Ben Franklin


Penn State Energy Institute: Developing New Energy Technology for Pennsylvania and the World

As the conversations in Harrisburg about the importance of Pennsylvania’s role in developing alternative fuel and other energy sources grow more intense, energy researchers at Penn State University are developing new innovations and ideas faster than ever.

Developing energy for World

If Governor Rendell is successful in getting his strategic energy initiative passed, the leading-edge energy technologies now being developed at the Energy Institute at Penn State University will make their way to market much sooner than they would have otherwise.

“If Governor Rendell is successful in getting his strategic energy initiative passed, a significant amount of money will be made available to researchers and companies of various kinds to try to begin a real spin-up of applied energy research,” says William E. Easterling, incoming dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State University.

Essentially, the novel energy technologies that are currently being developed in Penn State and other Pennsylvania universities’ labs right now will be hastened to completion and to market. “Ultimately, we are trying to create a whole new energy industry in Pennsylvania that is built on sustainable energy systems, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners will be one of the principle conduits for moving those funds from the energy initiative into the hands of the people who can do that kind of work,” he says.

Easterling and his fellow researchers at Penn State are among those people; he recently co-chaired the Penn State University Energy Task Force to determine the potential in energy research at Penn State.

“Energy has been a growing concern over a number of decades, but it has taken on a certain urgency over the past five to 10 years,” Easterling says. “The university has had a strong set of energy programs for 20 to 30 years in clean coal technology, renewable energies of various kinds and nuclear energy. We have seen what the future holds, and we decided we needed to better organize our energy assets here at Penn State and ask the question: What areas could the university invest in that would put Penn State in good position, and in a larger sense, give the state of Pennsylvania a stronger comparative advantage in developing new technology around energy?”

Tackling a Serious Energy Situation

As part of their analysis, the task force took a realistic look at the major national and international global trends in energy, including global warming (which many researchers, including Easterling, feel has already begun), the prediction that the earth will reach its peak oil production in the next two decades, and a forecasted global energy demand that is predicted to be 50 to 60 percent higher in the year 2050 than it is today. “Also, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East continue to be the main source region for oil going into the 21st century, so I need not elaborate on the geopolitical situation there and how serious it is,” Easterling says.

In response to their findings, Easterling and his colleagues began to look at how they could organize themselves at Penn State and use new faculty and new capacity “to help the state and the nation to not only do research and produce the fundamental new knowledge that is needed to continue to access affordable and environmentally responsible energy, but also to train a workforce of highly trained and very broadly grounded energy scientists and engineers who can help us continue to move forward with our needs,” Easterling says.

Taking Energy from Fields to Wheels

One important way the task force plans to put more energy research in motion is with the Energy Institute at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. “This institute has a faculty and research and teaching support staff that have done some of the most important research, especially in fossil energy production and conversion and ultimately, carbon sequestration, of any of the institutes on campus,” Easterling says. “It has novel programs, including coal liquefaction that we are doing under contract with the Air Force, and technologies that will reduce carbon emissions to extend the energy value of coal.” Easterling points out that coal has gotten a bad name because of its connection with greenhouse gases, but because it is one of our most abundant remaining resources, we are going to have to come up with creative ways to use it in the future.

In addition to the institute, the task force came up with five strategic areas to focus on with respect to energy research: novel fossil fuel energy conservation (for example, coal liquefaction and catalysis); biofuels (Penn State’s “fields to wheels” concept, which involves converting field crops, raw crops, and tree crops into fuels); hydrogen fuel, or hydrogen energy; nuclear energy; and finally and perhaps most important, solar energy. “Instead of the conversion of sunlight to electricity, we are looking at novel ways of converting energy into hydrogen,” Easterling says.

Penn State plans to focus on the above five areas as they partner with Ben Franklin on new initiatives. “We are going to bring in new faculty, particularly in the area of bioenergy,” Easterling says. “This will be a major new initiative for Ben Franklin. If it happens the way we think it will, it could inflate Ben Franklin’s budget, which will in turn help the state with this very important energy initiative.”

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This article was featured in
Keynotes June, 2007
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