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Shades of green: developing alternative energies

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Shades of Green logo

“Shades of Green,” a column on environmental issues related to the UIC campus and community, appears monthly in UIC News.

By George Crabtree

When I was asked in 2002 by my sponsor, the Office of Basic Energy Sciences of the Department of Energy, to lead a panel on renewable energy for a workshop, my first reaction was negative — I don’t have time for this.

But this was a request from my sponsor, a Godfather-like offer I could not refuse.

At the workshop, “Basic Research Needs for a Secure Energy Future,” I appreciated for the first time the global carbon dioxide and climate change challenges and the need to find alternatives to the fossil fuels that now supply more than 80 percent of our energy.

I learned that:

• the challenges are not only engineering and politics, but also scientific, economic and social

• there are many factions advocating specific solutions, such as solar, nuclear, biofuels or carbon sequestration (among others)

• above all, the subject is richly intellectual — how can the daunting challenges and diversity of potential solutions be organized and sensibly pursued?


Alternative energies

That 2002 workshop turned out to be the first in a series of 12 (depending on how you count) loosely referred to as Basic Research Needs workshops — one for each scientific area, such as hydrogen, solar, superconductivity (my field) and others.

The workshop reports have become standard references for defining the scientific challenges and opportunities for sustainable energy.

Through these workshops, I learned of the great need for scientific development and education in alternative energy. Unlike fossil energy, alternative energy technologies are in their infancy, with concepts and practices spread across physics, chemistry, biology, earth science and a host of engineering disciplines, including chemical, mechanical and electrical.

To develop alternative energy, we need an interdisciplinary treatment that joins technologies scattered across many disciplines and compares the strategic advantages and roles of each technology with the others.

This grand educational and conceptual goal is my motivation for joining UIC, an outcome I never anticipated in 2002. I want to help create a new generation of energy scientists and engineers, conversant in all the alternative energy technologies. I want to educate the next generation of nonspecialist citizens who, as voters and decision makers, will chart the path to sustainable alternative energy.

George Crabtree is distinguished professor of physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and senior scientist in the materials science division at Argonne National Laboratory. He will present “The Sustainable Energy Challenge” Oct. 26 at noon in the Illinois Room, Student Center East, for the Chancellor’s Lecture Series.

For more on sustainability at UIC, visit the Office of Sustainability.

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