MacArthur Fellow Discusses Potential Engineering Solutions to Environmental Challenges
“Technology has solved problems on a global scale, existential problems,” Paul Dauenhauer, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota and MacArthur Fellow, said at a conference Monday night at the Salomon Center. “And we’re about to start over with energy. “
Dauenhauer’s lecture was part of the School of Engineering’s Dourdeville lecture series, which annually invites a guest speaker to discuss issues at the intersection of engineering and improving society.
Dauenhauer shared his thoughts on technological solutions to a wide range of environmental problems at his conference titled “Imagining a Fully Sustainable Carbon Future of Materials and Energy”. He discussed a number of potential engineering solutions to environmental problems such as the storage and transportation of wind and solar energy, the recycling of plastics, and the development of bio-renewable plastics and rubbers.
Solve questions of production and storage of clean energy
Much of the conference focused on finding new ways to store wind and solar energy in ammonia, which would allow a rapid and large-scale transition to clean energy, according to Dauenhauer.
The main factor holding back this transition, Dauenhauer explained, was the disconnection, both in time and space, between energy production and energy use. Solar power can only be produced during the day, he said, and wind turbines work best at night, which means it is difficult to make them a reliable source of energy for large populations. . Many solar and wind farms are also located far from population centers, making transportation a problem. In addition, energy consumption is much higher in winter and summer than at other times of the year, further increasing the need for efficient storage.
What is missing in the transition to a green energy economy, he said, “is the ability to take the power we produce and the power we use and store it, manage it, to balance it, between when we use it and when we don’t. use it. “
The solution he proposed is to use renewable energies on the site of a wind or solar farm to produce ammonia. It is a chemical compound that can be easily liquefied and transported by trucks, ships or pipelines to where it is needed. When burned, ammonia releases only nitrogen gas and water, making energy production a very low carbon process from generation to use. -he declares.
“We could do things like make ammonia in Australia and put it on a ship outside of Mumbai or near Beijing – places where a lot of people live… and pump it as needed,” he said. -he declares.
The problem, he said, was the lack of an effective catalyst to allow the ammonia-creating reaction to take place. “We haven’t made (the reaction) faster,” he said.
At present, he said, the inefficiency of the process prevents this method from competing effectively with fossil fuels in the energy market.
The potential cure he is studying, he added, involves a technology known as a catalytic pump, which can catalyze a reaction 1,000 to 10,000 times faster and use less energy than the typical method of ammonia production.
“We’re already working on these things,” Dauenhauer said, pointing to a photo of a University of Minnesota solar farm being used to test different technologies to increase the efficiency of ammonia production. “These are real possibilities for the future.”
Create more biorenewable products
Dauenhauer also spoke about new applications of chemical engineering in creating environmentally sustainable products, from plastics to rubbers to detergents. Many plastic products, he said, can now be created from bio-renewable biomass sources – such as agricultural waste – instead of petroleum.
“I know I can compete with petroleum using biomass as a feedstock,” he said, but currently the challenge is to make the processes more efficient and cost effective.
But, said Dauenhauer, “biorenewables are not enough,” because the waste problem remains. He noted that a common problem with many biorenewable materials is that some are not recyclable and even if they are, the quality deteriorates after recycling.
As a result, his team and others have developed a number of new biodegradable or recyclable products. He said advances in chemical engineering now allow recycled products to maintain a quality that they had not been able to achieve before, creating the potential for a closed-loop economy based on the continuous recycling of plastic products. .
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For new products from Dauenhauer, such as biodegradable rubber, one would “never know whether it is recycled or not,” he said. “The performance will be the same.
He noted that this sustainable technology is already being implemented, pointing to a number of start-ups founded by researchers at the University of Minnesota. “It’s really happening now, and it’s not just about (my) small start-ups,” he said. “These are big companies, mid-sized companies, all over the world seeing the potential that your waste could be valuable.”
These advancements in recycling, he speculated, could one day lead to a world in which waste becomes a valuable commodity rather than something that gets thrown away.
Engineering solutions to societal threats
Throughout the conference and in an interview with The Herald, Dauenhauer expressed a strong belief in the ability of technology to solve pressing problems impacting society.
Advances in technology have helped solve looming societal issues in the past, he said, and they will be able to do it again. He pointed to a widespread concern at the turn of the 20th century that soil depletion would soon lead the world to dangerously short of food, as evidenced by an 1898 speech at the British Academy of Sciences which predicted mass death from from the 1930s. This crisis, he said, was averted with the creation of the Haber-Bosch process, which enabled the mass production of fertilizers that sparked the Green Revolution.
The increasing efficiency of solar and wind power, he said in an interview with The Herald, is further proof of the power of engineering. “What’s amazing to me,” he said, “is that when I was 15 people said solar and wind technologies (would) never work – not that they (wouldn’t) would not work), but that they (would) never be profitable. “
“It was kind of desperate,” he told the conference.
“Right now, we can make solar panels and wind turbine assemblies cheaper than the cheapest fossil fuels. It’s amazing, ”he told the Herald. “And it has happened very quickly – over the past 10 years.”
Technological advancements, he said, could help offset the difficulty in adopting a climate change policy. For example, although a carbon tax would incentivize decarbonization, he said the policy is “difficult to implement”.
It would also pose “equity issues (for) countries that use less energy compared to countries like America which are more developed.”
Instead, Dauenhauer added, “we can create new carbon-free technologies that will allow us to solve these problems… We could invent technology that solves our problems.