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Developing Sources of Clean Energy


Second Generation Bioethanol and Biodiesel

Bioethanol and Biodiesel are fast becoming important as alternatives to fossil fuels for our energy needs. Brazil, using bioethanol is now completely independent of foreign oil.  With the U.S. becoming the # 1 producer of ethanol in 2005, the congress mandated that by 2012, 7.5 billion gallons of fuel consumption should be met by ethanol or biodiesel. There are currently 136 ethanol plants in the US but much of this ethanol production is maize based causing excessive increase in the prize of maize and threatening world food security. We are investigating the use of lignocellulosic  biomass for ethanol production.  Research on production of second generation ethanol biofuels derived from cellulosic biomass  is now critical for our energy security as lignocellulose biomass is abundant and does not compete with food crops.  Department of Energy in the US has committed $1 billion towards making lignocellulosic ethanol competitive at a cost of $1.33 per gallon.

Photocells and photoreactors for production of Hydrogen as Energy

Hydrogen production via photochemical splitting of water is potentially the cleanest source of energy which is at once renewable and sustainable. Toward this goal we are researching superior photoelectrode materials such as dye sensitized metal-oxides  for photocells and also solutions for photoelectrode configurations and photoreactor design.

Microbial fuel cells

Microbial fuel cells show promise for converting organic wastes into energy using bacteria as catalysts in one step and have therefore become increasing important in the spectrum of alternative energy sources. Certain limitations exist however, in realizing the full potential of microbial fuel cells. We are conducting research to  overcome these limitations chief amongst which is a mass transfer issue i.e., supply of sufficient substrate to the anodic biofilm and electron acceptor to the cathode surface. We are also working to integrate photosynthesis with microbial fuel cells to produce bioelectricity directly from light.

Solid Oxide Fuel CellsSolid oxide fuel cells show the potential for greatly improving energy efficiency. Because of their high temperature of operation (500-1000 C), they can be used in combined heat and power applications, coupled efficiently with gas turbines and also work in tandem with existing fossil fuels to dramatically increase the efficiency of fuel to electricity conversion leading to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  Although solid oxide fuel technology has been around since the 1990’s the current challenge is lowering the temperature of solid oxide fuel cells to 500-800 C to reduce costs. We are working to address this challenge by finding new combinations of electrodes and electrolytes.