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Rensselaer Alumni Magazine Spring 2006
Feature Articles President's View At Rensselaer Class Notes Features Making a Difference Rensselaer Milestones Staying Connected In Memoriam
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Clean Coal
Out of all the fossil fuels, coal can be the dirtiest. It also is the cheapest and the most plentiful. The U.S. alone has enough coal to last more than 200 years at today’s level of energy use, according to DOE.

“Those of us who can figure out how to burn coal with minimal pollution will be part of the ‘energy-environment economic’ solution,” says Robert Hanfling ’59, a clean-coal proponent and an energy policy expert who has served under three U.S. presidents.

The Brooklyn native remembers what it was like living in the midst of dirty and inefficient power plants 50 years ago. “You’ve heard the commercial, ‘ring around the collar?’ Well, when I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, if you wore a white shirt, by the time you came home you had ring around the collar,” Hanfling recalls. “The incinerators and the furnaces in apartment buildings were burning coal or burning trash, and the soot was all over the place.”

Hanfling is much more optimistic about coal power these days. He heads KFx Inc., a company in Denver, Colo., that has developed a way to process coal into a cleaner, more energy efficient product called “K-Fuel.”

“It is the unleaded gasoline equivalent for the coal-fired industry,” Hanfling says.

Economic prosperity depends upon energy. Power is essential to producing food and a variety of everyday products, and to running automobiles, mass transit systems, homes, industries, offices, hospitals, stores, and the many other building blocks of a vibrant economy.

The process uses temperature and pressure to reduce the water content of low-grade coal and lignite, thereby increasing the energy content in Powder River Basin coal by about 30 percent. In removing the water, Hanfling adds, the process also reduces the mercury content by 70 percent and upon combustion reduces sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions by 30 percent.

The company plans to construct facilities with a total capacity of 50 million tons per year of K-Fuel product within the next five years.

Toward a New Energy System
The federal government has been called upon by many in the field to play a greater role in pushing the frontiers of a greener energy system. Public incentives such as tax credits for using more efficient vehicles, regulation, and supporting industry with funding in developing alternative strategies are important first steps, Hanfling and others say.

“Energy is a key part of our national security. We pour billions of dollars into our defense department, yet we put relatively little money into energy security,” Hanfling says.

Hanfling also believes that raising prices, particularly at the pump because vehicles consume nearly half of all crude oil, will shift consumer behavior toward conservation and more energy-efficient alternatives.

Percy says higher energy prices, particularly in the form of taxation, and regulations such as a cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions will spur the technological innovation necessary to make a dependable energy transition.

The trend of higher energy costs is not likely to reverse anytime soon, Schwartz says. In the best-case scenario, the world makes a fairly smooth transition to a cleaner, more efficient energy system, which entails higher energy prices. “By the middle of the century, energy will be cleaner, greener, but more expensive,” he says.

While Schwartz says he generally is not a supporter of the President’s energy policy, “I find myself in near total agreement with the new initiatives he announced in his State of the Union, particularly recognizing the diversity of energy resources we need, from renewables to nuclear to clean coal,” he says. “The major criticism I have is the failure to address the demand for transport fuels either with higher mileage standards or a much higher gasoline/carbon tax. In the absence of such measures, we are unlikely to reduce demand by much.”

Still, Schwartz is optimistic that America and the rest of the world are beginning to look toward the greener side.

Abate shares that optimism and also the deepening concern of what it may mean if we take a wrong turn. “The industry is changing. It’s around sustainability. If you don’t get your energy policy right, your great-grandkids are going to live worse than you did.”

Energy Initiatives at Rensselaer

In the past 35 to 40 years, worldwide energy consumption has nearly doubled, driven by population growth, rising living standards, invention of energy-dependent technologies, and consumerism. While coal usage has decreased marginally, consumption of every other major energy source has increased markedly. Electricity use has nearly tripled. If these trends continue, global energy consumption will double again by mid-century.

“As the global demand for energy increases, it is crucial that we develop alternative and renewable energy sources,” says Omkaram “Om” Nalamasu, vice president for research. “Rensselaer’s combination of research, education, and entrepreneurship provides novel opportunities to move new energy technologies from the lab to the market.” Here’s a look at what Rensselaer is doing:

Center for Future Energy Systems
This $20 million research center, in partnership with Cornell University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, seeks to meet the energy challenges of the 21st century by focusing on innovation in and commercialization of energy conservation and renewable energy systems.

Web Site

Center for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research
Rensselaer’s Center for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research focuses on fuel cell development, hydrogen generation and storage, electrochemistry, solid state and polymer science, and the application of nano-materials in fuel cell and hydrogen research.

Press Release

Fuel Cell Research Education
Rensselaer has initiated a $4.8 million novel interdisciplinary program to train doctoral students in fuel cell science and engineering. The program is supported by a $3.2 million, first-of-its-kind fuel cell research education grant from the National Science Foundation combined with a $1.6 million investment by Rensselaer.

Press Release

Center for Power Electronics Systems
Established in August 1998, the Center for Power Electronics Systems is one of the nation’s relatively few National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers. Its vision is to provide the nation with the capabilities to become a world leader in power electronics.

Web Site

Future Chips Constellation
The Future Chips Constellation focuses on innovations in materials and devices, in solid-state and smart lighting, and will extend to applications such as sensing, communications, and biotechnology.

Web Site

New York State Center for Polymer Synthesis
Researchers are designing new polymers that could revolutionize or create entirely new industries. The future implications of this research are limitless, from achieving plug-in power for fuel cells, to biomedical applications that could help diagnose and treat many diseases.

Web Site

Lighting Research Center
Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center (LRC) is the leading university-based research center devoted to lighting. The center programs cover a range of activities including both laboratory testing of lighting products and real-world demonstration and evaluation of lighting products and designs. The LRC conducts research into energy efficiency, new products and technologies, lighting design, and human factors issues.

Web Site

Related Links:
Global Energy Security at RPI: Elements for a Sustainable Future
Back To Campus Speaker Series: "Imagining the Future of Energy" - View the Video

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