An alternative energy program is under way that complements department and university strengths in materials, cellular biology of eukaryotes, systems biology, and thermodynamics. The specific areas currently under study are photovoltaics, piezoelectrics (Dr. Gracias) and biofuels (Drs. Betenbaugh and Donohue).
The Michael Betenbaugh group is using systems biology tools to understand and optimize the productive capabilities of algae as a potential biofuels production host. Genomics and metabolomics are being used to gain a better understanding of the metabolic pathways and kinetic processes that ultimately lead to green bio-based products. Complementary metabolic engineering efforts are aimed at redirecting pathway kinetics to optimize production of lipids as biodiesel precursors while maintaining efficient algal growth. Collaboration with the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering (DOGEE) researchers is combining algal biofuels production with anaerobic digestion for improved utilization of biomass. An equally important challenge is the separation of valuable biodiesel precursors from biomass.
In a project funded by DOE, the Marc Donohue group is applying high pressure carbon dioxide to enhance extraction of lipids from algae. These “green energy” technologies will enable us to harness the energy of the sun and will be synergistic with remediation efforts critical to the Chesapeake Bay recovery and reducing carbon in the Mid-Atlantic region.
In the area of photovoltaics, Dr. David Gracias explores the use of self-folding methods to create 3D photovoltaic devices and electrodes for batteries and isotropic metamaterials. Due to the high surface area to volume ratio and isotropicity, there is the expectation that these devices could harness sunlight at any angle and with increased efficiency. In collaboration with Dr. Howard Katz (MSE), Dr. Gracias has used state-of-the-art non-linear optical spectroscopy to study and optimize interfaces of organic photovoltaic devices for enhanced efficiency. He has also discovered methods to create and pattern zinc oxide nanowires in a facile manner with the potential for energy harvesting from wasted motion or thermal energy.
Dr. Chao Wang’s group is exploring electrochemical energy conversion and storage technologies, including electrochemical reduction and conversion of CO2 into hydrocarbon fuels, photoelectrochemical solar cells and next-generation batteries beyond lithium ion, with focus placed on nanomaterials-enabled improvement in energy efficiency and reduction of system cost. By relying on state-of-the-art characterization tools available on campus or as user facilities in national laboratories, his research is also targeting fundamental understanding of electrochemical reactions undergoing at solid/liquid and solid/gas interfaces.