Energy Engineering in the Triangle

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

The national imperatives of energy security and sustainable energy development will drive the creation of new businesses centered around alternative energies. We expect these to fall into t wo areas: replacement of oil for transportation and less carbon intensive electricity production. In addition, research regarding intelligent electricity grid has become an interesting combination of these two areas.

Furthermore, the more efficient use of energy will also play a central role in sustainability. The engineering work force required to execute all of these would benefit from college training that recognizes these specific fields of study. An Energy Engineering (En E) curriculum could well be the solution. Here’s what such a discipline might entail.

The foremost disciplines in the general field of energy engineering are those of Nuclear Engineering and Petroleum Engineering (Pet E). We will use the latter for discussion because it is more widespread and serves a mature industry fairly well with a defined set of required training (Nuclear is similar). Thus it is able to sustain a specialist discipline.

This will not be the case for the En E program serving the alternative energy industry. The industries served could have elements of the following: solar electricity, wind electricity, biofuels with biochemical and thermochemical variants, smart grid and related enablers, energy efficient devices, batteries and other storage, clean coal, carbon sequestration, electric cars and related endeavors such as fuel cells, and hydro. This breadth alone hinders a unique En E four year program.

Even Pet E is subject to the whims of the industrial cycle. In a recent trade publication, an influential department chair recently put out a plea for hiring their graduates. One of the problems is that the hottest play in petroleum today is shale gas. They are hiring, but the volume required is in the hard core disciplines of Mechanical, Electrical and Chemical Engineering, not Pet E. In fact, far more of these comprise the petroleum work force in general. Alternative energy programs should use this knowledge as a guide.

A minor not a free standing major

The solution is to offer concentrations in En E, perhaps even minors. These would be enhancements to core engineering degrees. There would be an analog for the sciences, wherein a Chemistry degree could be supplemented with an Energy Science concentration.

Such concentrations would be expected to comprise four to five courses of nominally three units each. Courses would be selected from a menu, with the selections directing the student to particular industries. But the key to this approach is that a down cycle in that industry is not a catastrophe. The student can rely on the core engineering skill set for an entry level job.

Social Science is a key ingredient

An important element of this minor would be the treatment of the social science component. Engineering curricula typically requires few social science courses. But an En E concentration (minor) will enable students to learn more about the social science approach to sustainable energy.

In order to incorporate this concept into the minor, students would be required to choose courses from a set list that include the themes of energy and the environment. The intent would be to learn the principles of economics, psychology and the like, but linked to an energy setting. This could necessitate modified courses in those departments. Energy is a field of considerable interest to students today, as evidenced by surveys in the local institutions. So, such modifications would likely be welcome at a broad level.

The 3 U offering

When the offerings are compiled there will undoubtedly be gaps in faculty resources. NC State already has a concentration in power engineering, but even they will face gaps in other areas. The Triangle area offers the unique opportunity for a program that allows for collaboration between all three universities. We are referring to this as the 3 U solution.

Bi-lateral programs already exist, including the Robertson program (UNC and Duke) and the Biomedical Engineering curriculum (NC State and UNC). While faculty additions will be needed, the resource pooling will allow the program to get on track more quickly. RTI can also be expected to be a player, most likely in the biofuels space. The possibility exists for the participation of some of the RTP powerhouses playing in the energy space.

In short, the Triangle area is unique in that three important research universities participating in the energy space are in close proximity. Add to that the presence of RTI, an unquestioned leader in energy research, with a recent Department of Energy $169 million award directed to carbon sequestration. This powerful combination allows for a jump start to Energy Engineering. No other area in the world has this capability.

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