Sustainability

Seeking new energy ideas: Lectures modeled after TED present creative ideas in 10 minutes

Seeking new energy ideas: Lectures modeled after TED present creative ideas in 10 minutes

The University of Texas at Austin hosted its second annual UT Energy Forum, a student-led event discussing a wide range of energy-related topics and challenges.

One feature of the event is the “10-Minute Energy Ideas Talk” in which students, faculty and other speakers present innovative ideas and experiences. It's modeled after the highly successful TED Conferences according to the UT Energy Forum website. “The goal of the talks is to expose all of the forum’s participants to a diverse set of topics that demonstrate the breadth and depth of both UT’s research activity and that of its surrounding community. In doing so, we hope participants will get a sense of the interconnectedness of energy issues and the scope of its impact on society.”

Here is a quick summary of the presentations:

“The Power of Supercomputing” — Jay Boisseau, Texas Advanced Computing Center

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) provides big, fast computing, storage and viz. Boisseau said that supercomputing is crucial in providing power. Computing is a major consumer of power; while efficiency is always getting better, demand is increasing even faster. In addition to more efficient processors and software, we need more efficient cooling of systems. Boisseau said that the TACC is working on Green Revolution Cooling, which uses mineral oil immersion cooling technology.

“Filters, Fans and Residential Air Conditioning” — Jeffrey Siegel, Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering

Siegel spoke about what consumers can do to use less energy in their air conditioning systems. A typical residential system is 300 percent efficient, he said, meaning that you get out three times what you put in. However, we do a lot of things to make our air conditioners less efficient, such as use too big an air conditioner, use one that has been installed poorly, use too little or too much refrigerant charge, have too little airflow and/or connect to a leaking duct system in a hot attic. Correcting these problems could provide amazing savings.

Another recommendation Siegel offered was to buy a good filter. We breathe in about 10 times more indoor air than we drink water each day, and while we’re all concerned with the quality of our water, many people buy the cheapest possible air filters. Indoor air is one of our greatest environmental risks, he said. A good filter is an excellent first line of defense, if installed well and changed occasionally — and, surprisingly, it doesn’t use any more energy than a poor filter.

“Assessing the Security and Risk of Nuclear Energy” — Rebecca Ward, Cockrell School of Engineering

The public has a lot of misconceptions about nuclear energy, Ward said — think Homer Simpson, among others — yet it has one of the best safety ratings. Many of the countries with nuclear energy programs are not the most stable or friendly, however. According to the Nonproliferation Treaty, countries have the right to nuclear energy without discrimination. How can we enable these nations who have a right to nuclear energy to pursue it without opening up problems? Ward discussed several technical approaches and policy approaches. In conclusion, she said that the nuclear renaissance as it unfolds poses security challenges, but they’re worthwhile risks to address given the potential of nuclear energy.

“Sustainability at UT Austin”  — Jim Walker, Director of Sustainability, The University of Texas at Austin

There’s been an increase by universities in focusing on sustainability, and Walker contends that this will continue — sustainability is not a trend, he said, it’s an increasing necessity. We need a smooth, gradual transition to sustainable energy use, because anything too fast and people will not react or adapt well. Apocalyptic language doesn’t work in getting people to think about sustainability, and neither does denial. Neither does the utopian idea that a single technology will be the solution. We need to listen to each other better, Walker said, and take the smarts in the engineering world to the people in the other sciences and the people who can explain the story of why sustainability is important, not just the science of it.

“Fusion-Fission Hybrids and Nuclear Energy” — Mike Kotschenreuther, Institute for Fusion Studies

Nuclear fusion reactions can be a prolific source of neutrons, Kotschenreuther said, which open up new ways of exploiting nuclear fission energy. In a marriage of fission and fusion, each partner can benefit. Recent advances at UT and worldwide enable a Compact Fusion Neutron Source. There are important applications of fusion well before pure fusion is feasible. CFNS is made possible by a new magnetic geometry, the Super-X divertor, recently invented at UT. Such cycles can solve nuclear waste and eventual scarcity of fissionable materials. This new cycle can bring waste distribution and fuel production problems within the acceptable realm of scientific/technical and economic feasibility.

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