Dana Christensen sees energy production through green-colored glasses. A product of the 1960s and 70s, with degrees in chemical engineering and environmental management, the associate laboratory director for energy and engineering sciences started his career in the water treatment business.
"When I entered the workforce, I had an environmental ethic that I had grown up with. I really wanted to improve the environment," he says. Although his career veered away from traditional environmental management work into the nuclear business at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Christensen says he has always approached his work with sustainability in mind. These days, that is a good thing. Christensen manages a broad portfolio of energy research programs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory—from nuclear power to coal-fired electricity production to bioenergy—at a time when sustainability and environmental awareness are no longer red-haired stepchildren to energy production.
"I've had this little thread in my career that is founded more in environmental management," he says. "As I've worked with industry, in the nuclear weapons and nuclear power business and in my current job, I always ask a basic question, 'How can we make energy to power our economy but do it in a way that doesn't destroy our environment?"
In an interview with the ORNL Review, Christensen presented his unique perspective on energy and the Laboratory's role in shaping America's future energy options.
Q. Given your roots in environmental management, how has your perspective of the nation's energy problems evolved and affected the way you are now managing one of the nation's largest energy programs at ORNL?
When you're young and fresh out of school, you're thinking altruistically about what is important to you. What you quickly realize is that energy makes the economy go and that without adequate energy the economy collapses. If you understand the premise that energy is essential then you ask, 'How can we minimize the impact that energy production and consumption have on the environment?' Over the years, my whole view of this question just turned over. I came out of school thinking we have got to tackle the environmental issue. But the challenge is not really an exclusively environmental issue. The real challenge is an energy issue and an environmental issue that go hand in hand.
Now, because of climate change, addressing environmental issues is imperative. We simply must deal with the emissions of fossil fuel into the atmosphere. There are no two ways around it. Part of the solution to the greenhouse gas issue means building more nuclear power plants. That is just a given. The hang-up is, what are we going to do with the spent fuel? This is a critical question we have been ducking for 50 years. The history of this issue is no different than safety. We can look back and see that America's industrial practices often changed for safety reasons. Now they are going to have to change again, and change pretty dramatically, this time for reasons of environmental quality.
Q. Do you see ORNL being uniquely positioned to find environmentally friendly energy solutions?
The Laboratory has an outstanding scientific summary basis that extends beyond fundamental science. We can make prototypes and develop techniques and technologies and model systems. If we capitalize on that capability to make prototypes, the next step is to increase our involvement with industry and move that discovery science, discovery and demonstration science, out into a commercial demonstration mode. That entire process is what the Department of Energy, and particularly the agency's energy technology side, are looking for—stronger interaction with industry to move technology out into the marketplace. Oak Ridge is extremely well positioned to do that. We have some type of working relationship with hundreds of industrial firms across the country. Many of those industries have employees who work on-site or close to our campus. This part of the country, the Mid-South, is a growing industrial region. We see a lot of industry, particularly in the automotive sector, with manufacturers locating their headquarters and production sites in the region. Increasingly these companies are looking to ORNL to help them solve their research and development problems. The fate that 65 years ago located the Laboratory in East Tennessee made it possible for us today to apply our research capabilities on an industrial scale to U.S. industry.
Q. You and others at ORNL have spoken about this new dimension for ORNL as the "Lab of the South." What does that mean?
We happen to be a very strong laboratory and we happen to be the only national laboratory located in the South, which is home to a sustained increase in population, industry and the utilities needed to service this growth. The "Lab of the South" concept says simply that at ORNL we should leverage our unique resources to help both the region and the nation. No other institution in the South has both the breadth of research capabilities and the network of partnerships that exists in Oak Ridge. I view this as an opportunity and a responsibility.
Q. Virtually everyone agrees that there is no single solution to the energy challenge. How, when you are going forward with research on multiple fronts, do you come out with a coherent suite of technologies that are practical?
You've asked the really tough question. One answer is that ORNL, unlike many institutions, is a multi-program laboratory. We work with a variety of sponsors that focus on different energy sectors with unique milestones. We have to keep our eye on the real goal, which is to produce energy in an efficient way that supports the American economy without damage to the environment. When we work with the Department of Defense, we are seeking to produce energy for battlefield applications, and in so doing helping underwrite science that will eventually migrate into the marketplace. When we work with the Department of Homeland Security on technology that helps track and understand the movement of materials around the globe, the process enables us to continue to invest in technologies that can be applied in the marketplace for the energy industry. In contrast, private industry usually is seeking to solve a problem that is generally short-term in nature. Our researchers working with industry thus gain a better understanding of a world with different expectations. This combination of long-term, innovative research with industrial partnerships makes ORNL the perfect place not only to determine some of the best energy strategies for our nation's future—but also to back those strategies with sound science.
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