Interdisciplinary Teams Take a Hands-on Approach to Energy Innovations

Originally published on Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke

Bacteria that eat methane and turn themselves into cattle feed. A solar-powered pressure cooker that sterilizes medical equipment in rural clinics. A fleet of FedEx trucks powered by natural gas that would have been burned off through flare stacks and wasted.

Duke students working with Emily M. Klein and Josiah Knight are coming up with innovative approaches to pressing energy challenges, and gaining the skills and experience to play leadership roles in a rapidly evolving energy future.


Klein is professor of earth and ocean sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment. She is also deeply engaged in work on campus that furthers diversity and inclusion, including as the founding faculty director of the Baldwin Scholars program for female undergraduates. Klein and Knight, who is associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, serve on the Duke Energy Initiative’s faculty advisory committee and are codirectors of the Certificate in Energy and the Environment, designed to help students understand the energy system as a whole and the interconnections among policy, markets, technology and the environment.

“The certificate program was a joint Nicholas School-Pratt School effort that was supported in part by a wonderful, visionary donor, Jeff Gendell,” says Klein. “A certificate is like a minor, but it crosses departments—and in this case, it crosses schools.”

The certificate is only for undergraduates, though. “So when Bass Connections came along with the Energy theme, it was wonderful,” Klein says. Bass Connections project teams are designed to include graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty and outside experts. Since Fall 2014, she and Knight have led a Bass Connections project to identify, design and prototype new energy technologies, systems or approaches.

“We put together teams of Pratt and Trinity undergraduates, as well as graduate students, to come up with their own ideas of what they’re interested in working on in the realm of energy and the environment,” she explains. “Last year one project was driven by a student who did DukeEngage in Nicaragua and was working with an NGO. They have clinics in rural areas, and they’re off-grid. These people needed an inexpensive, solar-powered autoclave that would sterilize small instruments.”


A group of mechanical and civil engineering students, an environmental science student and a public policy student researched many approaches. “They determined that a pressure cooker gets up to the temperature needed to sterilize medical equipment. So they built this reflector, a solar concentrator, and did all the calculations on heating time, weather conditions in Nicaragua…it almost got there by the end of the year. The first-year student worked on it further over the summer and figured out where the heat was being lost.”

Among this year’s projects are stationary bikes that can run a filtration system to clean water from the Baltimore Harbor through artificial wetlands, an energy-efficient small vehicle and use of novel materials like grapheme for energy-saving applications.

“Being involved in this experience has made me want to delve more into energy in my own research,” says Klein. “It’s made me want to make a connection to resource availability and impacts on people, communities and the environment. That led to my beginning to work on another Bass Connections project, The Effects of Unconventional Shale Gas Development on Rural Communities. It’s giving me a forum to begin to work with students and my colleagues on this incredibly important area of fracking and its human impact.”