Thursday, June 18th, 2009, Glenn Research Center – Cleveland, Ohio
Increased public concern for energy security and the effects of global climate change have led to a rise in interest in renewable forms of energy. On Thursday, June 18, 2009, Dr. Valerie Lyons provided a talk on NASA’s role in the alternative energy business.
Dr. Lyons is a member of the Senior Executive Service and is the Chief of the Power and In-Space Propulsion Division at NASA Glenn. Her organization performs NASA’s research and technology development for aerospace power systems including batteries, fuel cells, solar cells, Stirling converters, and power electronics. The Division also leads electric propulsion, chemical thruster, and cryogenic systems research and development. In her lecture, entitled “Alternative Energy – NASA’s Technology,” Dr. Lyons presented the history of renewable energy at NASA Glenn and the direction in which she sees these technologies moving in the future.
Dr. Lyons began her talk by giving historical context to the current green energy initiatives. Starting in the 1970s, there were huge environmental concerns verified by the data sent to Earth by spacecraft about how fragile life was in the solar system. Staff cuts from the Apollo Program at NASA left engineers and scientists without projects to work on. Many scientists left to form their own companies and start-ups in the new field of renewable energy.
Glenn Research Center itself, then named Lewis Field, was retooled and became involved in wind turbine and green energy technologies. Lewis Field’s first project was commissioned by the Secretary of the Interior of Puerto Rico to build a wind turbine for the island in 1970. As time progressed, environmental work picked up, and in 1971, the Environmental Research Office at Lewis was established. One of the first projects this office conducted was the measurement of pollution levels at various locations in Lake Erie.
In 1973, Bob English, a Lewis scientist, saw energy conservation as the heart of expertise at Lewis as he began work on Brayton Cycle technology for a cleaner way to burn fuel. Work on the energy crisis in the 1970s at Lewis continued to grow until 1977 when the Department of Energy informed the Center that only 350 people could work on alternative energy. The programs continued, but were scaled back and Lewis Field diversified their work with more space related programs.
Today, Glenn Research Center continues work on alternative energy in many different areas. Since 1975, the center has assembled over 57 photovoltaic (PV) systems in 27 countries. The Center helped design Vanguard 1, the first solar powered satellite, and the solar arrays on the International Space Station and the Orion program. The Center does work on wave power, using the bobbing motion of buoys to generate electricity; biomass, using halophytes to produce fuel; Stirling power, heat engines with higher efficiencies; and several other green energy techniques.
On a recent list of the top challenges humanity will need to contend with by 2010, Dr. Lyons explained that the work done by her Division is helping to solve five of the top seven challenges including energy, water, food, environment, and disease. Dr. Lyons is looking at ideas as far-out as the SkyTran, a new transportation infrastructure based on small trams hung from a large rail system.
Dr. Lyons’ lecture on NASA’s role in helping with the current energy crisis provided both a historical and a modern perspective on the capabilities of the agency and its technology. Her talk helped to explain the directions NASA is taking to help improve green technology and the US environment.