October 31, 2006

Engineers Present Top 10 Technologies for Sustainability

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Imagine painting your house red, purple or the color of your choice and in the process generating enough energy to keep your lights on, run your washing machine and do just about anything else that requires electricity.
Sound farfetched? Devin Cowan ’10 doesn’t think so. He and six other members of the Cornell chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) presented “Ten exciting technologies enabling a sustainable 21st century” yesterday in Phillips Hall.

The presentation followed Sunday’s daylong symposium “Challenges of Energy in the 21st Century,” consisting of lectures by professors from Cornell, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their prognosis for the future of the environment was bleak.

“I’m insistent that it’s not only a gloom and doom story. The message is that the United States is not funding sustainable technologies and that China’s not either and they’re going to start consuming enormous amounts of energy [in the future],” said Evan Variano grad, vice president of advertising for ESW. He then introduced the ten new sustainable technologies.

The presentation mainly focused on alternative energy sources, such as mechanisms that harness the energy found in breaking waves and tidal currents and prairie plants that can be burned in power plants that typically burn coal. Cowan’s house-paint example was based on new organic solar panels that, when painted with a special liquid and attached to generators, would be a source of solar energy. These new panels also have the potential to be more efficient than the current silicon-based solar technology.

Small-scale energy changes going on at Cornell include the new biotechnology building being Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, meaning that it is an “energy-sustainable construction.” The Alice Cook House is also LEED certified and the new roof of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall will also be LEED certified.

Another noted push for environmental sustainability in the area is Tompkins County Area Transport’s (TCAT) decision to convert their bus fleet to all hybrids by the year 2015. Transportation is the source of 53 percent of Tompkins County’s emissions, compared with a national average of 14 percent. With an expected ridership increase of 36 percent over the next 20 years, TCAT decided to buy buses that use nickel metal hydride batteries to capture breaking energy. Although these buses are more expensive, they reduce diesel use by 30 percent. Three of these buses have already been ordered.

However, in terms of funding for energy research, a front-page article in yesterday’s New York Times reported that federal spending on energy technology is half of what it was in 1979. Although “President Bush has sought an increase to $4.2 billion for 2007, but that would still be a small fraction of what most climate and energy experts say would be needed.”
According to the members of the group, despite the government’s lack of monetary emphasis on sustainable energy, research and design (R & D) is making progress. “You wouldn’t see the hybrid car if R & D wasn’t having an impact. It definitely matters,” Variano said.

John Erickson ’07, vice president of finance, thought that the emphasis on sustainable technologies was “strong” at Cornell. He said that while looking for jobs in sustainable engineering, there were mostly “a lot of jobs in academia.”

“The entire budget to put on this event was $17,” Variano said, “We’re going to do it five more times,” including later this month for 100 students at Dryden High School, a huge crowd compared to the 13 that were in attendance at yesterday’s presentation, “It’s about education. It’ll be easy once America is committed to it. We’ve got the technology.”

Erickson wasn’t so sure. “I wonder if the future comes from someone making some big new discovery and saving the world or from existing technologies,” he said, “it’ll probably be a combination of both.”

Engineers for a Sustainable World was first founded at Cornell in 2001 and currently has over 60 chapters on college campuses nationwide. Recently, the Cornell chapter won the Best Project award with their “AguaClara” initiative, where they brought fresh drinking water to impoverished Hondurans.