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Creative energies

Energy research spans the gamut at Lehigh and is closely tied to environmental impact. Engineers harvest methane hydrates and chart fusion plasma flows. They work towards a hydrogen economy and solve complex power-plant challenges. Their goal: cleaner, smarter energy generation and end use now, and renewable sources for the future.

Have you seen the cartoon that shows a man standing next to his car at a gas station and aiming the gas nozzle at his head? The sentiment may be popular, but spiraling gas prices are just the tip of the energy crisis. Coal and natural gas prices are also up. Home heating costs are soaring. Deregulation is sending electric bills higher. Meanwhile, concerns grow over pollution and global climate change.

Engineers in the energy field have no shortage of work to do. They are called to develop better ways of generating and distributing energy, to improve the efficiency of systems that consume energy, and to mitigate the environmental impact of energy generation and energy use.

Lehigh’s fusion experts enjoy close ties with peers at the world’s top nuclear fusion research facilities.

Only by advancing on all three fronts, experts agreed recently at Lehigh, can society find solutions to the world’s growing energy problems. Meeting at a Lehigh workshop titled “Balancing Energy and the Environment: An Exploration of Future Research Needs,” the experts forged consensus on a hard truth: There will be no single fix for the world’s energy dilemma. For at least the next two decades, rising global demand will obligate humans to burn coal, oil and natural gas and to build more nuclear power plants, while developing solar, wind, biomass, hydrogen, fusion and other renewable energy sources.

In the area of energy generation and distribution, Lehigh engineers focus their energy research in critical areas such as catalysis for efficient hydrogen production, fuel cells, biomass, clean coal technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, solar energy and photovoltaics, and nuclear fusion. In the area of energy consumption and conservation, researchers are working on LED lighting, power electronics, energy-efficient glass, high-efficiency motors, energy usage auditing and energy-efficient manufacturing.

Meanwhile, in response to the nation’s need for innovation in energy systems engineering, Lehigh is partnering with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to launch an integrated research and educational program that will produce the next generation of leaders in energy systems engineering.

The following pages sample a few energy research projects at Lehigh.

Let there be light – Energy H2 production
As a fuel, hydrogen (H2) enjoys several key advantages: it emits no greenhouse gases or pollutants, and it can be burned in an engine or used to produce electricity in room-temperature fuel cells.

One barrier to the widespread use of H2 is the lack of a clean, low-energy means of producing it. Much attention, therefore, has been focused on photocatalytic water splitting (PWS) to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen. The field of photocatalysis began in Japan three decades ago.

Working in Lehigh’s powerhouse, researchers have developed a technology that recovers water and cuts emissions from coal-fired power plants by uniquely deploying heat exchangers.

Ultraviolet (UV) light-active photocatalysts can split water, but scientists are seeking catalysts that react to visible light excitation and utilize the sun’s broad light spectrum more efficiently.

Israel E. Wachs, professor of chemical engineering, is creating and testing structures of titania nanoparticles (NPs) to see which can best perform PWS at an industrial scale. Titania (TiO2), a common photocatalyst, is also used in sunscreens because it absorbs UV light.

Wachs is seeking to expand titania’s reactivity from the UV to the visible light range. He and his students conduct tests at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to measure the lifetime of photo-excited electrons in titania. Their work is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

“Oak Ridge has state-of-the-art spectroscopy equipment,” says Charles Roberts, a Ph.D. candidate. “We do fluorescent spectroscopy. When the electron is excited, it emits light energy that can be detected as fluorescence.

“The electron’s lifetime – from ground state to peak excitation back to ground state – lasts a few nanoseconds. It’s important to quantify this. The longer the electron stays excited, the greater the opportunity for titania to perform photocatalysis.

“We measure this phenomenon with spectroscopy with time resolutions in pico and even femtoseconds. By using these extremely high speeds, we’re able to observe the electron’s transitions.”

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Wachs seeks to generate H2 cleanly by using photocatalysis.
Buried treasure: Proceed with caution