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Energy to Burn

From atoms to algae, researchers test new ways to harness energy from nature.

Sep 20, 2018 5:00 PMNov 20, 2019 9:32 PM


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Photo Credits: Jeffrey Schifman for Columbia Engineering

Humans produce a lot of wastewater, and treating it can be laborious, energy intensive and expensive. In one part of the treatment process, for example, wastewater is churned in aeration tanks, which provide oxygen to microorganisms that extract nitrogen pollution from the water. The process of aerating microorganisms, however, requires a lot of energy.

NSF-funded researchers from Columbia University's Engineering School are investigating ways to clean wastewater more efficiently. By fostering the growth and activity of anammox, a type of bacteria that uses 60 percent less oxygen to remove nitrogen pollution, researchers have been able to lower energy and other costs. The structures seen here start off white but are colonized by anammox and other bacteria, which produces a reddish-orange biofilm. 

The researchers are also investigating ways to extract the organic carbon from waste to produce biodiesel and bioplastics, and phosphorous for use in irrigation. 

Photo Credits: Purdue University/Zhiguang Zhou

Silicon wafers like the one seen here could one day help solar power plants more efficiently absorb solar energy from the sun. 

With funding from NSF and others, a team of researchers at Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering sandwiched a low-cost, commercially available silicon wafer between an anti-reflection layer of silicon nitride and a reflective layer of silver. The new structure, which can endure temperatures of 995 degrees Fahrenheit, would allow surfaces in concentrated solar power plants to target and absorb photons from a specific range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Simultaneously, it would reflect other, unwanted photons, preventing further energy loss through heat loss.

Photo Credits: Tim Schoon, University of Iowa

Uranium 238 fluoresces under a black light. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 90,000 metric tons of nuclear energy waste in the U.S. needs disposal. NSF and other federal agencies are supporting the training and development of the next generation of scientists and engineers with expertise in radiochemistry and related fields to address the persistent challenge of disposing nuclear waste -- without harming the environment or human health.

Exploratory research funded by the National Science Foundation often leads to breakthroughs that transform science and society. Today’s investments in basic research and early stage startups will ultimately help address some of the most complex global challenges. 

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided

Photo Credits: Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

The oils produced by plant cells are used in a variety of bioproducts and biofuels. Though plant cells regulate (and limit) their oil production, there may soon be a way to release the brakes on that process to stimulate greater oil production.

Researchers funded by NSF and the Department of Energy identified a biomolecule – an enzyme called ACCase – that determines a plant’s rate of oil production. By understanding the role the biomolecule plays in synthesizing oil, the researchers are investigating whether they might be able to hack this part of a plant’s biology so that it produces greater amounts of oil, providing a sustainable, renewable resource.

Photo Credits: Philip Krantz, Columbia University

Move over silicon. Graphene is on the rise. This 2D material’s atomic structure of carbon atoms (seen in this illustration) makes it strong, thin and top-notch at conducting electricity. It’s enough to make the semiconductor industry salivate. The problem? Graphene is a little too good at conducting electricity. In modern electronics, silicon-based transistors can control the flow of electricity, meaning they can switch on and off the electrical current flowing through it. Graphene’s not able to do that – yet. 

NSF-funded researchers are developing new techniques to address graphene’s control issues. One research team found a way to enhance graphene’s band gap, or electrical on-off switch, by compressing layers of boron nitride and graphene. Another team applied a magnetic field to control the electrical current on a ribbon of graphene. 

Photo Credits: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography, University of Michigan

In a basement laboratory at the University of Michigan, a researcher checks in on 180 tanks holding various combinations of six different North American algal species. With the search on for a next generation, renewable biofuel to replace fossil fuels, these researchers found that a mix of algal species, rather than tanks full of a single species, was more stable, sustainable and efficient in producing algae-derived biocrude oil. Research supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has long explored new ways to hack or harness nature to discover more sustainable and efficient solutions to everyday energy challenges. 

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: Sam Johnson, NEXT Energy Technologies, Inc.

An energy-harvesting coating printed directly onto architectural glass transforms this insulated glass unit (IGU) into a photovoltaic IGU prototype that produces energy from the sun. NEXT Energy Technologies Inc., the company that created the solar cell ink using organic semi-conducting dyes, received seed funding through NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research program

Alan Heeger, a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize for his work on conductive polymers and whose basic research was funded by NSF, pioneered the field of organic semiconductors. Building on this, NEXT Energy’s new class of organic semiconductor materials are solution-processed small molecules with high intrinsic stability and long lifetimes, enabling NEXT Energy to break through where other organic photovoltaics have failed. 

Photo Credits: Marcus Lehmann, CalWave Power Technologies Inc.

Ocean waves can do more than delight thrill-seeking surfers. Ocean wave energy is a potentially important and readily available source of clean electricity, yet it remains underutilized as an energy source. Berkeley-based startup CalWave Power Technologies Inc., or CalWave, aims to change that. 

With support from NSF’s Small Business Technology Transfer program, CalWave is developing a patented and durable technology that will convert mechanical power from ocean waves to electrical power, similar to an offshore wind turbine. During the development phase, the company utilizes wave tanks to test scaled models, as seen here at the University of Iowa.

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