Purdue News


September 2, 2004

The Purdue University experts listed below specialize in energy-related research and can talk about energy issues.

Nanotech offers hope of cheap, efficient solar cells

Photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, currently are too costly to compete against cheaper forms of energy production, such as coal, natural gas and nuclear fission reactors. Nanotechnology, however, represents a potential new tool in solar energy development because it may offer ways of making superior cells at lower cost than is now possible, said Richard Schwartz, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Center.

Schwartz, former dean of engineering, is an expert in photovoltaic cells who has been conducting solar-energy research for 40 years.

CONTACT: Schwartz, (765) 494-40619, schwartz@purdue.edu

Purdue hydrogen center to focus on storage and delivery issues

Researchers around the world are trying to harness hydrogen for various energy-related roles, including its potentially widespread use in future fuel cells for cars and homes. However, because it is the lightest and smallest of the elements, it has a tendency to slip through storage containers. A new Hydrogen Center at Purdue will strive to solve storage challenges, as well as other issues related to developing hydrogen as an energy source.

"The center will place both the university and the state of Indiana at the forefront of research and development for a future hydrogen-based economy," said Jay Gore, director of the new center, associate dean of engineering for research and entrepreneurship, and the Vincent P. Reilly Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

But turning hydrogen into a viable, widely used energy source won't be easy, particularly because it is difficult to store. Solving the hydrogen storage dilemma will require a broad collaboration of professors across disciplines.

"Key faculty are in the areas of chemistry, catalysis, systems engineering, materials and safety," Gore said.

A new location where this collaboration will take place is the hydrogen systems lab under the direction of Timothy Fisher, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Researchers in the lab, located at Purdue's Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories, will test the hydrogen storage systems that will deliver energy for many uses in the future hydrogen economy, including cars, home heating and portable electronic devices.

The research is largely being funded with support from the Engineering Research Office, Purdue Trask Fund, U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors Corp., all adding up to $1.5 million.

CONTACTS: Gore, (765) 494-2122, gore@purdue.edu; Fisher, (765) 494-5627, tsfisher@purdue.edu

Turning agricultural waste into ethanol

Purdue University engineers are working with industry and government to develop a more efficient process for turning corn into ethanol. A strain of yeast developed at Purdue more effectively makes ethanol from agricultural residues that would otherwise be discarded or used as animal feed, and the first license for the yeast has been issued to Canadian biotechnology company Iogen Corp. Purdue's genetically altered yeast allows about 40 percent more ethanol to be made from sugars derived from agricultural residues, such as corn stalks and wheat straw, compared with "wild-type" yeasts that occur in nature.

The agricultural residues are primarily made up of cellulose and "hemicellulose," which are known as cellulosic materials. Unlike traditional ethanol feedstocks, such as corn kernels, the cellulosic materials contain two major sugars, glucose and xylose, which cannot both be fermented into ethanol by natural Saccharomyces yeast, the microorganism used by industry to produce ethanol, said Nancy Ho, a senior research scientist and leader of the molecular genetics group in Purdue's Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering, or LORRE.

Conventional yeast can ferment glucose to ethanol, but it cannot ferment xylose. Xylose makes up about 30 percent of the sugar from agricultural residues, and the inability to ferment xylose would represent a major loss of ethanol yield. The Purdue researchers altered the genetic structure of the yeast so that it now contains three additional genes that make it possible to simultaneously convert glucose and xylose to ethanol. The ability to ferment xylose increases the yield of ethanol from straw by about 40 percent. Being able to simultaneously ferment glucose and xylose is important because both sugars are found together in agricultural residues, Ho said.

Also known as ethyl alcohol, ethanol can be used as fuel by itself or blended with gasoline. The Purdue yeast is used in combination with other technologies under development that first convert agricultural materials to xylose and glucose, said Purdue's Michael Ladisch, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and director of LORRE.

CONTACTS: Ladisch, (765)494-7022, ladisch@purdue.edu; Ho, (765) 494-7046, nwyho@ecn.purdue.edu

Next 50 years could usher in 'hydrogen economy'

Finding more efficient ways to harvest and use hydrogen could be one of the keys to energy independence for the United States later in the 21st century. But many challenges must be overcome to harness hydrogen economically for fuel cells and other uses, said Rakesh Agrawal, who will join Purdue as a professor of chemical engineering on Oct. 4.

Agrawal, an expert in the production and storage of hydrogen, has served on high-level federally funded panels to explore hydrogen's potential for fuel cells and other purposes. He is coming to Purdue after 24 years at Air Products and Chemicals Inc., in Allentown, Pa., the largest hydrogen supplier in the world. Agrawal served on the Committee on Alternatives and Strategies for Future Hydrogen Production and Use, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The committee earlier this year issued a report, prepared by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council. The report, entitled "The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs," stated that the transition to a hydrogen economy could take decades. Agrawal is a member of the academy.

CONTACT: Agrawal, (765) 494-2257, agrawalr@purdue.edu

Indiana could lead research in 'clean coal' technologies

A new Center for Coal Technology Research, led by a Purdue University professor, will focus on finding ways to harness Indiana's largely untapped coal reserves. The coal reserves represent more energy than there is oil and gas in the entire United States, said Tom Sparrow, the center's director and a professor of industrial engineering and economics.

A major challenge, however, will be installing power plants that use clean-coal technologies. Indiana is the sixth largest toxic-release polluter in the nation, according to figures released in June by the Environmental Protection Agency. One possible solution is new power plants based on "integrated gasification combined cycle technologies," through which coal is turned into a clean-burning gas. The gas is then burned in power-generating turbines similar to jet engines. The waste heat from the turbines is used to create steam, which is again used to generate electricity in steam turbines.

Sparrow is past director of the State Utility Forecasting Group at Purdue.

Jay Gore, associate dean of engineering for research and entrepreneurship and the Vincent P. Reilly Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said the new center fits well with Purdue's focus on energy issues.

"Renewable energy and power sources is a key signature area for the College of Engineering," Gore said. "We see the utilization of Indiana coal for the production of clean-burning hydrogen, conservation through the enhancement and optimization of energy intensive processes, solar and inexpensive thermal energy through the use of nanotechnology-based advanced emitters, collectors and cells, and clean nuclear power as the mix of technologies that can answer the local and global energy demand."

CONTACT: Sparrow, (765) 494-7043, fts@purdue.edu

‘Sonofusion’ experiments yield promising result

Researchers earlier this year reported new evidence supporting their previous discovery of an inexpensive "tabletop" device that uses sound waves to produce nuclear fusion reactions. The work is being led by Rusi P. Taleyarkhan, Arden L. Bement Jr. Professor of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue. Researchers believe the new evidence shows that "sonofusion" generates nuclear reactions by creating tiny bubbles that implode with tremendous force. Nuclear fusion reactors have historically required large, multibillion-dollar machines, but sonofusion devices might be built for a fraction of that cost. Before such a system could be used as a new energy source, however, researchers must reach beyond the "break-even" point, where more energy is released from the reaction than the amount of energy it takes to drive the reaction.

CONTACT: Taleyarkhan, (765) 494-0198, rusi@purdue.edu

New tool will help ensure safety of future nuclear power plants

Nuclear engineers at Purdue University are heading a project to create a computer tool that will be essential to certify the safety of future nuclear power plants that will use new types of cooling systems. Mamoru Ishii, Walter Zinn Distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering and director of the Purdue Institute of Thermal Hydraulics, said: "Future nuclear power plants will be safer than today's plants because their passive cooling systems will not require pumps. This means the cooling systems won't stop running if electricity is cut during a catastrophe."

Cooling systems must keep operating even if a nuclear plant's fission reactions are shut down because of "decay heat" that continues to heat the reactor core. Without the cooling, the plant's reactor core melts down and releases dangerous levels of radiation. This scenario will be less likely with passive cooling systems. Because passive cooling systems will operate automatically, human error also will be less likely, Ishii said. Engineers in the Purdue-based institute are creating a new computer "code" to test the safety of new plant designs and their cooling systems. The code is a precise simulation that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will use in the approval process for the new plants.

Purdue operates several laboratories to test future nuclear power plant designs, including the NRC-funded Purdue University Multi-dimensional Integral Test Assembly, or PUMA.

CONTACT: Ishii, (765) 494-4587, ishii@ecn.purdue.edu

Purdue joins effort to design 21st century nuclear research reactors

Purdue is one of four Big Ten universities making up a consortium that will design the next generation of nuclear reactors for research and education. The consortium is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The future university research and training reactors will be needed to replace an aging collection of university-operated reactors, many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s, said Lefteri Tsoukalas, head of Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering. Without the new reactors, the nation would be hard-pressed to train new generations of students to operate nuclear power plants.

CONTACT: Tsoukalas, (765) 494-5742, tsoukala@ecn.purdue.edu

Purdue lab focuses on research and teaching in hybrid-engine cars

Purdue University has created a new laboratory dedicated to research and teaching in hybrid-engine automotive technologies. Hybrid technology supplements a car's internal combustion engine with an electric motor, enabling a car to get more miles per gallon than conventional cars. Purdue engineers and students will study how to most efficiently marry internal combustion engines with battery- and fuel-cell powered motors, said John Abraham, a professor of mechanical engineering who helped form the lab.

Abraham and other faculty members also are developing an interdisciplinary hybrid-engine course. The course will be taught by a team of faculty members who specialize in internal combustion engines, fuel cells, batteries, motors, the "powertrains" that drive cars and the complex electronic controls needed to switch the car's power from its engine to the electric motor.

Hybrid cars offer promise in reducing emissions and fuel consumption, and several cars equipped with the technology are on the market. New hybrid technologies will be needed to increase the efficiency of cars in the near future, Abraham said.

CONTACT: Abraham, (765) 494-1505, jabraham@ecn.purdue.edu

Utility forecasting group has state mandate

Utility specialists at the Purdue-based State Utility Forecasting Group are providing the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission with an impartial projection of electricity consumption and peak demands. The forecasting group, led by industrial engineering Professor Ronald Rardin, does not make recommendations, but the information is used by the state to determine the need for electricity rate increases and future power plant construction. The group, created in 1985, develops and uses complex economic models to help the state analyze energy-related issues such as the impact of new federal clean-air legislation, conservation programs and utility deregulation. More information is available online.

CONTACT: Rardin, (765) 494-5410, rardin@purdue.edu


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