Three technologies that could lead to cleaner air in Utah

Tuesday , January 24, 2017 - 6:00 AM4 comments

DAVID FERRO, special to the Standard-Examiner

So here we are in January, again, happy with the occasional snowstorm (or rainstorm) because they wash away the pollution that sticks around during the inversion. The Wasatch Front still has some of the worst pollution in the country during this time of year.

This past Saturday, Jan. 21, mothers, doctors and many others came from across Utah to the Capitol steps (in a snowstorm, no less) to challenge lawmakers to address clean air — with no excuses. They are concerned with the elevated cases of asthma in children in Utah — especially in the five counties north to south from Cache to Utah. They are concerned that every one of us is essentially smoking 11 packs of cigarettes every winter simply by breathing.

Fortunately, all of us who breathe air might benefit from three technological advances, with one originating right here in Utah.

First, and, perhaps, most controversial, one of the technologies on the cusp of a paradigm shift is nuclear power. Optimally, nuclear plants don’t emit pollution. Unfortunately, Utah has a mixed nuclear history. Uranium mining benefited many, but those who worked in the mines or those who were downwind of nuclear testing suffered. The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah has successfully worked with politicians and the public to keep additional nuclear waste out of Utah. Any nuclear power in Utah would need to have multiple safety measures in place to protect and satisfy Utah’s citizens.

Fortunately, research has been productive in nuclear power. Currently, approximately 103 plants in the U.S. provide about 20 percent of the country’s generated power. Without having built any new plants in the last 30 years, nuclear scientists and engineers have increased production from existing plants approximately 25 percent. Current plants will not last forever, however. The U.S. will need to build newer, better, safer plants. Generation IV nuclear plants would be safer to operate and more cost-effective. Two examples: Sodium-cooled fast reactors eliminate water-intensive cooling needs. Pebble-bed reactors — with billiard-ball-sized graphite spheres containing uranium oxide particles — can handle higher temperatures and are simpler to operate.

A second advanced technology is the use of battery banks, which work as power plants connected to the electrical infrastructure. This is an approach that will be proven (or not) in California this year. Two plants — one designed by AES, another by Tesla — will store the energy generated by solar panels during the day. The idea is to use batteries rather than natural gas generators for nighttime power needs. Lithium batteries have their issues — they catch fire on impact — but at least this approach makes that event unlikely. With the Tesla gigafactory reaching full production capacity next year, the cost of producing batteries will likely decrease as well, making this approach more attractive.

The third advanced technology — the one that originates here in Utah — uses coal to create carbon fiber. The Utah Advanced Material Manufacturing Initiative has brought public and private partners together and established Utah as one of the few communities designated nationally as a manufacturing leader in advanced materials such as carbon fiber. The body of the new Boeing 787 is made of carbon fiber — stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum — and many of its parts are made on the Wasatch Front. Manufacturers such as Boeing and ENVE Composites, here in Ogden, are learning the ins and outs of working with such materials.

Composites do have one drawback, however; they are expensive. UAMMI may have an answer. A $1.6M grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration is helping the University of Utah and its partner, the University of Kentucky, determine the viability of using coal to produce low-cost fiber.

Think about what this could mean nationally and in Utah. This would support the coal industry in rural Utah. However, instead of burning the coal, we would use it to build low-cost, light automotive bodies and parts. That’s a no-joke “win-win-win.” Burn less coal and emit less pollution, while still supporting the coal industry and building cars that are lighter and emit less pollution.

The possibilities are encouraging. No one technology will resolve all the problems of air pollution, of course. It will take an assortment of approaches. All technologies have their pluses and minuses, and the trick is to mitigate any risks.

Scott Pruitt, the nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, not only declared climate change real but also said environmental safety and energy production can co-exist. Engineers and scientists — working with public support —can make that coexistence a reality.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.

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