Stimulus funding aids economy, jobs, knowledge
Solar fuels: Leaving the wood for the trees
Bringing economic recovery to communities
Stimulus funding aids economy, jobs, knowledge
Carolina’s faculty are off to an impressive start in
securing federal research funding from the 2009 American Recovery and
Since March, Carolina researchers have received
notifications about nearly 60 grants or awards totaling more than $20 million
from virtually every major agency in the National Institutes of Health as well
as the National Science Foundation. That total does not yet include a
five-year, $17.5 million grant for a solar energy consortium from the U.S.
Department of Energy (see related story below).
“This funding directly benefits the North Carolina economy
and taxpayers by creating jobs and leading to important scientific and
biomedical innovations that will make a difference in people’s lives,” said
Chancellor Holden Thorp.
If Tom Meyer’s plan works, we won’t need trees.
More precisely, we won’t need to rely on trees for what’s known
in scientific circles as “solar fuel production from biomass” – a fancy
term describing the age-old method humans have used for their energy supply
since pre-historic times: burning wood.
“If you think about it that way, humankind has been
harnessing the power of the sun for many, many millennia,” said Meyer, the Arey
Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Sunlight helps grow trees. People burn wood, a form of
fuel, to generate energy. For eons, firewood has been the only option we’ve had
for being able to ‘store’ solar energy until we need to use it. But now it’s
time to take the middle man – the plants – out of the solar fuel
Meyer is referring to a still-budding area of solar energy
research called “artificial photosynthesis,” a process that uses sunlight to
create potential fuel sources – such as oxygen and hydrogen from
wastewater, or even hydrocarbons like methane from water and carbon dioxide. If
artificial photosynthesis works, it would help solve the biggest obstacle
preventing solar power from playing a major role in meeting the United States’ –
and the world’s – energy needs: storing it away for later use.
“The main problem with current solar power technology is
that if the sun’s not shining, you’re out of luck,” Meyer said. “Solar fuels
give us the ability to collect and stockpile that energy.”
Story continues below photo ...
Graduate student Brittany Westlake and senior Shaun Hampton at work in
the lab of chemistry researcher John Papanikolas. Westlake is among about
30 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the new Energy Frontier
Research Center who are being supported by funding including the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Finding ways to create solar fuels is one of the focuses of
the new UNC-based Energy Frontier Research Center, one of 46 such centers
recently established by the U.S. Department of Energy with funding that
includes American Recovery and Reinvestment Act support. Headed by Meyer, the
$17.5 million, five-year initiative includes a multi-campus coalition of
researchers who form what he describes as a critical mass of scientists
collaborating on energy-related research.
“This is going to solidify North Carolina’s role in the
energy sciences,” Meyer said. “As a team, the center’s members will leverage
off each other’s strengths. N.C. State brings its chemistry and materials
science expertise to the table. Duke has great analytical resources. UNC boasts
fantastic basic science capabilities.”
And John Papanikolas believes it is advances in basic
science – the nuts-and-bolts research at the heart of all discoveries –
that will really underpin what takes solar power to the next level and beyond.
Papanikolas is associate professor of chemistry and co-principal investigator
of the new center.
“Basic science is the key,” he said. “In terms of the
technology currently available, many people think that if we all put solar
panels on our roofs, we’ll be fine. But that’s so far from the truth it’s not
funny. We really need technology that we haven’t even thought of yet.”
That’s where solar fuels come in, as well as another focus
of the center’s work – developing next-generation photovoltaics, a
technology and research field related to converting sunlight directly into
electricity, using devices such as solar panels and solar cells.
Photovoltaics is an area brimming with potential – a
polite way of saying the current technology, processes and materials are still
bulky, inefficient and expensive. For example, Papanikolas estimates that
generating enough solar power to meet the equivalent of the U.S.’s electricity
needs would require a solar panel 10,000 square miles in size (i.e., slightly
larger than Vermont) and costing $10 trillion.
So the UNC team and their colleagues are exploring avenues
that could result in the creation of inexpensive “solar shingles” on roofs and
other such applications.
Either way, energy research is an area that the University
and the larger world cannot escape, Meyer said. “The energy future will be
driven by a shift to new energy sources that minimize environmental impacts.
Hydrocarbons such as coal and oil currently provide about 85 percent of the
country’s energy, but they are a finite source.”
The center will support a mix of about 30 postdoctoral
fellows and graduate students, and provide opportunities for undergraduates to
try their hand at cutting-edge research.
“The students entering college today are probably going to
be the generation of scientists who actually solve these problems,” Papanikolas
Along with UNC, Duke and N.C. State, N.C. Central University
and the University of Florida are also partners in the Energy Frontier Research
Carynne Hardy, a second-year graduate student at Carolina’s
School of Social Work, devoted her summer to helping the local governments and
municipalities of the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments, population
For 10 weeks, Hardy worked in Greensboro as an intern in the
Carolina Economic Recovery Corps, a summer program sponsored by the University’s
Office of Economic and Business Development with funding from the Office of the
Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development. The interns helped
community leaders seek federal economic stimulus money available through the
American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Acting as a liaison between the council and smaller local
governments, Hardy met in person with various city officials about economic
recovery funding and stimulus package grants. She made sure the local
governments had the correct information to apply for the grants they needed and
walked many of them through the application process.
Because the time commitment required to apply and account
for ARRA funds was a potential obstacle for smaller local governments, Hardy
concentrated her work there.
“My summer position played a vital role in connecting and
managing the relationships between the COG and its smaller, quieter local
governments,” she said.
Seven of the other corps interns worked with councils of
government serving Asheville, Charlotte, Research Triangle, Rutherfordton,
Washington, Wilmington and Wilson. The ninth intern worked for the N.C. League
of Municipalities in a coordinating role. All were trained with the help of the
School of Government, N.C. League of Municipalities and the state Council of
Hardy is currently developing project proposals with the
N.C. Rural Center and will continue that work with another intern this year.
Three other recovery corps interns have accepted six-months posts with the N.C.
Office of Economic Recovery and Investment. Another corps intern was hired to
work for the council of government where she interned during the summer.