Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bringing new energy to solar quest

The search for clean, cheap energy sources is the biggest problem of our age, says chemist Brian Dyer, director of the Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center (EBREC). eScienceCommons interviewed Dyer about how the new center is carving out a unique niche in the development of solar energy solutions, through its work at the intersection of chemistry, physics and biology, and its outreach to the broader community.

Q: How is EBREC tackling the technical problems of clean energy?

Dyer: We want to create a completely green, cheap and sustainable energy cycle, using just sunlight and water to generate hydrogen fuel. We are trying to mimic the way that plants use photosynthesis to capture sunlight and store it as fuel, and also harness the power of anaerobic bacteria to generate hydrogen.

Q. Is Emory competitive with other institutions at work on these problems?

Dyer: Emory brings together leading expertise in key areas: quantum dot technology, to absorb light and drive reactions; water oxidation catalysis, to split water into oxygen and protons; microbial catalysis by the protein hydrogenase, to convert protons into hydrogen; and protein re-engineering, to evolve the needed properties in hydrogenase.

All of these areas need a lot more refinement in order to cheaply and efficiently produce hydrogen fuel, but a water oxidation catalyst, or WOC, is considered the most difficult and crucial piece of the puzzle. Craig Hill’s inorganic chemistry lab just led the development of the best homogeneous WOC known, with the highest potential for getting hydrogen fuel from water, using only solar energy. This breakthrough puts Emory and our energy center in a very strong position.

Emory has a good track record of bringing together interdisciplinary teams, and tremendous strengths in the biological sciences, as well as the physical sciences. Most of the advances in renewable energy are going to be made at that interface.

But we’re not just a bunch of nerdy scientists tinkering in our labs. We’re thinking about the human implications of our work.

Q. How do you view your role beyond the lab?

Dyer: We realize that renewable energy is much more than just a science problem. It’s a political problem, an economic problem, an environmental problem, a health problem, a cultural problem and even a peace problem.

EBREC needs to engage resources throughout the University to further the cause of clean energy, as well as local, national and international communities. You can come up with great technology, but it doesn’t do any good if you don’t change the way people think. We need political will, economic incentives and public outreach to help people understand that our collective future depends on clean, renewable energy.

So in addition to building on our foundation of interdisciplinary science, EBREC plans to leverage Emory’s tremendous strengths in community engagement and global initiatives that span disciplines.

Q: How urgent is this issue?

Dyer: Energy underlies everything, from the quality of our daily lives, to our industrial capacity, our transportation and our security. Our current worldwide energy use is equivalent to about 100 billion 100-watt light bulbs that are on all the time: 24/7, 365 days of the year. Our energy use is expected to double within the next 40 years. So how are we going to get there without running out of fossil fuels, further warming our climate and destroying the environment?

While the United States is distracted by the health care debate, China is building coal-fired plants as fast as it can. At the same time, China is investing billions of dollars in renewable energy technology, in an attempt to dominate that market. In 10 years, I believe that it will. The United States is falling behind in this critical area, which in the long run could endanger our economy as well as the fate of the planet.

It’s going to take an enormous collective effort to solve the scientific and social problems surrounding renewable energy. EBREC is working to make a difference in both of these areas.

Water oxidation advance aims at solar fuel
A biochemical path to solar energy
Shining a light on green energy
Chemistry's crucial catalyst

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