy economies. Consider the effects of the August 14, 2003, blackout, the largest in the history of North America. Within 15 minutes of the initial outage, five power grids and more than 50 million people — from southeastern Michigan through Ontario and from northern Ohio to New York City — were in the dark. Many were without power for three days.

This was not an isolated incident; the power problem is a global one. In June 2003 Italian electricity firms ordered the first nationwide power cuts in more than 20 years. A year later China faced one of its most severe power shortages since the 1980s. In fact, several provinces imposed brownouts in an attempt to conserve energy. For the last several years Scottish and British officials have been warning that, without a significant investment to build power supplies and infrastructure, blackouts similar to the August 14 event could occur in their countries.

In the United States as politicians and power companies struggle with technical concerns, consumer confidence, and ethical issues — such as the roles of managers and regulators in the power industry — researchers in the Notre Dame Energy Center are studying cost-effective ways to produce clean, safe, and renewable energy, in order to lessen the country’s dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The energy center was established in November 2005 to develop new energy technologies. According to Center Director Joan F. Brennecke, the Keating-Crawford Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, the center also hopes to play a key role in energy education and literacy, the development of energy policy, and the exploration of the ethical implications associated with energy. Notre Dame researchers have a proven track record in energy related research, but with the creation of the center, they join many universities across the country actively pursuing clean energy technologies. “It is such a huge challenge,” says Brennecke, “that we cannot afford to have just one place working on it.

We need the full force of our scientific and engineering expertise focused on this issue.”At the same time, Brennecke stresses that the energy center cannot physically tackle all of the challenges associated with energy. Instead, the center will target five areas in which University researchers have expertise: energy efficiency; clean coal utilization; carbon dioxide (CO2) separation, storage, and usage; safe nuclear waste storage; and renewable energy sources.

The concept of being more efficient with energy sounds simple. After all, choosing an energy efficient light bulb for a floor lamp isn’t exactly rocket science. But for those interested in conserving energy, it’s as important as turning down the temperature of a water heater, upgrading leaky windows, insulating hot water pipes, or driving a hybrid vehicle. These and other “mundane” actions may seem insignificant when considering the global energy picture, but a commitment to using energy wisely while developing advances in energy efficiency, and other viable energy technologies, is vital in both the short- and long-term.

It is especially important if governments, industries, or consumers think they can rely indefinitely on fossil fuel reserves. According to Brennecke, if the usage of fossil fuels were to remain constant (zero population growth with no increases in usage), oil supplies would last for approximately 35 years, natural gas for 60, and coal for 400.

Engineers at Notre Dame and around the world have been looking for ways to extend fuel reserves by developing more efficient ways of generating power. For example, fuel cells, which function like batteries, are inherently more efficient than combustion power cycles and can generate electricity up to two times more efficiently than a traditional power plant. Unfortunately, because most fuel cells use platinum and other expensive catalysts, they are not cost competitive. Durability is another issue. Fuel cell systems need to be as robust and reliable as combustion engines to be effective.

In projects supported by the U.S. Army and the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, College of Engineering researchers are targeting new and less expensive materials for methanol (direct methanol) and hydrogen (polymer electrolyte membrane/ PEM) fuel cells. By changing the flow patterns within a PEM fuel cell (the units most often used in vehicles), they have already achieved a dramatic increase in the efficiency of a cell.

University researchers working in conjunction with the Department of Energy are also attempting to capture the unused heat generated from power generation systems (industrial cycles) and use it to provide energy efficient absorption refrigeration.

According to an Associated Press report dated April 29, 2006, “Taken together Exxon, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips made a profit of $8.19 for every $100 in sales. In contrast, Internet bellwethers Google Inc, Yahoo Inc., and eBay Inc. collectively turned a $19.20 profit on every $100 of their combined revenue.” So why aren’t politicians, consumers, and industry leaders clamoring to impose higher taxes on these Web giants too?

Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that society does not need the Internet to survive, in spite of what teenagers believe. It does need energy. But the blame for the energy dilemma cannot be laid solely at the feet of the oil giants. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that gasoline accounts for approximately 17 percent of the energy consumed in the United States. Likewise, even though the demand for electric power in the U.S. has risen by 30 percent in the last decade, while transmission capabilities have grown by only 15 percent, power shortages cannot be attributed only to power companies.

Could it be that Americans are energy hogs? The EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook estimates that the average amount of energy used per person will continue to increase through 2030. Commercial energy use is also expected to rise, being affected largely by economic factors and population trends. Think about it: As Generation Xers age, they accumulate more disposable income, which is spent in hotels, restaurants, stores, theatres, and for transportation. In the ever-growing information age, there is also more need for electrically powered devices.

The truth is that a discussion of energy policy is long overdue, yet changes would be unlikely to have an immediate effect since consumer and industry behavior is part of the problem. Consumers seem reluctant to scale back their usage, and industry is unlikely to make changes that negatively affect the bottom line without federal intervention.

After almost five years and hundreds of hours of debate, the 1,700-page Energy Policy Act of 2005 was passed by Congress in July 2005 and signed into law a month later. Some of the provisions in the act, developed to combat growing energy problems, include:

— A tax credit of up to $3,400 for the owners of hybrid vehicles.
— A three-fold increase in the amount of biofuel (typically ethanol) to be mixed with gasoline sold in the United States.
— The authorization of $200 million annually for the development of clean coal technologies.
— The establishment of federal reliability standards regulating the nation’s electrical grid.
— Department of Energy authorization to build up to six new nuclear power plants.

A complex chemical substance, coal contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but it can also contain small amounts of nitrogen and sulfur, as well as heavy metals like mercury. There are four types of coal: anthracite, also called hard coal, which has the highest heating value; bituminous, or soft coal, used mostly for electric power generation; subbituminous, used for generating electricity and process heat; and lignite, which has a high moisture content and low heating value. Lignite is also used to generate electricity.

Coal has played a huge role in the development of the U.S. In the 1300s the Hopi Indians used coal for cooking, heating, and firing pottery. The first commercial mining of coal occurred in Virginia in the 1740s. In the early 1800s it was used to make glass and replaced wood as the fuel of choice for the first commercially practical American-built locomotive, the Tom Thumb.

Produced at one time or another in nearly all of the states that have deposits, coal has been used for domestic heating, railroad fuel, iron smelting, and electricity. Today, more than 20 percent of all of the energy consumed in the U.S. (and more than half of all of the electricity) is produced by coal. It is by far one of the country’s most abundant sources of fossil fuel, and the stage is set for it to once again power the economy.

In order to better address concerns about gases produced from burning coal, researchers in the energy center are studying hydrogen-oxygen combustion and the catalytic conversion of environmentally undesirable by-products of combustion, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Sometimes seen as a reddish-brown layer of air above urban areas, NOx contributes to the formation of acid rain and nutrient overload that can deteriorate water quality. A significant contribution to acid rain is also made by emissions of SO2.

Researchers are also exploring ways to capture and store the CO2 produced when coal and other fossil fuels are burned, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. One of the most promising processes involves the use of ionic liquids for flue gas and coal gasification separations.

Ionic liquids, organic salts that are liquid at room temperature, easily absorb a variety of gases. Researchers at Notre Dame have pioneered a technique using ionic liquids to separate CO2 from the flue gas discharged by conventional power plants. The process is especially important to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, summer ice covering the Arctic Ocean shrank to its smallest size in more than a century. The decades-long shift in ice cover is difficult to explain without accepting, at least in part, man’s impact upon the environment. An increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere has also occurred since the onset of industrialization. Today, CO2 concentrations have reached approximately 380 parts per million, a number that’s expected to rise to 500 or more parts per million by 2050.

Current technologies for separating CO2 do so at a 30 percent energy penalty, meaning that 30 percent of the energy generated is lost in the separation process. The Notre Dame method offers the potential to significantly reduce this penalty and has garnered considerable national attention. Funding for ionic liquids research at Notre Dame over the last five years has exceeded $5 million.

Nuclear power does not rely on fossil fuels and creates no greenhouse gases that need to be sequestered. Yet nuclear power produces only 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. While countries like France and Japan have embraced nuclear power, the U.S. has been reluctant to build more nuclear power plants.

Part of President Bush’s Advanced Energy Initiative, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership teams the U.S. with supplier and user nations. Its goals include development of a new generation of power plants; new technologies that would recycle spent fuel, reducing the volume of waste that would need to be stored in a geological repository; new small-scale reactors for developing countries; and enhanced safeguards that would make it more difficult to “divert nuclear materials or modify systems without immediate detection.”

The biggest problem with nuclear fission is what to do with the radioactive waste. Where should it be stored? How should it be stored? And, how long can it be safely stored before leaching into the environment?

Notre Dame researchers, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, have pioneered the identification of new compounds of uranium and other radioactive nuclides, which will help them predict the mobility of these compounds in the environment. Working with the Department of Energy, they are also studying how radioactive materials would act in a geological repository, such as the Yucca Mountain facility.

Can energy supplies from clean coal technologies or nuclear power meet the needs of a growing population? Or are other solutions needed? From 1900 to 2006, the world’s population more than quadrupled. During the same time period, energy consumption increased more than 16-fold. Today, there are 6.5 billion people who need energy to survive. By 2050, there may be 10 billion demanding their piece of the energy pie, except they will have fewer resources from which to draw.

The options open to them will likely be a combination of carbon-neutral energy (clean coal technologies if commercially viable), nuclear power (which, if used to address the entire projected need, would require the construction of a new nuclear power plant every day for the next 50 years), and renewable energy sources, such as hydropower, geothermal power, wind, biomass, and solar energy. Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy sources never run out.

Accounting for 20 percent of the world’s electricity, hydropower depends on the volumetric flow of the water and the height from which it descends. One of the main advantages of hydrosystems is that they do not require fuel. Without a doubt the most identifiable source of hydroelectric power in North America is Niagara Falls. In 1893 water was first diverted from the Canadian side of the falls to generate electricity, and a 2,200 kilowatt plant was built just above the Horseshoe Falls. Today, approximately 2 million kilowatts of electricity are generated from a number of sites along the Canadian side of the falls. On the American side, additional power plants generate more than 2.4 million kilowatts.

The world’s largest producer of hydropower, Canada generates more than 70 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric sources. Austria produces 67 percent, Iceland produces 83 percent, and Norway produces virtually all of its electricity using hydrosystems.

Another source of renewable energy is geothermal power. The world’s first geothermal power plant was built in Larderello, Italy, in 1911. It remained the only industrial producer of geothermal power until 1958. Today, Larderello produces 10 percent of the world’s supply of geothermal electricity, powering a million households. Although global geothermal production has doubled in the last 20 years, geothermal power trails hydropower production. It is also not a viable option in many parts of the world, as not all geothermal areas have a high enough temperature to produce steam.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the global wind power market increased more than 40 percent in 2005. Almost 25 percent of the new wind capacity was added in North America, making it one of the world’s foremost implementers of wind power. In fact, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are powered totally by wind energy.

Like other renewables, wind lessens dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, provides clean energy, and has the potential to support additional economic development. The wind turbines, which can stand alone or connect to a utility grid, operate up to 100 meters above the ground, where they intercept faster, less turbulent air. When operating at peak power, wind farms in the U.S. are expected to generate 25 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2006.

Biomass fuels (energy stored in organic matter) provide three percent of all of the energy consumed in the U.S. and produce 9 percent of the world’s energy needs. Wood, agricultural waste, municipal solid waste, sugar or starch crops, grass straw, soy beans, and waste vegetable oil are all sources for biomass fuels, which can be converted to liquid fuels, such as methanol and ethanol, as well as to heat and electricity. Although a subject of great debate regarding the specific percentages involved, it may take almost as much energy (most likely in the form of fossil fuel) to produce one liter of biomass fuel as is obtained from burning one liter of the fuel. Currently, only the sugar/carbohydrate content of plants is used to produce biomass fuels; the higher the sugar/carbohydrate content, the larger the ratio between the energy produced and the energy consumed. So while this renewable energy source appears to be a promising alternative to gasoline, there are many aspects in need of further research — such as using the whole plant, including its cellulose, or developing crops specifically for use in biomass fuels — before these types of fuels are commercially viable.

Solar power can be used for heating and to produce electricity. In the simplest of terms, a solar cell converts light from the sun into electricity. A photovoltaic cell is composed of a semiconductor material that absorbs visible light and converts the incident light into electricity. Though a clean and sustainable source of energy, photovoltaic cells are not currently competitive when compared to other options. However, the decreasing cost of production and increasing demand for clean energy are likely to make photovoltaics a viable option in the future.
University researchers are working to reconfigure photovoltaic cells using nanomaterials. In particular, they are studying means by which cells and photocatalytic processes can be made more efficient and less costly through the use of nanoparticles and hybrid inorganic-organic materials.

Undergraduates entering the College of Engineering have many opportunities. Among the most exciting are hands-on research experiences, particularly in the field of energy. This year four students were selected to participate in the Vincent P. Slatt Endowment for Undergraduate Research in Energy Systems and Processes. Junior Laura Adams, civil engineering and geological sciences; senior David Couling, chemical and biomolecular engineering; senior Mark Palladino, electrical engineering; and junior Peter VanLoon, computer science and engineering, were chosen as Slatt scholars.

The Slatt Endowment was created by Christopher (B.S., EE ’80) and Jeanine Slatt in honor of Vincent P. Slatt (B.S., EE ’43), the visionary incorporator of the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC). Founded in 1969, CFC provides financing for more than 1,050 electric cooperatives nationwide. These cooperatives serve more than 39 million people (12 percent of all U.S. consumers) and account for approximately five percent of electricity generating capacity. The endowment recognizes and supports the energy related research activities of undergraduates, from the use of fossil fuels and nuclear and renewable energy sources to the development of more efficient transportation and energy utilization systems.

This year’s projects highlighted a wide range of topics. Adams studied factors that could impact the release of radioactive materials from a nuclear repository, such as the facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Her adviser was Peter C. Burns, the Henry J. Massman Jr. Chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences.

Making the most efficient use of ionic liquids as industrial solvents, specifically for gas separations, was the focus of Couling’s research. Couling studied the equilibrium solubilities of different mixtures of gases in a variety of ionic liquids to determine the optimum mixture for gas solubility. His adviser was Joan F. Brennecke, the Keating-Crawford Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of the Notre Dame Energy Center.

Palladino worked with X. Sharon Hu, associate professor of computer science and engineering, to address energy consumption in electronic systems. Preliminary results of the project, which included a novel cache design, were presented at the International Conference on Computer Aided Design, a premier conference in the field of computing.

VanLoon explored the feasibility of a new tunneling transistor that would require less power to change the transistor from “on” to “off.” A device built using such transistors would conserve energy. Working on the nanoscale with adviser Alan C. Seabaugh, professor of electrical engineering, VanLoon employed electron beam lithography and other processes available in the department’s nanofabrication facility.

As focused as the country seems to be on energy, or at least on gas prices, energy ... having the resources to power cell phones, computers, airplanes, grocery stores, and home heating systems ... has long been taken for granted. People joke about the quality of life today compared to 40 or 50 years ago: “When I was growing up, we didn’t have cable or iPods.“ They share stories about hauling firewood or stoking coal stoves. They even suggest that if George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were alive today they wouldn’t recognize the country or know how to use most of the devices they would encounter.

The fact of the matter is that Washington and Lincoln would probably fare better in the 21st century than today’s consumers would in the 1700s or 1800s — with no Internet, no cell phones, no radio or television, no refrigeration or air conditioning, no cars, and no cross-country flight service. Washington faced a huge challenge at the birth of this nation; Lincoln confronted different issues at its rebirth. They both used the tools available to them to help forge a better country. Today’s engineers and scientists, working as stewards of knowledge and the environment, are attempting to forge a new set of tools as they work to better power the world.

For more information about energy research and education at Notre Dame, visit

On May 3, 2006, during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, Rex W. Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., was questioned about the company’s record profits and their relationship to skyrocketing gas prices. His response was pointed. He said, “We work for the shareholder ... Our job is to make the most money for them so their pension[s] are secure.” While charging what the market will bear and returning a good profit for investors are parts of any sound business plan, many would argue that the bottom line is not the sole factor that should be considered when dealing with energy in the 21st century.

From the responsible use of a shrinking supply of fossil fuels to the economic consequences and ethical implications of current energy policies, today’s college students will face serious energy challenges throughout their lives. In order to help students better understand the challenges while appreciating that engineers cannot operate in a vacuum, the College of Engineering introduced courses relating to energy, society, and the climate in 2005.

The first course, “Energy and Society,” is one of several Engineering, Science, Technology, and Society courses offered. It provides a comprehensive review of the role of energy in society and covers a variety of social, economic, and political issues associated with energy, as well as scientific and technical applications. Last semester under the direction of Dean Frank P. Incropera, the course instructor, engineering and non-engineering undergraduates studied different forms of energy, as well as the limitations of current technologies. They reviewed the economic and environmental impact of alternative energy sources, and they followed the actions of many of the global players, such as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Russia, China, and the United States. Most importantly, through consideration of ethical and social justice issues, they attempted to integrate their faith with decisions concerning future energy utilization and development. For more information on “Energy and Society” and other ESTS courses, visit

Another course, “Energy and Climate,” addresses the magnitude of world energy needs, quantifies the link between energy use and climate cycles, and identifies the challenges of producing environmentally friendly energy sources. “Part of what Notre Dame brings to the table,” says Joan F. Brennecke, director of the Notre Dame Energy Center and Keating-Crawford Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is the integration of research and teaching with regard to energy. It is vital for the next generation to understand how we utilize energy and incorporate it into our daily lives, so that they can make sound decisions about energy usage and energy policy.” Taught by Brennecke and Mark J. McCready, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, course topics include power cycle analysis, atmospheric chemistry and climate modeling, coal, biomass fuels, wind and hydroelectric power, weather cycles, and nuclear energy.

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