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   R E S E A R C H

* *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 Reinvestment Act.

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.

* *

Solar fuels:
Leaving the wood
for the trees


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 equation.”

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 ...

Solar lab

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 said.

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 Center.

* *

economic recovery
to communities


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 1,025,668.

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 Governments Association.

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.

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Sept. 16, 2009 Gazette as pdf
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SEPTEMBER 16 issue as a pdf


* *Journalism and Mass Communication: Telling the story for 100 years

* *Flu update: H1N1 is following expected pattern AND Employee seasonal flu shot registration is open now; clinics begin Sept. 22

* *Lensing recognized by peers with Jefferson Award

* *Anna Wu considers herself fortunate to be at Carolina

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