October 2008 News

01 Oct

Dr. Petersen, President of the UT system, addressed the Science Forum on September 27, 2008, in a meeting room at the Boling-Thompson arena. Some 27 people were in attendance. Dr. Petersen has a varied background, but a major experience of his is having been a professor of chemistry at Clemson. Dr. Petersen’s talk was very informative and one would have wished that a roomful of faculty and students had listened to it. Dr. Petersen talked freely and at ease and was very convincing. It seems that few are interested in attending such generally educational meetings these days, unless they translate into something concrete.@

I introduced myself to Dr. Petersen before the meeting and told him that our president had written him a letter and didn’t receive a reply. He seemed to be aware of it, probably also of the fact that he never responded. I handed him the September Soupcon to convey some information on the Technical Society to him. Perhaps our concern about the flagship status of UTK does not preoccupy his mind as much as it may have the faculty, or is it too hot? In his talk he didn’t mention this aspect at all.

Here is a

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summary of the subjects Dr. Petersen touched on, but I do not guarantee that I got everything correctly and completely. He talked about research relationships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other partnerships with other Tennessee research facilities and industry, health science, and biofuel. He sees brokering partnerships as an essential aspect of his mission. He also made it clear that he was not available for individual questions and answers after the meeting, as Senator Baker was waiting for him.

He opened his talk with the relationship between the university and national laboratories, an area in which he indicated prior experience. The right thing would be to combine the two. But the cultures are different.* The national labs are government owned and contractor operated. UT and national labs have different goals and there is the problem with keeping the lid on research findings. Only a few years ago ORNL came close to being closed down by the government. But the State of Tennessee saved it. It pumped money into it and now owns three buildings on the ORNL campus. The contract operator of ORNL is now UT-Batelle. Petersen believes that this was a very wise move and investment. ORNL is now the most efficient energy lab. Petersen said that this UT-ORNL combination attracted him most

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to come here.

Much has been accomplished by managing ORNL. There are two new buildings, and a new advanced material science building is going up; there is the neutron source and the supercomputer. This joint NSF-DOE-UT project will bring a very large computation capacity to UT and Oak Ridge. There are some 3000 visitors annually coming to ORNL. Petersen compared the supercomputer to the earth population of 6 billion people doing calculations for one week, which the supercomputer will do in one second.

There are now three bioenergy centers in the U.S., one of them is at ORNL and under UT management. There is the new Mouse House, the mouse genome (collection of all mouse genes) research facility.

Another research area is health science. Here, UT is in partnership with St. Jude’s in Memphis. St. Jude’s has a special funding model. They raise $500 million annually by small checks. UT contributes $100 million in hardware. Together with UT medical research, this connects children’s and adult cancer research. St. Jude’s has 194 research people. The relationship with St. Jude’s is based on the adult cancer research that is going on at UT research facilities here in Knoxville. Eight chairs are funded by UT. UT also conducts cancer research in several locations all over the state. Also Vanderbilt has an excellent cancer research program.

Petersen wants to continue brokering relationships and partnerships between UT and other institutions and organizations and, in the end, make UT jump up within the ranks of institutions.**

He mentioned his conversations with Mr. Smith, the FedEx boss in Memphis. FedEx has some 15,000 employees. All these need health care and the company needs advanced logistics. This represents a wide field for future research and collaboration. Companies like FedEx don’t have the huge computer power that will be available at UT, and UT can support them with their logistics problems. FedEx is also the reason why Tennessee of all places is the sixth largest exporter to China.

Volkswagen’s decision to choose Chattanooga indicates that there is an environment evolving that attracts large and sophisticated companies. Other locations were even better poised. Knoxville was one of them. Points like computer power, biofuel, and

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work force went into the decision.*** He also mentioned Nissan, BMW and others as candidates that could or already have been attracted to the Southeast.

The biofuel project that UT is now involved in has technical as well as demographic issues. It could mean increased incentives for young people to obtain college degrees. If there are some 3 million adults in Tennessee, and 120,000 get a bachelor degree in contrast to only high school diplomas now, the about $14,000 annual pay difference would translate into millions of income that is not being generated in the area now due to lack of advanced level job opportunities.

The switch grass fuel project seems to be a project that can create rural jobs and change the rural economy and culture with making available thousands of new jobs. Tennessee is a good place to grow trees and grasses as raw material for cellulosic products.# DOE made a $1.5 million grant available. Dupont was at first skeptical, but two years later, when Denisco, a Danish firm, came up with the right enzymes, Dupont came back. Dupont’s decision is considered a sort of guarantee that the approach has merit, as they seem to be careful decision makers. On October 14, 2008, the Vonore ground breaking for the switch grass cellulosic plant is taking place. It is also interesting thing that switch grass and corn husks are like cousins and can both be used as raw material, the latter being another crop that is plentiful in the area and does not compete with food stuffs. The work in the lab on cellulosic fermentation has been successful and there is a good chance it will work on the pilot plant scale.

The biofuel project is now Dupont’s No. 1 priority. It is a great partnership for UT with some risk, but enormously positive aspects, as it provides many research aspects. The feedstock logistics is one of them. One hundred tons of feedstock are required per day. The yield needs to be increased from 6 t/acre to 12 t/acre.& The plants need to be harvested, collected, broken down and pelletized. Dupont was satisfied that UT had thought of all ancillary problems.

Dr. Petersen turned to some thoughts about what the future might bring. There is the ongoing development of Cherokee Farms (the scenic stretch of land along Fort Loudoun Lake and Alcoa Highway). Infrastructure plans and site plans are moving ahead. It is important to remain flexible. What is important today may give way to other important things tomorrow. Right now it is important to bring in private partnerships.

Then Dr. Petersen addressed climate research. Climate change and its ramifications is the next major research endeavor. But it requires huge computer power. The areal coverage now used is by 100 mile grids. It is to be reduced to 10 mile grids. Global warming is considered a fact and its ramifications will require research. Infectious diseases will increase and will require health center involvement. Be it energy, environment or health care, capabilities exist to address them. The Baker Center is available to address policy aspects. This all will help make Washington understand what needs to be done.%

We need a long range energy policy. Lack of such policy has dug us into a hole and now we have to scramble out of it. Nuclear energy is part of the mix and also in this field we seem well positioned with TVA and ORNL in the area.

The opportunities for UT seem phenomenal. UT and the State are major players in science and technology. UT is a great place to come to, and there is no more exciting place than being here at UT.

A few questions followed. One was about making ethanol. Tongue in check, Dr. Petersen replied that the area is known for its longstanding expertise in making ethanol from practically anything that ferments. The big problem is lignin. How can lignin be digested into something usable? The questioner wondered why termites cannot be employed. Unfortunately even termites don’t like it.

Another question dealt with UT’s position in the rankings. UT will not be able to compete with the real top guns, but in some of the newer areas UT can seek out its strength and compete very well.

As far as climate change is concerned, there is presently no climatologist on campus. This is a difficult field and to break into it would have to be done in a big way. It requires large computer resources and significant staffing with a principal professor (chair of excellence) and several assistant professors.


Footnotes (comments of the writer):

@ I wondered where I would have been as a student, more than 50 years ago, if the rector of my university (in Karlsruhe, Germany) would have ever given

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a speech like that on the future of the university and its anticipated place in the middle of things.

* This is an interesting point, as I just recently read about the relationship between the Max Planck Society and universities in Germany. The Max Planck Society has many research institutes on different topics all over Germany and there was talk about transferring this research to the universities or at least get a better relationship between the two.

** This statement relates to the flagship problem (see Soupcon – February 2008). It would be unreasonable to expect that the entire system can partake in a quantum ranking jump. This makes it almost self-evident that there has to be a concentration at one institution at the expense of others to make a jump at all, especially given the insufficient funding that UT receives from the state.

*** One should not rate VW’s decision to come here too highly as this company has made many poor decisions since I bought my last Volkswagen some 20 years ago. Usually these companies go where they can rip off the maximum concessions, saddle the new locations with tax bills and leave behind former employees in other locations sucking their thumbs.

# One can only hope that the environmental implications have been thoroughly thought through on this approach, like monoculture, fire hazards, bugs, allergies, weed propagation, forest land destruction, water and fertilizer consumption, runoff pollution, and so on. I remember a time, some 30 years ago, when Tennessee was suggested to become a sunflower state for oil production, which at the time was rejected as irrational, given the large areas that would have been needed to grow enough sunflowers.

& As we all know, chemistry is metric. A professional chemist, Dr. Petersen nevertheless seemed solidly anchored in the inch/pound system, probably assuming that no politician he generally deals with would forgive him a metric word coming across his lips. I bring this up to remind the readers of Metric Month – October, when this article will appear.

% It seems to be a good idea for UT to get on the climate change bandwagon now, because as we continue to pollute, especially the lower stratosphere, by hotter higher rising plumes (thunderheads), climate change could very well reverse itself into the cold direction, which would be even more catastrophic.

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