CSULB faculty are tapping creative ways to use natural resources more efficiently.
Physics Associate Professor Thomas Gredig is among CSULB’s experts in creating thin films that can be used for a host of scientific and commercial applications. He’s also one of five investigators in the university’s $500,000 Keck Energy Materials Research Program (KEMP) grant that is advancing knowledge and preparing students for careers in this emerging field.
Gredig is studying organic molecules including the phthalocyanine family that can be integrated into photovoltaic cells to harvest and convert sun energy into electricity. “The advantage of this material is that it’s very thin and absorbs light very strongly,” he explained. “If we compare it to, say, silicon, which is commonly used, the thickness is about a thousand times smaller.”
The molecules can be applied to substrates that are low cost, flexible and have low toxicity, but disadvantages are lower efficiency and shorter material lifespan, so “Part of our research endeavor is to explore exactly how these materials can be optimized,” he said.
Another source of electricity lies deep in the earth where hot rock turns underground water into steam that can be harnessed to drive turbines.
With grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, Professor Matthew Becker, Conrey Endowed Chair in Hydrogeology, is helping take advantage of new geothermal resource locations. Although hot rock is relatively common, “It’s rare to find that kind of rock permeability at great depths so that the water can flow,” he explained.
He’s examining a new technology called enhanced geothermal energy that involves breaking up deep hot rock to improve water permeability, but “It’s hard to break the rock in a way that causes water to sweep out in large volumes. It tends to follow narrow pathways and channel from one well to another — not connect the two wells or short-circuit the two wells,” he said. “We’re developing methods by which, after you put in a well, you can interrogate the formation and find out what it’s permeability looks like and what sort of efficiency you can expect from the current wells and where you might put in another well.”
Geothermal fields can be demanding places to study, so he and five graduate students have been working at non-geothermal sites in New York and New Hampshire with similar fractured terrain. Three students have graduated — two are earning Ph.D.s and one works for an environmental consulting firm, while two others continue the work.
In Becker’s opinion, “The potential for geothermal energy swamps solar and wind if we make this enhanced geothermal work.”
Making alternative powered vehicles less expensive and more appealing to buyers remains a challenge, so chemical engineering Assistant Professor Ted Yu is focusing on improving vehicle batteries and fuel cell efficiency and costs.
“I have a battery lab that can do pretty much everything that a small battery startup company can do,” he said. Students get hands-on experience working with battery materials and gain theoretical and computer simulation knowledge on converting chemistry to electricity, which underlie both batteries and fuel cells. One study, funded by the South Coast Air Quality Management District allowed his lab to examine potentially less expensive but efficient fuel cell catalysts for fuel cells.
In another lab, electrical engineering Assistant Professor Mohammad Mozumdar, an expert in wireless sensor networks, is trying to help policymakers know what kind of vehicles are passing on the freeways so that they can make better transportation-related decisions.
Current road sensor systems are large and costly, so he’s looking at a cheaper, more efficient idea. His work is funded by Caltrans through the METRANS Transportation Center, a collaboration between CSULB and USC to solve metropolitan transportation problems through research and training.
He and several students are testing microsensors about the size of a credit card that could be implanted under highway surfaces to collect real-time data on the size and general type of passing vehicles.
Powering these small sensors would be difficult, so he’s trying to get power from the vehicles themselves, he continued. “When a vehicle passes on the road, it creates pressure, so we’re trying to convert that pressure into electrical energy to the system we’re going to implant so that we don’t have to change the batteries very often,” perhaps not for a decade.