Aaron Deskins and Mike Timko stand behind a black reflective wall at the Sports & Recreation Center.

WPI Hosts Inaugural New England Energy Research Forum

Today’s forum features presentations on biofuels, electric storage, solar energy, and sustainable fuels
June 28, 2017

Today, WPI’s Energy Research Group hosts the first New England Energy Research Forum, a daylong event dedicated to sharing ideas and presenting research related to the materials in the energy industry.

Coordinator Aaron Deskins, associate professor of chemical engineering, says the massive scope of energy issues necessitates the many energy conferences and forums that are held worldwide. But he often finds that disciplines will stay together to discuss issues and concerns. For this forum, the nearly 80 attendees represent many disciplines and come from regional universities including the University of Maine, UMass Amherst, University of New Hampshire, University of Connecticut, as well as schools in Rhode Island and New York.

“The goal of this conference is to bring interested parties to WPI to showcase WPI and to network with other people in the area,” says Deskins. The main research and energy issues presented will focus on biofuels, electric storage (like batteries), solar energy, and sustainable fuels.

Mike Timko (left) and Aaron Deskins

“Historically, the alternative energy community in New England has not been especially well connected,” says co-coordinator Mike Timko, assistant professor of chemical engineering. “However, the scale of the problem of producing cost-effective and renewable energy is so vast, we will definitely need an array of solutions—we cannot expect a silver bullet to appear that will single-handedly meet all of our energy needs, even as a state. And so, making connections within the community can help us drive toward a common goal to increase the use of renewable energy.”

In addition to 20 speaking presentations and about 30 student poster presentations (a couple of faculty are presenting posters as well), two keynote speakers will address the New England Energy Research Forum.

Linda Broadbelt, department chair and professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University and a leading expert in biofuels and fuel production, will be a keynote speaker at the event. She says she likes that the forum is especially focused on research and researchers in the New England region because the area is an exciting one for this field.

Like many of her colleagues, Broadbelt also studies energy through the lens of many disciplines and so she appreciates different researchers coming together to discuss a common theme. “I am a good representative of energy interests spanning from biology to high-temperature chemical processing,” she says. Broadbelt plans to discuss the role computational quantitative modeling can play in figuring out many scenarios and how it fits in with the bigger picture of the process scale. “Everybody recognizes that this has to fit into the energy landscape globally,” she says. She is also interested in discussing processing lignin, one of the most abundant renewable carbon sources.

Alissa Park, Lenfest Junior Professor in Applied Climate Science and associate director of Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy of Earth and Environmental Engineering & Chemical Engineering at Columbia University, is an authority in carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide reduction technologies and will also give a keynote talk.

While energy is often at the forefront of research, the topic is so large it’s difficult to harness into one conference. “The biggest problem we are trying to solve is the economics of energy,” says Deskins. “It’s trying to come up with cheaper materials to compete with fossil fuels.” He says the forum is going to concentrate on how the materials involved in energy can be made better, faster, stronger, and cheaper.

“The Energy Research Forum is designed to cut across some of the traditional areas in renewable energy... Research requires so many different tools these days, so building a network of collaborators is important to stay on the leading edge.” -Mike Timko

Researchers are working on problems, but, as Timko notes, if they are all working with the same people in the same field, they might miss opportunities for branching out and considering new approaches. “The Energy Research Forum is designed to cut across some of the traditional areas in renewable energy," he says, "so I’m looking forward to learning about fields other than my own (bioenergy) to see if my group can adopt some of their techniques to their problems or apply our techniques to theirs. Research requires so many different tools these days, so building a network of collaborators is important to stay on the leading edge.”

The Energy Research Group thought organizing this forum would help stir conversations and spark new ideas. “The Energy Research Group (ERG) consists of faculty from many different departments—biology, physics, chemistry, mechanical/materials engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, and chemical engineering,” says Timko, “all of whom work at least partially in the area of renewable energy. We established ERG several years ago and have now built a cohort of active research that touches many areas of renewable energy, from solar energy to energy storage.”

The complexities involved in producing inexpensive, clean, sustainable, and reliable energy are extensive. For instance, technology has opened many doors, but if new inventions create items that are then thrown into a dump and are toxic, that won’t do the world any good either, Deskins says.

“Society seems to want to get away from fossil fuels and is on board with it,” he says. “Society is moving to cleaner and more renewable technologies. The roadblocks are coming up with economic solutions and with long-term issues related to sustainability.”

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil