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Power from the sun

March 19, 2009


Jane Davidson

Mechanical engineering professor Jane Davidson is director of the University of Minnesota's Solar Energy Laboratory.

Photo courtesy Institute of Technology

U professor uses solar energy to make fuel; offers insight at Ada Comstock lecture

By Pauline Oo

Growing up, Jane Davidson went to an all-girls high school and didn't know any engineers. But the University of Minnesota professor of mechanical engineering was good at math and science, and she had a chemistry teacher who encouraged her to enter the field of engineering.

"I think she saw that I was a little bit of a maverick, and that I would be willing to try something that girls at that time weren't trying," says Davidson. "It was 1968 when I started college, and I was the only girl in my class."

Davidson, who directs the U's Solar Energy Laboratory, was recently named an Ada Comstock Distinguished Scholar. The Women's Center in the Office for Equity and Diversity Women created the award in 2005, with support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs, the Graduate School, and University Libraries, to honor the accomplishments and leadership of distinguished female faculty at the University. Award winners receive a piece of artwork by a Minnesota artist and get the chance to publicly share their research in the Ada Comstock lecture series that year (see sidebar). Davidson will speak about how to use solar energy to make fuels in "Solar After Dark: Going Green at Night" at 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, in Cowles Auditorium in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute.

"The idea is that you can make the fuels during the day when the sun is shining, and then you can use them whenever you want, including at night," says Davidson, whose current research focuses on solar systems for buildings and solar thermo-chemical cycles to produce fuels. "[Solar power is] the most abundant source of energy that we have on earth. It's clean, and it doesn't produce CO2 and greenhouse gases."

Davidson's path to everything solar was laid in 1985, thanks to George Löf, who ran the Solar Energy Applications Laboratory at Colorado State University. Löf, who is considered one of the great U.S. leaders in solar energy, (he built the nation's oldest known solar home in 1957) and is almost 100 today, approached Davidson, then an assistant professor at the university and interested in cleaning up polluting gases from coal power plants.

"He asked me if I would be interested in working on a solar energy project with him," she recalls. "I said, 'Sure, that'd be interesting.' And I've never looked back. I've loved it ever since. It's amazing to have mentors—what impact they can have on your life."

Davidson has served as editor of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' (ASME) Journal of Solar Energy Engineering, and at present sits on a number of renewable energy committees, among them Gov. Pawlenty's Clean Energy Technology Task Force, America's Energy Future Renewable Electricity Panel, and the ASME Global Climate Change Task Force.

"Not only is Jane working in a really important area—how to harness power directly from the sun—but she is also working with the state and federal government to advise them on energy policy," says Caroline Hayes, University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor. "This is critical for making new solar and energy technology broadly available in the near future so that we, as a society, can mitigate the rising costs of energy, global warming, and impact on the environment as rapidly as possible."

Ada's women

Professor Jane Davidson joins a growing list of Ada Comstock Disginguished Women Scholars. Each year, a committee made up of University faculty picks a professor from the humanities, arts, or social sciences in the fall and another colleague from the sciences or engineering in the spring.

Once the selections are made, Women's Center director Peg Lonnquist and another committee, comprising artists at the U, decide on the gift—a piece of art—to give to each winner. The artwork, always by a female Minnesota artist, varies from year to year following a chat with the recipients, says Lonnquist. (Davidson will receive hand-blown glass art by Stacy Kelly.)

Recipients then deliver a lecture on a topic related to their field during their respective (winning) semesters. The award is named after Ada Louise Comstock, a Minnesota native who taught rhetoric at the University of Minnesota and in 1907 became the U's first dean of women.

For more information, visit the Women's Center.

Fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas—provide more than 85 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States, nearly two-thirds of the country's electricity, and virtually all of its transportation fuels. Solar power, on the other hand, contributes less than one percent of electricity generated in the United States.

"[I hope people will leave my lecture] with an appreciation of the fact that solar energy can be an important part of how we produce energy," says Davidson. "It will be an important part of the mix of both electricity production and fuel production in the U.S. The technologies are out there to use solar energy to do a variety of things."

A dessert reception will follow Davidson's free lecture. To reserve your seat at "Solar After Dark: Going Green at Night," e-mail women@umn.edu.


On the side: Women in engineering

"Women are very successful in the field, and a number of women have become great leaders in engineering," says U professor Jane Davidson. "Unfortunately, we still have not as many women as ideal. Certainly, better then when I started school in the late 60s, but not much better than the mid 70s. We still have a long way to go."

When asked why aren't there more women in engineering, Davidson replied: "If only we had an answer to that, we could come up with a fix."

Over the years, though, Davidson has been involved in a number of outreach programs at multiple universities across the United States. Closer to home, she and U colleague Sue Mantell codirect a National Science Foundation-funded research experience for undergraduates in mechanical engineering. Each summer, they bring about 15 outstanding students from all over to the Twin Cities campus.

"They work here for 10 weeks with faculty mentors," says Davidson. "We've had a 50-50 mix of men and women every year, and it's very exciting to see how that works. It's unique to engineering to have that mix. In fact, almost all of the women have gone on to graduate school."