U awards $4.85M to environmental research

Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment will split the nearly $5 million in grant funding between seven projects.

The University of MinnesotaâÄôs Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment awarded a total of $4.85 million in grant funding Monday to seven projects aimed at impacting the commercial development of renewable energy. The seven projects were chosen from a pool of 32 applicants after a six month review process conducted by independent scientists and industry experts, as well as officials at the IREE. The selection process was âÄúdifficultâÄù, Rod Larkins, associate director for the IREE, said. said. Out of the 32 proposals, the recipients were chosen because they have a strong chance of being âÄútransformativeâÄù in the fields of renewable energy and environmental research, and are not being investigated at other universities, he said. With her portion of the grant money, mechanical engineering professor Jane Davidson will be leading a team of researchers as they attempt to use sunlight to make renewable fuels. The team will be using a concept developed thousands of years ago that involves using large mirrors to collect and focus solar energy. The new twist is that the team will be using the concentrated solar energy to power reactions that will turn either water or biomass into a fuel. âÄúWhatâÄôs interesting about both of the processes is that the feedstock, the material that youâÄôre converting, are inherently sustainable and the only power source that youâÄôre using is this concentrated solar energy,âÄù Davidson said. âÄúSometimes we call it renewable squared.âÄù Because of the IREE grant, Davidson said the project will now involve more researchers from the University of Minnesota and other institutions across the country. âÄúThis will really take the program from being a couple students in my lab to a large program,âÄù she said. âÄúI think weâÄôll have a much better chance of making a big impact and hopefully commercializing something.âÄù While Davidson and her team work to create new fuels, University professor Julian Marshall and researcher Jason Hill will be leading research examining what effects producing and burning different fuels has on greenhouse gas emissions and human health. Fuel emissions have a societal cost, said Marshall, a civil engineering professor, and by comparing the emissions of current fossil fuels with biofuels like ethanol, the researchers will be able to see which fuels have less of an impact. One of the studyâÄôs unique aspects is the investigation into how location and time of day change the way emissions impact human health. Pollution emitted closer to large populations has a higher societal cost, Marshall said, and the time of day affects pollution because hot, sunny days can cause pollution causing reactions in the atmosphere to occur more quickly. By looking at all factors affecting pollution and comparing different fuels, Marshall said more information regarding emissions can help improve policy decisions relating to the production and formulation of fuels. âÄúWeâÄôre already as a society spending billions on biofuels,âÄù he said. âÄúWeâÄôre likely to continue doing that in the future, so making wise investments environmentally is quite important.âÄù In addition to the projects being led by Jean Davidson, and Julian Marshall and Jason Hill, these five projects were chosen as recipients of the IREE grant:

Toward a more efficient solar cell

Led by electrical and computer engineering professor Philip Cohen, this project looks to develop solar cells that absorb more spectrums of light than currently available cells. By combining different solar cells and using a hologram to split the different wavelengths of light, Cohen said the researchers can create a more efficient solar cell. âÄúItâÄôs more efficient because you arenâÄôt wasting as much light,âÄù he said.

Sustainable plastics

With most modern plastics being made from petroleum, chemistry professor Marc Hillmyer will be leading work to develop plastics made from sustainable materials. Hillmyer said researchers will be looking at âÄúwhat types of biomass and bio-available compounds can we use and convert them into plastics that weâÄôre used to.âÄù

Geothermal energy using carbon dioxide

Using carbon dioxide sequestered underneath the ground, geology and geophysics professor Martin Saar is working with researchers to create electricity from geothermal energy. Although water is often used to power geothermal plants, it only works in areas with high subterranean heat flow, and Saar said that using carbon dioxide may offer a solution to the problem. âÄúThe hope is if everything goes according to plan that itâÄôs possible to generate electricity in a geothermal fashion in low-heat flow areas like Minnesota,âÄù he said.

Making fuel from biomass

Building on previous research done at the University of Minnesota, professors Michael Tsapatsis and Roger Ruan are working to convert biomass to hydrocarbons. The team will combine a previous conversion method with a new proprietary method they are developing in hopes of creating fuel biomass, Tsapatsis, a chemical engineering and materials science professor, said.

Small-scale renewable energy systems

With the market for small scale renewable energy systems using turbines or solar panels growing, Michael Reese, director of renewable energy at the West Central Research and Outreach Center, will lead a team as they investigate the viability of these systems. Although much data exists on large scale systems, ReeseâÄôs research will provide information regarding the kind of performance smaller energy systems will provide. âÄúKnowing that,âÄù Reese said, âÄúyou can make a good financial decision on whether or not youâÄôll get a good return on your investment.âÄù