The first controlled use of fire a million years ago marks the beginning of humankind’s efforts to harness energy derived from natural sources. Since then—as power systems advanced from fire to steam, from internal combustion to nuclear—energy has become increasingly central to society’s growth and evolution.
However, as environmental impacts of producing and using energy increase with growing demand, we are reminded that regardless of its direct cost, energy comes at a price. The exploitation of energy resources—particularly those based on fossil fuels—poses a significant, well-researched threat to our society and the biosphere we call home.
Meanwhile, energy is distributed inequitably, imposing economic hardship on many who live in the developing world. The energy conundrum is extraordinarily complex, involving science at its most fundamental level while engaging the skills of engineers, economists, and public-policy experts in shaping an energy future that meets demand without compromising environmental health.
The integration of complementary disciplines creates the context for energy research at the University of Tennessee (UT). For more than 60 years, the university’s research portfolio has reflected significant investigation into innovative energy technology and the policies that promote it and guide its path. Hence, we’ve devoted this edition of Scientia to energy policy and research, moving from present capabilities to technologies that exist in the mists of the future.
The selection of research topics for inclusion in this edition of Scientia resulted from the efforts of UT’s Energy Working Group, which I chaired this past year.
We begin with “Fuel Sell,” which explores the efforts of Jonathan Overly and the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition to boost the use of the alternative fuels already available. Then in “Fueling Locally,” we visit Kelly Tiller and Tim Rials, who are advancing technologies to render switchgrass and other cellulosic materials into ethanol, which will bolster the region’s economy.
“Nuclear Power: No Free Lunch” looks at Wesley Hines’s and Belle Upadhyaya’s efforts to develop automated surveillance systems to prolong the life of delicate sensors and mechanical parts in today’s nuclear power plants. “Have Hydrogen—Will Travel” examines Myvizhi Esai Selvan’s advances in computer modeling that provide a nanoscale glimpse into the structures that form the core of a hydrogen fuel cell.
In “Live Lighter, Stronger,” we follow philosopher John Nolt on his mountain-bike commute to campus and learn how shaping and adopting an environmental ethic is key to a sustainable lifestyle. Nolt is helping to organize “Energy and Responsibility,” a conference that will convene at UT in April 2008.
“Under One Roof” explores UT’s new Joint Institute for Advanced Materials and its role creating the novel materials required for advances in energy and transportation. “Sunlight In, Electricity Out” explains Barry Bruce’s and Bamin Khomami’s contention that future photovoltaic cells may be based, in part, on spinach leaves.
Finally, in “Campus Clean Burn” Chancellor Loren Crabtree details UT students’ efforts to fuel the university’s fleet with cooking oil salvaged from campus dining facilities.
To tighten our focus on many of these objectives, UT has formed the Sustainable Energy Education and Research Center, led by Bamin Khomami. We hope that the center will consolidate the university’s expertise and enable us to expand our service to the state and nation on issues related to sustainable energy.
This edition of Scientia is meant to offer an engaging overview of the scholarship and research taking place at UT. To learn more about our university and its programs and projects, visit our website at www.utk.edu.
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Lee Riedinger served as interim vice-chancellor for research of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, during production of this edition of Scientia and is now a professor in the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.