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June 16, 2023

In new course, students objectively analyze interplay between energy, carbon emissions and the environment

Written By: Adam Malecek


A new course in the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering enables undergraduate students to apply their engineering training to better understand one of today’s biggest issues—the carbon footprint of various energy-conversion technologies and the environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions.

Jaal Ghandhi, Grainger Professor of Sustainable Energy in mechanical engineering, developed and teaches ME 472: Energy, Sustainability and Technology. In the course, students study a wide variety of energy technologies and assess the advantages and disadvantages of each in terms of economics and carbon emissions.

Jaal Ghandhi,
Jaal Ghandhi

“Our mechanical engineering students have learned the fundamentals throughout the curriculum that, with new information taught in this course, they are able to use to calculate the impact of carbon emissions in the environment,” Ghandhi says. “So, this course sets the table for students to put all the pieces together to really understand the truth about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This course is a great opportunity for the students to get an accurate understanding of the issue through an engineering approach.”

In the course, the students learn about atmospheric chemistry and the greenhouse effect, as well as how to calculate the amount of extra radiation that gets trapped in the atmosphere due to additional carbon emissions.

They study a wide range of electricity generation technologies, from solar and wind to steam power plants and combined cycle gas turbines, and determine the environmental impact of each. Their in-depth analysis also evaluates the economics of each technology. For a power plant, for example, the students calculate not only the plant’s operating costs over a certain number of years, but also the construction and final decommissioning costs. And they factor in potential future costs due to greenhouse gas emissions.

“By taking all these factors into account, the students create a level playing field where they can directly compare the different technologies in terms of their overall costs and carbon emissions,” Ghandhi says. “The students then quantify the advantages and disadvantages of each technology, which allows them to really understand the big picture.”

Ghandhi wants to provide students with the tools to critically evaluate new technologies that are touted as climate solutions. For example, with new “direct air capture” technologies designed to remove carbon dioxide from the environment, he says it’s important to consider the full energy impact.

“If the direct air capture technology requires significant electricity to pull a little bit of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and that energy comes from our electrical grid, which is not decarbonized, then it’s likely that more carbon dioxide will ultimately be added to the atmosphere from generating that electricity than is actually removed from the direct air capture system,” Ghandhi says. “With some technologies, the benefit can get oversold.”

In fall 2022, when the course was first offered, Ghandhi brought in guest speakers to share different perspectives. Those speakers included an engineer from the engines division of Cummins who gave an overview of how technical-economic analyses are conducted in industry. In addition, a researcher from Argonne National Laboratory talked about how Argonne conducts full life-cycle analyses of technologies.

In developing the course, Ghandhi spent a significant amount of time tracking down the latest information and performance specifications for a wide array of energy technologies to ensure students would have relevant, real-world data to use for their analyses. Funding from a faculty fellowship established by Mechanical Engineering Professor Emeritus Ken Ragland enabled Ghandhi to create the course.

“Ragland’s goal with his gift was to raise awareness among students about energy usage and climate change,” Ghandhi says. “With this course, I aim to give students a scientifically accurate understanding of these issues in an unbiased way so that they are knowledgeable.”

Featured image credit: iStock.