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New Director Sees Bright Future for CAER

With rolling blackouts, soaring pump prices, and doubling heating bills, energy issues are in the press and on our minds. And Ari Geertsema, who took over the helm of the state-mandated Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) at UK in February, says this is an opportune time to take a fresh look at what needs to be done.

Photo of Ari GeertsemaGeertsema, who most recently served as gas-processing manager at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, brings more than 30 years of experience in industrial chemistry, chemical engineering, plant operations, and research and development to this new position. In South Africa, he served as managing director of the internationally recognized Sastech Research and Development Division of Sasol for 10 years. Sasol, one of the biggest coal producers in the world and leader in coal conversion, processing and utilization technologies, processes more than 40 percent of South Africa's liquid fuel needs.

"Any energy solution is going to take time to implement," says Geertsema, who earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany and an M.B.A. from the University of Potchef-stroom in South Africa. "We shouldn't forget that Kentucky, at this moment, has the cheapest electricity rates in the United States. I think we have to, as a state and also as a center supporting this industry, make sure that position is maintained because Kentucky's economic growth will be very strongly influenced by having cheap power. It will draw investors in, and it will draw big industries."

Geertsema recognizes that attracting big industry to Kentucky is not without objections because of potential negative environmental impacts. "CAER is in a very good position to contribute to a balance between energy growth, responsible generation of energy, and environmental care," he says. In fact, one of the center's research groups was recently renamed "Environmental and Coal Technologies" to reflect that focus.

"Almost all the power we use every day comes from coal, and coal is no longer as environmentally unfriendly as people perceive it to be," Geertsema says. CAER has significant ongoing research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to deal with the solid residues from burning coal. Researchers are retrieving useable coal from fly ash, a by-product of burning coal, and separating a low-moisture, clean-coal product from slurry. By recycling current waste products, the energy potential and environmental safety of coal are increased.

"CAER is committed to investigating technological developments that are industrially applicable and can lead to economic growth," he says. "In this category I'd put our work in carbon materials, which includes nanotubes [cylindrical structures measuring only a few atoms in circumference that conduct electricity and are stronger than steel]."

Geertsema also says that the center's work in catalysis—using catalysts (agents that facilitate chemical reactions) to produce clean fuels from oil, coal and natural gas—will have great commercial significance in the future. "This work is not a cure-all for the United States' dependence on foreign oil, but it will certainly give a better balance and provide much cleaner fuels than our refineries currently produce."

Geertsema says CAER's strong academic link with UK and ongoing relationships with energy companies allow it to bridge the gap between the academic and scientific worlds and what he calls the "real-life dollar world." "I believe because of my background, I can speak both languages and help these two groups look in the same direction and see one another as complementary, rather than as adversaries." CAER currently has significant collaborations with 20 industrial partners.

This relationship with industry is additionally beneficial to UK students. Undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers have an opportunity to experience the "work world" firsthand. "Because of that experience, we see quite a number of the students who have gone through CAER get pretty good positions in industry. This is sometimes to our own detriment, because the best people get recruited, but that's part of our calling," Geerstema says.

Geertsema takes a pro-active viewpoint on funding. "We need to be involved in the political decision-making process for funding. We've got to be part of defining what needs to be done."

Founded in 1977 to research new sources of energy and new ways to use coal, CAER conducts research in catalysis, carbon materials, and coal and environmental technologies.

Alicia P. Gregory