The Energy Challenge for Our Generation's Engineers

Modern civilization has coasted on fossil fuels, but Earth's supply will peak—then decline. We need a sustainable energy future. Purdue Engineering with support from its partners is taking solving this predicament to heart.

Indeed, energy, says Lefteri Tsoukalas, Purdue's head of nuclear engineering, "is the grand unsolved challenge of this civilization." Developing renewable energy resources now for the long term is a must. So is developing shorter–term but nonrenewable resources like clean coal. Society's urgent issues—the environment, poverty, international relations, Hurricane Katrina's aftermath—are inextricably tied to energy.

"The conventional oil, the low-hanging fruit, has been picked," says Tsoukalas. "We need to have diversity, a basket of energy suppliers."

How to fill that basket—and with what (solar? hydrogen? nuclear? biofuels?)—are questions that Purdue Engineering is taking up. Each alternative comes with trade–offs, and time is short. But no matter how the road to our energy future bends, Purdue Engineering intends to be out in front, mapping the way.

Energy Innovation, a Purdue Tradition

For decades, engineers at Purdue have pursued energy-related research, whether as a matter of course (as with natural gas engineering, a 1920s–era research interest in the School of Chemical Engineering) or as a result of increasing concern over the environment and our finite supply of hydrocarbons (as with solar).

Purdue Engineering’s New Energy Approach

A signature research area—Energy—is in place within the College of Engineering, focusing on stationary power, such as power plants, and motive power, which ranges from automobiles to airplanes to spacecraft.

Tsoukalas himself leads research on updating the country's power grid, and chemical engineering faculty members at Purdue's Center for Catalyst Design have been researching ways to improve a low–polluting energy technology that combusts natural gas more cleanly than conventional methods.

Making It Happen

In July, though, Purdue and the College of Engineering reached a milestone when the University announced a new Energy Center. A component of Purdue's Discovery Park research complex, the center is created from seed money from the Lilly Endowment and will share $85 million in federal funding (through the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005) with centers in Illinois and Kentucky.

Purdue's center will bring together more than 75 experts across campus, many of them from the College of Engineering, to pursue next–generation energy technologies. More than 40 companies, including Rolls–Royce, Cummins, energy utilities, steel companies, and nuclear reactors, have shown interest in working with the center.