85 percent of the energy consumed worldwide is produced by the
combustion of fossil fuels. The resulting air pollution and greenhouse
gas emissions are putting human health and the planet's climate at
risk; yet alternative energy solutions are still years if not decades
away from being viable. For the time being, the challenge of cleaner
burning of fossile fuels falls to combustion science.
"It is up to us to clean up, and I think we can do it," says Michael Frenklach, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor who specializes in combustion chemistry.
believes that simply by changing the way they work together, combustion
scientists can come up with better predictive models. Engineers are
using these computer-based models to help them figure out what engine
and combustor designs will be the most efficient and least polluting before
building costly prototypes. Legislators, who rely on good predictive
models as they draft environmental regulations, also stand to benefit.
facilitate this process, Frenklach and colleagues launched a new
initiative called Process Informatics Mode (PrIMe) in April.
the heart of the project is a database of measurements and
calculations, which will be contributed to and agreed upon by the
scientists themselves. Typically, scientists analyze their own data and
draw conclusions that are then shared with other scientists at
conferences and through publications. The PrIMe Model asks scientists
to contribute primary data and details of their experiments to the
PrIMe database. In return, they can use the database's arsenal of novel
tools and methods to analyze that same data. Instead of working in
isolation, the scientists will be working with the rest of the
community generating data and knowledge. This process will reduce
redundancies in the types of projects being pursued and resolves
conflicts before they begin, while enabling scientists to work on more
challenging problems and to identify areas of shared concern. In short,
it is a huge shift from the way predictive models are currently built.
today do not share data; they share conclusions. We call it among
ourselves the 'read my paper' approach. You have a question? Read my
paper," says Frenklach.
While this model may have
worked when combustion science was in its early discovery period,
Frenklach says it is simply not robust enough to analyze today's
complex combustive systems, which involve hundreds and even thousands
of chemical-reaction steps and variables.
researcher can measure something, analyze something, or focus on some
particular aspect of it, but not everything. So in order to make a
better model, you have to take all the information, not just yours but
other people's as well," Frenklach says.
Like the model it hopes to create, PrIMe is a collaborative endeavor. Frenklach is joined by Andrew Packard, professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, as well as Professors David Golden and Tom Bowman at Stanford and Professors William Green and Gregory McRae
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Working groups that will
subject incoming data to the rigors of peer-review are currently being
formed. Participation in the project is open to anyone.
fact, combustion science was one of the first fields to bring together
many different disciplines under one roof. In an effort to understand
and improve everything from automobiles and furnaces to weapons
systems, physicists, chemists, engineers, and others found themselves
rubbing shoulders for the first time. Over the past century they have
accumulated a huge body of knowledge. It is a tradition that Frenklach
is hoping PrIMe will build upon. The information and technology are all
"there." The challenge, he says is sociological: Will scientists
abandon the "Lone Ranger" approach in order to tackle bigger problems
"It is a
chicken and egg problem. We cannot build this thing without the
community joining us, and the community cannot benefit without us
building it," says Frenklach.
The NSF's Chemistry
Division, which kicked off the program with a grant ($2.6 million over
five years)—one of four awarded in November 2005 for "cyber-enabled
chemistry"—is betting scientists will get on board. CITRIS, in the
meantime, is providing PrIMe with technology and programming support
for its database.
PrIMe's emphasis on information technology is
just one reason CITRIS has made it a pilot program. Another is the
potential benefits to society, as breakthroughs in the field are
translated into better technology that in turn will reduce the
environmental damage caused by our current means of energy production.
As Frenklach puts it: "We are not just solving an abstract problem
here. People who build engines and combustors, practical things, they
need this information very badly."