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Sherry Knighton-Schwandt
Office of the Vice Provost for Research

Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009

IU researchers poised to seize once in a lifetime opportunity

Two-day conference lays foundation for IU to tackle energy issues

Aug. 13, 2009

Following a widely attended two-day conference, Indiana University researchers and research administrators are organizing to take advantage of extraordinary opportunities for energy research.

Energy conference image

Photo by Chris Meyer

Rick Stevens, of Argonne National Laboratory, speaks to the audience attending the Indiana University Energy Conference.

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One day after President Obama visited Wakarusa, Ind., to announce grants totaling $2.4 billion for the development and deployment of battery-powered electric vehicles ($400 million for Indiana projects), more than 200 registrants gathered on Aug. 6 and 7, first at IU Bloomington and then at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, to consider the pressing challenges associated with energy acquisition and use.

In opening remarks, Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for computing, environment, and life sciences at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, called attention to the present 'perfect storm' of federal funding, political will, and urgent energy questions.

"We are looking at a once-in-a-generation re-baselining of strategy," Stevens said, referring to the large upsurge in U.S. government support for energy research and development. "The U.S. political system is actively engaged right now, we have the opportunity, right now, to go where we have not gone before."

Energy conference image

Photo by Chris Meyer

Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie (left) talks with Paul Sokol, professor and director of the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility, during the energy conference.

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"One fundamental breakthrough" in energy research could have dramatic worldwide effects, said IU President Michael McRobbie, as he emphasized the university's commitment to spurring research related to clean energy, environmental protection, energy policy studies and sustainability.

"Indiana University is actively working to meet the challenge of clean energy," McRobbie said in his welcoming remarks. "We can think about the immediate impact of what we are doing, but always, we should think about how our efforts will effect generations to come, generations we will never know, generations living a thousand years from now."

During the first day of the conference, a steady stream of government and industry leaders pointed to areas in which more research is needed, and soon. Day two of the conference, held on the IUPUI campus, focused on intense deliberations among working groups of IU faculty. In his opening address, IUPUI Chancellor Charles Bantz emphasized that national security and economic development remain a paramount focus for our nation and should be for IU as well.

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Sarita Soni, Vice Provost for Research, talks with IU Professor J.C. Randolph before making opening remarks.

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"This is an opportunity that this university has to pursue," said Bantz. "I am very pleased you are here to look at what assets we have in this university and what we can bring together in order to focus them."

The second-day working groups were organized by nine broad themes: computing, advanced material processes and application, education and workforce development, transportation, policy, economic and legal issues, organizational barriers, environmental issues, sustainability and energy resources.

Speaking to conference participants, U.S. Rep. Baron Hill emphasized that the development of clean-coal technology, a central concern in the state of Indiana, is at the heart of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which was passed by the House in late June and is presently under review by the Senate.

"The energy bill has $75 million for the development of clean-coal technology on a large scale," Hill said, adding that the House version of the bill includes incentives that may help IU researchers achieve new research goals.

State Rep. Matt Pierce said the Indiana General Assembly strongly supports clean coal technologies, but that more information on the basic science behind these technologies is needed.

"It's important for us to continue to think about coal and how we can make it work, but state legislators need a better grounding in energy areas to help us think more scientifically about how to approach all these issues," he said.

Energy storage was identified as another urgent research question. Because renewable energies (e.g. solar power) are often in greater abundance when they are needed less, they must be stored to ensure a steady, reliable supply.

"Power storage is a key unmet need for renewable energy, and it offers research possibilities across the storage technology, manufacturing, and process spectrum," said Landon C.G. Miller, manager of energy programs and chief engineer for Science Applications International Corp. at Indiana's Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center. "Any breakthroughs in the storage research area will be game-changers."

Other crucial research areas pinpointed throughout the conference included energy transmission; transportation, especially next-generation plug-in vehicles; "smart grid" technologies that enable "intelligent metering;" biofuels; and consumer education, attitudes and behavioral change.

Sarita Soni, vice provost for research at IU Bloomington, emphasized the importance of social science in the study of a sustainable energy future.

"We will need the insights of those in economics, cognitive science, anthropology, and other disciplines if we are to develop a comprehensive energy plan for IU," said Soni. "We can not overlook politics, or the governance that effective energy markets require, or the institutional dimensions of energy projects, for example. New markets for energy acquisition will require close attention to the processes by which institutions are created, evaluated and reshaped. Social scientists can help us to do this."

The ultimate goal of the two-day conference is to generate a white paper that lays out an energy research roadmap for IU.

"IU can significantly impact energy research and address major energy issues," said Kody Varahramyan, IUPUI vice chancellor for research. "We are well on our way toward identifying what is needed for IU to excel in its efforts."