Daniel Giammar is the Kenan Visiting Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Andlinger Center this year. He recently told us about his research and the new undergraduate course he will be teaching in the spring, “Environmental Implications of Energy Technologies.” Professor Giammar joins Princeton from Washington University in St. Louis, where he is an associate professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental, and Chemical Engineering.Previously, he was a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton in the geosciences department and a teaching fellow in Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology.
What made you decide to come to Princeton as a visiting professor and what do you hope to accomplish this year?
I thought it would be fantastic to spend a full year at Princeton because I’ll have the opportunity to really immerse myself in teaching and research. The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton is really strong in modeling the connections between chemical reactions and transport processes, and this is something I hope to learn more about over the next year.
When I was here ten years ago I worked on carbon sequestration through the Carbon Mitigation Initiative and I taught through the Princeton Environmental Institute, so I was deeply involved in topics related to energy and the environment. Clearly Princeton has ramped up their commitment to research in these areas, so it’s an exciting time to be here.
Could you describe the course you’ll be teaching in the spring semester?
The course I’ll be teaching is called “Environmental Implications of Energy Technologies.” We will start by examining the fundamentals of energy generation, including conventional combustion-based processes using coal and natural gas, and renewable technologies like solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. We’ll also study biofuels and nuclear power. We’ll explore both the upstream and the downstream environmental impacts of these technologies ─ the entire lifecycle of energy generation. The course will lay the groundwork for some basic skill sets: the use of mass balances, energy balances, and life cycle analysis and assessment.
What are the key concepts you want to impart to students?
By looking at the entire life cycle of energy technologies, students will be able to make critical and informed decisions about which technology to use in any given scenario. For example, if we consider solar energy, we may ask if it is necessarily better than natural gas. There are no emissions associated with the use of solar energy, but the energy and material inputs that go into making a solar panel are considerable. How does that weigh against the benefits of lower environmental emissions? When investigating any environmental technology, students should have a toolbox of knowledge they can use to answer these questions.
Does your current research at Washington University focus on these same concepts?
My current research is in a variety of areas. I do a lot of work on uranium remediation, which is an important part of the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear power plants have no carbon dioxide emissions, but they produce very long-lived, very dangerous waste, but in small amounts. That’s an area of my work that intersects with the course I’m teaching at Princeton. I’m also researching the environmental impacts of coal combustion by examining the metals released from fly ash. Fly ash is the solid material that’s left over after coal is burned, and it often contains elevated levels of heavy metals.
I have a full research group back at Washington University and we communicate on a regular basis. We are collaborating with Professor Catherine Peters here at Princeton on a carbon sequestration project. We’ve been studying the chemical reactions that occur when carbon dioxide is injected underground. This is a downstream aspect of a coal combustion plant or anything else that generates carbon dioxide.
One of my Ph.D. students will be coming to Princeton as a visiting student research collaborator to study the water quality impacts of hydraulic fracturing (also known as “hydrofracking”). This is an issue that environmental engineers really need to understand, because the energy industry is moving full-bore in one direction, environmental advocacy groups are pushing back in the other direction, and we just don’t have a lot of data on the environmental impacts. This project will add some science to the discussions on hydraulic fracturing.
You’re very enthusiastic about your students and about teaching. What made you decide to pursue teaching as a career?
As I neared the end of my Ph.D. program and considered why I became an environmental engineer, I knew it was the influence of good teachers all the way from middle school through graduate school. Not to sell my research short, but I think teaching, mentoring, and advising students will probably be my greatest impact on the field.
What is your advice for Princeton students who are interested in the same career path?
I think there are great needs for better kindergarten through high school educators, and there are of course great opportunities in higher education. I would advise students to talk with their own teachers and to take advantage of all the opportunities here at Princeton. Learning new teaching methods is also important; just because you know a subject doesn’t mean you’ll be able to teach it. When I prepare for a class, I think about how I initially learned the material, and that helps me see it from the students’ perspective.