Pugwash conference discusses global sustainability topics

Last weekend, three members of Pugwash drove to Purdue University to attend the Purdue Student Pugwash Conference. The Purdue Student Pugwash Conference is a two-day-long event with talks focused around a theme. This year’s theme was global sustainability.

The conference began with a talk on the Ebola virus by Robert Stahelin, an adjunct associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame. Stahelin’s research focuses on a viral matrix protein found in the Ebola virus called VP40. VP40 plays a central role in the assembly and budding of the virus. Unlike Ebola, VP40 is not dangerous to humans, meaning that it can be studied without the major safety precautions needed for Ebola, which are expensive and rare. Stahelin’s lab has found new methods of slowing down the growth rate of VP40 in cells, which hopefully can be used in new treatments for Ebola.

The second talk was by Klein Ilegeji, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University. Ilegeji’s talk focused on achieving a commercial bioenergy industry from biomass. Bioenergy is energy acquired from materials derived from biomass such as wood, corn, and agricultural byproducts. Increasing bioenergy, Ilegeji argued, would improve America’s energy independence and stimulate the domestic economy. The variety in density, shape, size, and water content of biomass leads to substantial bottlenecks in transportation and use.

Ilegeji argued that one possible solution to this problem would be to standardize biomass as pellets with high density and low-water content that are aerobically stable. These pellets could be transported using the supply chain currently used for feedstock. Due to their low water content, they would also work well in bioenergy plants without large amounts of pre-processing. At the end of his talk, Ilegeji was asked about the efficiency and environmental impact of bioenergy from crops such as corn. He argued that the energy produced by bioenergy was more than the energy used to grow the biomass. However, the environmental impact of bioenergy is still a contentious issue.

The second day began with a talk by Maureen McCann, the director of the Energy Center at Purdue. Her talk focused on attempts to increase the amount of fuel collected per acre of land. She began by describing better varieties of corn for biomass accumulation, which can double the biomass yield and use only a tenth of the fertilizer. She next discussed how conventional biomass-to-ethanol processes convert only one third of the carbon into fuel. One particularly underused material is lignin, which is currently burned off. Lignin makes up 15 to 25 percent of biomass, but contains 40 percent of the energy. Recent research has led to a new process that can turn lignin into a hydrocarbon with a greater-than-100 octane rating at a 93 percent yield. This, too, could increase the amount of fuel collected per acre of land.

After this, there was a talk led by an anti-GMO activist, followed by the final talk by Sharlissa Moore, the president of Student Pugwash USA. She discussed the history of Pugwash and the growing need for ethics education at the societal and institutional level. Children are frequently taught ethics at the personal level. For example, they are told not to lie and not to steal. However, as our society grows in size and scale, large-scale questions such as implications of human enhancement technology and who gets to engineer tomorrow’s climate become just as important. Moore argued that these issues of “macro” ethics must be part of our education in order to have a sustainable society.

The visiting members of Pugwash had no idea what to expect from this conference. As the only students from an outside university, they were warmly welcomed by others. Nearly all speakers were well-informed and provided an interesting take on sustainability. Pugwash will certainly be back next year for another great conference.