Yashar Mehmani, assistant professor in the Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, said there should be an emphasis on both emission-reduction technologies, like carbon dioxide capture and storage, and zero-emission technologies such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydrogen.
“In terms of education, the public must have a clear understanding of the pending problems facing society, such as climate change and energy transition, including what the penalties for inaction are and what barriers stand in the way,” Mehmani said.
According to Linxiao Zhu, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, it is imperative to rethink scenarios with a big energy footprint, such as buildings, heating, cooling, manufacturing and transportation. His research group’s work involves controlling heat and light using novel nanomaterials and structures.
“A big motivation is to harvest clean energy and improve energy efficiency,” Zhu said. “For example, we are currently exploring if sunlight and the cold from outer space can be better used to produce electricity and energy-free cooling. Such clean energy and passive cooling both contribute to reducing emissions. We also created a solid-state device that converts heat to electricity via thermophotovoltaics and a solid-state refrigerator based on light.”
Logan said there are opportunities to make housing more energy-friendly through smart homes, which are a combination of insulation, smart thermometers, high-efficiency heat pumps and solar panels.
“We also need to transform our transportation infrastructure by going to electric vehicles charged using renewable energy,” Logan said.
However, Logan recognizes there is a challenge to be overcome when it comes to the weight of batteries and their energy capabilities compared to gasoline. For example, about 2% of a car’s weight is gasoline, but approximately 25% of an electric car’s weight is batteries.
In Christopher Arges’ lab, he and his colleagues are working on high-temperature polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells for electrifying heavy-duty vehicles, such as long-haul trailer trucks, airline jets and ocean liners.
“Heavy-duty vehicles are difficult to electrify with conventional battery technology as the batteries become too heavy and the charge times are too long for a vehicle meant to be constantly on the road or water, or in the air,” said Arges, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. “Fuel cells are an electrochemical energy conversion system with no carbon emissions, provided the hydrogen is derived from water electrolysis. Fuel cells can provide continuous power as fuel is available, similar to a gas engine, and do not need to be recharged. They can have higher energy density values than batteries.”
The electrical grid
The power grid was originally designed based on mostly one type of fuel source — fossil fuels — with an endless supply, said Greenlee.
“Now we are looking at a more diverse set of energy sources and some of them are intermittent, such as solar and wind energy,” Greenlee said. “How do we enable the power grid to support variability? At certain times, we have an excess of supply, and at other times, we have power consumption that is more than the instantaneous supply. Storage technologies still lag, and the spikes in variability are difficult for the grid to manage. Also, climate change-induced extremes are getting worse, so the resilience of the power grid is also a challenge.”
These are only technical solutions. Logan stresses that people must be considered when developing solutions, and it must be through a global lens.