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Chen discusses the global energy challenge



John Chen

“Think of two things you did in the last 24 hours. Did either of these not require energy?” asked John Chen, former dean and now professor emeritus of chemical engineering.

None of the approximately 120 students and faculty in Packard Lab’s Room 466 raised their hands.

“Our current way of living requires us to tap into energy,” Chen told those gathered on Friday, Jan. 23 to hear his lecture, “The World’s Energy and Environmental Challenges.” In the latest weekly seminars hosted by the department of mechanical engineering and mechanics, Chen presented a talk similar to the one he gave as president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Right now, the world uses about 16 terawatts (TW) of energy. A human body has a basal metabolic rate of about 100 watts, Chen said, and he estimated that the average American consumes approximately 128,000 watts of energy. “It’s the equivalent of each of us being served by 128 people,” he said. “They’re pretty good servants, too. They don’t take coffee breaks.”

The recession and last year’s spikes in oil prices has reduced our energy usage, but its effect will be, at best, similar to a person releasing the gas pedal while cruising down the interstate—they will continue moving forward, only at a slower rate.

Energy demand is driven by two factors, population growth and per capita income. Three regions—North America, Europe and Euroasia, and the Asian Pacific—are the primary consumers of energy.

The Asian Pacific regions have both high rates of population growth and burgeoning economies, causing the region to increase its energy use by approximately 6.5 percent from 2001 to 2007. As a result, the world’s energy consumption increased by 3 percent, although levels in North American and Europe and Euroasia remained mostly constant.

Chen forecasted the demand for energy based on predicted changes for population and per capita income. Even his conservative estimate, which took into account the current recession, he found that the world energy use would more than double to 39 TW by 2050.

“Many of us will here in 2050. Some of us will not. For those of you who will be here, I’m looking into your future,” he said to the students.

Currently, over 85 percent of the world’s energy is derived from three fossil fuels: oil, natural gas and coal. All of these are non-renewable, and Chen believes production will peak and then decrease. Chen estimates that we will have 40 more years of oil production, 60 years of natural gas and 150 years of coal.

The world receives less than 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and most of that is derived from nuclear and hydroelectric power.

“Not that alternative energy is not good, it’s good, but we have to come a long way in order to make it successful,” Chen said. For example, if the U.S. were to depend on nuclear energy for power in 2050, it would need to build one nuclear power plant every eight days for the next 41 years.

Developing alternative energy sources will also be an expensive endeavor, Chen said, estimating that a profitable investment in renewable energy would require three times the amount of money in the U.S. economy.

At this point, Chen ended his hour-long lecture, but he still had many more PowerPoint slides discussing energy conservation and climate change. Instead of showing those slides, he skipped to the final slide.

“In summary, conservation is good. It will give us time,” he said. The solution may only be found through intelligent energy, extensive changes and heavy investments. “For you, young people, this should give you lot of motivation to study energy.”

--Becky Straw


Posted on Monday, January 26, 2009

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