Of all the traits that make us human, our ability to harness one of the natural forces of the universe -- energy -- is among the most distinctive. Finding better, cleaner and more sustainable ways to continue that practice is the goal of the new director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center.
Ken Anderson, professor of geochemistry, recently was appointed to the position. He succeeds Tomasz Wiltowski, who died in December 2018.
SIU has long been a leader in energy research, Anderson said, and he's happy to continue working in that area in this new position.
"SIU's strong energy program is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place," Anderson said. "ACERC is the focus of SIU's efforts related to energy. That means that ACERC can help shape SIU's efforts related to matters that affect everyone and everything on the planet. What could be more important than that?"
In 2015, the Illinois Clean Coal Review Board provided a $4.6 million grant to revitalize ACERC and support energy-related work at SIU. The interdisciplinary center is charged with finding advanced coal and energy technologies and training a workforce to implement those solutions in the private sector during the years to come.
After working as a postdoctoral fellow and organic geochemist at Argonne National Laboratory, as well as in the private energy sector as a research scientist, Anderson arrived at SIU in 2003 as an associate professor of geology, becoming a professor in 2007. In 2010, he founded Thermaquatica Inc., an energy company focused on his patented process that treats coal, wood or agricultural byproducts with oxygen in superheated water, breaking it down into useful products in an environmentally friendly way.
Anderson also recently helped establish a minor in ancient practices, which seeks to broaden the perspective of students involved in objective disciplines -- such as science, engineering and technology, and mathematics -- by attracting them toward the humanities. The team effort, which involves faculty across multiple disciplines, last year received $100,000 from the National Science Foundation's Humanities Connection Grants to formulate a few new, highly interdisciplinary courses to complete the offerings for the minor.
Gary Kinsel, vice chancellor for research, said Anderson has a phenomenal background and an exciting vision.
"As a geochemist, he has a thorough understanding of the challenges in the development of both existing and emerging energy sources and the importance of meeting these challenges for the future of our society," Kinsel said. "His entrepreneurial experience with the establishment of a startup tech company through the SIU small business incubator also gives him insights important for his interactions with state and regional business and political leaders in the energy sector."
Anderson said the job appealed to him because it provides the opportunity to influence SIU's efforts in both energy education and research.
"I can help shape those efforts by supporting students, faculty and staff who are interested in all aspects of energy, and how we can do it all better," he said. "We need to educate everyone about the importance of energy, how it affects them and how the choices we make affect and influence others. As the director of ACERC, I have the opportunity to help make that happen, and I was excited by the opportunities that challenge entails."
The worldwide energy sector is in the midst of profound changes, Anderson said. The ways in which humans produce, store and consume energy is constantly being re-examined as increasing needs, environmental concerns and sustainability issues come to the fore. With that in mind, Anderson wants to put ACERC squarely in the middle of the discussion as a leader in rethinking and conducting important research that will show the way forward.
"My goal is to make SIU a positive part of those changes," Anderson said. "We have a deep pool of experience in energy, and my intention is to help focus that experience on helping to address the challenges that are in front of us -- ensuring that we can supply enough reliable and sustainable energy resources to meet ever-increasing demand in a way that is just and preserves the global environment for future generations."