The Courage to Help Mitigate Global Warming

Hertz Fellow Alan Miller
posted: 10/9/2017
listed in Fellows

Global warming is a hot topic worldwide (no pun intended). All of the attention focused on human-induced climate change has resulted in many beneficial actions, from individuals reducing their own energy usage to government subsidies jump-starting the solar and wind power industries to widespread construction of renewable energy installations with significant impacts in reducing fossil fuel emissions. Innovation has been one key to making these actions successful.

Like many Hertz Fellows, innovation has been a major factor in my career as well, but an additional factor has been the courage to move into adjacent domains, and to innovate there.

As an engineer, I’ve always been drawn to the solution of important real-world problems, not just problems that would be fun or interesting to solve. My Hertz Fellowship gave me the freedom to innovate during my PhD studies, launching my career in directions that might be useful to the world. That career took me from being a Research Professor at Stanford (first on metals; then moving adjacently into composites) then to (adjacently) becoming a senior-level engineer at Lockheed Martin, where I focused on development of methods for manufacturing large composite structures such as submarine, missile, and spacecraft components.

Then, in 2006, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” inspired me to ask: How might I apply my engineering skills to the mitigation of global warming? An adjacent opportunity soon presented itself within Lockheed Martin. Its Maritime Systems division had decided to re-enter the Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) field as a new venture, part of the corporate diversification into alternative energy. The program organizers asked me to be the Technical Lead for development of its Cold Water Pipe (one of its two major challenges, and likely to be made of composites) and I was off and running on my next passionate real-world endeavor.

OTEC uses the temperature difference between deep (1000m) cold ocean water and warm tropical surface water to produce clean electricity on the oceans. The cold water is brought to the surface by that Cold Water Pipe, a process called “upwelling.” OTEC was well-known as a potential major source of CO2-free energy, but what I stumbled across in early 2015 (after retiring from Lockheed) is that an environmentally-acceptable level of “grazing” OTEC plants floating around in the open oceans can also directly reduce the Earth’s average Surface Atmospheric Temperature (SAT) by over 1°C. Earth Systems Modeling by a group at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany showed that the upwelled cold water cools the surface air a bit, which increases sea ice coverage a bit, which increases albedo (reflectivity) a bit, which decreases air temperature further, which results in a “positively-signed climate feedback loop” and ultimately a large net decrease in temperature. Movement of heat into the oceans plays a role, and other climate feedback loops may be involved as well.

Generating electrical power in the middle of the ocean is fairly useless by itself (the technical term is “stranded” energy), but the OTEC community has reached the conclusion over the years that the energy from grazing OTEC can be converted into ammonia as the preferred hydrogen-energy carrier, and then safely shipped by tanker and pipeline to wherever it is needed. There, the ammonia can be converted back into useful energy forms by any number of processes now under development by the ammonia-energy community, including direct combustion, fuel cells, and local decomposition to hydrogen. My analysis showed that if the world builds seven terawatts (TW) worth of OTEC plants (a level that according to work at University of Hawaii would disturb the surface and deep-water temperatures only very slightly before stabilizing), the “by-product” benefit (in addition to approximately 2.6 TW of clean, storable, dispatchable energy which would replace 22% of fossil energy) would be over 1°C of direct global warming mitigation. Combining that with a relatively modest amount of wind and solar power (replacing 39% of fossil energy) leads to a unique solution in which global warming can be held to 1.5°C at close to the “INDC” commitments on fossil-fuel energy replacement agreed to by the world in Paris in 2015.

The other key element is a financial strategy. “Negative carbon fees” associated with the decrease in SAT would be important. Partnerships among companies building and running OTEC systems, governments, and regulatory agencies could make the process financially appealing as well as socially responsible. I believe that existing oil and gas companies should be interested in this approach as the basis for adjacent new CO2-free liquid fuels businesses, since they have relevant experience, skills and assets from their current liquid fuel businesses as well as being under pressure to find new sources of revenue as the world throttles back its appetite for fossil fuels. I’ve founded a company called Cool it, Earth! with a team of 12 world experts who stand ready to further examine and refine all of the elements involved into a next-generation design suitable for commercial implementation.

It’s clear there are many people who are succeeding in implementing renewable energy with positive impacts on the climate. While CO2 emissions continue to trend downward globally, not enough people realize that we can’t get there (within existing world commitment levels) by just replacing fossil energy sources. There continues to be lots of talk about different methods and approaches but more action needs to be taken. There isn’t a single governing body addressing worldwide climate change, and ultimately the choices on implementation will be driven largely by market forces. Because the whole world is involved, mitigation of global warming is far more complex than putting a man on the moon. But I believe it can be done, and that as part of that effort we should intensify development of the Cool it, Earth approach so that it will be ready and attractive for implementation when (unfortunately) the effects of global warming get significantly worse than they are is now. My experiences with the Hertz Foundation and elsewhere have shown me that if you have the courage to both innovate and move into adjacent areas in which you can contribute meaningfully—anything can happen.

Alan K. Miller is the founder of Cool it! Earth, where he is developing new methods to mitigate global warming. He has been a research professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford; and a senior staff engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company where he was the VARTM subject matter expert and served as the advanced composite cold water pipe technical lead for LM’s Maritime Systems Division. After retiring from Lockheed, he was senior composites engineer at Specialized Bicycles, and has provided composites consulting to multiple organizations. Alan holds 15 patents and has been published multiple times. He holds a PhD in materials science and engineering from Stanford, a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford and a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell.