A lifelong love of engines and fire has brought Tim Lieuwen ’95 to captain a place that, in his words, “is developing innovative, sustainable solutions for the most pressing energy problems facing our country and the world.”
After undergraduate summers helping the U.S. Forest Service do controlled burns and plan roads in Alaska, Lieuwen enrolled in the mechanical engineering doctoral program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, specializing in clean combustion.
“When I learned that a guy could study fire and noise for a living, I thought, ‘This is awesome!’” he said.
For the past 12 years he’s been a professor in Georgia Tech’s school of aerospace engineering, leading an internationally renowned research program focused on low-emission combustion. Besides publishing widely on that subject and winning many professional awards, he’s helped various companies work toward cleaner combustion in everything from large-scale power generation to jet engines. And he’s served as an adviser to government agencies like the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA.
Last summer he was appointed executive director of Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute (SEI).
“Energy—from fuel security to global warming and environmental problems—is the defining issue of the next generation,” Lieuwen said. “It affects everyone, especially the most vulnerable, and differentiates standards of living. Having the opportunity to guide this big ship—Georgia Tech is the largest engineering university in the country—toward transformative energy solutions is what excites me about this job.”
Lieuwen describes his job as “a systems integrator.”
“Science, engineering, policy making, business, economics—energy cuts across all the disciplines here. My role is to think across the traditionally siloed disciplines and help them connect with each other to devise a more integrated response to particular energy challenges.”
There are a number of ways that can work. A large company might call and say it’s interested in working on a certain problem, like high-efficiency power plants. Lieuwen connects them with faculty who can help. Or the SEI reaches out to companies to describe problem-solving capabilities at Georgia Tech.
Or it pulls together research teams for major proposals, including government-funded ones. In November the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded three grants worth more than $9 million to SEI-involved research at Georgia Tech, making the school the recipient of more Department of Energy awards than any other organization.
But, Lieuwen explained, the Strategic Energy Institute wants not just to answer energy questions.
“We also want to be framing the questions. For example, what should the next-generation electrical transmission grid—a smarter grid—look like? What’s the most strategic way for the U.S. to deploy the natural gas resources it’s now awash in? Those are such big questions that you first have to pose a framework that can be used to pull together the technical people to solve them. It requires big-picture, cross-disciplinary thinking.”
The goal: to shape the way U.S. decision makers think about and craft energy policy.
The task is so big that Lieuwen admits it can be hard to grasp.
“Energy cuts across everything we do as a society. It can be baffling—how to pull together all the thinking about energy in an integrated fashion. That’s what makes this job hard, but also what makes it a lot of fun—and of significance.
“At Calvin I learned that our world belongs to God. I’m excited to lead the development of energy solutions that will help us be better stewards of His creation.”