By REBECCA TOWNSEND and DAVID GURECKI
Researchers at the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy, located at IUPUI, are not so much interested in developing technology to compete in today's marketplace as they are in figuring out how to identify the limitations of today's renewable energies and develop solutions to inefficiencies or opportunities for innovation.
Examples of ongoing research efforts include a seawater flow battery that produces desalinized water as a byproduct and waste-to-energy projects.
Another ongoing effort is focused on the gasification of agricultural residue, such as corn stover and rice hulls, that produces silicon (used in solar panels) as a co-product. In addition, LCRE researchers have also figured out a way to use the silicon they obtain from the waste to store hydrogen. That hydrogen can then be put to use in fuel cells to power vehicles.
Three students from the India Institute of Technology-Bombay teamed with an LCRE grad student to help install one of the gasification units just across Fall Creek north of the IUPUI campus. The "stalk stoker" is now operational and researchers are exploring the potential for the renewable hydrogen fuel source the machine enables.
Inspired by questions raised at the LCRE's Spring Forum [see David Gurecki's overview of the event], we followed up with Professor Peter Schubert, director of LCRE, at his IUPUI office to discuss the challenges and opportunities he sees in the renewable energy field.
NUVO: Tell us about the economic reality for renewable energy these days.
Peter Schubert: Right now, renewable energy is in a slump. There's been an incredible bonanza of energy with natural gas from hydraulic fracturing. This, purely from an economic standpoint, is a bonanza. Because of that, the pressure to look at renewable sources has dropped considerably — in industry, for consumers, and for governments. So that puts the Lugar Center in quite a pinch. That also means that industry has less pressure to invest in renewable energy.
That leaves universities to look beyond economic arguments, to look at systems thinking, life-cycle analysis. And to think about: What is the impact on the environment? What's the impact on human health? How do we make these things more sustainable?
Because, even though they are abundant, fossil fuels, they are finite. They will become more expensive to extract and will cause cumulative effects in our environment. So the goal of the Lugar Center is to develop renewable sources that do not have those types of impacts and to make them economical.
NUVO: What is the likelihood that we could destroy the planet before we run out of fossil fuels? If renewable energy is not translating that well to the marketplace, is it because the environmental and health consequences are externalized — not reflected in the commercial cost of oil, coal or natural gas?
Schubert: It's political and economic. I'm reading two really good references right now. One is called The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes. She describes how a small group of scientists have obscured the truth on number of issues, including smoking, acid rain, ozone hole, second-hand smoke, and climate change. These scientists are funded specifically and deliberately to create public debate in order to delay action for economic purposes. They are incredibly effective.
Another book ... The Future by Al Gore. He has a very cogent and sober analysis of this dynamic in the first couple of chapters ... It is a very chilling description of the current environment where the organizations that have been able to exert political influence have been able to maintain their interests economically even though they may not be serving the highest and best good of society. And those who we elect to represent us are often influenced to a high degree by established and powerful interests.
NUVO: Given this dynamic, how is it even possible to make progress?
Schubert: Two answers: In my previous work ... I tried to update the Illinois code to make it possible for farmers to use gasification technology to be able to produce more of their own energy and heat. I ran into incredible opposition from the utility companies. And, working for a small company, not only was I completely outgunned, but I felt like I had a target on my back. ... Because many of these initiatives are starting small, it's very difficult for the David and Goliath to have any outcomes similar to what happened in the Bible. There is considerable risk at vocalizing opposition to the status quo.
The other answer is: If you look historically at the United States, we have been historically effective at responding reactively to crisis. It's what we're best at. But being proactive is not something Americans are known for worldwide. So it's my personal opinion that it will require a significantly negative, emotional event before the tide turns to more favor renewable, clean sources of energy ...
I'm a researcher, a scientist, and I'm also a capitalist. I believe in the free market system. I believe in making money. But these things need to be balanced ... We don't want to crash everything. We need to have a plan, a pathway that we can get to a point of sustainability. What's at debate here is how fast do we need to do that. And public conscientious is lagging behind science, but that has always been the case.
NUVO: How does the Lugar Center position itself within this reality?
Schubert: One of the principles we have at the Lugar Center is we're working as fast as we're able to with limited resources so we can be ready ... It is a waste of time to fight against the establishment, we need to make sure we're doing good science, good engineering, good policy, and prepare for when everyone says, "Oh, my gosh we need you guys real bad." And then we can, hopefully, lead the charge and make it happen fast.
We've increased, in recent years with the Obama administration, the investment in renewable energies and it has not been very pretty. There are some successes out there, but the failures are high profile and that means that public perception is tarnished. ... We're on a shoestring budget right now. My job is to scour the world to find out where the investment is that can keep this work going and it's a hard sell. It's really, really tough.
NUVO: Given the LCRE's work with the "stalk stoker," do you see farms getting to a place of self sufficiency with regards to energy?
Schubert: No. We're working towards that, but we're a long way from that. Of all the energies use on farms, about 40 percent are from diesel fuel. They get a lot from gas or propane, a lot from electricity, a little bit from gasoline and very, very little from renewable sources. Many of our technologies are aimed at helping farms become self-sufficient, helping to promote agriculture.
This ("stalk stoker") unit, for example, can produce bio char. Bio char is a form of carbon, it is also a soil augmentation, so it can increase yields. It's not a fertilizer, but it can help soil hold moisture better, increase tilth and allow good bugs to come make nitrogen in the soil.
With this machine, we've got the ability to produce hydrogen as renewable fuel because we make it from plant material. We can put it into existing gasoline engines to extend their range and improve their emissions. [The research team] is working on how to produce hydrogen in sufficient quantities to put into your vehicle as a dual fuel to reduce the amount of gasoline you need.
We're looking at how we can have farmers make hydrogen with their waste biomass, store it in silicon, which comes from the waste of the waste, and run a fuel cell tractor.
NUVO: This sounds like it is right on target with your mission of fuel life-cycle analysis.
Schubert: Extracting every bit of value from renewable sources is leading to true sustainability.The ultimate test is: Can you put people into a can in outer space and have them live sustainability off the Earth?
I'm a member of the AIAA, the AmericanInstitute of Aeronautics andAstronautics, and I'm on their space colonization technical committee ... developing technologies to support and sustain human presence in space. My area of research is: How can you be as efficient as possible when you're growing food and using energy?
The technologies we've used to make silicon from rice hull ash were derived from technologies to make silicon from lunar soil. I have three patents on how to do that. I had a NASA grant of $600,000 to build one. The goal there is to produce silicon on the moon so that we can build solar panels on the moon and place them into orbit around the Earth where they can collect sunlight all the time. No night, no clouds, no rain. Then use millimeter waves to beam the power safely to the Earth so we have all the electric power we could ever want without pollution from either the manufacture or generation of electric power.
NUVO: What is a millimeter wave and how much energy do you lose using it?
Schubert: About 50 percent, but compared to other things that's in the same range. Millimeter waves are on your body every time you go through airport security. ... The most recent demonstration of power transmission over long distances was between two volcanoes in Hawaii on different Islands. Now people are proposing we use the International Space Station to beam power through the atmosphere to see how it affects the troposphere, how does it affects bugs, and test how much power do you lose — because it's not 100 percent, nothing is 100 percent.
This is one that is you know, 20-30 years away. But it all ties in with this other stuff because getting silicon and making solar panels on farms is the first step to getting humans permanently in space and using lunar soil, which has a lot of silicon in it, to make the solar panels, which can save life on Earth.