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Engineering for a New World

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

11th Annual NAE Frontiers of Engineering Symposium
GE Global Research Center
Niskayuna, N.Y.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Good evening. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here, among an illustrious and select gathering of the nation’s top engineers. I am engaged by the knowledge that you — chosen because you are the best, the brightest, and of an age where you have accomplishments to your credit, and productive years ahead — are here to be challenged.

I have always noted that it is risky to make predictions about the future, especially on a global scale. The impact of key events of the past five years – the terrorists attacks of September 2001, in the United States, the SARS epidemic, or the recent earthquake and tsunami – tell us that the 21st century may turn out much differently than our best prophets could have predicted.

One key challenge of the 21st Century rose up and looked us directly in the eyes, a few weeks ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast. And now Hurricane Rita is threatening to do the same. As we know, Hurricane Katrina swamped cities, cut power lines, closed shipping ports, damaged oil drilling and refining facilities, knocking out about 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity , leaving hundreds dead, and hundreds of thousands homeless. The mass relocation of people, many have said, is the largest since the Dust Bowl out-migration of the 1930s, or the dislocation caused by the Civil War .

The disruption of key energy systems in the gulf region rippled throughout the nation and the economy. The oil industry strained to recover oil rigs and refineries. There were some gas stations without gasoline, long lines at others, and gasoline prices soared into uncharted territory. The U.S. Postal service declined mail addressed to zip codes in the affected areas. Wire services advised against emailing to southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama because of “bounce-back” volume. The educations of 75,000 college students in the region were interrupted. The effects are still being revealed, understood, evaluated, comprehended.

Among many lessons – some to be long discussed and debated - the storm brought home to the U.S. population, perhaps in a new way, the cost, both economic and social, of major disruption of our basic infrastructure. And, as oil and gas companies, and utilities struggle to get “back on line”, Hurricane Katrina clearly illustrates our dependence on readily available, inexpensive, uninterruptible energy.

Yet, Hurricane Katrina’s impact on U.S. energy supplies only made clearer a global situation which is steadily building — namely, the critical need for energy security not only in this nation, but, indeed, throughout the entire world.

Global Energy Outlook

While a looming global energy security crisis may have been laid bare by disaster, it is being accelerated by a positive force — the extraordinary economic growth in many of the world’s developing nations. This growth is enabling these nations to provide their populations with the common necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing, transportation, education — necessities to which many never had access before. This unprecedented growth both is enabled by energy availability, and at the same time causes a heretofore unparalleled demand for energy, in all of its forms. Global energy consumption is projected to increase by 57 percent from 2002-2025. But, another point to consider is this: for every two gallons of petroleum-based fuel consumed, one gallon is discovered.

In the past 35-40 years, worldwide energy consumption has nearly doubled, driven by population growth, rising living standards, invention of energy-dependent technologies, and consumerism. Energy consumption has grown nearly everywhere, with the most dramatic percentage increase in China and the rest of Asia. Coal usage has decreased marginally, but consumption of every other major energy source has increased markedly. Electricity use has nearly tripled.

If these trends continue, global energy consumption will double by mid-century. Fossil fuels will continue to dominate, and the share of nuclear power and renewable energy sources – wind, solar, and geothermal energy – will remain limited.

While the planet has energy resources to meet this demand beyond 2030, less certain is how much it will cost to extract and to deliver these fuels to consumers. New energy infrastructure will require vast amounts of financing. Fossil fuels are projected to account for about 85 percent of the increase in demand or consumption. Major oil and gas importers – including the United States, Western Europe, and the expanding economics of China and India – will become more dependent on supplies from Middle East members of OPEC and Russia. As international trade expands, the vulnerability to disruptions will increase, and geopolitical turmoil may exacerbate surging energy prices. Carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise, calling into question the sustainability of current energy usage models.

Let me talk, for a moment, about the current global energy imbalance.

An estimated 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity. One sixth of the world’s population lacks safe drinking water; half lack adequate sanitation; and, half lives on less that $2 per day.

A reliable energy supply – especially electricity – is a prerequisite for addressing these needs – the basis of United Nations Millennium Goals set five years ago.

There are many developing countries in which the energy poverty levels are quite severe.

China, however, is a success story in the making. Throughout the 1990’s Chinese electricity generation grew by an average rate of 8 percent per year. In 2003, electricity generation in China increased by 16 percent, and the 2004 rate of increase was even higher (~18%).

The increase in oil consumption in China, from 2002 to 2003, accounted for more than 18 percent of global oil demand growth – and, in the process, China surpassed Japan, becoming the second largest oil consumer. In fact, China is the second largest consumer of primary energy overall – not to mention the second largest economy, and the second largest contributor to global energy-related CO2 emissions. If projections hold, China will continue to dominate growth in energy demand. It should come as no surprise that the Tenth Five-Year Plan of the Chinese government, covering the period 2001-2005, puts energy conservation near the top of its energy policy agenda.

The real paradox is that something which is to be celebrated — the continuing progress of developing nations, and the human progress which it represents — has yet to garner the attention of the global community to deal with the issues of global resources and energy distribution — and the need for alternatives to fossil fuels. Attempts, so far, have focused only on certain aspects of the problem. The new solutions must look at this holistically.

This is a thumbnail sketch of what is a vast, complex, and interconnected issue, and it is not my intention to discuss the complexities and the exigencies of the near-term energy crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina. Rather, I would use the energy squeeze Katrina caused as an example which impels us, as engineers and scientists, to step up to the challenge. And, in doing so, we must strive to be truly international — thinking in a global way. We have a moral and social responsibility to address this issue, not just for a single nation or for a temporary fix, but to consider how to solve one of humanity’s most urgent challenges. We should be well-positioned to do this since the science and engineering communities have been global for hundreds of years.

Energy security underlies everything else, because we know, of course, that virtually all technological advances of the past 150 years, have been predicated upon the readily available energy sources and technologies.

Energy security is, then, a key global challenge — one which will require global perspectives, global thinking, global solutions, and innovation of the highest order. And, indeed, this same perspective and approach must prevail, as we seek solutions to other global “threats without borders.” These global challenges include infectious disease — such as SARS, AIDS, and avian flu, for instance. Like Hurricane Katrina, they include natural disasters, such as last December’s tsunami in Southeast Asia. They include global climate change, species extinction, and acid rain, among others. They include terrorism, and the myriad challenges facing a significant segment of the global population who do not have the basic needs of life: sufficient food, clean water, health care, and education.

The global nature of these challenges provides a measure of the urgent need to advance discovery and innovation to resolve them.

It is a given that, at least in the long term, there will be no single “solution” to providing abundant , clean, and inexpensive, energy for the global community. Rather, there likely will be a “mix” of solutions. These will include innovative extractive and transportation technologies for fossil fuels, innovative conservation technologies, and innovative alternative fuel technologies.

I will not attempt to review the full spectrum of energy technologies currently under consideration, some of which you are discussing at this symposium, but I will examine a few. Some of you already may be working on some.

Nuclear Power

I will start with an old/new technology: nuclear power. Nuclear power currently generates 16 percent of global electricity — about 20 percent in the U.S.; 17 percent in Russia; 3.3 percent in India; 2.2 percent in China; and in Western Europe about 150 nuclear power plants provide about 30 percent of the electricity. Nuclear power produces virtually no sulfur dioxide, particulates, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds or greenhouse gases. The complete cycle, from resource extraction to waste disposal – including facility and reactor construction – emits only 2-6 grams of carbon equivalent per kilowatt-hour. This is about the same as the wind and solar, if we include construction and component manufacturing. All three are two orders of magnitude below coal, oil and natural gas.

Worldwide, if the existing nuclear power plants were shut down and replaced with a mix of non-nuclear sources proportionate to what now exists, the results would be increase of 600 million tons of carbon per year – equivalent to about twice the total that experts estimate will be avoided by adherence to the Kyoto Protocol in 2010.

Support for nuclear power, and specific plans and actions in a number of countries to expand nuclear capacity, are influencing global projections among nuclear insiders. The near term projections released in 2004 by the IEA and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were markedly higher than just four years ago. The most conservative projection predicted 427 gigawatts of global nuclear capacity in 2020, the equivalent of 127 more 1000 megawatt plants than previous projections.

Nuclear expansion is centered in Asia. Of the 25 reactors under construction worldwide, 17 are located either in China (including Taiwan), South Korea, North Korea, Japan, or India. Twenty of the last 30 reactors completed are in the Far East and South Asia.

With 40 percent of the world’s population, and with the fastest growing economies in the world, demand for new electric power in China and India is very high. The Chinese economy is expanding at 8-10 percent per year, and while it currently gets only 2.2 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, that percentage is scheduled to increase. By 2020, China plans to raise its total installed nuclear generating capacity from the current 6.5 gigawatts to 36 gigawatts.

India, currently with nine plants under construction, plans to expand its nuclear capacity by a factor of 10 by 2022, and plans a 100-fold increase by mid-century.

Although no U.S. plants have been ordered since the early 1970’s, U.S. nuclear vendors have introduced technological innovations, designing advanced reactors for certification by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and marketing them to other countries. These vendors’ construction and operational experience, and the shared experience of other multinational vendors, as well as countries developing indigenous designs, have kept nuclear technology moving.

The U.S.- led Generation IV International Nuclear Forum – a collegial effort by 10 countries – has published a roadmap for research and development on six innovative reactor concepts, such as the “Molten Salt Reactor” and the “Supercritical Water-Cooled Reactor.”

The innovative reactor and fuel cycle technologies which address vulnerabilities related to safety, security, proliferation, and waster disposal, while generating power at competitive prices, are the most likely to be built. This requires a reliance on passive safety features, fuel configurations which achieve tighter control of sensitive nuclear materials, and design features which reduce construction times and which lower operation and maintenance costs.

If nuclear energy is to offer realistic solutions to the energy needs of developing nations, a key feature will be size. Traditionally, nuclear plant designs have grown larger, utilizing economies of scale. But, smaller plants (less than 300 megawatts) allow more incremental investment, better match lower electrical grid capacities, and can be adapted more easily to other industrial applications such as heating, seawater desalination, or the manufacture of chemical fuels.

A few of these designs are moving toward implementation. Russia has completed the design and licensing of a floating (barge-mounted) nuclear power plant, the KLT-40S, which takes advantage of Russian experience with nuclear-powered ice-breakers and submarines.

South Korea is making progress with its System-integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor, or “SMART” pressurized water reactor. The Korean government plans to construct a one-fifth scale (65 megawatt) demonstration plant by 2008, but has not yet announced a commercialization date for the fuller scale (330 megawatt) plant.

Among gas-cooled reactors, the South African Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which features billiard-ball-sized, self-contained fuel units, is well under way. Preparation of the reactor site at Koeberg has begun, and fuel loading is anticipated for mid-2010.

More innovative designs, still in development, employ modular cores that need refueling only every 30 years. This would reduce proliferation concerns, and would lessen infrastructure needs.

There are a number of countries which continue to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, and, in most cases, this is to the production and use of MOX – mixed oxide fuel – which is then used as a reactor fuel for power generation. There are concerns about the proliferation potential of MOX, given its use of plutonium, but France and Japan, among others, are proceeding nonetheless.

Transmutation is another waste management approach, an idea which has been around for some time. The basic goal is referred to as “P&T” – “partitioning and transmutation” – i.e. trying to separate out the long-lived transuranic radionuclides (actinides – neptunium, americium, and curium, in particular), and using neutron bombardment in an accelerator-driven system (ADS) to burn up the nastiest bits of waste, making more electricity in the process. If these actinides could be converted into shorter-lived radionuclides, the result would make high level radioactive waste much easier and less expensive to handle and dispose of. In addition to the actinides, longer-lived fission products, like technetium-99 and iodine-129 could also be burned up in an ADS.

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells

Hydrogen has been much touted as an important future fuel. Hydrogen is the most abundant element and, in liquid form, has been used to propel NASA space shuttles and other rockets. Hydrogen fuel cells power the shuttle’s electrical systems. Among the emissions, water is reprocessed for the crew to drink. Use of hydrogen as a fuel does not create greenhouse gases.

However, hydrogen does not occur naturally as a gas, but is combined with other elements. Gaseous hydrogen, to be used as a fuel, can be made by separating it from hydrocarbons by applying heat, which is usually generated by fossil fuel (or by electricity, again usually generated by fossil fuels) in a process called “reformation.” Hydrogen generated by this method is three to four times as expensive as gasoline for use as a transportation fuel, and the reformation process still generates greenhouse gases. Hydrogen also can be created by combining zinc with water in the form of steam which strips the oxygen from the H20, leaving hydrogen. The challenge for industrializing this procedure, however, lies in finding an inexpensive way of turning the resulting zinc oxide back into metallic zinc so that the material can be recycled.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science, & have created a solar tower laboratory in which 64 mirrors track the sun, focusing its rays into a beam with a power of up to 300 kilowatts. The beam heats a mixture of zinc oxide and charcoal. The pure carbon reacts with the oxygen in the zinc oxide, releasing the zinc, which vaporizes, and is, then, extracted and condensed into powder. The process does not produce greenhouse gases.

The powdered zinc can be used in zinc-air batteries in a form of electrochemical cells which show promise of exceeding performance targets set by the U.S. Department of Energy for battery power and energy density in electric vehicles. Free of moving parts and external tanks, the cell operates at room temperature and is simple to construct from readily available materials. The new zinc-air battery could be easily renewed at service stations and give electric vehicles the same driving range as gas-fueled vehicles, while eliminating exhaust pollution. But, whether or not the economics of this method will reduce the cost of producing hydrogen for fuel is yet to be determined.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are examining ways to improve fuel cells. The focus has been on hydrogen generation and storage, electrochemisty, solid state and polymer science, and the application of nano-materials in fuel cell and hydrogen research, including new material solutions to improve reliability, efficiency, and cost. Polymer materials play a central role in proton exchange membranes — or PEM — fuel cells. The ones now used must remain constantly hydrated. Maintaining a constant amount of water in these membranes causes instability, rendering them less reliable. Building complex water-control systems to fix the problem is cumbersome and costly. Instead, researchers have turned to a polymer called polybenzimidazole or PBI. Currently, PBI fibers are used in protective apparel such as turnout coats for firefighters and astronauts’ spacesuits. The PBI fibers have no melting point. They are mildew-resistant, age-resistant, and abrasion-resistant. And most importantly, PBI requires no water for conductivity and can operate at significantly higher temperatures than conventional fuel cells. Nano-structuring of materials could lead to other polymer candidates, as well.


In another example, fusion has long captured the imagination as a source of virtually unlimited energy — if it could be contained, and controlled. Efforts to create nuclear fusion, using strong magnetic fields or large lasers to contain the plasma in which the fusion occurs, so far have failed to produce more energy than they use.

One Rensselaer researcher is looking into sonofusion, a new form of nuclear fusion. In sonofusion, deuterated acetone, in which hydrogen is substituted with deuterium, is placed in a flask. The rapid contractions and expansions of a piezoelectric ceramic ring on the outside of the flask send pressure waves through the liquid. At points of low pressure, the liquid is bombarded with neutrons, creating clusters of bubbles. These bubbles greatly expand during the low-pressure conditions, and then, as the pressure begins to increase again, they implode, sending shock waves toward the center of the bubbles. This creates very high pressures and temperatures in an extremely small region of the collapsing bubbles. Careful measurements show that deuterium atoms located there have fused, releasing additional neutrons into the liquid and creating tritium.

The research team first announced successful sonofusion in 2002 in the journal Science. Their paper was met with skepticism. But, two years later, the team announced that it successfully had duplicated its results using more sensitive instrumentation. At least five other research groups now are trying to reproduce the results, and one recently announced independent confirmation.

Although the amount of energy being produced with sonofusion is extremely small, researchers hope that the process can be scaled successfully. A recently formed consortium, including Boston University, UCLA, the University of Mississippi, the University of Washington, Purdue University, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Rensselaer, is exploring the potential of sonofusion.

Although much more research is needed, if sonofusion reactors ever are able to produce usable quantities of power, the process might become a major energy source which operates without the radioactive waste that is produced by nuclear fission reactors. It requires methods for scaling-up the process, and making it self-sustaining.

The reality of true, global energy security is that we can no longer just drill our way there. We must innovate our way to energy security — we must innovate new technologies which uncover new fossil energy sources, which conserve energy, which protect the environment, and which provide multiple, sustainable sources of energy. It is clear that the technological developments, which I have outlined, are a long way today from being viable energy “solutions.” But, innovation, itself, is a kind of “energy” which multiplies insights and advances discovery, enabling the best minds to work — in concert — on what may appear to be overwhelming challenges.

Enhancing our human capacity for innovation requires a configuration of elements in which multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and cooperation and collaboration interface. Indeed, this is the future of engineering. It is the future of science. It is the future of discovery and innovation. And, this concept is at the core of this symposium.

With achievements to your credit and time for future achievements, you are the present and the future of engineering.

But, who will come after you? The engineering of the future requires people, and we are no longer turning out a sufficient number to replace those we have now. Enrollment of American students in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering has declined severely over the past decade. We will not continue to have the capacity for the kind of innovation we must have, unless and until we have cohorts of young people who are ready to step into the laboratories and design studios to replace the scientists and engineers now beginning to retire in great numbers. The ready flow of talented international scientists and engineers, and graduate students is slowing, as other nations invest in their own education and research enterprises, and as globalization offers employment for them at home, or elsewhere.

The net is, overall, that the American innovation enterprise, which has fueled our economic growth, our standard of living, and our security, and has made us a global leader, soon may lack the critical mass of scientists and engineers to create the next innovations upon which new industries will be built, and upon which solutions to global challenges depend.

This is an urgent situation, which I have been calling the “The Quiet Crisis,” as the forces have come together over a period of time, with little notice heretofore, but accelerating recently.

It underscores our need for cohorts of young people whose curiosity has been whetted, whose imaginations have been sparked, whose eagerness for science and mathematics has been awakened, and who are ready to be nurtured along the engineering and science pipeline.

Where will they come from? Our demographics, in this country, have shifted dramatically over the last couple of decades. There is a “new majority” comprising young women, and the racial and ethnic groups which traditionally have been underrepresented is engineering and science. These young people — even the brightest among them — often are not specifically encouraged to pursue preparative coursework which would enable them to pursue an engineering or science degree at the advanced level — even though their enrollment in higher education is increasing faster than that of traditional engineering and science students.

There are not yet the faculty and upper classmen within the “new majority” to be the role models and mentors to shepherd these nontraditional students.

And yet, if we are to build a future cohort of engineers and scientists, this is where we must look. It is one of the major challenges to our entire education system — K-12 and higher education — to reach out to these students who are the underrepresented majority in science, engineering, and technology, and help them find their way in and help them stay in for the duration. This must occur against the backdrop of encouraging all of our young people to take on the challenge of science and advanced mathematics in primary and secondary school, and to consider engineering, science and related majors in college and beyond.

The “Quiet Crisis” finally is being noticed. In the four or five years during which I have been working on and speaking to this issue, there has developed a growing understanding and concern — in every sector — that the issue is real and must be addressed — and quickly. More and more entities are joining the call for attention to the matter, and for changed practices to address it.


The need to address the long term effects of Hurricane Katrina could very well advance this concern, and one would hope that the need for new energy sources and resources might inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists in the same way that the Soviet launch of Sputnik inspired the young people of my generation. It should be clear that achieving a sustainable global energy framework, capable of meeting the energy needs of citizens, without causing irreparable environmental damage, will require continuing technological advances that modify our current production and use of energy.

The challenges of energy security, and the challenges of other “threats without borders,” which beset our young century and disrupt global security, are requiring of us new strategies, new alternatives, new approaches, new ways of thinking. Every profession will be challenged to find new ways to work and to think, to plan and to collaborate, to innovate and to discover.

This might be said to be a “hidden benefit” — a silver lining, perhaps. The challenges move us into a higher sphere where more is at risk, forcing the issues, and setting the bar higher for humankind. I believe humankind will rise to the challenge. I believe you will rise to the challenge.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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