Purdue Energy Center Visit Part I

12 Feb

This week I made the first of what will be four visits to the Purdue Energy Center at Purdue University in W. Lafayette, IN. Here are a few random thoughts and impressions before it becomes too hazy …

First, thank G-d for GPS. The first thing I bought with the book advance was a portable GPS system–the kind you mount on your windshield with a little suction cup. Without this thing I’d be lost. I now do whatever the soothing female voice tells me. If it told me to drive into oncoming traffic, I probably would.

Anyhow, I’d been trying for months to schedule a visit to Purdue, and for some reason it just wasn’t coming together. But then Jill Wable came on the scene, and within a few short weeks it was on. So thank you, Jill, for your expert logistical and coordinating work.

On Feb. 11, I met with three researchers: Jay Gore, Center director and a professor of engineering; Louis Sherman, professor of biological sciences; and Hugh Hillhouse, professor of chemical engineering. The first thing I should say is that these guys are crazy smart. If anything gives me hope that energy is headed in the right direction, it’s meeting with people like Gore, Sherman, and Hillhouse, whose work is right on the cutting edge of energy-related research.

Here are some highlights from my conversations with them …

Jay Gore grew up in India, studying engineering at the University of Pune. He vividly remembers the energy crisis of the late 1970s, when he was a senior. President Jimmy Carter had scheduled a trip to India, including a visit to Pune. Gore was especially excited because he was to be part of a group scheduled to meet the President. But due to a variety of political and security reasons, Carter canceled the trip, leaving Gore disappointed. This was a moment, Gore says, that sparked his initial interest in Energy.

Long story short, Gore came to the US, got a master at Penn State, then worked for a company that designed training programs for nuclear power plant operators. He then got a Ph.D. in thermal radiation at Penn State, taught at U of Michigan and U of Maryland for a few years before landing at Purdue.

Gore took me around to a few of the labs where grad students working under his guidance are doing some very cool things with some very sophisticated machines. I was taken into a bare, cell-like room in the middle of which a coal gassifier–a cylindrical device about seven feet high made of steel and PVC-type tubing. Coal gassifiers are nothing new–they’re devices used to combine coal with high pressure steam to produce gas that can then be condensed into liquid synthetic fuel. The one at the Purdue lab is different, though, because it’s built to allows for diagnostic testing of what’s actually happening inside. I didn’t see it in action, but the idea is to beam a laser through the device while it’s working to measure the precise nature of the chemical reactions. The end goal is to make the machine more efficient.

Near the end of my talk with Gore, he made an interesting point about why our energy moment is different from the late 1970s. “There are three main differences,” he said. “Microsoft, the Internet, and Google.” What Gore meant was that these companies and technologies have made billions of people in China and India that much more aware of the Western way of life, and how much energy we in the West consume. And that knowledge makes the Chinese and Indians want our way of life all the more. The upshot is that energy demand and consumption will rise dramatically in the coming decades.

Next I met with Louis Sherman, a biologist who for the past 20 years has been working on cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae. He took me to a couple of growth chamber, where algae was growing in several flasks spinning on oscillators. I won’t pretend to have understood all the chemistry/biology stuff, but the gist as that cyanbacteria is interesting because when it photosynthesizes sunlight, one of the by-products in hydrogen. And hydrogen, of course, is a potentially abundant fuel for fuel cells. Sherman’s goal is to learn as much as possible about how cyanobacteria makes hydrogen, learn how to tweak its genes to get the microbes to make more hydrogen, and figure out ways to collect and store the stuff.

The last person I met with was Hugh Hillhouse, a young dynamo of a guy who works on nanotech solar stuff. Basically, he designed nanoscale scaffolding (or something like that) to increase the efficiency of how solar panels conduct electricity. It’s complicated, and I didn’t completely digest every detail (that’s what the digital recorder is for), but suffice it to say that Hillhouse’s work is the sort of high tech science stuff you hope to see when you visit a scientist.

More on this later. But this should suffice for now. My next trip to Purdue is next Tuesday.

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One Response to “Purdue Energy Center Visit Part I”

  1. Heating Repair Highlands Ranch co October 18, 2011 at 3:39 am #

    This is such a good article to read. Thanks for sharing conversations with them.

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