NMSU researches the sun, the wind and natural matter to power our lives
by Mary Benanti
The gasoline and home heating crisis that occurred in the wake of last year’s natural disasters has caused a resurgence of interest in alternative or renewable energy among the general public and businesses alike.
But researchers at NMSU have long been at work on the issue. NMSU’s Seamus Curran and David Carroll at Wake Forest University raised the bar in the race to create viable, easier-to-use solar energy by demonstrating an organic solar cell with an energy efficiency of 5.2 percent.
That means organic solar cells are likely to be consumer friendly in the next four to five years instead of 10 as previously thought, said Curran, associate professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The Carroll/Curran team is working to create a plastic solar device that can wrap around or over a structure to produce energy. Imagine being able to paint solar energy on your roof or carry a plastic sheet in your backpack that can be rolled out over a tent to power equipment.
Meanwhile, traditional solar technology continues to serve around the world. Robert Foster, program manager of the Southwest Technology Development Institute in the engineering college at NMSU, just returned from Nicaragua, where he was working on a project for the World Bank that would provide solar photovoltaic energy to many areas. Foster has brought technology and expertise developed at NMSU to Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Other researchers at the institute have worked to bring solar technology to outlying areas of the Hopi and the Navajo reservations here in the U.S.
“There are two billion people in the world without electricity,” Foster said. “One billion are without potable water.”
Solar technology could be the answer for both issues, Foster said. Not only can it generate electricity, but using “solar for water purification can relieve the water situation around the world, as well as on our own border.”
Foster is working on a project to bring renewable energy to the White Sands NASA Test Facility through the use of wind turbines. The NMSU researcher also has a request from Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari to train “windsmiths” or technicians who would be able to work on wind turbines.
In another area on campus, researchers from the biology, chemistry and engineering departments are working on means to create and use hydrogen fuel.
Shuguang Deng at NMSU is among the researchers nationwide working to make hydrogen fuel cells more economical and safe.
“A fuel cell is similar to a battery. It converts chemicals into energy,” said Deng, an assistant professor in chemical engineering. The difference between a fuel cell and a battery is that the battery has a life span; when the chemical is used up, it’s gone. Fuel cells provide a continual flow of energy.
He hopes to launch a fuel cell research center at NMSU. Meanwhile, he is working on turning biomass into hydrogen with Nirmala Khandan, an NMSU environmental engineering professor, and Geoffrey Smith, associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Biomass is derived from anything that grows. Plants contain energy garnered from the sun that can be captured for other uses, Khandan said. In turn, all plant-eating animals produce waste, such as cattle manure, that can be converted into energy.
The NMSU biomass team is developing a process in which microorganisms are used to convert cattle manure to biogases. Traditionally the gas produced is methane, but that is known to be a factor in global warming. Khandan’s goal is to produce hydrogen, called by some the energy of the future.
When methane is used as an energy source, carbon dioxide is created. But when hydrogen is used, water pure enough to drink is the result, Khandan said. His research group received one of the $25,000 minigrants being awarded to research clusters developing at NMSU. Students working with him on this project have also won a $10,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to build a system to be demonstrated in Washington, D.C.
He and Deng hope to produce small fuel cell units powered by hydrogen that create enough energy to run a small farm or village. Resort hotels in remote areas also could use the technology. Deng is developing a hydrogen selective membrane that will remove hydrogen from the system in a pure enough state to put directly into the fuel cell.
Deng also is targeting hydrogen to fuel automobiles. Hydrogen-fueled cars are possible, but the trick is to get the cost low enough for the ordinary consumer and improve the safety of using the gas. However, Deng says at least one U.S. automaker is targeting 2010 as the year to begin producing hydrogen-fueled cars.