Chemistry Professor Larry Anderson teaches his students to look at the big picture when it comes to research about energy and the environment. In a career that's taken him from industry to academics and Colorado to Kazakhstan, what is seen as a potential solution may end up causing more problems.
"It's a very complicated process," says Anderson, who has been a professor with the university since 1982. "Science has almost no impact on public policy. Public policy is politically driven." Yet research is vitally important in determining if policies are effective. For Anderson, research is the best way his chemistry students learn.
"The goal is to get the students to think critically," he says. "It isn't just science. We're trying to deal with real life. We need to evaluate the potential problems and look to the bigger picture."
Anderson's work has varied over the years. Since the late 80s, Anderson's research has focused on air-quality issues in the Denver metropolitan area. His research team has experimented with techniques to measure hazardous air pollutants in Denver and other sites.
For the past four years, Anderson also has worked with the University of Thailand helping explore the use of biofuels in an effort to help the country reduce its dependence on petroleum and to decrease greenhouse gases. Last year as a Fulbright senior specialist in Kazakhstan, Anderson worked with the university there to help them establish a doctoral program in environmental studies.
Kazakhstan is rich in petroleum, natural gas and minerals, but has developed little of these valuable natural resources. The country has very few environmental regulations, and the graduate students Anderson met had limited access to scientific literature on environmental studies.
"It was clear to me they need people who understand environmental issues, because it won't be too long before other countries sweep in, take their resources and leave them with environmental problems," says Anderson, adding that he hopes to return to Kazakhstan next year to continue his work.
For any country, examining both the pros and cons of potential energy policies is important before policymakers decide on how to proceed. U.S. politicians may tout the use of ethanol as an alternative energy source, but they also need to continually collect and analyze data that allows programs to evolve without causing serious problems, says Anderson.
"I think much of the world will go to biofuels, but we need to do it with materials that are waste, not crops," he says. "Using corn to make ethanol would be absurd." The use of excess corn for ethanol would work to a limited extent, but once it becomes more profitable to make fuel out of it instead of animal feed or food, "we’ve grossly changed the economics of food production in ways we don't want to," he adds.
Anderson, who spent an early part of his career working on environmental air quality issues for General Motors, brings that practicality to the classroom.
"As students get a better understanding of how scientific discoveries impact reality, they start thinking a little more broadly about what one is doing and what they should be doing," he says. Anderson plans to take a group of UC Denver students to Thailand next year to the Renewable Energy Congress.
"Energy and the environment are global in scope," Anderson says. "My hope is our students will gain valuable international perspective as they study these issues."