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Chemistry Professor David Sammeth Participates in Global Sustainability Program

New Mexico Highlands University


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Chemistry Professor David Sammeth Participates in Global Sustainability Program

New Mexico Highlands University chemistry professor David Sammeth participated in an intensive two-week program in July to study global sustainability at the prestigious Santa Fe Institute. 

The program, co-sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, explored global sustainability with a focus on climate change. Twenty national and international scientists, economists, social scientists, and policy makers presented at the program.

 “The global scientific community is in agreement that human activity is causing climate change that will be very detrimental to our future,” Sammeth said. “Releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere heats up the earth and its oceans. Just a 2-degree increase in global temperature will have a profound, pervasive effect on the environment and our lives. For example, sea levels will rise, displacing people along coastlines. Also, known weather patterns will be dramatically altered.”

Speakers at the conference concluded that the planet has seen substantial, tangible climate change in the past century due to the burning of fossil fuel. The changes are scientifically documented in air temperatures, rainfall, ocean properties, land-ice, sea level, winds and storm tracks.

The speakers and ensuing discussion groups focused on the science of climate change and possible solutions.

For Sammeth, the most interesting, compelling speaker was Carlo Rubbio, a Nobel Prize winner in physics who has also served as director general for the CERN Council, a high-energy particle physics organization comprised of 20 European nations. The Italian-born Rubbio talked about the need for decarbonization and how to produce carbon-free fuels.

“We can’t continue to increase the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere,” Sammeth said. “We need to transition from a carbon-based energy supply coming from fossil fuels to a non-carbon fuel economy. For example, you can take natural gas, which is plentiful, and convert it to a usable fuel like methanol.” 

Sammeth explains how this conversion works. Natural gas contains carbon and hydrogen. Removing the carbon from natural gas, and adding carbon dioxide, results in liquid methanol.

“It’s really exciting that you can take an environmental problem like carbon dioxide pollution and convert it to a usable fuel,” Sammeth said. “Using carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere to produce methanol means that burning methanol does not increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Methanol is already available at the pump so there’s an existing fuel distribution infrastructure.”

Sammeth said what he learned at the Santa Fe Institute’s summer program has applications for the classroom.

 “I want my students to understand science in the context of their lives, and the institute’s program gave me more ways to teach that,” Sammeth said. “I also want my students to explore how to utilize information to make informed decisions as citizens in our society.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs Linda LaGrange said: “It’s an honor for the university that David Sammeth was selected to participate in this prestigious program focusing on such an important topic as global sustainability. I believe his participation will contribute positively to what he offers his students academically.”

Sammeth said that intellectually, the program at the Santa Fe Institute was the most stimulating two-week learning experience he has ever had. 

“I was surrounded by interesting, creative, caring, passionate minds,” Sammeth said. “It showed me that there’s an amazing future ahead of us if we’re willing to pursue it.”

Sammeth said he wants to continue to work with the Santa Fe Institute on sustainability issues.

Sammeth has taught graduate and undergraduate chemistry courses at Highlands University since 1995 and heads the university’s laser laboratory. He earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Montana and did post-doctoral research work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Before joining the university’s faculty, Sammeth was a visiting professor at the University of Idaho and Whitworth College. 

He has published extensively during his academic career. During his 14-year tenure at Highlands University, Sammeth has garnered numerous research grants totaling $2.7 million from the National Institutes of Health and others.

Sammeth’s research interests include photo-dynamic therapy for cancer patients, macular degeneration in the eyes, and optical dating of archaeological and geological materials.