Faculty Perspectives: Emily M. Klein
Emily M. Klein, Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences
Bass Connections Project Team: Energy and the Environment: Design and Innovation
What are the key issues that confront our society in its need for clean, affordable and reliable energy, and what are some innovative approaches to help solve those challenges? Professor Klein and Josiah Knight lead a Bass Connections project to identify, design and prototype new energy technologies, systems or approaches. Small groups address the trade-offs among design choices, environmental impact and economic viability. The goal is to produce a useful prototype and an evaluation of its benefits and viability. Past projects have included a solar-powered vehicle, a biogas-powered generator and a green emergency power system.
We asked her a few questions about her Bass Connections experience; below are excerpts from our conversation.
Small interdisciplinary groups
We put together teams of Pratt and Trinity undergraduates, as well as graduate students, to come up with their own ideas of what they’re interested in working on in the realm of energy and the environment.
In addition to the technical design and prototyping, each team has to do an analysis of environmental impacts or offsets, social benefits, a marketing plan and a basic business plan. It has to be comprehensive, as if they’re pitching a new innovation.
It’s thrilling to watch the students go through the period of brainstorming—thinking broadly about things they want to work on, areas that need attention—and come up with new ideas that can address these problems.
What to do with wasteful flare gas?
One team worked like crazy to figure out things you could do with flare gas [natural gas that is disposed of through burning], because it’s not an easy problem to solve. They kept brainstorming. Then they figured out that it is feasible to collect flare gas, clean it and turn it into natural gas to power a fleet of FedEx vehicles in the Bakken oil fields region in North Dakota. There are a lot FedEx trucks there because they need to bring things to the oil fields immediately. The team looked at the price of storage facilities and real estate, and it’s actually doable. One student planned to talk to his dad, who’s involved in this sort of thing, to try to turn it into a real business.
Another flare gas team focused on using the methane to grow animal food stock. It turns out that there are bacteria that eat methane. They’re called methanotrophs. The bacteria becomes a food stock for feeding animals, so it could potentially replace corn and other things we grow to feed cows and chickens and fish farms.
Every year, they come up with awesome things. They learn, we learn. We don’t have all the knowledge, so they have to seek out experts. Like the students who were working with the methanotrophs—it turned out that the expert on that is at UCLA so they had to contact her.
I see that the learning process in working on teams is such a rich way to learn from each other. I find that I want more and more of that small group experience and exploration in my research and teaching.
See other faculty perspectives and learn how you can get involved in Bass Connections.