UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering University of California San Diego
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Professor Emeritus Stanford Penner is one of the founding engineering faculty at UCSD, having come to the campus in 1964 to spearhead what was then known as the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Sciences. The department has since been renamed Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and has spawned both the Bioengineering and Structural Engineering departments. We visited with Dr. Penner to reminisce about the School's history and talk about the future. 

Why did you decide to come to UCSD in those formative years?
I had been associated with then UCSD Graduate Dean Keith A. Brueckner for some years and had followed him as Director of the Engineering and Research Division to the Institute for Defense Analyses during the period 1962-64 while on leave from Caltech where I was a professor of jet propulsion. Brueckner was responsible for hiring many of the department chairs at UCSD. He invited me to visit La Jolla, where I was privileged to meet with the first UCSD Chancellor Herb York and the visionary Roger Revelle who elaborated enthusiastically on an imaginative concept for building the greatest graduate university in the world. After that first visit and meeting with the principal designers of the new campus in the beguiling environment provided by the La Jolla location, I was totally convinced that a great university would be the result. Also, I was enthusiastic about the exciting opportunity of founding a single department where engineers and applied scientists from many disciplines could interact with colleagues while working on common long-term goals. The innovative programs were especially appropriate at the height of the Cold War when there was a strong demand for Ph.D.s in advanced engineering and applied science R&D.

What was the department like in the early days?
John Galbraith, a noted British Empire historian who was the Chancellor when I arrived, could not have been more helpful in establishing engineering and applied sciences at UCSD. I had broad license to include fluid and solid mechanics, systems and control engineering, as well as structures, bioengineering, ocean engineering, materials science, and chemical engineering within the scope of the department. Many of the professors we recruited came from the Caltech faculty or were Caltech alumni, and all were exceptionally talented scientists in their field as became clear during the ensuing years when we reached an especially high number of members of the National Academy of Engineering. Within the first year, we had recruited 10 faculty and we accepted our first Ph.D. candidate in the fall of 1964 (Prasad Varanasi, who is now Professor of Atmospheric Science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a leading authority on the measurement of physical parameters required to estimate global warming resulting from greenhouse-gas emissions). By the time I stepped down as chairman in 1968, the department was recognized as a leading department of engineering and applied science with more than 20 faculty members.

How did Roger Revelle's original plan evolve?
It became clear as early as 1967 that Roger's conception of how to build the greatest graduate university in the world would prove unworkable in the UC system. Part of UC's mandate was to provide undergraduate education. And during my brief term as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs (1968-69), I helped write a simple and still widely used formula for the allocation of new faculty positions based on both undergraduate and graduate student enrollments. Proper education and placement of our undergraduate engineers was facilitated by adding disciplinary labels and approved engineering curricula. We continued our commitment to interdisciplinary research, which shifted to multidisciplinary research institutes.

How was the UCSD Energy Center started?
I took a sabbatical leave from 1971 to 1972, and thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship, was provided with the opportunity to visit colleagues around the world in Europe, Asia and Australia. I returned firmly convinced that issues of energy-ecology-economy (E3) would provide a major challenge to the physical well-being of people everywhere. Chancellor John McElroy and Vice Chancellor Paul Saltman had independently identified the importance of the E3 issues and both gave me the enthusiastic support needed to establish the UCSD Energy Center in record time in 1972.

What was your original mission?
We focused on our expertise in combustion research and energy policy, which soon included also nuclear energy. I was asked by the Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Energy, John Deutsch, to help the Department of Energy develop its frontier research agenda dealing with fossil fuels, which were then as now the major providers of energy supplies. I was appointed chair of the industryuniversity- government Fossil Energy Research Working Group. During a period of seven to eight years, we mapped out the R&D programs on fossil fuels for the Department of Energy. Later, we were reconstituted with the mission to help commercialize the development of fuel cells. We produced during 1985/86 a report on research needs and in 1994/95 a report on commercialization of fuel cells. Although UCSD does not have a research program for the development of fuel cells, we had a significant impact on the initiation and development of national programs for fuel cell development, especially for stationary power applications. I was pleased to have these activities recognized by the award of a U.S. Department of Energy Distinguished Associate Award in 1990.

It's been 20 years since your report on research needs for fuel cells. When do you think we'll see them in everyday use?
Fuel cells are a reality today for stationary power systems. But putting them on cars is much trickier, because of the high cost of producing the rather complex fuel-cell-based power system and the costs of the preferred hydrogen fuel. Today, we typically make hydrogen from natural gas or other fossil fuels, but this method of production yields the fuel for use as an energy source at costs far exceeding the cost of energy from natural gas or other fossil fuels when these are used directly as energy sources. The commercialization of hydrogen using fuel cells for vehicles is not likely to happen until we learn how to make hydrogen cheaply through completely different methods. There are promising research approaches such as hydrogen production from water in an electrolytic cell using solar energy for water splitting (water photolysis) but none of these novel approaches is likely to become a market success for at least a decade or longer.

What could be done earlier?
I offered some suggestions at the Society of Automotive Engineering meeting last year in Detroit. Let me briefly describe one of those approaches. A good encyclopedia article was published in 2003 by Bill Avery showing that the cost of energy from ammonia production is competitive with the cost of energy from gasoline. The system involves combining nitrogen and hydrogen from water electrolysis using electricity generated on a deployed Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion platform. Ammonia is easily compressed and may then be shipped at acceptable costs over long distances. If we could develop an ammonia fuel cell, we would have a cheap, efficient, clean-burning energy source for automotive vehicles. I think this could be accomplished within a period of about 10 years.

What do you think will be critical to UCSD's success in the future?
We are probably one of the top five public universities and will do quite well continuing just the way we are going. UCSD is on the right track with bringing in the best possible people we can find, and as Roger said, "Let 'em run". What needs to be corrected is the very large ratio of students to faculty in engineering, which is now out of line with what it has to be in a first-rate engineering school. Improving the ratio can only come through state support, although more designated support to the school of engineering will help.

The Penner Lecture Series: Building a Community of Scholars
Professor Penner recalls that in the early days of UCSD, every new faculty member was invited to give a lecture to the entire UCSD faculty and student body—from all departments. It was a grand tradition that sparked camaraderie and collaboration. Dr. Penner is helping to rekindle that spirit with an endowment gift of $165,000 to support the Stanford S. and Beverly P. Penner Lecture Series. This distinguished lecture series was founded in 2000 by the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and brings two to three speakers to campus each year.

"These very distinguished people coming here have brought the whole department together on numerous occasions," says Penner. "It is a special challenge for the speakers because they need to address an audience outside of their own field, but still make the talk exciting. I've been to every one of the lectures and they've all been superior."

Next in the lecture series is Professor Subra Suresh, Ford Professor of Engineering and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will deliver his lecture "Nanomechanics of Single Biological Cells and Some Connections to Human Diseases" on March 5. Visit http://maeweb.ucsd.edu/ SSPenner_Lecture for details.


View all nine talks in the Penner Lecture series, including Stanford Penner's inaugural lecture on Energy Supplies in the 21st Century