A talented rower, Heather Wakeley at Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Institute keeps environmental issues top-of-mind whether or not she's on the water. Wakeley is a doctoral graduate and a fellow at the university's Steinbrenner Institute. Her research focuses on alternative transportation fuels — specifically ethanol.
Ethanol — an alcohol produced in the United States primarily from corn — is a hot topic. Wakeley analyzed large-scale ethanol production and distribution possibilities across the country and came to an interesting and potentially useful conclusion.
"If the ethanol is produced and used regionally, there will be economic and environmental benefits," she explained. Wakeley is pursuing her doctorate in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. "But if we produce the ethanol in the Midwest and ship it to California, we lose the benefit because of the increased transportation costs and emissions."
This need for a regional focus is significant for the formulation of a national energy policy. For instance, states too dry to grow corn or too distant from ethanol production would benefit more by developing alternative fuel sources other than ethanol.
"Ethanol is not 'the' answer," emphasized Wakeley. "There isn't going to be one answer to reducing our gasoline use. It all comes out of these regional strategies. Ethanol is part of a solution."
In response to recent reports that the increase in ethanol production is contributing to the global food shortage, Wakeley emphasized the complexity of the situation.
"There are two big issues surrounding ethanol right now, the food vs. fuel debate and world-wide land use changes that could result in a net increase in life cycle greenhouse gas emissions," she explained. "These are global-scale issues with numerous political and environmental variables that researchers are starting to address. This highlights the fact that there is no 'easy' solution, they will all involve compromises."
Wakeley hopes her work will make a difference, ultimately reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. It's clear she's already part of the solution.
The Steinbrenner Institute is dedicated to building a 'sustainable, green future' through multi-disciplinary study and supports a number of research centers including the Green Design Institute.
Three Steinbrenner Graduate Fellowships are awarded each year to students involved in environmentally-focused, interdisciplinary projects at any of Carnegie Mellon's seven colleges.