Digging for Energy in a Distant Land

photo of Mosque along a waterway
Credit Suzan Erem

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Summer 2004

Writer and researcher Suzan Erem traveled through Turkey this summer to get reacquainted with the country where her father was born. Along the way, she caught up with Penn State graduate student Esra Eren, a young Turk who is exploring ways to meet the energy needs of her rapidly modernizing country. Eren, a student in the energy and geo-environmental engineering department, returned to Turkey to collect research samples for her master's thesis. In these dispatches from Turkey, Erem writes of a country struggling to keep pace with the European Union. She also tells the story of Eren's life as an international student—adjusting to a large American university, exploring the world of research, and experiencing the joy of returning home for a visit with friends and family.

Dispatch 1: Gateway Between Continents

photo of tankers and freighters along waterway.
Credit Suzan Ezrem

Tankers and freighters on the Strait of Bosphorus.

ISTANBUL—Today I arrived, feeling jetlagged after eight hours in the air but with my adrenaline pumping. I am staying for a day at a friend's house on the Strait of Bosphorus. Sitting on the expansive marble balcony, I hear the chugging tankers and freighters maneuvering up the narrow passage of water, the putt-putt of small watercraft,
the upbeat music from passing tour boats, and the smooth, steady splash of ferry boats pushing their way from landing to landing. Across the way on the European side, seafood restaurants, boat landings, and homes surround the remnants of a massive Byzantine fortress.

This vast and ancient city of 15 million people is the gateway between Europe and Asia. Here the world's trade passes from the Atlantic through the Mediterranean, then the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus, and then to the Black Sea north of Turkey to Georgia and the other former Soviet republics. Some of the tankers and freighters I see churning slowly up and down the Bosphorus will stop to unload their stores—oil, of course, and also agricultural goods, textiles, and other products Turkey needs.

While in Turkey, I will visit with Esra Eren, a Turkish citizen and a graduate student in Penn State's department of energy and geo-environmental engineering. Eren is studying ways to extract energy-rich compounds from asphaltite, a bituminous rock formed from the breakdown of petroleum. While Eren works with Penn State professor Semih Eser, her research is supported by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation as part of Turkey's search for new energy sources.

Asphaltite—found in large deposits in the southeastern part of Turkey—contains a complex mixture of organic compounds: hydrocarbons, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen. Other countries have successfully extracted hydrocarbons from asphaltite to use as a liquid fuel, but the cost of that technology is very high, so Turkey continues to burn asphaltite like coal—an inefficient use of a potentially high-yielding energy source. The country continues to search for oil, coal, and natural gas, and is also developing alternative energy sources, like hydropower and geothermal energy. Oil now makes up 40 percent of Turkey's energy supply, coal 28 percent, and natural gas about 19 percent. Hydroelectric power supplies 2.9 percent of the total (but 36 percent of the electricity), while geothermal, solar, and wind still only account for less than two percent combined.

people fishing in waterway with mosque in the background
Credit Suzan Ezrem

Strait of Bosphorus

In State College, Eren had told me of the problem her country faces. "One day the oil will stop because the consumption rate is bigger than the production rate," she said. "People are trying to find new ways, but the efficiency [of these alternative sources] is lower. Petroleum and conventional resources are still better than geothermal, hydrogen, and other things," she said. While Turkey generates 63,000 barrels of oil per day, it consumes ten times that amount. Its ratio of natural gas production to consumption is comparable. Turkey has become increasingly dependent on its neighbors in the Caspian region and Central Asia, with whom it has strong economic and historical ties, for oil and gas, according to Business Events Management, a business group that monitors the infrastructure of Middle Eastern countries.

Over the next couple of weeks I will check in with Eren as she reconnects with family and former colleagues and collects samples of asphaltite for her research. But for now, I am getting reacquainted with the skyline—the familiar domes and minarets of the Sultanahmet, the Yeni (New) Mosques, and the Aya Sofia, which has seen 1,500 years as a church and a mosque, and is now a museum. Along the banks of the Bosphorus, prosperous merchants maintain antique homes with jutting bay windows, intricate wood-carved ornamentation, and towering balconies that overflow with greenery of tropical proportions. The surrounding hills are planted with more modest homes, small white and
off-white boxes packed upon each other and cushioned by patches of trees in a spectacular feat of geometry and physics.

I haven't been back to Istanbul since this region suffered a devastating earthquake more than five years ago—a cataclysm that killed 18,000 people and injured 49,000. Economic losses were estimated to have been between $10 billion and $40 billion. Paper mills, auto plants, metal works, sugar processors, and power plants were damaged or destroyed, and Turkey lost one of its national treasures, the carpet-making village of Hereke, where almost all of Turkey's most highly-acclaimed carpet-makers- young women and girls—died. While the center of Istanbul was spared, Turkey's overall economy, already suffering an inflation rate of more 50 percent, was dealt a severe blow, making economic resources for ventures such as energy exploration more scarce than ever.

Yet growth and modernization are evident. Driving through Istanbul and later walking down the streets my first day back in four years, I pass a new intercity bus station that would rival some mid-sized airports in the US. I notice more new road construction. The constant din of traffic and horns across the bridges that connect Turkey's European and Asian sides is rivaled only by the occasional sounding of a tanker or freighter's monstrous fog horn warning small boat traffic
to get out of the way. And morning 'til night, the ever-present tour boats and ferries crisscross the Bosphorus, as if stitching the two continents together with their wakes.

Dispatch 2: Of Two Worlds

dwellings carved into hillside
Credit Suzan Ezrem

The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.

ON THE ROAD TO ANKARA—State College feels like another world as I watch the Turkish landscape slide by. We are on a tour bus, leaving the caves, underground cities, and "fairy chimneys" of Cappadocia. Volcanic eruptions three million years ago covered this plateau with tufa, a soft stone made of lava, ash, and mud. Wind and rain have eroded the brittle rock and created an eerie landscape of rock cones and ravines. Centuries of desert winds have left tall, conical formations of hard basalt tops protecting the ash directly beneath them. Generations of Anatolians carved homes and as many as 220 churches into these and the surrounding cliffs. Others, including my great-grandparents, built underground cities more than 40 meters deep, with air shafts, water systems, communal kitchens and even wineries, that protected hundreds of people at a time from the warring factions on the surface. I was awed by these as a child, and, 30 years later, I have brought my 11-year-old daughter Ayshe to see them as well. Now we are heading to Turkey's capital, Ankara.

The land in central Anatolia is a dry off-white, speckled with differing degrees of green and brown. Long fields of sun-soaked wheat are separated by others of lush low-lying melons or bushy, dark green peach trees. Small herds of goats munch away under the occasional stand of olive trees or curiously watch traffic go by from a perch on an old stone wall. On the horizon sit towering, dramatic mountains, looking ancient and entitled, as majestic as the Swiss Alps but capped not with white, blinding snow but the beiges and browns of parched summer soil. As we speed through the occasional intersection or small village, we see colorful Turkish carpets lavishly patched together edge to edge under outdoor tables set for any passer-by. To breathe the air here is to breathe burnt dust mixed with spicy grilled meat, soft, sweet tomatoes and fresh water sprinkled onto the dusty open spaces.

photo of mountainous countryside
Credit Suzan Ezrem

The many colors of central Anatolia.

Only six weeks ago, I sat with Esra Eren, a Penn State graduate student in fuel science, in the cool morning shade of Irving's coffee shop on College Avenue in State College. She was smiling broadly, her white teeth dazzling under her large brown eyes. She was excited, nervous. The electricity was practically jumping out of her.

Eren was going home to Turkey in a few days, for only the second time since she had moved to the United States a year earlier. As she nursed a bottle of cranberry juice, she lamented that "Everyone gains weight when they come here!" and then announced with pride that she had lost six kilos since her short visit home in January. We both knew her mother would be pleased when she saw her.

This is Eren's first time away from home. Having studied for a master's degree in chemical engineering at Ege University in the city of Izmir, she won a scholarship from the Turkish Petroleum Corporation to continue her studies in America, in petroleum engineering. She landed at Kennedy Airport last June, with little spoken English and fewer friends. Within days she was heading out of her dorm room in the middle of Manhattan, trying to find her way to her first class. She survived just three months at New York University.

"I escaped from New York because it was huge," Eren said. She began looking for the right graduate program somewhere else. "I checked many universities—Penn State, Texas A&M, Caltech, University of California, Los Angeles, MIT. There were many parameters considered—living costs, area and climate, feeling like I was home, the campus, the professors. Then I made a table. It was a real scientific table; I learned how to do it in my other master's degree. That table showed me Penn State was the best for me.

"I came on Greyhound!" she added. "It was a good experience for me." At the bus station in Milesburg, Eren was met by Semih Eser associate professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, who is also from Turkey. Eren had corresponded with Eser and other professors about opportunities at Penn State, and Eser later became her research adviser.

four people seated around cafe table
Courtesy Suzan Erem

From left: Suzan Erem, Suzan's daughter Ayshe, Paul Durrenberger, Esra Eren.

Eren's year in the United States has been challenging—improving her English and learning a new field at once, finding her way around the intimidating expanse of New York and then the winding roads around State College. But she never dwells on difficulty. And on that humid day in Irving's coffee shop, she was thinking only of going home, seeing friends and family, and getting the asphaltite samples she needs for her research.

Without these samples—organic minerals that look like the black, shiny coal found in Pennsylvania—Eren will not be able to complete her research. She is looking to find more cost-effective ways of extracting energy-rich compounds from asphaltite.

Already Feridun Alp Ugur, her research director at the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, had told her by e-mail that a trip to southeast Turkey (where a large deposit of asphaltite lies under the earth) was neither safe, being so close to the war in Iraq, nor absolutely necessary. She would have to rely on the supply of samples in the archives at Turkish Petroleum in Ankara. He reassured her there would be no problem, but Eren was anxious to have those samples in her hands.

"I land on Wednesday," she told me excitedly, "and I want to be in Ankara on Monday, but they said they are busy. I would go right away but I have to wait!" She was smiling as always, an ear-to-ear grin, eyebrows raised in excitement. "I always say, 'Where is my sample? My sample! But it is not 'my sample.' It is a rock. But I need it!"

Those cool mornings in State College are far behind us. I pull the curtain across the bus's tinted window to shade myself from the insistent sun. The young bus attendant, who has supplied us with water, tea, coffee and muffins during our journey, comes down the aisle pouring lemon cologne into the cupped hands of willing passengers, signaling our arrival at our final destination. Soon I'll be in Ankara, and tomorrow I'll meet up with Eren and find out what has happened with her samples.

Dispatch 3: Knowledge to Burn

men talking next to a row of parked buses
Credit Suzan Erem

Modern bus station in Turkey

ANKARA—Gray dust swirls along the roadsides, behind colorfully painted trucks, and in front of the white city buses that stop suddenly and sporadically on the blacktopped streets of Turkey's capital. Cars swerve without signaling across lanes with no markings. Taxis that cut us off are met with a string of Turkish expletives and mutterings. I hold on tight as I feel my feet pressing against invisible pedals on the passenger-side floor.

My cousin Gultan is driving me to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation where I will meet Penn State student Esra Eren and her colleagues. Gultan is a tall woman with a tomboyish swagger. She was born and raised in Ankara, but over the loud fan of the car's air conditioner, she confesses she has never heard of the Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

Gultan lives near the embassies. She doesn't know this side of the ancient settlement, a capital city going as far back as the Hittites in 500 B.C. and known subsequently as Angora (as in the cat) and Ankira. But she came here yesterday to pick me up at the otogar, the new three-level bus station that would accommodate more than a hundred modern intercity buses at once. With its control tower and gates it looks more like Kennedy Airport than any Greyhound station I've ever seen.

exterior of tall office building against blue sky
Credit Suzan Erem

Turkish Petroleum Corporation in Ankara

My cousin maneuvers around traffic circles, squinting at road signs. Then she spots a tall building with Turkiye Petrolleri Anonim Ortakligi (Turkish Petroleum Corporation) printed in large red block letters across the top. We pull up to a security kiosk and gain permission to enter. Eren meets us and takes me into the research facility. As we walk down the hallway, I see several large, framed posters explaining recent research on petroleum extraction in Turkish oil fields. I am surprised that the posters are written in English.

"These are posters from international conferences," Eren explains, leading me into lab. Her director is on vacation, so I will meet with the acting director, a woman named Ayshe Yildirim. Eren is a little nervous
about my presence and she is unsure whether I will be permitted to take pictures in light of the general fear of security breaches. But she still sports her characteristic ear-to-ear smile, because this morning she received her samples. It was not a dramatic event, but one more fitting a government agency. They came hand-delivered in simple parcel post boxes—three short, clear glass jars with screw-top white lids, each containing a lump of coal-like rock, and six small test tubes of oil. The oil, which looks like Coca Cola, now sits in the lab refrigerator. With these samples, she will be able to continue her graduate work at Penn State. Turkish Petroleum has given Eren a two-year scholarship for her research, and the expectation is that she will be able to help them understand how to extract and Turkey's energy resources from the ground more cost-effectively.

informal portrait of young woman inside of lab
Credit Suzan Erem

Esra Eren in the labs at the Turkish Petroleum Corporation

Ayshe Yildirim joins us in the small office she shares with another of Eren's future colleagues, Selda, to talk to us about Eren's work. She's a blonde woman in her mid-forties who flashes a quick smile then leans forward across her desk to talk. I ask her if it will be okay for us to speak in English, and she obliges.

"Esra will be part of the team that analyzes petroleum to derive new uses and find new sources," Yildirim explains. "She will correlate source rock and petroleum, helping us discover what came from which rock.
That way if we find the rock but no oil, we can go to the oil well, study the rocks there and consider extracting the oil from it." Source rock, if heated enough, generates oil or gas.

The Turkish Petroleum Corporation, Yildirim says, was created in 1954 as the government body that explores for, drills for, and analyzes hydrocarbons—oil and natural gas. Though in recent years it has partnered with private companies such as BP to drill in the Black Sea, it still accounts for only 12 percent of the entire energy production of Turkey, which, like the U.S., purchases a large majority of its energy supply from other countries. The search for new oil sources continues, with ongoing research into extraction, and with support for students like Eren.

What does Turkish Petroleum hope to get for its investment in Eren? Yildirim smiles. "We want her to see other places—to see the research in other places, to develop herself," she says slowly, "and to come back to Turkey and produce something for Turkey." Yildirim nods in the direction of the hall. "When Esra comes back, she will work in the lab to analyze oil and give us new technical knowledge."

hands pulling two vials out of a cardboard box
Credit Suzan Erem

Eren and her research samples of coal-like rock and vials of thick black oil.

The labs across the hall from us contain the instruments used for such analysis, like a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer , which can analyze liquids, gases and solids. In another lab, long thin tubes of tiny blue gravel—magnesium, Eren explains—are working as filters to remove water from samples. Eren will learn how to work with this equipment and more as she completes her research at Penn State.

"In Turkish Petroleum we don't have enough equipment, we have only basic ones," she explains, adding that the company anticipates purchasing more high-tech equipment soon. At Penn State, Eren will learn to use the more expensive and specialized equipment to better understand the molecular composition of asphaltite.

"Oil or coal contains huge molecules and the structures are very complex," she explains. "We can define some, but some parts we still don't know. In analysis there's some percentage called 'other' and we don't know what's in it. I have to find that part."

Understanding the molecular structure of asphaltite could help the research team at Turkish Petroleum find ways to extract high energy compounds from the mineral and provide Turkey with a new liquid fuel.

Eren is excited to get started on the most engaging segment of her studies. At the moment, however, she is more concerned about her next step. How, with strict post-September 11 airport security and intense scrutiny of anyone from the Middle East, will she get her samples into the U.S.?

Dispatch 4: Tradition and Changes

man in shirt and tie standing on the street next to a colorful market stand
Credit Suzan Erem

Many Turks still shop at traditional-style markets.

IZMIR—Today I braved my way down the streets of Izmir—a western port city of more than three million people—wearing shorts. Part of me feared the glares and the mutterings of "orospu" ("whore") I received when I did the same thing at the age of 13. My Turkish father hadn't given me a hint about the rules of comporting myself as an adolescent girl in his country. During my visit that summer, my second trip to Turkey, I stayed with relatives I hardly knew. We made the most of the few words of Turkish and English we knew between us, but the lack of language and my ignorance of Turkish custom caused me to make regular gaffes.

This morning I was just being lazy. This trip I had seen plenty of evidence that Turks in metropolitan areas had grown more tolerant of tourists' casual ways—Turks and tourists alike were wearing shorts, sleeveless tops, and sandals. My plan was to spend the day at a nearby resort town, where shorts and bathing suits are de rigueur. But I had to walk a block to the bank first. I didn't get any glares, but I saw no other women dressed as I was. European casual and business suits are the norm in this urban center. As in most Turkish cities, women's fashion here tends to fall in the middle of a spectrum that ranges from the modest button-down robes and headscarves favored by the rural women of central Anatolia and the sarongs, shorts, and bikinis you see at the Mediterranean and Aegean vacation spots.

people shopping at open air market
Credit Suzan Erem

It's not uncommon to see headscarves, even in cosmopolitan cities.

Tonight, dining al fresco on grilled sea bass and spaghetti bolognese and watching the sun set in brilliant reds over the port's hazy horizon, I asked my Uncle Turgut about headscarves. Turgut, a rotund and robust man approaching 70, is actually a childhood friend of my father. His father, a successful businessman, was a close friend of my grandfather's, a high-ranking general in the young republic's army. His family name goes back generations in this city. When I told Esra I'd be staying with him in Izmir, her hometown, she said, "My high school is named after him!" My uncle had built the school and named it after his father. Turgut's children lived with my family on and off for many years when we were growing up, making him one of my closest relatives. And as a key figure in Turkey's local and national economy for the past 45 years, he's also an expert on the political and economic status of the country.

We had just finished our appetizers of roasted eggplant and stuffed green peppers and were sitting back to enjoy our Turkish-brewed Efes beer. I told him that in America, many people see headscarves as an individual expression of religious beliefs, a right we hold dear. Others see them as a sign of repression. What did he think? My uncle, educated at UCLA many years ago, said wearing a headscarf in Turkey means more than most Americans could immediately understand.

"When [Kemal] Ataturk formed our country in 1923, he made these things illegal, the headscarf, the long coverings, all of the religious clothing," he explained. "He did this because these are things that reminded people of the Ottomans, of the empire, the old days. It reminded them of the past, and we wanted to go forward, not backward."

The symbolism of headscarves is not lost on Esra Eren's generation. Back in State College I had asked her about the current political situation in Turkey. She said she had heard stories from around the country of women dressing more conservatively. The newly-elected government was nominally secular and expounded positive economic programs, but it had strong backing from religious leaders, she said. Here in Turkey I had heard similar descriptions.

tram on city street
Credit Suzan Erem

A modern tram runs on city streets.

Under the Turkish constitution, the armed forces are the guardian of the republic. To Americans, this set-up may seem tailor-made for maintaining a covert military dictatorship. But the Turks I know, from secretaries to businessmen, cherish this system: It protects them from their government swinging too far right or left, they say. In three out of the last four elections since 1992, they note, an energized minority has been able to install a more fundamentalist government.

The first few times this happened, the military reacted by either threatening to ban or banning outright the fundamentalist party in power. Each election season it came back in a new form, under a new name. This time, however, military leaders announced through the media and to civic organizations that the armed forces will not intervene again without the support of the citizenry.

The current AK (White) party won the last election with only 35 percent of the vote, my uncle said. "But smaller parties have to get at least ten percent," he explained. "If they don't get ten percent, their votes get put together," i.e., added to the leading party's total. In this way, the AK party now enjoys a 65 percent majority in the parliament. Some say the party simply out-organized its rivals and effectively pointed up the weaknesses of the incumbents. Others say the AK party was well-financed by other Muslim countries, and thus able to send organizers into the countryside, plying villagers with money and paying women to don the more extensive headscarf.

woman with headscarf walking down city street
Credit Suzan Erem

Modern Turkish cities are a mix of old and new, traditional and modern.

Twenty years ago, moving back toward a religiously-based political system would have been unthinkable to most Turks. The failure of the Ottomans and the almost cult-like affection for Ataturk was still strong in everyone's hearts and minds. But Eren said students from her university were recently invited onto a television show to debate whether women should be able to wear headscarves to the university. When the university team was told they would have to argue in favor of headscarves, they declined, she added. A recently published novel, Snow, by popular Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, has caused a stir for its treatment of Turkey's 80-year struggle to find a balance between religion and secularism.

Though Eren's hometown is a cosmopolitan city of millions, signs of increasing traditionalism are evident, from the increased presence of headscarves to gender-based bus seating. It is enough to make many modern Turks, who proudly support their secular government, worry about their appearance to the western world—particularly the European Union which Turkey hopes to join. But this same traditionalism may also be a comfort to those who fear losing their national and religious identity to a new global economy.

Dispatch 5: Energy for the Future

young woman standing on plaza in front of office buildings
Credit Suzan Erem

Esra Eren in her hometown of Izmir.

IZMIR—We are sitting at Asansor, a restaurant atop a century-old, cliff-side elevator built to connect the highest elevation of Izmir to a lower one. We can see across the entire bay to high-rises and homes in almost every neighborhood in this city of more than three million people. In the bay, tankers and freighters line up to load and unload at the port, a Mediterranean cruise ship sounds its departure, and smaller ferry boats zig-zag from one landing to another.

But from this distant point we can't hear Izmir—the constant rush of traffic and bleating horns that fill its streets or the low, muttered requests of the occasional crouched woman shrouded in baggy clothes, damaged children sitting beside her, hoping for a coin to drop. We can't hear the constant hawking of simit—the local sesame coated bread—or mops and brooms, or fresh mussels or tourist trinkets. Clinging to the edge of a high cliff, we can only hear the clink of heavy silverware and the breeze rustling leaves on the fig and apple trees.

Esra Eren points north of us to a tower nestled in a nearby hillside. "That was my high school," she says. "That tall building is where the director lives." Beyond the director's home, sharing the same faded yellow color, with the same rust-colored roof tiles, are low rectangular buildings. Closer in and below us, perched on every rooftop, is a pair of solar panels connected to two horizontal water tanks, stacked one on top of the other. Out of sight a few kilometers west is one of Turkey's only wind farms, and far below us is percolating the geothermal energy that Turkey has begun to tap.

I'm having lunch with Eren and her brother Koray, who has brought us to this fascinating place. Koray, 30, is a consultant for Philips Electronics. His lunch is punctuated with cell phone calls from clients and suppliers in Portugal and Turkey inquiring about television parts shipments. After lunch, he will take us to Ege University, where Eren studied chemical engineering. But she has struggled to find me someone to interview. One professor, who teaches renewable energy, is annoyed that her former student is promoting petroleum products. Another, she says, doesn't believe in foreign- language education, even though he teaches at an English-language university. He won't encourage her graduate work at an American university by speaking with me. Her mentor is out of town on vacation. Thankfully, the acting director, Zehra Ozcelik, is willing to talk to me.

outdoor sign for Ege University
Credit Suzan Erem

Ege University, where Eren earned a master's degree in chemical engineering.

Over chicken shish and grilled Turkish meatballs, Koray offers informed opinions about Turkey's resources and governmental policies.

"We have pipelines from Azerbaijan and Russia, where we receive natural gas," Koray tells us. But he is skeptical. "We have more natural gas in Turkey, I believe, but we're not digging. It's a government decision. We have to buy something from [these countries] to maintain relations." I learn later that Turkey had recently hosted a major international conference addressing its role in the development and transportation of petroleum and natural gas to Europe in a shifting world energy market.

Koray is well-versed in Turkey's role as conduit. "Petroleum from Iran and Iraq comes through Turkey," he says. "Natural gas from Azerbaijan and Russia to Europe passes through Turkey. And we charge them for that, of course." He adds that what doesn't travel in pipelines goes by ship from Adana, a Mediterranean port in southeastern Turkey, near the Iraq border.

When I ask Koray how Eren has changed in her last year in America, he hesitates.

"Time passes, and even if she stayed in Turkey, we would see some changes," he says finally, looking her up and down. "We see some kilos, but the operating system is the same." He smiles at his little sister. "America has not taught her respect for brothers!"

Minutes later, while Koray negotiates Izmir's nerve-wracking traffic, he explains that Ege University was founded as a partnership between the agricultural school and the engineering school. ("Engineering" here includes not only the electrical, computer, chemical, biological, civil and industrial emphases Americans are familiar with, but such Turkish specialties as textile and leather engineering.) Entering the campus, we pass the ag school's greenhouses to get to the chemical engineering building. Currently, Ege has about 10,000 students, most of them away for summer vacation.

photo of woman sitting at table
Credit Suzan Erem

Zehra Ozcelik, one of Eren's professors at Ege University.

Zehra Ozcelik is a wiry woman with bright eyes and a quick smile, though she appears weary from six hours of today's teaching, including administering the stack of exams now resting under her right elbow.

What opportunities do the scientists at Ege have to learn about technology from other countries? Zehra sighs.

"Conference fees are very high," she says. "Most of us cannot go, but in two weeks I will go to Prague for a chemical engineering conference." It's possible she is attending the only conference available to faculty this year. But Ozcelik lights up when Eren reminds her of a new student exchange program that sent three Ege students to Portugal last year—adding, with obvious pride, "Two Portuguese students came here!" Next year, 11 students will go to Greece, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Portugal.

The scarcity of funds makes Eren's Turkish Petroleum Corporation scholarship to Penn State all that more cherished.

Even to a casual observer like me, Turkey seems to be making the most of its energy resources. Geothermal power heats homes and the greenhouses that supply Europe with fruits and vegetables. Natural gas heats heat homes and industry. Nuclear power is debated on television and in the newspapers. Wind power furnishes some portion of the energy for a resort town not far from here. Solar power provides hot water in most homes in the country, and Turkey harnesses its rivers for hydroelectric power. Coal is still the mainstay for many areas, and Turks still burn asphaltite as coal. Petroleum continues to fuel over-the-road travel—from the semi-controlled chaos of its city streets to the impressive high tech bus system that operates throughout the country. But with an annual growth rate of more than 5 percent in each of the last five years, Turkey is drawing more than ever on its energy reserves and imports. Eren's future work could play an integral role in Turkey's energy outlook.

"My job is just a little part of the chain," she says. "When I finish my thesis, there won't be big differences in the country or Turkish Petroleum. Everybody knows that. But I will help my company analyze samples maybe more quickly, maybe more clearly." As she faces returning to Turkey with the knowledge she's acquired, she struggles to put her opportunity into the proper context.

"I'm just 25, my colleagues are over 40. I have been in the U.S., a really big country, and have gained technological knowledge, but they have more experience. I don't know which one is better right now. This is my question."

In the end, she decides, the greatest energy source of all could be Turkey's young minds. "I believe that there is a linkage between the energy inside the brains, bodies, and souls of Turkey's youth—more than 60 percent of our population—and our ability to find alternative, sustainable energy sources," she says.

Last Updated January 20, 2005