NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

Powering Progress: Extending Our Innovation Tradition in Tennessee

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This is a sample post prepared for the November 7 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Knoxville, Tennessee. Follow our tweets at #nsfmessenger.

The state of Tennessee has a long history of innovations in science and energy. Beginning in the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority electrified this region through massive dam projects and, later, nuclear plants. And then there’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, whose “secret city” was a key home to the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Today, it’s the Energy Department’s largest laboratory focused on science and energy.

Plant Power? Image credit: University of Tennessee-Knoxville

So it’s fitting that now, some of the energy innovations of the future—in solar power, in longer-lived batteries, in nanotechnology—are being hatched right here in Tennessee. For that, and for the jobs it will bring, you can thank a 5 year, $ 20 million award from the NSF EPSCoR(Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) initiative.

In 2006, Tennessee’s innovation road map, seeking to power economic growth, noted that the state receives considerably more funding from the Department of Energy than the national average, and has key built-in strengths in nanotechnology and energy, among other areas. Thanks to its 2010 grant, Tennessee EPSCoR is now poised to deliver on those advantages in three key areas—building newer and more efficient ways of harnessing solar energy, especially by using plant materials or “biosolar”; developing better energy storage devices, such as fuel cells and batteries; and designing new structures at the nano-scale that will be capable of aiding in both endeavors.

Let’s start with solar energy. At a time when the national conversation about how to address global warming is growing, we desperately need more efficient ways of getting energy from its ultimate source—the sun, whose rays contain enough energy to power humanity’s annual needs in a matter of hours, if we could only harness them. The problem, though, is that today’s solar cells aren’t efficient enough at converting the sun’s energy into power that humans can use. Here in Tennessee, we’re doing the research to try to change that. Consider, for instance, the work of our researcher Barry Bruce, which focuses on taking a cue from nature—and in particular plant photosynthesis, the first and best way of harnessing the sun’s energy—and applying it in solar cells. Rather than cells that use a lot of toxic or synthetic materials, this “organic” form of solar power, or “biosolar,” could be both cheaper and also cleaner than the competition. As Bruce puts it, rather than “power plants,” maybe we should be talking about “plant power.”

The second key research area involves energy storage and conversion devices, such as batteries and fuel cells—and it draws special impetus from the fact that Volkswagen and Nissan, major auto manufacturers with a keen interest in this science, have both built plants in the state (in Chattanooga and the Nashville area, respectively). If we’re ever going to have roadways full of electric vehicles–of cars that you never have to take to the gas station—battery and fuel cell performance has to get a lot better. And the research we’re undertaking has a particular focus on using nanomaterials to get there—which brings us to the third prong of the endeavor that is Tennessee EPSCoR.

Nanotech has applications in a wide diversity of fields. But creating structures on the nano-scale—basically, the scale of atoms—has particular implications for solar power and for the efficiency of energy storage devices. At Vanderbilt’s state of the art Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, or ViNSE, and at other venues across the state, our scientists are trying to improve energy conversion in organic solar cells like those that Barry Bruce is studying, and also to create nano-materials that can help to better store energy. In fuel cells, for instance, nanomaterials are very exciting because they can improve cost efficiency by reducing the amount of very expensive materials, like platinum, needed to drive reactions in the cells. A milligram of platinum will go farther if its shape can be modified, on the nano-scale, to get more use out of it.

This work is new, and a lot of it is just getting under way. But the upshot is that it puts Tennessee in a position to make major strides in energy innovation, in a way that will pay off in the long term through industrial and commercial applications. For the scientists who worked on the TVA, or in the early days of Oak Ridge, ideas like biosolar and nanotech-engineered fuel cells may have been inconceivable. But today just as then, there are big new steps that we have to take—and the most important continuity that we share is being able to see that, and make it a reality.


Written by nsfmessengers

November 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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