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SUNY looking to a sustainable energy future

The classic First Law of Thermodynamics—also known as Law of Conservation of Energy—clearly states that the essential energy of the universe can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed from one state to another. In societal terms, it's common knowledge that many standard energy sources, such as fossil fuels, are rapidly diminishing—many having already become greenhouse gases—and that our use of the energy they produce can be inefficient, wasteful and mismanaged.

SUNY – with its innovative programs, award-winning scientists, and cutting-edge research facilities -- is leading the way to a smarter, more sustainable and cleaner energy future through renewable and alternative fuels, energy production, and conservation.

Adapting to a changing climate

One of the current energy challenges is dealing with the interrelation of the impact of climate change, the need for sustainability, and the desire for rural development. Scientists have discovered that willow, when used as a biomass, does not increase greenhouse gases, can minimize erosion, reduce water pollution, help increase biodiversity, and be employed in other productive environmental purposes.

The Willow Biomass Project was the brainchild of Drs. Edwin White and Lawrence Abrahamson over 30 years ago and is now led by Dr. Timothy Volk, senior research associate at ESF and co-director of the SUNY Center for Sustainable and Renewable Energy. It is a program to research and develop shrub willow as a renewable energy source as well as for other beneficial applications across the landscape, such as ground cover for industrial sites.

There are now over 1,200 acres of willow being grown in New York, providing biomass for renewable power and heat. As more willow is grown there is potential to generate jobs, as well as renewable energy, in rural areas. The campus is working with university, private and public partners to develop technologies to reduce the cost of harvesting, processing, and transporting biomass, thus increasing its commercial viability. This work was recently supported by a $5 million project from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Biotechnology Office and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

In another NYSERDA project, Jeffrey M. Freedman, a research associate at the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center (ASRC), is working on a study of renewable power resources and distribution to ensure New York State has the ability to adapt to its renewable energy needs in a changing climate. The project will determine how the future availability of solar, wind and hydropower will affect the state's efforts to meet its renewable energy generation and greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Qilong Min, a professor and senior research associate at ASRC, collaborated with scientists in China to develop a wind and solar forecasting system for the State Grid Corporation of China, the largest utility in the world. Min also developed a system that measures solar radiation, cloud cover and cloud motion for monitoring and forecasting solar radiation, solar energy production and weather conditions. The system has been successfully deployed onto New York State Early Warning Weather Detection System, NYS Mesonet.

Richard Perez, also a senior research associate at ARSC, focuses on how climate and weather impact solar energy resources, creating models for solar resource forecasting from minutes-ahead to days-ahead. Data generated from these models are used to optimize solar technologies, with the goal of replacing nuclear and fossil fuel generation at the lowest possible cost.

Reducing emissions

Despite gains by wind, solar and other renewables, coal remains a top electricity producer in the United States. Accordingly, interest is strong in developing technology that curbs unwanted effects, such as greenhouse gas emissions, that result from coal’s combustion.

To address the matter, the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a $1.9 million grant to a research team led by the University at Buffalo to develop a membrane to remove carbon dioxide, which makes up the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, from gasified coal before its combustion.

The idea is to decarbonize coal before burning it. The team is developing and testing a polymer-based membrane outfitted with palladium-based nanoparticles. The polymers act as a filter, largely preventing the passage of carbon dioxide, while the palladium acts as a bridge that enables hydrogen gas to more easily pass through the membrane.

At the same time, UB scientists are pursuing a tiny solution for harnessing one of the world’s most abundant sources of clean energy: Water. By marrying teeny crystals called quantum dots to miniature wires, the researchers are developing new materials that show promise for splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel, which could be used to power cars, buses, boats and other modes of transportation.

“Hydrogen is seen as an important source of green energy because it generates water as the only byproduct when it’s burned,” says David Watson, PhD, one of the project’s lead researchers. “The hybrid materials we’re developing have the potential to support the cheap and efficient production of hydrogen gas.”

Watson, professor and chair of chemistry, has received a $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue the work. UB physics professor Peihong Zhang, PhD, is also a partner on the research, which is part of a larger $1.4 million NSF-funded project that teams UB with Texas A&M University, Binghamton University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to develop new catalysts that are designed to harvest sunlight to drive the chemical reaction that converts water into oxygen and hydrogen gas.

Energy storage and delivery

Finding better ways to store energy are also a vital step on the path to sustainability. Because of the intermittent nature of many renewable energy sources, the key to improved storage involves both discovering new materials and learning how to make current materials function more efficiently.

On the new materials front, UB scientists have identified a fluorescent dye called BODIPY — short for boron-dipyrromethene — as an ideal material for stockpiling energy in a liquid-based battery called a “redox flow battery.”

According to new research, the dye has unusual chemical properties that enable it to excel at two key tasks: storing electrons and participating in electron transfer. Batteries must perform these functions to save and deliver energy, and BODIPY is very good at them.

In experiments, a BODIPY-based test battery operated efficiently and with longevity, running well after researchers drained and recharged it 100 times. Based on these experiments, the UB scientists also predict that BODIPY batteries would be powerful enough to be useful to society, generating an estimated 2.3 volts of electricity.

Groundbreaking research at the intersection of biology and engineering is being done at the Bioelectronics & Microsystems Laboratory at Binghamton University, particularly in solar cells. Assistant Professor Seokheun Choi is working on a more effective biological solar cell that is more compact and works even in low light conditions. His solar cell produces a million times more energy that standard cells—microwatts per square centimeter—enabling powerful solar panels of economical size.

The secret is the use of a carbon anode immersed in a bacterial fluid. Since the solution has access to air, it’s self-sustaining. With more research, Choi is confident he’ll eventually reach watt-level energy density, comparable to photovoltaic cells. “I can get that,” he says. “We have room for improvement.”

Advanced energy research

Creative minds are essential for advanced research. Established scientific talent attracts more funding and helps recruit smart students from around the country who want to learn from the leaders in the field.

M. Stanley Whittingham, distinguished professor of chemistry and of materials science at Binghamton University, pioneered the development of lithium-ion batteries, and directs the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage (NECCES). As part of $100 million awarded to Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) by the Department of Energy, NECCES was a recent recipient of a $12.8 million, four-year grant to accelerate the work necessary for the 21st-century energy economy.

Whittingham is examining the fundamental chemical reactions in energy storage materials in order to make them function more efficiently. With the insights gained, he is developing batteries that are cost-efficient, environmentally friendly and have larger capacity.

At Stony Brook University, Distinguished Professor Esther Takeuchi — who is credited with more than 150 U.S. patents and developed the battery technology that implanted cardiac defibrillators employ today — has been awarded a U.S. Department of Energy $10 million EFRC award to drive her research in alternative battery systems that aren’t dangerous to the environment, but still boast high-energy, power and lifespan capabilities.

Housed in Stony Brook’s Center for Mesoscale Transport Properties (m2m), Takeuchi and her team — consisting of world-class researchers and graduate students who carry backgrounds in chemistry, material science, electrical engineering and physics — are expecting to find new energy storage alternatives by studying the two most basic products of all energy: work and heat.

Takeuchi cites magnetite, a naturally occurring iron oxide, as an example of a potential material they’re studying that’s Earth-abundant, readily available and cheap. “If you had a battery that used magnetite and there were some kind of event, the magnetite is not going to be an environmental disaster, it’s not a highly toxic and damaging material,” she says. If successful in making magnetite function at the level of its theoretical capacity, the material would be about three times more effective than the electrodes used in common lithium-ion batteries today.

Additionally, Takeuchi is funded by DOE to investigate batteries related to transportation.  She and her team are investigating solid state batteries that are self-healing providing a new unprecedented level of safety.  A newly awarded DOE program targets a battery concept with the highest energy content ever reported. 

Two rising young counterparts to Whittingham and Takeuchi are Binghamton's Jeffrey Mativetsky and Stony Brook's Jason Trelewicz, recipients of the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The awards are given to outstanding young scientists who are teacher-scholar models who combine outstanding research and excellent education. 

Mativetsky’s work focuses on the utilization of organic semiconductors, which are organic materials that have electrical conductivity, particularly those of extremely small size and flexible shape. Because of their size, the semiconductors can be integrated easily into smaller objects like handheld technologies. 

According to Mativetsky, solar energy currently relies on solar cells, which are very expensive. His research concerns the use of organic solar cells which serve as semiconductors, which are much less expensive and more accessible. The goal of his research is to successfully employ organic nanomaterials in solar energy, therefore eliminating the cost burden that currently hinders many people from using solar energy. 

In addition the NSF CAREER award, Trelewicz received the prestigious DOE Early Career award for his research on the development of new materials for harnessing fusion as a sustainable energy technology. He received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science to develop his project: “Enhancing the Performance of Plasma-facing Materials Through Solute-stabilized Nanostructured Tungsten Alloys.”  

“We are addressing the grand challenge of developing state-of-the-art materials needed to build the reactor,” Trelewicz says. He adds that fusion would provide a safe, large-scale energy source that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide or produce long-term radioactive waste.  

R&D facilities

In order for researchers like these to conceive advanced projects, progressive research facilities are required. To deal with this need, SUNY has built a collective of modern research hubs.

Stony Brook University's Advanced Energy and Research Technology Center (AERTC) is an example of energy research and design mirroring each other. The Center collaborates with universities, research institutions, energy providers, corporations, and the Department of Energy to explore ways to produce and refine clean, sustainable energy. The construction of the facility embodies the energy-sustainable principles being developed within its walls, including thermal energy storage, a cooled butterfly roof with a gray water system, polycrystalline photovoltaic cells, and flexible labs that enable a multiplicity of research projects and future conversion.

“Our idea was to have an energy research center that focused on the energy value chain, starting with generation and going down to the customer,” says Robert B. Catell, the Chairman of AERTC. “It encourages research to develop new technologies that could eventually be commercialized and create business and jobs in the energy sector.”

Part of a 64-campus research and development cooperative that works in the critical area of energy sufficiency and sustainability, the SUNY Center for Sustainable and Renewable Energy, located at the SUNY ESF. The Center is presently conducting research into and demonstrations of relevant energy renewability and conservation concepts such as photovoltaic power generation, solar-fueled hydrogen generation, and biomass feedstock production.

As part of a wider collaboration between SUNY researchers and private companies with the goal of developing nanotech solutions to sustainability issues, SUNY Polytechnic has constructed the Zero Energy Nanotechnology (ZEN) building, which is the largest zero energy-capable, mixed-use facility in the United States. ZEN is a living laboratory for smart energy solutions that houses leading public and private data science partners, global design engineering companies, and network operations centers.  

Binghamton University’s Smart Energy Building celebrated its grand opening on August 31. The 114,000 square-foot facility will accommodate research and development initiatives for the departments of chemistry and physics where renowned scientists and engineers are conducing basic and applied research on batteries, energy-efficient computing, thin film solar energy panels and much more. Collaboration promoted by bringing together chemists, physicists, materials scientists and engineers in close proximity will enable them to provide the clean energy solutions needed to fuel responsible, sustainable economic growth. 

UB RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) Institute is an ambitious, university-wide, interdisciplinary research institute that is focused on difficult and complex environmental issues, and their accompanying social and economic ramifications. The initiative builds upon faculty strengths across six UB schools and colleges to address a variety of issues, including energy diversification. 

The challenges of the current energy situation are manifold. At SUNY, the vision of a sustainable, renewable, clean energy future is taking shape through the employment of the latest green strategies, the research of the best minds in the field, and state-of-the-art research facilities that actually personify the research concepts they house. Innovations such as biological solar cells and nanostructured materials, which were considered science fiction only a few years ago, are quickly becoming science fact.

Tags Tags: SUNY ESF , SUNY Polytechnic Institute , Binghamton University, Stony Brook University, Research

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