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Researching Carbon-Neutral Buildings


Erin Whitney started her graduate career in 1997 at the University of Colorado, Boulder, intending to pursue an academic path examining atmospheric chemistry and the larger questions of climate change. Whitney's Ph.D. research included a field campaign in Sweden examining Arctic ozone loss that could lead to climate perturbations.

"With instruments mounted on aircraft, we would fly the aircraft over the poles and take samples" through small holes in the planes to monitor ozone levels and other characteristics, Whitney says. But "I got a bit disillusioned with that," she says. "Part of me was impatient with taking more and more data to study climate change and associated issues, and more of me wanted to start taking actions to solving these problems."

"Part of me was impatient with taking more and more data to study climate change and associated issues, and more of me wanted to start taking actions to solving these problems." --Erin Whitney

Photo (top): Erin Whitney (right) and colleague Dane Gillespie test an electrochromic window inside a weathering chamber at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

So Whitney switched gears in the middle of graduate school, from fieldwork to lab-based studies, which she found "more tractable" for finding specific answers, she says. During the last 2 years of her Ph.D., she worked toward elucidating the effects of halogenated methyl radicals -- molecules that are very active in the atmosphere and therefore potentially destructive to ozone -- by observing their behavior with high-resolution infrared spectroscopy and absorption in the lab.

After finishing her Ph.D., her goal of finding solutions to climate change problems led her to the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. Now a research scientist there, she is working on dynamic windows, a new generation of building materials that turn what normally would be layers of static glass into panes that either let in or keep out sunlight's heat, whichever is needed to keep the building comfortable.

Special Feature: Mitigating Climate Change

This article is one of three in Science Careers this week that looks into ongoing research efforts aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions and reducing global warming.

The emerging technology of carbon capture and storage, which aims to capture carbon dioxide generated by industrial power plants and store it underground before it reaches the atmosphere, is also a growing research area. In Examining Carbon Capture and Storage, freelance science writer Sara Coelho describes what it's like to work in the competitive, fast-paced, and interdisciplinary research field.

In Assessing the Impacts of Geoengineering, Science Careers contributing editor for South Europe Elisabeth Pain looks into the controversial idea of intentionally manipulating Earth's climate. Although climate geoengineering remains a marginal and risky topic to base a career on, there is much potentially important and rewarding work to be done in the discipline.

These articles complement a November feature in Science Careers that explored opportunities for natural and social scientists to study climate change and further our understanding of its probable impacts.

This small slice of building technology is part of a larger push to find ways to create carbon-neutral infrastructure, for commercial buildings and residences as well as cars and cityscapes. For buildings, that means finding ways to capture or prevent any greenhouse gas emissions associated with construction and operation, and reducing buildings' energy use. Heating and cooling account for nearly one-third of energy use in commercial buildings, according to a DOE report released last October. Add in the energy used for lighting, moving air, and so on -- and add in residential buildings -- and you account for some 40% of U.S. energy consumption and 39% of carbon dioxide emissions.

The effort to find ways to improve energy efficiency and decrease carbon emissions gathers academics, small design firms, architects, industrial manufacturers, local craftspeople, and government. Although jobs in architecture and design aren't easy to find in the current market, and competition for research funding can be fierce (as it is in every field), the effort to limit carbon emissions from infrastructure offers many diverse career opportunities. Whitney's research path is one example. "There's so many ways to get into this business," Whitney says.

Finding the right flow

As a result of her scientific research background, Whitney knew she could solve problems , work with complex instrumentation, and attack problems at a fundamental level. A course she took in renewable energy and policy convinced her that she could help society cut down on fossil fuel emissions, a major driver of climate change. "I knew I had the skills to do this," she says -- but she needed to figure out where the renewable energy field was going and where her skills fit in. So "I spent my last year of graduate school making a lot of calls to people" -- at NREL and elsewhere in the renewable energy sector -- "talking to people for 20 minutes before I went into the lab every morning," she says.

One of those connections led eventually to a postdoctoral position at NREL in 2006. At first, Whitney focused on hydrogen storage for cars; she then added electrochromic windows to her research mix when an opening came up with that team. Eventually, she phased out most of her work on hydrogen storage as the project, a pet initiative of the Bush Administration, lost federal funding under the Obama Administration. Because funding can be mercurial, NREL, a federal research institute run by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy (an alliance of Battelle and Midwest Research Institute), encourages researchers to participate in many projects at once. The dynamic windows project is now funded by federal stimulus money.

Lately, Whitney has been running accelerated weathering tests on electrochromic lithium windows, one type of dynamic window. "Basically, it's a transparent lithium-ion battery," she says, covering a window pane. A relatively low voltage applied to a metal oxide film sandwiched between two electrode layers sends lithium ions "shuttling between the two electrodes," Whitney explains. Lithium ions passing through the transparent layer of metal oxide cause it to darken, blocking sunlight and heat. When the heat is needed, applying the polarity of the voltage sends the lithium ions back to the original electrode, returning the windows to a clear state.

Once the team has worked out the kinks via these indoor tests, team members will take the windows outside to see how they behave in the real world and how they hold up to snow, sleet, wind, and sunshine day after day. Whitney estimates it will be a few years before she and her colleagues find funding to move their tests outdoors. Eventually, the NREL research on electrochromic windows will help manufacturers move forward with an efficient, useful product; a lot of NREL's basic research helps industry partners in this way.

This kind of work requires teamwork, Whitney says. "I spend a lot of my time interfacing with a lot of different people." Whitney doesn't know how to model a building's day-to-day behaviors, but she can inform her colleagues -- whole-building modelers, lab research scientists, industry representatives, manufacturing engineers -- about the details of the components she knows well. In this field, "you have to be able to speak a lot of different languages," she says.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, home to a buildings research division, is itself constructing a sustainable green building. The Research Support Facility, pictured above in December, is scheduled to be completed this summer.

Building a market

National and state legislation, as well as specific organizations and initiatives, have raised the profile of green design and, among other goals, the construction of zero-emissions buildings (see box below). "It's a true market right now," says Steve Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center. Although LEED standards have become the norm, Luoni says that other ideas, such as integrated product design, could gain the same profile. In the end, companies want the savings from such measures and the opportunity to showcase how sustainable they can be, Luoni says, citing, for example, the discount retailers Target and Wal-Mart, which commissioned his academic group for designs for energy-efficient, community-friendly versions of their "big box" stores.

(Robert McNair)
Terri Meyer Boake

Research like the work Whitney is doing on electrochromic windows "is important for the future," says architecture associate professor Terri Meyer Boake of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Boake teaches carbon-neutral design to undergraduates and in continuing education courses for the American Institute of Architects. Boake emphasizes the basics; expensive dynamic windows may not help as much as the basic orientation of a building to the sun, she notes. The need for research on both basic and advanced design solutions is enormous, she says: "So much can be done" on "how to prove what works," from testing centuries-old practices such as passive solar heating in different building types to testing more modern innovations such as the so-called double-skin glass facades, which act like giant double-paned windows across the face of an entire building.

"Of all [the] areas of investigation in architecture, [sustainable design]'s job prospects are definitely on the rise," particularly in government settings, Boake says. Academic research is in demand, she says, and funding exists but is competitive (see box below). Some state projects, such as the Oregon Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center, fund projects that bring together businesses, designers, and researchers: BEST brought nearly $4 million to four university-run facilities for research on green building and renewable energy technology.

Building blocks

As a chemistry major at Williams College, a liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Whitney took physics, math, geology, and other science courses. Although her training in chemistry was not by itself essential for the work she does, it paid off to be an all-rounder, she says. This wide-ranging scientific training "shaped my ability to think about scientific issues," she says. "I would encourage people to gather a broad scientific background."

Even though sustainable design concepts have been around since the 1950s, most architecture programs remain wedded to aesthetic design principles and not green concepts. But increasingly, design programs at the universities that field teams for DOE's Solar Decathlon, for example, include the opportunity to put green architecture theory into practice alongside engineering and modeling skills. Environmental engineering, materials sciences, chemistry, and other hard-science disciplines offer routes into sustainable infrastructure careers; you may have to look in architecture, engineering, renewable energy, and environmental design departments to find sustainability-related courses and degree programs.

Whitney says her job at NREL gives her a lot of flexibility and the opportunity to concentrate on work she knows can be used in the real world. "I think you have to be curious, persistent, and inquisitive," she says. "If anyone -- a colleague, myself, anyone outside of NREL -- has a question, I can find an answer. We are plugged into a huge network of experts that not everyone has access to, and that's a gift."

Carbon-Neutral Building Research Resources


- You can follow your own academic path to sustainability research, as Erin Whitney did, or you can seek out sustainability-related master's degree programs through urban planning or engineering departments, for example, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley, among other institutions.

- There are similar programs throughout the world; see, for example, the Wales Low Carbon Research Institute, and Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology Center for Architectural Research and Development.

- Liberal arts schools such as St. Olaf College or Oberlin College, and state colleges and universities such as the University of Arkansas and the University of Waterloo, have majors and internal organizations to guide your studies. For hands-on learning, see, for example, the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory at the University of Oregon, Eugene, .

- Community colleges sometimes offer a focus on sustainability issues. The Los Angeles Community College District's renewable energy courses and internships are helping to turn the district's nine campuses into water-efficient, self-reliant energy hubs -- and getting students jobs, says Larry Eisenberg, executive director for facilities planning and development for LACCD.

- Consider checking out The Princeton Review and U.S. Green Building Council guide to "green" colleges; it's a good bet that campuses focused on building green also teach green building-related courses.

- The American Institute of Architects offers continuing education programs in sustainable design for its members.


- The American Institute of Architects (AIA)

- The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which runs LEED, the international green building certification program

- The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which helps establish standards for building air systems

- The Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE)

- The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

Movements and Research

- Architecture 2030, an organization dedicated to reduce energy and fossil fuel consumption in new buildings, developments, renovations

- The International Living Building Institute, dedicated to creating a sustainable built environment

- The Carbon Neutral Design Project, a joint effort from AIA and SBSE to produce educational and resource materials for carbon neutral design

- Carbon Reduction in Buildings (CaRB) program, which is aimed at reducing carbon emissions from U.K. buildings

- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Urban Sustainability and the Built Environment program

- The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Buildings Research program


- U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

- Solar Decathlon Europe

- Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability

- EPA's National Building Competition

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