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C. Lindsay Anderson

  • New Faculty (2012)

Most people agree that the world must transition away from non-renewable energy sources, but exactly how to make that transition is a hefty problem. While some scientists work to improve the renewables themselves, perfected renewable resources still have to be eased into the infrastructure and economy that exists today--one that has been built around oil and coal for over a century. C. Lindsay Anderson, assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, is up to tackling this problem using applied mathematics. “I’m really interested in how we transition from non-renewables, which we are so reliant on right now--to all different kinds of renewables,” Anderson said. “Take the power system, for example. It’s been evolving for 150 years--there’s so much physical infrastructure--that we can’t just start from scratch.”

That means that a fine-tuned integration has to take place--in which resources like solar, wind and biofuels are plugged into grids or transportation systems in a highly efficient manner. “We have to make this energy transition so fast--which is unprecedented,” Anderson explained. “The way that production and energy and transportation systems evolved--they were allowed to do this over its natural time scale, and [introducing renewables] is really a forced perturbation of the system. I’m really interested in looking at integrating renewables into existing systems in ways that maximize their benefits while minimizing disruption.”

Anderson didn’t always plan on solving these types of problems. As an undergrad at University of Guelph in Canada, she planned on studying business, but switched to engineering with the plan of going on to get an MBA down the road. But by the time she graduated there were limited jobs, and she opted to get a Masters in environmental engineering as well. Around this time, she began teaching and doing outreach at the Applied Mathematics department at Western University in Canada. In this department, “people were all building mathematical and computational models so many different things,” said Anderson. “There were researchers working on theoretical physics, on material science, fluid mechanics and turbulence, and on finance...and everyone was speaking the same language. I thought this was really exciting. I remember looking around seeing everyone doing this cool stuff, and thinking, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Now, at Cornell, Anderson is fulfilling that desire. One of her main projects focuses on integrating wind-derived energy into power grid systems. The problem has many layers of uncertainty: how much wind will be produced that day, how much demand will come from consumers, and what energy prices will be. With all these variables, wind farms and utility providers are faced with tough decisions that need to be made quickly. “They know they have a commitment to produce a certain amount of energy from a wind farm in the next hour ... and if they don’t get it right, then they have to pay,” Anderson said. “I’m really interested in how to optimally make these strategic decisions without the full information.”

Anderson’s also looking at how best to integrate biofuels--specifically, she’s examining the different stages of chemical processes that convert raw material to a usable fuel, like ethanol. Biofuel plant operators must choose a particular chemical process to use at each stage of conversion. “But the choices you make at each stage can impact the choices at the downstream stages of the process,” said Anderson. “These processes are still evolving, and we’re not really sure how well these things are going to operate when we scale them up, or how science and tech are going to improve these processes in the near future—so all this uncertainty leads us to asking how to make the best choices in designing that process.”

Since coming to Cornell, Anderson has been struck with its academic openness. “Previously

I felt like if I was in a particular department, that I really had to fit my research into what everybody else was doing,” said Anderson. “I’ve never felt that pressure here. You find people to collaborate with and these overlaps are really exciting, but it’s not forced.”

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