Keeping the lights on

Earth at night

Courtesy: NASA

Satellite images of the Earth at night hint at our tremendous hunger for energy. And that appetite is going to grow as global population increases...

Coal plant

Courtesy Staplegunther via Wikimedia Commons

Over 85% of the power in this country comes from fossil fuels, and most of our electricity comes from coal-burning plants like this one. But even relatively plentiful fossil fuels, like coal, will eventually run out, and burning them in the meantime has huge environmental consequences.

Solar field

Courtesy Ceinturion via Wikimedia Commons

Energy alternatives like solar power are often environmentally sound, but face other challenges, like high prices, lower electrical output and the ability to supply power continuously throughout the day and night. Research innovations are quickly overcoming these problems.

We use lots of energy. And, as world population grows and countries develop, we're going to be using a lot more. Most of our energy comes from fossil fuels—materials in limited supply that will take millions of years to replenish. And when we burn fossil fuels to extract their energy, they produce pollutants and greenhouse gases. Even nuclear power relies on non-renewable fuels, and its byproducts must be stored for thousands of years until they are no longer dangerously radioactive.

IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment focuses on finding sustainable energy sources that will help us meet the new demand of the 21st century.

Sustainable energy needs to come from resources that are renewable (i.e. they won’t become depleted in the near future) and must be less damaging to the environment than current power sources. In addition to new technologies and strategies for solar and wind power, IonE and IREE are exploring techniques that could generate power and reduce existing pollution. Some plants, for instance, could be processed into biofuels—gas- and oil-like products refined from organic material. While growing, the plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and much of it is left harmlessly in the ground after the usable parts of the plant are harvested. Another method might use carbon dioxide captured from power plants to extract heat from the Earth. The pressurized CO2 could be pumped into the ground, where some would become trapped, and some, heated by the Earth itself, would return to the surface to generate more electricity.

The connections between energy, the environment and society are very complicated—solutions that seem straightforward at first may have unexpected consequences. Simply avoiding old problems doesn't guarantee that new ones won't arise. IonE researchers approach energy projects from multiple angles to produce solutions that make sense economically and environmentally that could be sustained beyond our generation.