Skip to main content

Energy research projects take root at ASU

January 23, 2008

Research projects on alternative and renewable energy have sprouted up across ASU. Here are some of the projects being undertaken by ASU researchers.

Hydrogen from sunlight

The ideal environmentally friendly energy source is a fuel that is economical to produce and does not pollute when burned. That is exactly what ASU researchers intend to develop in a new program that uses bacteria and sunlight to generate hydrogen, a clean fuel that produces no greenhouse gases. SU’s biohydrogen project, led by Willem Vermaas, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, aims to harness the energy in sunlight using microbial photosynthesis to produce hydrogen and then convert waste materials from the initial process to produce even more hydrogen.

Microbial biofuel

An ASU initiative led by Vermaas, Bruce Rittmann and Neal Woodbury (both of the Biodesign Institute), will use bacteria microorganisms to make biodiesel fuels. These photosynthetic bacteria contain lipids (fats) that can be converted directly to high-energy fuels, such as biodiesel. The lack of competition with food production, along with the higher yield per acre than plant-based biofuel, gives the bacteria-based system the potential to replace fossil fuels in a major way, something other biofuels cannot accomplish given the land mass required and growing cycles.

Hydrogen and fuel cells

Solar energy and microelectronics professors at ASU’s Polytechnic campus are working to create a completely sustainable energy scenario using a concept called the solar-hydrogen cycle. The research, led by Govindasamy Tamizhmani, Slobodan Petrovic and Arunachala Madakannan, focuses on producing hydrogen by using only sunlight and water, and on developing smaller fuel cells with more efficient, cost-effective materials.

Hydrogen catalysts

A group of ASU researchers led by Woodbury is exploring new ways to efficiently convert water into hydrogen. The project, part of President Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, addresses the technical and economic challenges in developing renewable and distributed hydrogen production technologies.

Artificial photosynthesis

Artificial photosynthesis, the use of the basic chemistry of the photosynthetic process, is being investigated for the preparation of fuels such as hydrogen gas and electricity. Professors Devens Gust, Thomas Moore and Ana Moore, of the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis, are exploring artificial photosynthesis for technological solar energy production. One project is on hydrogen production using natural hydrogen evolving enzymes in concert with artificial systems. A second project is on electricity production using a new type of organic solar cell, and a third project focuses on artificial analogs of the methods biology uses to protect the photosynthetic apparatus of plants from damage due to excessive sunlight.

Printable solar cells

Engineering professor Ghassan Jabbour (director of ASU’s Advanced Photovoltaics Center) is working on efficient low-cost and printable solar cells, including flexible and organic, polymer and hybrid quantum dots, and quantum rod approaches. The work focuses on increasing device performance and reliability, and developing processing techniques for low-cost approaches, such as printing.

Solar cell testing facility

ASU’s Polytechnic campus is home to one of the world’s three largest solar module testing facilities. The Photovoltaic Testing Lab can be used to evaluate solar cell systems for performance, durability and reliability, said Govindasamy Tamizhmani, an associate professor at the College of Technology and head of PTL.

Solar cells through nanotech

A project led by ASU professors Stuart Lindsay and Rudy Diaz of the Biodesign Institute, is designed to break through the technological hurdles of solar energy and make it a more viable energy source. The team’s goal is to create nanoscale devices for higher-efficiency solar energy and photonics applications.

Solar energy at the nano scale

Semiconductor nanowires provide an important material basis for high-efficiency solar cells because of wavelength flexibility and broad wavelength coverage. A team of scientists led by electrical engineering professor Cun-Zheng Ning is developing advanced semiconductor nanowires for high-efficiency solar cells and lighting. The work could lead to high-efficiency solar cells because the entire solar spectrum can be absorbed by nanowires of various bandgaps, and nanowires provide natural channels for charge extraction. The same materials also can be used for direct white light generation using a combination of wires with different bandgaps for high-efficiency lighting.

Solar lights

ASU researchers led by electrical engineering professor Yong Hang-Zhang have two projects on solar cells. In one project, they are developing advanced ultra-high-efficiency solar cells using semiconductor heterostructures and nanowires for space and terrestrial applications. In another, they are developing light-emitting devices that combine solar light and white light into a single-color light to improve the conversion efficiency of solar cells.

Rooftop solar

Gerald Heydt, Regents’ Professor of electrical engineering, is working to optimize the design of a residential rooftop photovoltaic solar energy system with energy storage to maximize customer savings.

Low-cost solar

Ron Roedel, an electrical engineering professor, is working on semiconductor photovoltaics with the goal of producing low-cost solar cells.

Gauging wind energy

Researchers led by Vijay Vittal and Raja Ayyandar in electrical engineering are working on ways to improve the effectiveness of wind-power generation. They are focusing on providing advanced control mechanisms to improve the reliability of power transmission grids to ensure electric energy delivery, and they are exploring the economic viability of power transmission systems.

Jet fuel from algae

A team of ASU researchers at the School of Applied Arts and Sciences is producing algal feedstock for the production of biodiesel jet fuel. The researchers, led by Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld, also are working on developing a biodiesel fuel for automobiles.

Biomass conversion to gaseous fuels

Biomass, including plant, animal waste and microorganisms, contains a large amount of renewable energy, but most of that energy is not in a form that can be easily used. Rittmann is leading research on microorganisms that can convert the energy value of biomass into methane or hydrogen gases. The project addresses how to make the biomass readily available for the microorganisms to convert to methane or hydrogen and how to create modern bioreactors that optimize the conditions for the microorganisms that produce methane or hydrogen.

Microbial fuel cells

A new environmental biotechnology, the microbial fuel cell (MFC), turns the treatment of organic wastes into a source of electricity. Rittmann, the lead researcher, takes advantage of this by allowing microorganisms to remove the electrons from organic compounds in biomass, including waste materials. These can include human sewage, animal waste and agricultural wastes. The MFC also can be modified to generate biohydrogen instead of electricity.

Water and energy

Martin “Mike” Pasqualetti, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences, has three studies looking at the linkage between water and energy. One looks at the use of water at Arizona’s hydroelectric facilities, another examines the water-energy nexus at the Arizona-Sonora border, and a third looks at the opportunities for economic development at the Arizona-Sonora border that link water use with renewable energy resources.

Fuel cell ‘batteries’

A better source of “juice” is in the works for personal electronic devices. Don Gervasio of the Biodesign Institute is working with Austen Angell, Regents’ professor of chemistry and biochemistry, on a tiny hydrogen-gas generator that they say can be developed into a compact fuel cell package. The fuel cell could power portable electronic devices three to five times longer than conventional batteries. The generator uses a special solution that contains borohydride. The alkaline compound has an unusually high capacity for storing hydrogen, a key element that fuel cells use to generate electricity.

NMR and fuel cells

Professors Jeff Yarger and Dan Buttry of chemistry and biochemistry are examining the use of metal nanoparticles in fuel cells, and they are developing nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) methods to characterize the nanoparticles.

Amino acids and electron transfer

Kevin Redding, of chemistry and biochemistry, is investigating the photosynthetic process called photosystem 1 (PS1), which is a multiple-subunit membrane protein complex that uses the energy of absorbed photons (light particles) to promote transmembrane electron transfer. Redding is changing the amino acid residues on PS1 to understand how the protein can “tune” the properties of another molecule so that it functions as a good intermediate in electron transfer and energy production.

Energy from biocatalysts

Industrial catalysts that produce hydrogen use expensive, precious metal-based systems. However, biology catalyzes the same reaction using the base metals nickel and iron. Assistant professor Anne Jones of chemistry and biochemistry is creating artificial, bio-inspired, metal-site-harboring hydrogen production catalysts based on iron. The goal is to create viable, inexpensive hydrogen production catalysts, and to understand the mechanism of catalysis in these organo-metallic enzymes.

Renewable energy incentives

Keith Holbert, professor of electrical engineering, is analyzing incentives utilities can use to promote residential photovoltaic (solar energy) installations.