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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 24 · Number 4 · Summer 2007

future power illustration

Future Power

You will be living a more environmentally friendly life in the future. Here’s how.

In 50 years, we will look back at 2007 as the Summer of Carbon Consciousness, when Americans stopped debating whether we were changing the climate and instead started changing our ways.

Here at UC Davis, researchers have worked for decades to help keep planet Earth from losing its ecological balance. The campus is an international leader in many aspects of environmental research and education—particularly sustainable agriculture, energy efficiency and conservation, and advanced transportation technology and policy.

Recently, UC Davis launched a new initiative to foster greater collaboration among the more than 60 faculty members working on energy-related problems and solutions. Named Energy for the Future, it is led by the College of Engineering. It will add 12 new faculty researchers and an administrative home to build on the university’s established strengths in three major areas: reducing energy use (conservation), increasing the benefits of energy used (efficiency) and developing lower-emission energy sources (alternative fuels).

Here is a time-traveler’s look at the possible future of energy as influenced by UC Davis activities—a preview of everyday life as we might experience it five to 50 years from now. The scenarios are not at all fanciful; in fact, some of these energy revolutions are just around the corner.

2010: In the wind

In this infancy of alternative energy, when we are just beginning to wean ourselves from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), a significant portion of our electricity comes from thin air. But in the 1980s, when the first California wind farms sprouted in the passes at Altamont, San Gorgonio and Tehachapi, it was not a sure bet that we would ever get here.

Early wind-turbine designs varied widely—and so did their effectiveness at harnessing the wind profitably. When General Electric asked UC Davis engineering professor Jean-Jacques Chattot to look into its design problems, Chattot was surprised to find that there were very few computer programs that could accurately predict how much energy the machines would produce. Some codes underestimated by 50 percent; others overestimated by 200 percent.

Starting in 2006, Chattot and his Ph.D. student Sven Schmitz helped the industry make a series of technological advances that ensured the success of wind in our green-energy portfolio.

Their first achievement was writing an ingenious software program that combined one method of calculating airflow within three feet of the blade with another method that calculated the rotor wake beyond that distance. This “parallelized coupled solver” very accurately predicted airflow around turbine blades at all speeds.

Soon turbine makers moved from heavy, relatively stiff, metallic blades to lighter, more flexible, composite structures. They installed sensors and micromotors on the blade surfaces to match the blades’ shapes to changing wind conditions. Turbines got bigger, too, until at 300 feet across, the width of a football field, their blades bent several feet at the tips.

So Chattot wrote correspondingly complex programs that coupled the fluid dynamics of airflow with the mechanics of those enormous blades. In his first programs, turbine blades were rigid, like the pre-lube Tin Man. In the new codes, the blades are limber and alive, flapping and twisting and producing energy much more efficiently as they twirl in the California breeze.

2015: An ultrabright idea

While the lights in our homes have changed from energy-hogging incandescent bulbs to efficient compact fluorescents, the lights in our offices are neither. Instead, they are light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. And they came to our offices via a technology pioneered by UC Davis in 2007.

Back then, we were familiar with LEDs in traffic lights and automobile headlights; compared with their conventional counterparts, LEDs were brighter, lasted longer and used less energy. But the truly big energy gains in lighting were waiting in our offices, where lights accounted for one-third of building electricity use.

The main barrier to progress was the lack of a technology that gave good task lighting. Then engineers and designers at the California Lighting Technology Center at UC Davis designed a suite of LED-based office lamps.

Dubbed the Personal Lighting System, the fixtures were slim, ultrabright and went anywhere—mounted under cabinets, or freestanding on desks and floors. They gave users full control over their office lighting environments at half the energy, with less glare and eyestrain.

The program was a landmark in university-government-industry collaboration: The UC Davis group developed the lighting system with funding from the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research program. Industry partner Finelite, of Union City, co-developed the system and led the marketing and distribution program.

CLTC Director Michael Siminovitch and engineers Erik Page and Kevin Gauna watched with satisfaction as throughout California, the Personal Lighting System was incorporated into both new construction and office retrofits. Within just a few years, the LED lights saved the amount of energy that would have been produced by three medium-size power plants.

Do you have ideas?

What’s your plan for fighting global climate change? Go to the UC Davis research blog, Egghead, and post it in the Comments section under the “Future Power” entry. Tell us what you are doing to reduce your carbon footprint. Or give us your idea for a new product or practice that could make a difference. Your comments will stay in the Egghead archives, and we will also publish some of them in a future issue of UC Davis Magazine.

2017: Farm-to-fork footprint

Once upon a time, food labels told you if tuna was dolphin-safe or milk was BST-free. Today you can scan a food label and tell how much energy it took to bring that food to you.

Just as the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies pioneered the measurement of life-cycle environmental impacts of auto fuels, the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute has quantified the costs of growing, harvesting, processing and transporting food products. The institute’s industry partner in the effort was a leader in socially responsible food sourcing, Bon Appetit Management Co. One of the world’s largest food buyers, Bon Appetit serves millions of meals daily in offices, museums and university dining halls.

The Agricultural Sustainability Institute’s first director, Tom Tomich, launched the Low Carbon Diet labeling project in 2006. An agricultural economist, Tomich held the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems. His collaborator was food systems analyst Gail Feenstra of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, which is also based at UC Davis, along with senior researcher Sonja Brodt and graduate student Erica Chernoh.

“Once we figured out how to calculate the energy cost of a number of foods in a reliable way, we could label foods with their carbon footprint,” Feenstra said. “In transportation, it was an analysis of energy costs from the oil well to the wheel. In food, it’s farm to fork.”

2020: Setting the standard

When the California governor announced plans for a new “low-carbon fuel standard” for our cars in 2007, he named UC Davis transportation expert Daniel Sperling to write the policy. Good call: Sperling had first broached the idea in clean-fuel circles 15 years earlier. Shortly after he brought it up again in 2005, environmentalists carried it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, which soon steered it into the fast lane.

The policy (which Sperling co-authored with Bryan Jenkins, Marc Melaina and Joan Ogden of UC Davis and Alex Farrell of UC Berkeley) has worked because it gave oil companies flexibility in choosing how they met the low-carbon requirement.

Some have used new technology to reduce carbon emissions in the refining process. Others blend gasoline with low-carbon biofuels or make low-carbon hydrogen fuel. Still others buy carbon credits from utility companies selling clean electricity that is used to power plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles.

With leadership from Sperling and the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, California has become a global model for clean-vehicle policy. Implemented in 2010, the new fuel standard has cut lifetime, or “well-to-wheel,” greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels sold in California by 12.5 percent, exceeding the goal of a 10 percent reduction by the year 2020. What’s more, after California enacted its new standard, 32 other U.S. states and the European Union followed our lead.

2022: A sweet ride

Few of us understood President Bush in his 2007 State of the Union speech, when he called for revved-up development of “plug-in and hybrid vehicles.” But UC Davis engineer/visionary Andy Frank did. The president meant that the automobile technology Frank had labored over, virtually alone, for 30 years, had finally arrived. That was the year when millions of petroleum-gulping, carbon-farting gas hogs (only
9 to 33 miles per gallon!) began one-way trips to the bacon factory.

And now we all know what a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is. It’s a PHEV (pronounced fev)—a car that carries four; gets its power from renewable sources, not oil; travels 50 miles on one charge; and goes from 0 to 60 in seven seconds.

The average American family owns two PHEVs. When not in use, the cars are plugged into a charging station at home or work.

Some drive the older model with metal-hydride batteries and a conventional induction motor. Those of us with a brand-new PHEV have one with lithium batteries, a permanent-magnet motor and continuously variable transmission. It was named Motor Trend Car of the Year and winner of the Nader “Enviro-Safe At Every Speed” Award. As long as it runs on the electric motor, it emits no carbon.

But wait, there’s more! Right now that PHEV sitting in the garage is serving as a community energy storage facility. The electricity in its batteries is virtually carbon-free because it was produced at the Santa Cruz Wave Farm, which harvests energy from the constant motion of the ocean. Also, that electricity was made in “off-peak,” or low demand, hours and will be summoned back into the grid later today when demand is greatest. That makes the PHEV doubly green: It emits no pollution when driven, plus it eliminates the need to satisfy peak power demands as we did back in Bush’s day—with power from the oldest, dirtiest plants in the West.

2025: Garbage in, gas out

Sorting the curbside recycling: Paper and glass go here; they’ll be back as, well, paper and glass. Plastics go there; they’ll return as clothing, carpets, fence rails and lawn furniture. And that third bin? That’s for banana peels, leftover lasagna and stale bagels.

The garbage truck now coming down the street is running on compressed natural gas made from the table scraps it got from you last week. How’s that for a nifty bit of green futurism? The truck takes your food scraps to a nearby processing plant where, in a series of big stainless steel tanks, bacteria eat the carbon compounds and excrete hydrogen and methane gases. The gas mixture is pumped into the garbage truck’s fuel tank. And away the truck goes, back on its collection rounds, with nary a trip to the local landfill.

This “anaerobic digester” process was perfected in 2010 by Ruihong Zhang, a UC Davis professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and her industry partner, Dave Konwinski, the CEO of Onsite Power Systems Inc. Digesters now reclaim 45 million tons of food annually that we Americans used to bury underground, wasted. Today California homes, restaurants, soup kitchens and college dining halls—even farmers and canneries—send their vegetable- and animal-based leftovers to biogas energy plants.

So let the kids leave the pizza crusts; UC Davis has turned them into oil wells.

2027: Keeping our cool

It is a hot summer Saturday in California. Global warming has meant record high temperatures here for the past decade, but inside your home it’s a comfortable 75 degrees (and feels cooler). Producing that cucumber coolness was easy on the environment, thanks in part to the UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center, founded in 2007.

Whereas at the turn of the century, air conditioning caused major summer disruptions in California’s electricity network, today’s AC technology uses far less energy and helps even out electricity demand over the 24-hour cycle.

The revolution began when UC Davis experts ripped up cooling technology from its humid eastern U.S. roots and redesigned it for dry western climates. Gone are the droning, Freon-filled condensing units that sat behind our homes and cycled endlessly, off-on-off-on, adding hundreds of dollars to monthly electric bills. Instead, water silently circulating in pipes in our floors and ceilings absorbs heat and carries it away, needing no help from compressors, air handlers or fans.

The founding director of the Cooling Center, engineer Dick Bourne, put one of these radiant cooling systems in his new Davis home way back in 1994. Now Bourne proudly notes that he and his wife, Carol, have never paid more than $25 per year to run their silent and comfortable cooling system, which uses electricity only at night to discharge heat to the cool sky.

This and other advanced cooling systems nurtured by the Cooling Center have now been installed on millions on homes in the Western U.S. and have made a large contribution toward stabilizing regional electricity rates.

2030: Tiny powerhouses

It seemed possible at the turn of the millennium that fuel cells would soon power our cars and homes with clean, cheap electricity made from water. Hopes were high; unfortunately, so were the cells’ operating temperatures and their manufacturing costs.

The best fuel cells in 2007 operated at 1,500 to 1,800 degrees F (800 to 1,000 degrees C), and merely reaching and maintaining that heat took quite a bit of energy. The heat also quickly degraded the machines’ metal, ceramic and plastic components. Furthermore, the prevailing fuel-cell design required an expensive platinum catalyst.

Meanwhile, at UC Davis, a number of researchers were exploring the possibilities of nanomaterials—metals, ceramics and composites assembled from infinitesimal clusters of atoms and molecules. In one lab, materials scientist Zuhair Munir and his colleagues were manufacturing new nanomaterials using a novel process of their own invention. Their results included two oxides with crystals 15 nanometers wide (about 1/5,000th the width of a human hair).

To Munir’s great satisfaction, when the team tested the new materials, they found they conducted electricity not only at normal room temperatures, but also without a catalyst.

Today many of the millions of fuel cells in our homes and vehicles are built with nanomaterials based on Munir’s breakthrough development. Water goes in, electricity comes out. It’s a small world—and a healthier one—after all.

2060: Sunlike, from the sea

Ironically, the ultimate solution to the greenhouse effect was harnessing the power of the sun—not solar energy but its precursor, fusion energy, the energy production method that powers Earth’s sun and all the other stars in the universe.

In what many people consider the most difficult scientific achievement ever, an international collaboration of scientists (including
several at UC Davis) perfected the process of making electricity efficiently by fusing hydrogen atoms.

Back in 2007, virtually all the world’s electrical power production (about 15 terawatts annually) came from burning fossil fuels—oil, coal and natural gas mined from underground. But today, most electricity comes from burning hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) mined from seawater. Whereas fossil fuels were projected to last until perhaps only 2200, the hydrogen isotopes in seawater should supply our power demands for billions of years.

Besides solving the supply problem, fusion energy solved the greenhouse gas problem. Whereas every pound of fossil fuel burned produced a pound of carbon dioxide, the fusion of hydrogen isotopes produces helium, which is not a greenhouse gas. (Like fission reactors, fusion reactors produce radioactive waste, but fusion waste is far less dangerous to human health and there is far less of it.)

Central to this achievement was the work of UC Davis plasma physicists David Hwang and N.C. Luhmann Jr. and their colleagues in the Department of Applied Science (founded by Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen fusion weapon, the H-bomb). Hwang’s group helped figure out how to continuously refuel a fusion power plant. Their experiments with a particle accelerator made it possible to send a steady stream of hydrogen atoms into the million-degree reaction chamber, much as one would feed a fireplace with fresh logs. Luhmann’s group helped devise the necessary techniques for monitoring the conditions inside the super-hot fusion chamber, using light and electromagnetic waves.

In June 2007, there were roughly 18,000 carbon-emitting power plants in the world. China alone was building a new coal-fired plant every week. Now those dirty power-makers are dinosaurs, rapidly being driven to extinction by a mere 1,000 plants making energy from the original solar power: fusion.

Sylvia Wright writes about the environmental sciences for UC Davis.