March 31, 2008

Engineers Host Conference on Alternative Sustainable Energy

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“Green is becoming everyone’s favorite color … green power, green building, green chemistry …”
Such was the comment made by Dr. Jeff Tester ’66, professor of chemical engineering at MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, at the 25th Annual College of Engineering Alumni Association Conference held at the Statler Hotel this weekend. 300 people participated in the event whose theme was “Sustainable Energy Systems: Investing in Our Future.”
The event constituted a series of talks given by prominent figures, who have dedicated their time offering working solutions that are economically viable and environmentally friendly.
According to Tim Dougherty ’88, assistant dean of alumni affairs and development for the College of Engineering, 40 percent of the 300 people who registered for the conference were students, another 40 percent were comprised of alumni and the rest included faculty and staff.
“This is by far the most interesting topic in 25 years,” said Dougherty, especially in that the conference is not one-sided; rather it aims at “working on a better mix of choices.”
Friday afternoon was marked with concurrent sessions at the Beck Center in the Statler Hall. Flexible as it was, some presentations that went on earlier in the morning were repeated in the afternoon for those who missed them. Among those repeated talks were Dr. Michael Graetzel’s presentation on “Power from the sun; molecular photovoltaic cells mimic photosynthesis.”
Accordingly, living organisms were not left out of the proposition. Dan Miller ’78 shed light on how taking advantage of algae’s fast replication can make a viable source of energy, which “[when burned], we end up with oil … [that] doesn’t add extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”
At the Reception and Research Showcase at Trillium, students and alumni took advantage of the opportunity afforded to them to share their research progress.
David Hoffer ’10, a representative of the Cornell University Solar Decathlon, was there to give an overview of his organization’s plan to build a house in which “all [of the house’s] energy needs comes from the sun.”
Another group presented a reality check behind President Skorton’s pledge to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment that Cornell would cut down its emission to zero by mid-century. Prof. Andrew J. Hunter’s graduate class, ChemE 665: Energy Engineering, took the challenge to run a “cost-benefit analysis” of carbon capture and sequestration, only to discover that this measure would double the cost of the new expansion project from the current $80 million to $160 million. The study led Trevor Wirsig grad to conclude that “carbon capture and sequestration of the Cornell power plant is unlikely.”
Another significant event of the night was recognizing outstanding undergraduate groups, professors and alumni. Taking up about a third of the ceremony was a moment dedicated to honoring the man behind the success of the Cornell Formula SAE Racing Team, Prof. Albert George, mechanical and aerospace engineering. George led the team to victory in inter-university racing for nine times, including four of the last six years.
The Undergraduate Research Award — also presented during the ceremony — went to a student with an outstanding GPA of 3.9 in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Ryan Walter ’09. In the same manner, other student organizations were recognized, including the Institute of Biological Engineering, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers.
Having dedicated a whole day to highlighting different energy alternatives like biofuel, solar panels and wind turbines, the long awaited speech was almost overdue when Tester and Frank DiSalvo, director of Cornell’s Center for a Sustainable Future, spoke on Cornell’s program of action in the realm of sustainable energy.
In a 10-solution outline that may lead to a new era of sustainability at Cornell, Tester suggested coming up with a compromise that welcomes studies in both renewable and non-renewable energy products, initiation of a National Energy Security Fellowship program and above all, supporting the CCSF.
In response to the concluding speech, Alex Szerszen ’11 lamented that Cornell’s approach “doesn’t have a direction.” He contrasted the solar panels that were installed on McGraw Hall, which in his opinion, is a less energy-consuming building, with the possibility of putting the panels on a larger building where they could provide more energy.
As the self-portrayed “bad boy” of the conference, Prof. Richard Allmendinger ’75, earth and atmospheric sciences, a speaker and panelist, expressed that the correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature should not be overstated. His comments came contrary to those who sought to create fear of global warming. In addition, Allmendinger felt that it was “hypocritical to expect our elected officials to make [a change]” when we turn blind eyes against our own domestic responsibility such as unplugging TV’s at night and before going to bed.