Neera Jain

Optimizing Energy for the Future

By Stacy Kish on August 4, 2010

Fellow: Neera Jain
Hometown: Libertyville, IL
Undergrad: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Graduate school: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Keywords: Department of Energy, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Office of Science, Graduate Fellow program, Control Engineering, Thermodynamic Systems

In the middle of the dog days of summer, anyone living in the southeast, southwest, or heck anywhere the mercury tips 90 plus degrees, air conditioning is a blessing. It has probably gone unnoticed, but your air conditioner periodically turns on and off in response to the ambient conditions. This is all thanks to control engineering.

Neera Jain, a doctoral candidate at University of Illinois and a DOE Graduate Fellow, explains. “You need a model to characterize how a system behaves.” This is where engineering and physics merge to mathematically describe a system. Control theory consists of a set of mathematical tools that allow you to manipulate the inputs going into a system in order to optimize the outputs.” Jain illustrates with an example of a wind turbine. “A wind turbine is the system. Control theory helps us to determine the best angle to tilt the blades so as to maximize the turbine’s efficiency at different wind speeds and wind directions.”

We encounter energy systems frequently in everyday life, whether it is an air conditioning unit or a power plant. These systems can be made more efficient with more complex tools and hardware. Here is the problem. Many energy systems have been around since the early 1900s, before control theory was developed.  “With the current crunch in fossil fuels, it is imperative that we begin using more advanced control tools to optimize energy efficiency in every system we can,” explains Jain.

“The goal of my research is to optimize the operation of different energy systems by taking into account the thermodynamic laws governing each system,” said Jain. This fundamentally new approach aims to merge our knowledge of control theory with thermodynamic laws.  “By going back to the basics, we hope to develop a method for optimizing these systems that can be applied to a large range of thermodynamic systems,” explains Jain.

 “This fellowship will allow me to meet the other graduate fellows and grow a network of colleagues who share my interests in energy-related research and policy,” concludes Jain. Jain’s graduate fellowship is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Stacy Kish is a Science Writer with the Office of Science