Making biodiesel from various oils including waste fryer oil from the Ratty, exploring the chemistry of acid rain, and investigating hydrogen fuel cells and solar panels are all hands-on activities from the Exploration of the Chemistry of Renewable Energy course, CHEM0080E. The first year seminar, instructed by Professor Kathleen Hess in fall 2016, was developed after Professor Hess attended a Renewable Energy Workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation and hosted by Beloit College (Beloit, Wisconsin). The workshop incorporated climate change as the foundation for the necessity of developing renewable energy sources.
The course was framed by seeking answers to questions surrounding renewable energy and climate change. Students were introduced with the question “Why do we need renewable energy sources?” Dr. Dave Murray (DEEPS, Brown University) gave a presentation about air quality and acid rain. Mr. Jon Lowell (Brown ScB ‘75) from ISO-NE presented on the infrastructure of the electric grid and how renewable energies are being incorporated. To give context of energy from a social science perspective, Professor Bathsheba Demuth (History Department, Brown University) presented about the history of energy and civilizations. Students explored the question by calculating their contribution to CO2 in the environment using their own experimental design with readily available items. They also simulated acid rain in a petri dish and explored energy consumption of various light bulbs.
Next, students were posed “How are biofuels of oil used as energy sources?,” “How are batteries and solar panels used as energy sources?,” and “How are fuel cells used as energy sources?” Students answered these questions through through the eyes of a chemist. They synthesized and analyzed biodiesel from used fryer oil at the Ratty, as well as pure oils such as vegetable, coconut, and palm oils. Students explored battery technology from the chemical perspective, experimenting with various metals to understand why certain metals are used in industry. A third experiment examined solar and fuel cells, looking at the relationship between design and function.
Students also learned from practitioners and advocates in the field of renewable energy. Mr. Richard Kasper (Facilities Management, Brown University) gave the class a walking tour of the Brown campus to highlight the initiatives Brown has taken to conserve resources and reduce carbon emissions. Mr. Mark Durrenberger, president of New England Clean Energy, gave a presentation about his company and solar panel industry. Finally, Mr. Al Dahlberg (Government & Community Relations, Brown University) gave a presentation about electrical cars and the future of electric cars.
To complete the course, students wrote summary essays of the guest speaker’s presentations to fulfill the writing requirement. The course also emphasized communicating scientific concepts to public audiences: students prepared and presented brochures on a renewable energy topic to underscore the course material and educate the community on sustainability and its role in our society.