Penn’s EnerFront Sparks New Ideas on Energy Sustainability

By Patrick Ammerman

Scientists can seem set apart from other disciplines, interpreting the rules of the natural world without the involvement of the social sciences and the humanities. But a new initiative at the University of Pennsylvania is trying to change that by fostering new collaborations around the lynchpin issue of energy.

The new collaboration, EnerFront, is leading a series of forums through the fall semester to invite researchers from different disciplines to talk about energy. The concept originated with Reto Gieré, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, and the department’s research program manager, Svetlana Milutinović. They hope the initiative, now in its second semester, will continue building a community of researchers from around the University.

Gieré, whose work focuses in part on energy-waste disposal, explained that he and Milutinović decided to foster collaboration about energy because it is an issue that spans so many disciplines. But those doing energy research at Penn weren’t necessarily aware of one another.

“Basically the decision came from a desire to get to know other people on campus doing similar things,” said Gieré.

“Sustainability,” said Milutinović, “is a much broader concept which spills over into economic and social and political and cultural systems, so it really is very multi-disciplinary.

One aim of EnerFront is to offer faculty a chance to forge these cross-disciplinary collaborations by first simply learning about one another’s work. Beginning last spring, Giere and Milutinović organized a series of faculty gatherings, each with a particular theme. Each gatherings was followed by a community seminar in which students, staff, and members of the public were invited to learn more about the topic.

Bill Braham, professor of architecture in Penn’s School of Design, was the featured speaker for the second EnerFront seminar. His research combines systems ecology, the study of how ecosystems work together as a whole, with the design of buildings and infrastructure. His interest in combining earth science and architecture made his research a good example of two subjects being brought together to yield new insight.

Braham was struck by how his talk reached beyond his usual audience.

“There were geologists, climate scientists and other kinds of people who think about things in a very different way or focus on a very different part of the world than I do,” said Braham.

The crowd asked different types of questions than a group of architects might have.

“What’s the role of buildings or other kinds of technologies in the larger economy? In the larger urban setting? And does that change the way we use energy?” said Braham. “At the end of the day, these are the questions that we got pushed to ask when we started looking at energy.”

Through engaging with other academics across disciplines, Gieré discovered the importance of integrating scientific questions with the social sciences when conducting his own research. He studies methods of disposing nuclear waste from power plants, specifically developing the tools to turn this waste into crystals that can be stored underground. Gieré found, however, that his proposals for disposal of waste faced strong resistance from the public because of concern about nuclear waste disposal.

He now sees nuclear-waste disposal not as a scientific issue but primarily as a political and social problem.

“If we as scientists and engineers try to come up with a solution, you still have to get backing from the population,” said Gieré. “That’s where the social sciences and humanities come in.”

There is hope that deepening relationships among researchers could produce new, exciting energy research.

We’ve had one semester and half-a-dozen meetings, so it’s raised lots of questions and possibilities. Part of the question now is how to get some projects or activities concrete enough that it can really propel the project forward,” said Braham.

Milutinović is also hopeful that future collaborations will help EnerFront gain momentum. By bringing together different disciplines, and forging partnerships between academics and practitioners she believes that future EnerFront projects will have a real world impact.

“In the area of sustainability, innovation really cannot happen if you don’t have integration of knowledge,” said Milutinović, “I think it resonates very well with Penn President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact.”

EnerFront has two planned seminars in the current semester. On Nov. 4, Jennifer Lukes, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, will discuss her research on modeling heat and fluid transport and how that can be applied to emerging energy technology . On Dec. 16, Arthur van Benthem, assistant professor in Penn’s Wharton School, is giving a seminar about Europe’s carbon emissions trading policy.

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