Power and Photosynthesis

The university and its College of Engineering are continually engaging in research to find new ways to help the nation’s ever-growing energy challenges. Take a look at two ways the university is contributing to energy research.

Storing Power

“What I try to study are the elementary processes occurring in materials that are used in batteries and fuel cells,” says Tom Zawodzinksi, Governor’s Chair professor of Electrical Energy Storage in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“A fuel cell is a device that takes in a fuel and burns it—but without burning it,” he explains. “It actually converts a chemical energy inside a fuel into electrical energy. I’ve got ions and electrons moving around inside a fuel cell. How do I make them move faster? How do I make the reactions occur faster? How do I design materials to make those things happen?”

Fuel cells are designed to use hydrogen to generate electricity that can be used to power vehicles with almost no pollution or carbon emissions. Though challenges remain in making the fuel cells efficient and cost effective, they promise to provide major energy solutions in applications ranging from electrified vehicles to supporting the grid and providing energy storage for intermittent alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Zawodzinski focuses on ways to make fuel cell and battery technologies more durable over the long term, how to ensure that the cells function properly at higher temperatures and ways to improve the basic mechanics of the chemical reactions at the heart of how fuel cells can be used to generate electricity and batteries store electrical energy.

“People are pushing very hard to put these in cars,” says Zawodzinski. “Toyota, Honda, GM are probably at the forefront, and at least one company will release a fuel-cell car by 2015 if not sooner.”

Photosynthesis and Solar Power

In recent years, Barry Bruce, an associate professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, and his team of researchers have developed a “bio-solar” system to use photosynthetic processes to produce efficient and inexpensive electricity.

Basically, the process uses renewable biological materials to generate photovoltaic power, as opposed to the toxic chemicals used in conventional solar cells. Through years of research, Bruce and partners at MIT and the Ecole Polythechnic Federale in Switzerland have developed a method that uses protein molecules from blue-green algae that carry out photosynthesis, called photosystem-I, or PS-I. The PS-I molecules are stabilized chemically and placed on a nanostructured platform of tiny zinc oxide wires embedded on a sponge-like titanium dioxide surface. When exposed to sunlight, the PS-I molecules create an electrical charge, which is conducted by the metal oxides to an electrical circuit.

The process must become ten times more efficient to generate useful amounts of electricity, but the US Army Research Laboratory is looking at the PS-I technology to develop reactors that could create and store fuel in remote locations.

“Because the system is so cheap and simple,” says Bruce, “my hope is that it will develop with additional improvements into a green, sustainable energy source that can be used by everyone.”

Want to know more? Take a look at three more areas of energy research in “Meeting Energy Challenges” from the spring 2014 Torchbearer magazine.

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