Students must not be daunted in their attempts to improve sustainability in the world, despite the challenges associated with the task, Dartmouth environmental engineering professor Lee Lynd said in his lecture, “Sustainable Biofuels: A Personal Odyssey,” held at the Thayer School of Engineering on Friday.
Lynd director and chief scientific officer of the Lebanon, N.H.-based biofuel company Mascoma is well known for his research on the production of energy from plant biomass.
“There are only two resource transitions in the course of human history,” he said. “The first is from hunting and gathering to preindustrial agricultural society, and the second is from the preindustrial agricultural society to the industrial, non-sustainable resource base. The third transition, that from the non-sustainable to the sustainable industrial society, has yet to happen.”
Lynd said that a “convergence of factors” makes the transition especially critical now, and that this transition will affect what happens for centuries to come.
“Basically, we have more people, less time and higher stakes this is briefly why I think this is a challenging problem of our time,” he said.
In order to make the necessary transition, people must have confidence in their ability to make a difference, according to Lynd.
“I think we need to get comfortable with the improbable,” Lynd said. “Currently, probable trends are not sustainable. Therefore, we need to look beyond those in the future.”
Biofuel research is representative of current efforts to improve sustainability, and though they “score well in all metrics,” their high cost has prevented them from being widely used, he said.
Lynd recently started the Global Sustainable Bioenergy Project, which hypothesizes that “it is physically possible for bioenergy to meet a substantial fraction of future demand for energy services while feeding the world and protecting the environment,” Lynd said.
Lynd cited his own experience as proof that scientists do not need a background in government or economics in order to participate in policy-making decisions.
“There is a seat at the policy table for technically trained people interested in big-picture issues, but seldom a seat at the technical table for those trained in policy,” Lynd said.
Growing up, Lynd said he did not expect to become an engineer. While working at an organic farm, however, he said he was inspired to write a thesis on compost as a heat source. As a biology major, Lynd did his undergraduate thesis on the production of ethanol from biomass using thermophilic bacteria.
After completing a master’s thesis on carbon monoxide-utilizing bacteria, Lynd chose to pursue engineering because he was more interested in the application of his research, he said.
Lynd eventually received both a master’s and doctorate from the Thayer School of Engineering. He joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1987.
“The things that have served me now are clarity and perseverance,” he said. “When [setbacks] happen, treat them as opportunities.”
Lynd gave his lecture on Friday in celebration of his appointment as the Paul E. and Joan H. Queneau Distinguished Professorship in Environmental Engineering Design.