Thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy funding a $19.5 million Energy Frontier Research Center at the University, researchers will be better equipped to harness alternative energy forms.
President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will provide funding for the research at the University over the next five years.
Obama announced Monday at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences that the EFRC at the University will be one of 46 research centers in the country. Two of these centers will be located in Michigan, with the other at Michigan State University.
The EFRC will include a team of 22 researchers from the College of Engineering and the departments of Chemistry and Physics in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
Though the center will not be a new building on campus, researchers will continue studies in their own laboratories.
The center, titled Solar Energy Conversion in Complex Materials, will focus on developing new ways to convert energy more efficiently.
Peter Green, project director and professor in the College of Engineering, said the team of researchers will study the conversion of sunlight into electricity using thermal electric devices.
He said common devices used to capture energy are not as efficient as they could be, and that more energy is dissipated than what gets converted into electricity.
“In the end, the idea is to come up with some design principles that will allow us to create new materials that can now be used for another generation of devices that have very high efficiency,” he said.
Stephen Forrest, University vice president for research, is currently developing low-cost organic solar cells made out of carbon materials. He said solar energy has the potential to reduce dependence on power primarily supplied by coal.
A few University scientists will be partnering with other EFRCs across the nation. Udo Becker, associate professor of geological sciences, is a senior researcher for the EFRC at the University of Notre Dame in Lafayette, Ind. He will be working to develop new structures that can be used as nuclear fuels and employed in nuclear power plants.
Becker said the goal is to create new ways of synthesizing elements, like uranium, in a safe manner.
“There are a lot of things you do not want to do in an experiment — especially one that involves elements like plutonium and sometimes neptunium — because it’s potentially dangerous,” he said. “So if we calculate properties of these then it’s less dangerous.”
Becker said the centers will be beneficial for students interested in studying energy.
“We will do a lot of educating undergraduate and graduate students to become knowledgeable in the field of actinide science, which may actually be very important in future employments,” he said.
Green said he hopes the researchers will accomplish much by the end of the fifth year and that the projects will lead to start-up companies as well as other proposals to initiate new research.
He added that the economic benefits from the center will be quite significant because the center will generate jobs for researchers and attract business from energy companies.
“We anticipate having interactions with some of the solar companies around that have a very direct interest in advances that we make,” he said.
While the EFRC may provide economic gains, Becker said the ultimate purpose is to help solve the country’s energy problems.
“We need to think about how to come up with solutions to our future energy needs and also with solutions to get rid of some of the problems of our past energy usage,” he said.