From the Land of Superlatives Comes Super Ideas

February 5, 2010

By Richard Merritt

Editor’s Note: For those interested in learning more about the World Future Energy Summit, two Duke undergrads will discuss their experiences at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 11, in Schiciano Auditorium, side B, CEIMAS.

It might seem a bit ironic that a nation built entirely on the fruits of its vast oil and gas reserves would play host to an international conference dedicated to sustainability and all things green.

But for the third year running, policymakers, scientists and  entrepreneurs from across the globe descended on Abu Dhabi in late January for the World Future Energy Summit, a gathering the New York Times dubbed “the Davos on renewable energy.” More than 23,000 movers and shakers from 130 countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Middle East attended.

While the summit attracted all manners of luminaries – both political and scientific -- two Duke University undergraduates not only mingled and interacted with them, they were but few of the students officially on the program. Catherine Joseph and Sonja Sahlsten, both sophomores at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, had the unique opportunity to describe to an audience Duke’s sustainability efforts in general and the Smart Home program specifically (Watch the presentation).

 wfe_small.jpg“There were many more people than we expected at our session,” said Joseph, a civil engineering major from Auburn, Maine. “Most of the people who asked questions seemed to be interested in the Smart Home and how it changed the residents’ lifestyles and if the solar panels provided power for the building or fed it back into the grid (back to the grid).”

The first day of the four-day conference focused on the recently completed – and some say ineffectual -- international talks on reducing greenhouse gases in Copenhagen. However, the young women found the rest of the meeting to be more relevant to their own desires to pursue sustainability issues when they finish at Duke.

“During that first day, most of the speakers were politicians,” Joseph said. “Afterwards, we got to focus on what I found to be most interesting. It seems the more you focus on the politics of getting something done, the less likely it is to happen.”

Interestingly, the event wasn’t a showcase for the latest whiz-bang technologies or gadgets, Sahlsten said, but rather more down-to-earth and practical topics.

“The conference didn’t seem to focus as much on new and big technologies, but more a discussion of innovations that can help make what we already have work better together,” said Sahlsten, an Orlando native majoring in mechanical engineering. “I was fascinated by the idea of smart grids, where wind, solar and wave technologies can be integrated into a cohesive whole.

“We also learned about smart meters, devices that can be used in any household,” she continued. “They not only display the electrical usage by room or by each appliance, but they also calculate the carbon footprint for each. That way you have a better idea of your personal impact on the environment.”

During their visit the students also took in the local sites, got a flavor of the culture, and generally played the tourist. Abu Dhabi, one of the richest cities in the world, is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and is one of the world’s leading oil and gas producers.

“I was really surprised at the lack of native culture and cuisines,” Joseph said. “It’s like the city has just risen all of a sudden from the desert into the modern age. For example, there was no native cuisine – we ate great Lebanese, Chinese, and Italian -- but nothing representing Abu Dhabi or the region. For the most part, it looked like most other large cities in developed countries.”

wfe_burj_small.jpgSahlsten  called the region “a land of superlatives,” more than amply illustrated by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the just-opened tallest building in the world. They ascended to the 124th floor – the highest observation deck in the world – in elevators traveling up to 40 miles per hour. From that vantage point, they see seven miles into the horizon. Interestingly, the skyscraper not only houses the world’s highest mosque, but also the highest bar.

They also took time to visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, purposely designed not to overshadow the ones in Saudi Arabia’s Medina and Mecca. It is also the only mosque in the Middle East where non-Muslims are allowed to enter.

“The mosque was designed to resemble paradise with large white spaces and the flowers of a garden,” Sahlsten explained. “We saw the baths where prayers wash before the five daily prayers and the inside of the mosque where the services take place. Inside the mosque was even more beautiful and detailed than the outside. The white marble exterior is continued inside and is embellished with semi-precious stones from around the world.”

“This visit gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of the Islamic religion, culture, and traditions,” she added.

During the conference Joseph and Sahlsten met a young woman engineering student who invited them for a tour of her school, the Petroleum Institute, an engineering school for women.

“The campus is only three years old, and the buildings are new and quite beautiful inside,” Joseph said. “The classes are also similar to our own, and the coursework and engineering tracks are also very alike.  One of the women studying to be a petroleum engineer will be the first Emirati woman to have this degree.”

The school is financially supported by a collection of 15 engineering companies. The women receive a free education and after graduation, are required to work at one of the companies for five years.

The experiences at the conference cemented both of their interests in pursuing sustainability and renewable energy in their education and beyond. In fact, both students are also working toward earning an Energy and the Environment certificate, a joint offering of Pratt and the Nicholas School of the Environment, in addition to their engineering degree.

The trip to Abu Dhabi was supported by Trinity College Dean Steve Nowicki, the OSAF Leadership Travel Fund, and the Green Grant Fund, a university program designed to help students develop strategies to help the campus go green.