Science and Exploration

AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference: Rising Temperatures, Population Drive High Energy

By Marc Boucher
July 30, 2014
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AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference: Rising Temperatures, Population Drive High Energy
File photo: Earth's Climate in 2099

Global warming and pollution, world population growth, rising demand for energy, and expanding urban areas that need increasingly complex transportation networks – all are fueling demand for a new generation of clean energy fuels, pollution control technology, and smarter vehicles.
This was the conclusion of a panel moderated by Richard Stulen, retired vice president of Sandia National Laboratories, in Tuesday afternoon’s plenary session at the AIAA Propulsion & Energy Forum in Cleveland.

Sunita Satyapal, director of Fuel Cell Technologies Office, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, at the Department of Energy, started the discussion by noting that the U.S. “currently imports $1 billion a day in fossil fuels.” Although the U.S. has “5 percent of the world’s population,” she continued, it generates “25% of the world’s carbon emissions,” facts that make it imperative to find better energy sources and cleaner technology.

All the participants were cautiously optimistic that hydrogen could be that fuel source, pointing to its abundance, clean burning and low emissions. Satyapal tempered the panel’s enthusiasm by noting that to be truly cost competitive with other energy sources, “hydrogen needs to get to $30 per kilowatt hour,” and that right now we are at $55 dollars per kilowatt hour. Satyapal praised recent government initiatives in a range of areas, all mandating targeted emission and pollution reductions over the next four years.

The panel also examined other areas where improvement is needed. Gary Smyth, executive director of the North American Science Labs Global Research and Development program at General Motors, said the automotive industry is starting to move past platinum as a component for catalytic converters, given that the supply is so sensitive to geopolitical concerns around the world. Satyapal added that a new “nanoframe-based converter” developed by Sandia is performing 15 percent better than standard platinum-based converters. Pierre-Guy Amand of Herakles noted that in Europe, efforts also focus on lessening the environmental impacts of airports, such as noise pollution, non-CO2 emissions, and land use. The panel also stressed the need for finding cleaner ways of burning fossil fuels.

Obstacles to future energy development include resource shortages, lack of government funding, and lack of energy storage infrastructure. Satyapal said that right now there is no way to dispense hydrogen fuel to consumers, because there is no system for measuring the quantities being dispensed that meets consumer standards. Also, there is general resistance to changing energy sources on the part of government leaders who remain convinced that fossil fuels are the only acceptable source of power.

Stulen concluded by reminding the audience that change is uncertain, and entails “moving from what we know today to what we do not know – and might not be comfortable with – inside of five to 10 years; but we know it’s the right way to go.” He added that no matter how astounding the innovation, or clean the technology, it will only matter if it is “the technology consumers want.”

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

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