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FEATURE

Our Need for Energy Continues to Grow. But There's
Good News: What We Understand about Renewable Energy Sources
Is on the Rise, Too.

FOLLOW THE SUN
WRITTEN BY TOMMY EHRBAR

Atop the Frick Environmental Center in Frick Park, solar panels track the sun across the sky, converting radiant light into electricity. Listen to the sound of energy in conversion. It is stillness, broken only by the bird song resonating in the trees. The trees, too, in the orientation of their leaves, track the sun, seizing light to spur photosynthesis. All in all, the environmental center is an agreeable setting to think about energy. So, take a seat on the nearby bench. Take in the sun. Let us contemplate the forces of nature. Let us go with energy's flow.

America has reached a pivotal moment in the history of energy policy. You wouldn't know it by the newspapers. You wouldn't know it by what presidential candidates are, or are not, saying. But new technologies, triggered by the OPEC oil crisis two decades ago, are precipitating an unprecedented boom in energy sources--of the renewable kind. One of these is solar power--the array of photovoltaic panels on the Frick roof. This one was built, incidentally, by Edward Harwood (Engineering '91.) Let it stand as a symbol for brightness and hope. And let us examine the dynamics of energy conversion in our University and in our world.

Two truths about global energy on the eve of the millennium. Truth number one: Change is in the wind--and in the other renewable forces of nature. Over the next three decades, power from wind turbines will increase a hundredfold. Solar energy will jump tenfold. Our biomass energy sources--biofuels, municipal waste incineration, and agricultural remains--will double. So predicts the World Energy Council. Truth number two: Our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power will in no way diminish, remaining unchecked at about 80 percent of energy use, the World Energy Council says. With our planet's population growth in steady rise, and with the inexorable shift toward global industrialization, the demand for energy, old and new, ratchets ever upward.

Some three miles from Frick Park are the Benedum Hall headquarters for Pitt's Center for Energy Research (CER). Two chemical engineers, Shiao-Hung Chiang and James Cobb, are the guiding forces here, overseeing a multidisciplinary enterprise of insightful ideas and innovative research focused primarily on that black compound long embedded in our topography and wedded to our economy--coal.

Consider that black compound. And consider how a river town was transformed into a mighty metropolis. In the nineteenth century, Pittsburgh's legendary coal bed fueled our archetypical enterprises, beginning with glass manufacturing. Glass magnate James O'Hara set the model for Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick, who burned coal in their steel furnaces. In turn, H. J. Heinz used Pittsburgh glass and metal to package his foods. And George Westinghouse, too, drew on the energy of coal to produce his powerful innovations in railroad technology. A legendary economy, coal-fired, came into being. But in contemporary America, coal has taken a new turn and is perceived as a villain ore that endangered the miners and now threatens the whole biosphere.

In 1996, Pitt researchers are determined to resuscitate coal's image, to liquify it, to gasify it, to make it clean. Visit the Benedum sub-basement where a 20-foot-high assembly of pipes and pressure valves represents a promising line of inquiry, a shared hope of Pitt, Westinghouse Electric Company, and the US Department of Energy to clean coal through what is dubbed the LICADO process. This project, invented by Chiang and his Pitt engineering colleague, George Klinzing, pulverizes raw coal into fine particles mixed with water. This blend is then injected into a high-pressure chamber along with liquid carbon dioxide. In the chamber, the coal attaches to the carbon dioxide, while sulphur-containing ash stays trapped in the water. LICADO and other innovative technologies may well provide clean coal to run our nation's power plants in the twenty-first century. And Chiang predicts that in 2030, despite the emergence of renewable sources, coal will provide 55 percent of the world's energy.

Pitt is also investigating new uses for another old fuel: natural gas. Backed by a major grant from the Federal Highway Administration, Pitt will test a fleet of 20 natural-gas Dodge Ram vans. The vans will fuel up at a compressed natural gas (CNG) station on Forbes Avenue, one of three public stations in the city. Pitt will develop comparisons between gasoline-powered and natural gas-powered vehicles and share its insights with regional fleet operators. Says Cobb, "We simply must begin to make the shift from oil."

The good news for oil is that world reserves are estimated at a 1,000 billion barrels. The bad news is that most ways of using oil, which now provides 40 percent of world energy needs, are highly polluting.

The United States imports about 50 percent of its oil. But recent legislation, the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992, is designed to lower the percentage and convert transportation fuels to cleaner choices.

The 1990 measure requires government and commercial fleets in 22 heavily polluted cities--including Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago--to meet high emission standards phased in by the end of the decade. The 1992 energy law, aimed at energy self-sufficiency, mandates that federal, state, and local governments equip a certain number of vehicles to run on alternative fuel. Congress, deliberately, did not designate which fuels.

Cobb counts four possibilities: "First is fuel alcohol--mainly ethanol or methanol--produced from wood or agricultural residue." In the United States we subsidize the production of ethanol from corn. Burning alcohol rather than gasoline reduces smog and petroleum imports but has a reputation for damaging engines.

"Second is electricity," says Cobb. "Here is a real sleeper. The big question is whether an economically attractive battery can be designed."

The third is hydrogen-based fuel cells, which convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity. But here, too, Cobb foresees technical problems of storage and safety yet to be worked out.

And fourth is the fuel that powers Pitt's new fleet of vans. "Natural gas," Cobb says, "looks like the most practical alternative. It's cheap, and it's plentiful." By some estimates, the United States has more than a 50-year supply of gas. Adds Cobb: "Natural gas doesn't need refining and is delivered by pipelines that already crisscross the United States and Canada." And consider the price advantage: a gallon of gas costs $1.25 in the United States; a comparable amount of CNG costs between 50 and 80 cents. Even better, from an environmental point of view, CNG burns clean, producing such a low level of hydrocarbon emissions when it is burned that expensive control devices, such as catalytic converters, aren't required.

By 2030, Cobb predicts that 50 percent of American transportation fuel will not be gasoline: "We will have multiple choices." And Pitt will play a significant role in evaluating those choices.

Cobb is likewise quick to identify links between the Center for Energy Research and the City of Pittsburgh. CER intern Douglass Motley-Balleine (Engineering '93) has conducted an energy audit of the Pittsburgh Zoo, analyzing the efficiency of electricity flow. The result: ample energy savings. Another CER intern, Phillip Elliott (Engineering '95), has performed similar analysis with the Schenley Park skating rink. As another sign of Pitt's energy adeptness, natural gas chillers have now replaced conventional air conditioners in Pitt's Biomedical Science Tower.

Bit by bit, pitt is taking the lead in our region, testing innovative fuels and cleaning up old ones. It's happening persistently, quietly, like the play of light on the solar panels atop the Frick Park Environmental Center. In 1996 something is new under the sun.

When it comes to energy, there's no escaping Earth's nearest star. Solar power sustains our habitable biosphere so we can breathe. It provides us light and heat. It has also delivered us fossil fuels, arising from an oh-so-slow transformation of hydrocarbons by pressure and heat. These fuels--coal, natural gas, oil--have defined the character of the past two centuries of human civilization but face a limited, nonrenewable future.

Energy, when you think about it, is our only universal currency. To get work done, energy requires transformation. This is true for the vast and the small, for rotating galaxies and raindrops that erode. During this twentieth century, scientists and other thinkers hit upon a new observation: the direct link between civilization and energy. Human progress demands ever higher energy needs.

Still, even Nobel Prize winners are puzzled to explain the exact nature of energy. World-renowned physicist Richard Feynman once said that in contemporary physics there is no precise knowledge of what energy actually is. What we do know is that all matter is energy at rest, that energy assumes many forms, and that these distinct forms can be converted into one another.

Chiang takes a stab at definition. "Energy can be thought of as any form of organization." A countering force is entropy, which means a loss of useful energy. Chiang explains: "Mixing a handful of black sand and white sand requires a small amount of energy. But to do the reverse, to separate and pick out the white and black specks of sand consumes much more energy. It is not useful. It leads to entropy."

Across America today scientists attempt to tap energy sources creatively. In Northern California, for instance, an array of 16,000 white wind turbines harvest air into electricity, producing 80 percent of the world's usable wind power. In Southern California, a 20,000-foot hole at Sandia National Laboratories allows scientists to probe the molten rock that forms the Earth's layer of magma--a possible energy source.

Nuclear power, of course, remains the great unknown, emerging in recent decades as a formidable energy contender. But for more than a decade, US construction of new plants has ceased. "The reason," says Cobb tersely, "Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl." Today France is the world's foremost nuclear nation with 99 percent of its electrical energy generated by fission. Cobb does predict that eventually, centuries perhaps, world energy will depend on nuclear power.

Enter into the next millennium. "In the twenty-first century," Cobb says, "the world's energy needs will increase tremendously." He foresees fast-paced industrial growth by such countries as Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Korea, and, of course, China, which has promised its 1.2 billion people a refrigerator in every home by 2000.

Looking back on our fossil-fuel age, we see a revolution in transportation. Chiang displays a chart showing how new energy sources--represented as an upward spike on a graph--have led to inventions that have figuratively created a smaller world.

Until the early nineteenth century, the means of transportation had changed little for 2,000 years. Then, quite suddenly: New energies altered travel by waterway, by railroad, on the roads, and in the air.

First came coal. The beginnings of coal utilization go back to antiquity when humans discovered the rock that could burn. Han-dynasty Chinese (200 BC) used coal in iron production. But it is the development of the coal-fueled steam engine, around the beginning of the nineteenth century, that marked the first usable energy source since the adoption of windmills. Spike! Here was a machine that converted coal's chemical energy into mechanical energy. The earliest steamboats were built during the 1780s in France, the United States, and Scotland. Robert Fulton's Clermont was launched in 1807.

Later in the nineteenth century, oil and natural gas entered the scene. Spike! These fuels possessed a higher energy density than coal, were cleaner to burn, and were easier to transport and store. Amazingly, the Han dynasty had again been there first, burning natural gas to evaporate underground water in the landlocked Sichuan province. The Chinese practice remained isolated from all outsiders, and the beginning of the worldwide hydrocarbon age waited for two millennia.

The English first distilled kerosene in 1853, and the fuel quickly replaced expensive whale oil in lamps. Thus was born the modern oil industry, driven to greater heights by American enterprise. On August 27, 1859, at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, Colonel E.L. Drake led his workers in penetrating 10 meters of rock, completing an oil-producing well.

The development of internal combustion--burning fuel within the cylinder--proceeded apace. In 1885, the German, Karl Benz, built the world's first car. A lightweight internal combustion engine also propelled the first human flight, as Orville Wright soared above the North Carolina dunes on December 17, 1903.

The generation, transmission, and use of electricity was another spectacular achievement in energy innovation. Spike! It began with Michael Faraday's demonstration of electromagnetic induction on October 17, 1831. Faraday proved that mechanical energy and electrical energy can be converted in either direction.

Thomas Edison parlayed this discovery into the high-vacuum light bulb in 1879, endowing the world with a new kind of light. Edison also created the first electricity-generating plant in 1882. By 1900 electricity was commonplace in households and industries--including telecommunications--and also on railroads.

Energy technology has advanced throughout the twentieth century, interrupted by World War I and the Great Depression.

World War II, in turn, speeded up the development of nuclear energy, jet planes, and rocket propulsion.

Fossil fuels and electricity have spurred innovations in metallurgy, the chemical industries, and the development of weapons with unprecedented destructive powers. World energy use increased more than sixtyfold from 1860 to 1985, but great disparities widened between the developed and the developing countries, the energy haves and have-nots.

When oil shortages first loomed in the early 1970s, even before the OPEC embargo on shipments to the West, the chilling predictions went out: The industrialized world had fattened on cheap energy and might never recover from tight supplies. But in the decades since, oil has become more and more plentiful.

And so we return to 1996. The sky darkens over Frick Park, the solar panels stop in their tracks--until the rise of a new day. We are at the dawn of a new age of energy and brightness. The technologies are in place, filling energy niches, providing clean, powerful fuels. The work will accelerate in the next century. Observe, then, in the years ahead as Pitt transforms energy into action and makes Western Pennsylvania a new place in the sun.


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