Great Ideas on Energy: Giant Touch Screens, Natural Gas, Instant Transportation Routes

A century ago, The University of Texas was built on energy. Some sources may have changed, but as these brilliant innovations prove, UT is still charging ahead.

14.  Use giant touch screens to help groups negotiate geothermal energy.

Chile’s El Tatio Geyser Field is the Southern Hemisphere’s largest. It’s near Earth’s driest desert, and at high altitude. It’s sacred to the indigenous Likan-antay tribe. And it’s among the world’s most promising places to tap geothermal energy.

So energy decisions are delicate. “Everything’s in sharp relief,” says Suzanne Pierce, a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences who has conducted research there. “It brings groups into direct conflict.”

Pierce set out to make talking about choices more appealing. So for $1,000, she and an undergraduate built a giant iPad-like touch screen in her garage in 2009. Now, through funding from the Jackson School, she has a state-of-the-art 3M touch screen the size of a card table. The Texas Advanced Computing Center is loading it with data.

Instead of arguing in a meeting about development sites, local residents, industry executives, government officials, and others can now stand together around the screen and play with information. They can examine maps that take into account geology, groundwater systems, population density, even road and phone pole locations. They can change settings to get different suggestions about energy exploration sites based on priorities.

Pierce will take the device to her study sites in Chile, Australia, and the U.S., and she’d like to see similar devices used elsewhere, too. “It’s serious play,” Pierce says. “You’re interacting live with the data and information.” —Lynn Freehill

15. Fuel up with natural gas.

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to put more natural gas-powered cars and trucks on the road to take advantage of cheaper, cleaner fuel and a near 100-year U.S. supply of natural gas.

And it’s betting that UT researchers have the know-how to make natural gas cars and at-home fueling easier for consumers.

The problem for some would-be natural gas car buyers is that at-home fueling appliances are costly, and natural gas isn’t available at many U.S. gas stations. That’s unlike countries like Brazil, where they are commonplace. Of the 13 million natural gas vehicles on the road worldwide, only 120,000 are in the U.S.

In an effort to solve the domestic natural gas car quandary, the DOE awarded researchers at UT’s Center for Electromechanics a $4.3 million grant to advance technology that could reduce the cost of a residential fueling appliance by more than 80 percent.

In the next few years, UT researchers will take their ideas from concept to prototype. On the drawing board: an at-home fueling appliance that can compress natural gas using a linear motor with a single moving piston.

“Eliminating the many moving parts in a traditional compressor will help improve the life and durability of those compressors, and make it cheaper,” says Michael Lewis, a senior engineering scientist with the Center for Electromechanics.

Researchers are envisioning a 50- to 70-pound wall unit that plugs into a standard outlet and dispenses natural gas from the same pipelines that bring heat to homes. They hope to begin testing in a real-world environment by 2013.

“It’s fulfilling to know that your research is good for the U.S. Widespread adoption of natural gas vehicles will reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Lewis says. “Natural gas vehicles are also better for the environment. They have fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline or diesel vehicles.” —Sandra Zaragoza

16. Choose the most efficient transportation routes instantly.

It’s 7 a.m. Your personal assistant updates you. “Good morning!” booms Brad Pitt from your iPhone. “Today you’re going to Washington. You can go by bus, plane, or taxi. What’s most vital to you—speed, cost, or energy efficiency?”

If UT professor Michael Walton has a say, this capability will be commonplace in 20 years. “This is the next generation of the smartphone revolution,” Walton says. “All we need—traffic routes, prices, and more—is already there. And yes, you could even have the voice of a celebrity.”

Walton, who holds joint appointments with the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering and the LBJ School of Public Policy, is working toward a day when people will have an instant range of transportation choices.

“We’re working on integrating your social networks, too,” he adds. “If you’re going to be in New York, your phone could tell you which of your contacts will be there that day.”

While Walton focuses on policy, his colleague Steve Boyles crunches numbers, developing algorithms to provide travelers with the best info. “Imagine you’re stuck in traffic on I-35,” Boyles says. “We could share another route, but then it could get worse than the first jam. This can save energy and time, but only if used strategically.”

Walton and Boyles believe that routing technology will hit the market incrementally. Soon, they say, Google Maps won’t just tell you current travel time—it’ll predict into the future. Cars will also be more integrated with smartphones and GPS. And UT will be at the forefront. —Rose Cahalan

Read the next great ideas on energy here.

Photo courtesy pamhule on Flickr.


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