Assessing Long-term Technological Progress for Alternative Transport Energy Sources

Project: Research project

Project Details


Realizing a new energy system which mitigates climate change and energy security risks is a key challenge of the century. Rapidly rising oil prices and the possibility of a near future peak in global oil production adds pressure to quickly develop and implement alternative energy solutions. Technological progress is needed before many of the alternative supply options become economically viable in the context of the current socio-economic system. Engineers are faced with choices as to what technological avenues to pursue. Governments and firms are faced with complex and difficult decisions regarding how to invest research and development funds and apply public policy to stimulate needed technological progress. Developing methods and models to provide rigorous information on technological progress for decision making is a priority. This objective of this project is to significantly advance modeling of technological progress of alternative energies by developing and applying new methods to: 1. Estimate long-term bounds on economic and environmental performance 2. Assess life cycle economic and environmental costs 3. Assess uncertainty in technological forecasting The integrated research and education program develops the relevant methods and case studies and communicates these to a broad group of stakeholders. This modeling system is developed in the context of applied case studies of new generation bio-fuels (cellulosic and microbial), photovoltaics, and wind power, all applied to the energy service of delivering transport (passenger vehicle-km). The integrated education plan disseminates knowledge and insight on the structure and evolution of energy systems. At the K-12 (high school) level curricula material is developed and implemented for energy literacy that incorporates both engineering/technical aspects and understanding of the interconnections between energy systems, human society and the environment. At the university level, online course modules are developed to aid integration of sustainability issues in engineering curricula. Outreach activities are undertaken to engage students from under-represented groups. To advance the understanding and use of technological progress models in decision-making, a workshop is held in Washington D.C. to engage energy R&D and policy communities.


The project aims to combine empirical models of trends in prices for production of biofuels with thermodynamic information on the long-term efficiency of different technology paths. With close collaboration with the PI Eric Willams, the students workplan is as follows: In the first phase the student will work to gather and understand existing literature on the thermodynamic limits of biofuel production and conversion. Limits are explored in each step in the technology path: conversion of sunlight to biomass, conversion of biomass to biofuel (e.g. ethanol), combustion of ethanol in vehicle. In the next step of the cost modeling literature is collected for different step in the path. In the third phase, processes identified in the cost modeling are divided into developed and developing technologies, the former assumed not to progress significantly in the next decade or two (e.g. steel smelting) and those evolving rapidly (e.g. algae production of biofuel). An long-term asymptotic cost is developed for each technological path by assuming that developed processes time cost is an appropriate time average and that developing processes are constrained by thermodynamic limits identified in the first phase. In the fourth phase cost trend data is collected and fitted to a retrospective empirical model such as the experience curve. Future costs are forecast by combining the retrospective fit with the asymptotic costs obtained in the third phase. From these results conclusions are drawn regarding potential cumulative investments needed to make biofuels economically competitive. Given these results, the student and the PI will collaborate on a joint research paper intended to be submitted for publication in a peer reviewed journal. Assuming accepted by the conference organizers the student will present results of the work at the 14th annual Energy and Environment Conference to be held January 2011 in Phoenix. The student for the REU will be selected according to the following criteria: academia ability, work habits and interest in pursuing graduate study. The last criteria is particularly relevant given that the REU experience becomes a vehicle for a student interested in research to sample working in a field of interest to them.
Effective start/end date8/15/097/31/13


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $306,317.00

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