Youth and experience: why I’m confident in North America’s energy future

As the manager of a portfolio of C1 chemistry R&D projects, I have the pleasure and privilege of dealing with a lot of bright young chemical engineering students. These projects are collaborations between industry, government, and academia. My position at the nexus of these collaborations gives me a very interesting view of public-private science.

These students are all highly creative and motivated individuals, ready to attack complex, multidimensional theoretical and real world problems. Their energy and confidence are palpable. I greatly enjoy and look forward to the meetings in which they present the week’s work.

The really rewarding part—aside from the results themselves of course, since the results are the whole reason my clients pay for research—is watching the interaction between the students and their professors. The essence of education is, in Erich Fromm’s words, to bring out something which is potentially present. So in the student-professor interaction you get to see the actualization of potential, in real time. The professors temper, channel, and focus the students’ raw energy and enthusiasm, which clarifies and reconfigures the original industrial problems. Watching this happen on a weekly basis tends to restore your faith in humanity.

These projects will, I hope, revolutionize the energy sector in North America and beyond. Besides chemical engineering, this revolution will depend on expertise in another extremely demanding area of academic inquiry. That other area is nuclear studies—engineering, physics, and engineering physics.

Last Friday I had the unique pleasure of meeting three outstanding members of North American Young Generation in Nuclear, or NA-YGN. This organization of young (35 and under) professionals in the nuclear industry aims to unite, represent, and promote the interests of its members. I met them on a conference call organized by Areva, the French nuclear company. Much of our conference centred on the conversations they have had on the Fukushima situation with friends, colleagues, and family members.

I was very impressed with the accounts they gave of these conversations. I was not surprised to hear that many of their interlocutors have, like mine, wondered about where to get information on radiation. Of all the technical aspects of nuclear energy, radiation is the one over which there is the most confusion. Becquerels, grays, sieverts (or if you’re in the U.S., curies, rads, rems)… it takes a lot of practice just getting the orders of magnitude right.

But what impressed me the most was the high level grasp of the public opinion aspects of nuclear energy that the NA-YGN members demonstrated. In the nuclear advocacy game you have to keep your cool, because you will encounter a lot of people opposed to the technology who will say pretty much anything to make a case against it. It requires discipline, intelligence, firmness, and objectivity to be able to deal effectively with this, especially when it’s your livelihood that is under attack.

The NA-YGN people, who are all under 35, exhibited these qualities to an uncommon degree. Uncommon in the general population, I mean. This rare acumen appears par for the course in the field. I toured nuclear France last summer with a group of American colleagues, all of whom are very impressive individuals. The group included an NA-YGN member, whose public-opinion perspicacity matches those of his peers from last Friday. (The tour, also sponsored by Areva, was the highlight of my summer. For an excellent summary by one of my travelling companions, click here.)

On the basis of these interactions and those with the chemical engineering students on my C1 projects, I have great confidence in society’s technological and political ability to solve the great problems of our time. I deal on a daily basis with the leaders of tomorrow. We will be in good hands.

You find this uncommon combination of technological and public opinion acumen across all age groups in the fields of chemical and nuclear engineering. So every day, in every nuclear and chemical plant, you have the same vital interaction between mentors and proteges that I witness in my C1 meetings.

I will soon do a post about the myriad of public outreach efforts of the technical and professional societies in these fields. These are very passionate and intelligent efforts, and provide great insight into how they affect our daily life. Stay tuned.

1 comment for “Youth and experience: why I’m confident in North America’s energy future

  1. SteveK9
    June 19, 2011 at 18:59

    Nice to read. I encouraged my son to pursue a career in nuclear engineering (he just completed his third year) because I believed he would have a solid career and because he would be working in an area that I think is of critical importance to the human race in this century—abundant, non-polluting energy.

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