Kentucky science researchers work to solve the world’s energy problems
When I put on my safety glasses and walk into a research lab, my heart beats faster—what if somebody I meet turns out to be the Edison of our century? Will the next man or woman I talk to be the person who solves a key energy problem?
Len Peters, Kentucky’s Cabinet Secretary for Energy and the Environment, says, “Energy research is going on all over the USA, but the area where Kentucky gets the most recognition is coal research. We are viewed as one of the leaders.”
Developing new materials to make coal power plants operate more efficiently or discovering the best ways to sort out and use coal byproducts would be a big break-through for the scientists at Western Kentucky University’s Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology in Bowling Green. Men and women at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research in Lexington are testing new ideas every week, trying to develop practical technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from coal power plants.
But Kentucky’s energy researchers are interested in more than coal. Scientists at Eastern Kentucky University’s Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies in Richmond are running experiments to see how algae and other biological materials can be used to produce energy. At the University of Louisville’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, scientists and engineers are working on battery systems, and on improving buildings so they’re more energy efficient. They’re also hunting for ways to use plants to make cheaper and longer-lasting solar cells.
Improving the materials used in batteries and how they’re made keeps researchers busy at the Kentucky-Argonne Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center at Spindletop Research Complex in Lexington.
As soon as I hear someone say “aha!” I’ll tell you about it here in Kentucky Living magazine.
The secret ingredient in science: know how to communicate
Energy Cabinet Secretary Len Peters offers advice to students
Kentucky’s Cabinet Secretary for Energy and the Environment Dr. Leonard K. Peters started out fascinated by chemistry. Dr. Peters has worked with thousands of other scientists over the decades, and continues to search for new ideas. Before becoming a public servant, Dr. Peters’ long career spanned work as a successful college professor and administrator, laboratory scientist, and business manager. Here’s his take on what the next generation of problem solvers will need to succeed.
“Many young people today think, ‘All I need to learn is the science and math and I’ll be OK.’ No, you will not be OK if you can’t communicate. Yes, do study the facts of chemistry, study physics, take as much mathematics as you can—and then be sure to learn how to communicate your ideas. There are many cases of good ideas that sat in the lab because they weren’t communicated well. You’ll have to know how to describe and present your ideas verbally and in writing to succeed.
“As a scientist, and a researcher, the thing you have to be looking at is not the problem that you encountered last year, but what is it in that problem that will lead you on to next year? That requires a lot of conversation and thinking. And it requires taking chances that you may in fact be wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong—you aren’t going to be right all the time!
“You have to be persistent. Persistence is just as important as communication. You can’t do something once and give up. It might take half a dozen bad ideas until you get the good idea. It’s a cumulative process. You keep building on what you’ve learned from the past.
“And make sure you learn from others, find out what they’ve been doing and apply that to your work. Being able to synthesize ideas is a very important trait.”
How the chemistry of food led to a research career
The “aha” moments in the life of college engineering student and laboratory researcher Zachary Herde
Zachary Herde, a third-year chemical engineering student at the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering is working this semester as a paid employee at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research and collaborating with research colleagues in Switzerland. Here’s how he got interested in science –and why he thinks it’s important for nonscientists, too.
“In my junior year at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, I took a chemistry class—it made so much sense to me! Chemistry is the natural physical building block on which everything is based. It fascinated me that these tiny elements compose our entire universe, and can be used to create a metal or create a leaf on a tree. I love it.
“I consider myself a problem solver, and I began to think about how whatever career I chose, I wanted to help people. What I enjoyed the most about that chemistry class was the lab procedures. So I figured the best way to go from there would be chemical engineering.
“I also enjoyed watching a TV show on the Food Network called Good Eats. The host Alton Brown showed how food chemistry works. I liked that. The research project I’m working on now focuses on taking plant crops—mainly corn grains and soy hulls that are readily available in the Louisville area—and finding ways to use them in renewable energy technologies. We are able to use them in biofuels.
“Since I joined the research team last spring, I’ve been really impressed by how focused my co-workers are, how dedicated they are to finding a solution to whatever problem they’re working on that day.
“One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that people interested in other things often underestimate the ability for research to really further our society. To people who aren’t directly involved in science, a lot of the time our research doesn’t sound very tangible, and they figure it won’t really affect them. The truth is, most of the projects we work on here at the Conn Center could very well lead to huge breakthroughs that could change the way we use energy in our everyday lives.”
Energy journalist Nancy Grant reflects on her school days—and her hopes for the future of science
“When I was a kid in grade school, I thought the best science project ever was making a volcano erupt with vinegar and baking soda. What a mess—and what fun! By seventh grade I was dissecting frogs and studying earthquakes, and then along came chemistry and physics classes in high school.
“Those homework problems were tough—I wasted a lot of paper coming up with the wrong answers. But I didn’t give up. I liked learning about the concepts, things like how sound waves move, what makes the ocean salty, why some materials conduct electricity and some don’t.
“I liked math a lot too—more wasted paper on wrong answers—but more often than my classmates, I could step up to the chalkboard to draw the right graph to solve a complicated equation.
“And yet my first love then and now is the English language. Choosing the right words and crafting good paragraphs to explain and explore ideas with people is a thrill for me.
“That’s why I enjoy writing about science and engineering so much. I like helping people understand what happens to make the lights come on and stay on. I often tell young people that I have the perfect job for me because my work combines so many things I love doing.
“And there’s a bonus—as I do the research for writing about science, I meet interesting people who enjoy solving problems. And I meet a lot of teachers dedicated to introducing their students to the wonderful worlds of science, technology, engineering, and math.
“It pleases me to think that somewhere tonight a young girl or boy is scratching out the answers to tough homework questions, trying over and over again to get it right, not satisfied until it’s exactly correct—and that someday soon that person will be in charge of making our lights come on.
“Oh, and somewhere else there’s a boy or girl thumbing through a dictionary while writing a description of a science class field trip for the school newspaper. I’ll be watching for that new byline—it could be the start of an exciting career for a student who loves science as much as I do.”
Nancy Grant from November 2014 Issue