Seed Funding Leads to $500,000 USDA Grant for Oilfield Wastewater Research

Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, has received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to lead a multiyear project evaluating the potential human health impacts and sustainability of using produced water from oilfields to irrigate crops.

The research will focus on the use of the wastewater on agricultural lands in California’s Central Valley.

Significant amounts of produced water are generated each year from oil wells in California. This water, which is comprised primarily of naturally occurring brines extracted from deep underground with oil, has been used to irrigate crops in water-scarce parts of California for several years now. However, there are concerns about whether the salts, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radionuclides in the water could over time cause soil to become too saline or sodic to support agriculture.

Concerns have also been raised about the human health impacts of consuming food irrigated with this water.

To find answers, Vengosh and the NIFA-funded team – which includes Erika Weinthal, professor of environmental policy, and researchers from the Research Triangle Institute, the Pacific Institute and California State University-Bakersfield – will conduct a multiyear study to monitor waters, soils and crops on farms with a history of using the produced water.

The team will then use modeling and risk assessment techniques to determine likely impacts on human and environmental health.

Their findings could be used to inform future policies and practices in California and other areas where water is scarce.

Vengosh is widely cited for his studies on the environmental and water-quality impacts of oil and gas production. He is a faculty member at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The new California-based study was launched with seed funding from the Duke University Energy Initiative.

“Our seed fund supports promising ideas in their early stages that tap the best of Duke’s expertise in energy-related research—and cultivate those ideas to attract larger funding opportunities in the future. That is exactly what happened in this case and I am thrilled Avner’s research team was able to capitalize on the opportunity.”

“Our seed fund supports promising ideas in their early stages that tap the best of Duke’s expertise in energy-related research—and cultivate those ideas to attract larger funding opportunities in the future. That is exactly what happened in this case and I am thrilled Avner’s research team was able to capitalize on the opportunity,” said Brian Murray, interim director of the Energy Initiative and director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Murray also holds a faculty appointment as research professor of environmental economics at the Nicholas School.

Originally posted by the Energy Initiative and the Nicholas School of the Environment

USDA image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Explore the 2017-2018 Bass Connections Projects

Bass Connections projects

Duke students from all levels and schools are invited to preview the new Bass Connections projects for 2017-2018. Applications will open on January 24 and run through February 17 at 5:00 p.m.

Bass Connections bridges the classroom and the real world, giving students a chance to roll up their sleeves and tackle complex societal challenges alongside faculty from across Duke. Working in interdisciplinary research teams, students at all levels collaborate with faculty, postdocs and outside experts on cutting-edge research that spans subjects and borders.

Most Bass Connections project teams engage with community partners outside Duke, including private companies, nonprofits, universities, school systems, hospitals and government agencies at the federal, state and local levels.

Forty-three projects across five themes will be offered in the 2017-2018 academic year. Most of these interdisciplinary teams last for two semesters; some have a summer component. Course credit and summer funding are available.

See the 2017-2018 projects by theme:

Through this intensive research experience, students and faculty work as a team to make a real-world impact. Each project team page contains a full project descriptions, anticipated outcomes, student opportunities, timelines and faculty team leaders.

Join Us at the Bass Connections Fair on January 24

Stop by the annual Bass Connections Fair on Tuesday, January 24 from 2:30 to 5:30 in the Energy Hub (first floor of Gross Hall).

Students of all levels can learn more about the Bass Connections project teams for 2017-2018 by talking with faculty team leaders and theme representatives. Tasty food and drinks will be available. Cohosted by the Energy Initiative.

Bass Connections Fair

Meet with an Advisor

For each student, discovering and developing a pathway through Bass Connections will be an individualized experience. Undergraduates can benefit from the guidance of Duke’s Directors of Academic Engagement, who offer individualized hour-long advising appointments to guide students through the process of integrating Bass Connections into their academic careers. Graduate students can access a number of resources to guide their pathways, and the professional schools offer tailored services to professional students.

Members of the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council are another resource for interested students.

Learn More

  • Check out examples of alumni who are pursuing further studies or working in a field related to their Bass Connections projects.

Energy Data Analytics Lab Uses Deep Learning to Spot Solar Panels


The face of America’s energy grid is changing rapidly with the constant addition of small-scale solar panel installations. But due to a lack of detailed information, that portrait looks more like a Picasso than a Rembrandt.

Earlier this year, the United States hit a benchmark of one million solar installations, generating enough electricity to power 5.7 million homes. That number is expected to double in just two years.

While these data are tracked on a large scale—states provide information to the federal Department of Energy roughly once per year—there is little information about exactly where solar energy is being adopted on a county, city or neighborhood level. This is an oversight that the Department of Energy and other government agencies are turning to researchers to fix, including an interdisciplinary group at Duke University, led by Leslie Collins, professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at Duke.

“Our power grid is designed for a single centralized power source to distribute energy out to the public,” said Kyle Bradbury, managing director of the Energy Data Analytics Lab at Duke. “But more and more we’re seeing these small solar panel installations being connected to the grid and actually contributing power. At some point, the needs of our power lines and grid infrastructure are going to change.”

Regulatory agencies would like to get out in front of this shift toward distributed power generation, if possible. With precise data about where solar energy is being adopted and how it is changing over time, officials could predict where to install new technology to meet changing demands. Social scientists could get a better understanding of how policy affects the adoption of solar panels. Economists could better value the future of the 8,000 solar companies employing more than 200,000 American workers.

At present, however, the only way to get this information is to go through the local public utility commission interconnection records, which is a tedious and not easily automated task. Alternatively, one could enlist the help of a group of students to pore over satellite images and pick out solar panels by hand—also a tedious task.

But that’s exactly what Collins and Bradbury did through the summer Data+ Program and an ongoing Bass Connections project. Data+ is a 10-week summer research experience for Duke undergraduates interested in data-driven approaches to interdisciplinary challenges. Bass Connections is a program at Duke offering grants to interdisciplinary collaborations.

In the Data+ project, students built a data set to train computers to spot solar panels by meticulously annotating 58 square miles of satellite imagery of Fresno, California. That dataset formed the foundation for a Bass Connections project where students explored real-world machine learning techniques applied to relevant energy questions, including the hunt for solar panels.

And luckily for everyone, the summer spent circling solar panels appears to have been enough to train a computer to do the job.

“The aerial imagery being developed now has resolution down to about a foot, so you can see the solar panels by eye,” said Jordan Malof, a research scientist in Collins’s lab, who works on the algorithms designed to spot solar panels and leads the research in the Bass Connections project. “And the rule of thumb is that if a human can see it, then you can probably program a computer to see it too.”

To teach computers how to spot solar panels, Malof is turning to “deep learning”—a buzzword in computer science circles. The idea is that if you give a computer enough examples of what solar panels look like from the sky and compare them to similar photos where there are no solar panels, the computer can teach itself to distinguish between the two.

According to Malof, it’s almost like developing a synthetic visual cortex—the part of the brain that processes visual information through several consecutive layers of neurons. In a deep learning project, the trick is to pick how many layers to incorporate and how many connections to put between individual “neurons,” among other factors.

The whole process involves turning different knobs and trying different settings to try to optimize the results. With a dataset of 20,000 individual annotated solar panels and 100,000 image chips covering 1.5 billion pixels of satellite imagery from the U.S. Geological Survey, Malof is starting to get dialed in.

“The simple statement is that it’s working pretty well,” said Malof. “We can catch about 80 percent of the solar panels that are there with only three false positives per square kilometer.”

As the research group continues to make improvements, they plan to expand their efforts beyond solar arrays.

“We’re starting to look into more general estimates of energy consumption,” said Bradbury. “We want to see if we can use the volume of buildings, estimated from aerial photography, to approximate energy consumption in a given area. Not only would these techniques provide important information for smart grid infrastructure planning in the U.S., they could be valuable tools for international development in any country undergoing the process of energy infrastructure planning.”

By Ken Kingery; originally posted on the Pratt School of Engineering website

Clean Energy Innovation Prize Returns to the Duke Startup Challenge

Clean Energy Innovation Prize Returns to the Duke Startup Challenge

Deadline: October 30, 2016

The Energy Initiative and the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E) at Duke announce the return of the Clean Energy Prize to the Duke Startup Challenge.

The Duke Startup Challenge is designed to help Duke’s entrepreneurial community flourish with a year-long entrepreneurship competition followed by an accelerator program. Inaugurated in 2012, the Clean Energy Prize sweetens the pot by offering the chance at an additional $10,000 prize to teams whose products or services advance an accessible, reliable, affordable and clean energy future.

“This is a great opportunity to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation in the development of energy products and services,” says Suellen Aldina, the Energy Initiative’s director of engagement and administration. “The Energy Initiative is excited to sponsor a successful team in the Clean Energy track this year.”

Initial entries for the Startup Challenge are due by October 30. Intention to participate in the Clean Energy track may be declared at the time of application. Apply and view the competition timeline here.

The Clean Energy Prize and the Duke Startup Challenge are open to the entire Duke community, including students, faculty, staff and alumni. Teams do not need to be in the finals of the larger competition to win the Clean Energy Prize.

Originally posted on the Energy Initiative website

Faculty Receive Bass Connections Awards to Develop Courses


Bass Connections has awarded four course development funds to groups of Duke faculty members whose pedagogical ideas will expand interdisciplinary curricular options for undergraduates as well as graduate and professional students.

This Spring an RFP invited Duke faculty, departments or schools to organize new courses or modify existing ones that align with one or more of the Bass Connections themes and are multidisciplinary, open to students at different levels and/or ask questions of societal importance. Such courses will augment theme leaders’ efforts to enrich the curricular pathways available to undergraduate and graduate students.

Managing Networks     

Submitted by Lisa Keister with Susan Alberts, Christopher Bail, Jonathon Cummings, James Moody, Martin Ruef

  • Faculty affiliations: Trinity College of Arts & Sciences (Biology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Sociology, Markets and Management Certificate Program); Fuqua School of Business; Nicholas School of the Environment (Marine Science and Conservation); Center for Population Health & Aging; Duke Institute for Brain Sciences; Duke Network Analysis Center; Duke Population Research Institute
  • Bass Connections theme: Information, Society & Culture

Networks are pervasive in the social, economic, political and natural worlds. Network data and methods – and concurrently our ability to conceptualize and analyze networks – have expanded dramatically in recent years, and Duke is a central location in which this research is being conducted. This course is about the role that networks play in organizations. It will involve multiple faculty from across schools, invite outside experts to provide guest lectures and include project-based assignments. Graduate students and post-docs from various disciplines will participate as assistants and project leaders.

Engineering and Anthropology of Biomedical Engineering (BME) Design in Uganda

Submitted by William Reichert and Kearsley Stewart

Dr. Reichert established the Duke-Makerere University in Kampala (MUK) BME Partnership in coordination with Duke BME, Duke Global Health Institute, Pratt School of Engineering, the Provost’s Office and the Duke Africa Initiative. The goal of this course is to integrate the design and anthropological elements of the Duke-MUK experience into a single course offered to both BME and global health undergraduate and graduate students. It will proceed pedagogically as a design class superimposed with the relevant anthropology of working directly with students in Uganda.

History of Global Health

Submitted by Nicole Barnes and Margaret Humphreys

  • Faculty affiliations: Trinity College of Arts & Sciences (History); School of Medicine; Duke Global Health Institute
  • Bass Connections theme: Global Health

The history of global health contains valuable perspectives for thinking through current health challenges. The course begins with the development of ancient medicine in Europe and China, and continues into the rise of biomedicine in the 19th and 20th centuries. It addresses particular diseases as case studies through which to explore important themes in global health history, and traces global circulations of people and commodities to show how international agencies, charities and governing bodies have spread both disease and the means to fight it.

Integrating Environmental Science and Policy

Submitted by Lori Bennear and Patrick Halpin

  • Faculty affiliations: Nicholas School of the Environment (Environmental Economics and Policy, Marine Science and Conservation); Trinity College of Arts & Sciences (Economics); Sanford School of Public Policy; Energy Initiative; Science & Society
  • Bass Connections theme: Energy

Environmental challenges are inherently multidisciplinary, drawing upon principles from ecology, earth sciences, biochemistry, economics, political science and ethics. Employing in-depth case studies, this course will explore the complex interactions that characterize current environmental problems. Course objectives include: exposing students to interdisciplinary approaches to environmental science and policy; allowing students to develop analytic tools to address environmental issues; and fostering collaborative group-based analytic experiences consistent with real-world environmental problem solving.

Faculty recipients of these course development funds will be invited to share their experiences at a luncheon or dinner at the end of year.

Learn how to get involved with Bass Connections.

Six Students Receive Grants to Extend Their Bass Connections Research


With grant funding from Bass Connections, three undergraduates and three graduate students will pursue faculty-mentored research projects this summer and next year.

These projects, which build on work begun in 2015-2016 through Bass Connections teams, explore a range of topics including Alzheimer’s disease, U.S. government regulations, intellectual property, migrant health, Arctic drilling and the care needs of senior citizens in China.

Kirsten Bonawitz ’17, a neuroscience major, will work on elucidating the role of genetics in the development of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As a member of the Bass Connections project team Brain-immune Interactions in Neurodegenerative Disease, she collected neurons from normal and mild-cognitive impairment human brain samples, extracted RNA for the purpose of gene expression analysis and initiated the collection of neurons from mild and severe Alzheimer’s samples. “This project plays and will continue to play an important role in my academic and professional career,” Bonawitz said. “I plan to develop it into a senior thesis.” Her mentor is Ornit Chiba-Falek.

Mercy DeMenno is a Ph.D. student at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Her Bass Connections project team, Reviewing Retrospective Regulatory Review, examined the emergence and consequences of ex post assessment of regulations at the local, national and international levels. Taking this work further with the mentorship of Lori Bennear, DeMenno will analyze the role of public participation in U.S. agencies’ retrospective review processes. This research will serve as a pilot study for her dissertation on how bureaucratic institutional design can foster effective stakeholder participation, and in turn, better regulatory policy.

Kushal Kadakia ’19 will focus on developing novel incentive structures for pharmaceutical innovation. In his Bass Connections project team Innovation & Technology Policy Lab, he worked with the Global Health Innovation Alliances group to map the drug development partnerships formed in response to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Building on this research, Kadakia plans to create case studies and share findings about ways to develop incentives that can increase the rate of pharmaceutical innovation while decreasing the cost of medicine. His mentor is Julia Barnes-Weise.

Kristen Larson ’17 is a biology and global health major. Her research will focus on migration and illness narratives of mainland Hondurans who have moved to squatter communities (colonias) on the island of Roatán, fleeing mainland gang violence and seeking jobs in the tourism industry. “There has been no research conducted to formally describe the migration and illness experiences of the population living in las colonias,” said Larson, who is mentored by Dennis Clements. Her research, which she plans to use toward an honors thesis, will be conducted in coordination with her Bass Connections project team, Interculturally Competent Analysis of the Uptake of Routine Vaccination.

Megan Nasgovitz, who is pursuing a Master of Environmental Management in the Nicholas School of the Environment, will assess the economic, environmental and political implications of Shell’s decision to suspend drilling in Alaska. “This year in Bass Connections I have been fortunate enough to work with exceptional students and faculty across the Duke community as we dig into the topic of the History and Future of Ocean Energy,” she said. She plans to travel to Alaska to conduct interviews and administer a survey in small indigenous towns, and present findings at the Polar Law Symposium in October. She is mentored by Douglas Nowacek and Lori Bennear.

Yuting Song is a Ph.D. student in the School of Nursing. Mentored by Kirsten Corazzini, Bei Wu and Ellie McConnell, she will extend the target population of her Bass Connections project team, Community Care of Frail Elders in Cross-cultural Settings, to include frail elders in residential care facilities in China. Her research aims are to describe the care needs of Chinese older adults who live in residential care facilities and experience cognitive and/or physical decline, and to explore the feasibility of using the Chinese version of the Social Convoy Questionnaire to measure the residents’ social networks within the care facilities.

These grants are part of ongoing efforts to provide support to students who build on their Bass Connections experiences through capstone research projects. Learn how to get involved with Bass Connections.

Clockwise from upper left: Mercy DeMenno, Kushal Kadakia, Kristen Larson, Yuting Song, Megan Nasgovitz, Kirsten Bonawitz.

Seed Fund Helps Catalyze Duke Energy Research on Materials, Environment, Policy

EI Logo-full

Research projects that examine energy materials, the water-energy-food nexus, and renewable energy policies will receive funding in 2016 from the Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund.

Six projects involving 16 faculty members were selected for the third annual round of awards from the fund.

The Energy Research Seed Fund provides a financial head start for new multidisciplinary, collaborative research teams, enabling them to produce critical preliminary results that have a high likelihood of obtaining future external funding. Research oriented toward solutions, rather than simply problem identification, is especially encouraged.

The 2016 round of awards is co-funded by the Energy Initiative, the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, the Pratt School of Engineering, and the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD).

The Energy Initiative and its funding partners received proposals from 16 teams including 41 faculty members.

“These projects will help Duke University further our goals of creating solutions to the world’s biggest energy challenges,” said Brian Murray, interim director of the Energy Initiative.  “We hope this opportunity will help our grant recipients get a start on critical investigations that will achieve the same success as several of the Seed Fund’s past beneficiaries.”

Last year, the fund supported seven projects with a cluster in energy materials and a focus on the intersection of energy and health. In the fund’s first year, 2014, it supported six projects that touched on energy materials, solar energy, water and shale development, and industrial energy efficiency.

The funded projects for 2016-17:

  • Creating superabsorbers for solar energy capture and conversion: theoretical design, synthesis, and characterization – New materials discovery will be accelerated and the outcome enhanced when the vastness of materials and molecular space is explored well beyond the current norm, and when materials optimization is driven by property-oriented or “inverse” approaches. This project will explore fundamental design strategies together with inverse and molecular diversity approaches to discover new chromophores with strongly focused molecular oscillator strengths. INVESTIGATORS: Co-Principal Investigators: David Beratan, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and Michael Therein, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.
  • Unraveling the atomistic underpinnings of hydrogen evolution from carbon nitride-based materials by RIR-MAPLE deposition, atomic-scale characterization and first-principles simulations – The cost-effective generation of fuels, e.g., hydrogen, by photo-electrocatalysis using the solar spectrum, is one of the primary unresolved challenges of renewable energy generation and storage. This project proposes a combined deposition, characterization and theory approach to investigate and enhance the activity of a particularly promising class of candidate photo-electrocatalyst materials, based on two-dimensional, polymeric carbon-nitrides. This project will develop a joint experiment-theory approach to unravel the atomic structure of the active component, opening a path for future rational enhancement of the catalytic activity by engineering the relevant defects. INVESTIGATORS: PI: Volker Blum, Pratt School of Engineering; Co-PIs: Adrienne Stiff-Roberts and Stefan Zauscher, both Pratt School of Engineering.
  • Optimal policy and investments for the electricity transition – Falling costs of intermittent renewable electricity and heightened concern about carbon dioxide emissions and other pollution from the electricity sector are spurring public and private investments in demand-side and supply-side technologies that could dramatically change how electricity is produced and consumed. This program will inform industry and policy-makers about the capacity for new pricing regimes, technologies and policy interventions to achieve demand response and the economical adoption and integration of variable renewable energy generation technologies. INVESTIGATORS: Co-PIs: Bryan Bollinger, Fuqua School of Business, and Matt Harding and Steven Sexton, both Sanford School of Public Policy.
  • Modular integrated-battery converter drivetrain for next-generation electric vehicles – This project proposes a radical new approach to designing electric vehicles by fully integrating the traction battery modules with the power electronics to provide multiple functions (i.e., traction, battery charging and battery management) using the same chip area, thus addressing the key issues of size and cost reduction, as well as reliability and efficiency increase. The main objective of the proposed work is to demonstrate improved power density and efficiency, as well as reduced cost of an electric drivetrain compared to conventional technology. INVESTIGATORS: PI: Stefan Goetz, School of Medicine; Co-PIs: Josiah Knight, Pratt School of Engineering, and Angel Peterchev, School of Medicine.
  • Plasmon-enabled water-splitting reactor driven by hot carriers and localized heat generation – The goal of this project is to develop and investigate a novel composite material for catalytic water splitting reactions driven by hot carriers and localized heat, both generated by plasmonic light absorption. The proposed research seeks a breakthrough in photocatalytic systems with increased energy efficiency, lower-temperature reaction and reduced cost. These novel photoactive materials can advance solar energy conversion research, and a functional demonstrator cell will attract tremendous attention – from the public, the scientific community and funding agencies. INVESTIGATORS: Co-PIs: Nico Hotz and Tuan Vo-Dinh, both Pratt School of Engineering.
  • Water-energy-food nexus: risks and opportunities of hydraulic fracturing fluids – This proposal seeks to build the foundation for a large-scale energy water food nexus research at Duke University, focusing on the volume, source, management and treatment of wastewater generated from shale gas and tight oil developments. The objectives of the research are to establish systematic data of the volume of wastewater generated from the major unconventional basins in the U.S.; evaluate the quality of flowback and produced waters from different basins in the U.S. and China for their potential environmental and human health risks; use the water quality dataset to model possible treatment scenarios for remediation to levels acceptable by the agricultural sector; and examine the policies for management and reuse of produced water from the energy sector through a water-energy-food nexus lens. INVESTIGATORS: PI: Avner Vengosh, Nicholas School of the Environment; Co-PIs: Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School of the Environment, and Mark Wiesner, Pratt School of Engineering.

Duke’s Materials Science Sparks a Brighter Energy Future


Energy provides humanity with immeasurable benefits and promise, allowing people all over the world to maintain or improve their standard of living and build healthier and happier communities.

Yet the production and use of energy also introduces a number of emerging threats, including climate change, air pollution, volatile international relations and economic vulnerability to price fluctuations.

All over the Duke campus, faculty, research staff and students are exploring new ideas and developing new technologies to make environmentally friendly energy sources more viable and to improve the efficiency of our existing energy system. Much of this work is supported by the Energy Initiative through its Energy Research Seed Fund and its role in catalyzing interdisciplinary collaboration.

In the quest for a more sustainable energy future, many Duke scientists are turning to materials science because of its potential to solve long-standing problems and open up new possibilities.

David Mitzi
David Mitzi

“Materials are critical for the success of any form of energy generation, transport or storage,” according to David Mitzi, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering and materials science and a coordinator of Duke’s energy materials research community.

The Duke faculty that the Energy Initiative helps bring together and support have attracted attention from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), ARPA-E (the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) and others in the form of $11 million in grants over the past fiscal year.

Mitzi’s lab focuses on electricity generation powered by the sun. In a project funded by a $300,000 NSF grant, he and his students, in collaboration with Prof. Volker Blum’s group (also in the department of materials science and engineering), are seeking to improve thin-film photovoltaic (PV) technology, which targets cheaper production approaches and more diverse applications than can readily be achieved with rigid, silicon-based PV panels.

Currently available thin-film PVs rely on minerals that are toxic, rare or concentrated in only a few countries. PV devices can be made with inexpensive and abundant copper, zinc, tin and sulfur, but the performance isn’t as good. “Our research is focused on trying to understand why and trying to engineer a materials solution around the problem,” he says.

In another project, funded by DOE, Mitzi is working to improve a rapidly evolving technology called perovskite solar cells, which offers the potential of higher performance, more flexible applications and lower production costs than traditional silicon-based solar cells. “They can be processed from a solution, so you can envision painting these materials on a substrate,” he says. “If one wants to come up with a truly low-cost solution to solar energy, this approach is very exciting.”

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts
Adrienne Stiff-Roberts

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is also using materials science to improve PV technology. She and her students have developed a technique to deposit both organic and inorganic molecules together to create a material that would have a wide array of properties. This opens up new possibilities for creating a much more efficient solar cell. “We can start exploring what is the ideal structure,” she says, “and not be limited by what kinds of materials we can put together.”

But even the most efficient solar cell can’t produce electricity when the sun isn’t shining. Several researchers at Duke are working on the “intermittency problem,” which will have to be tackled if solar and wind power are to become a bigger part of the energy solution.

Nico Hotz, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, is designing a system that uses heat from the sun to produce hydrogen fuel. The system converts methanol and water into hydrogen in the presence of heat and chemical catalysts made of nanoparticles of copper oxide, aluminum oxide and zinc oxide.

Nico Hotz
Nico Hotz

Homes and businesses with roof-top thermal panels could produce and store hydrogen fuel onsite—essentially functioning as their own mini power plants.

As a fuel, hydrogen is efficient, quiet, and clean — water vapor is the only emission. The challenge for wider use is that it takes a lot of energy to produce it. The conventional method of converting a hydrocarbon fuel into hydrogen consumes about half of the fuel simply to provide the heat needed for the chemical reactions.

In Hotz’s system, the sun provides the heat for free and relatively little of it is lost to inefficiencies during the process. “What we do is upgrade a low-quality fuel to a high-quality fuel, and that upgrade we do with sunlight,” he says.

With seed money from the Energy Initiative, Hotz is trying to improve the system by using a process that would require only the nanoparticle catalysts to be heated, not the entire device. This would make the whole process even more efficient. Of the seed funding, he says, “That’s extremely useful for us because it’s a small but decent amount of money that helps to start new projects.”

Other Duke researchers are investigating a different kind of “solar fuel” — organic matter created by plants and algae that use energy from the sun to make bioenergy. Because photosynthesis removes carbon from the atmosphere, using plants as a raw material for energy could help mitigate global warming.

Zackary Johnson
Zackary Johnson

Zackary Johnson, an assistant professor of molecular biology in marine science at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, is heading up a multi-institution team that received $5.2 million from DOE to design and demonstrate a large-scale system to make fuel using marine algae. “We’re tying to develop an energy source that we can produce domestically and that will be an environmentally friendly solution,” Johnson says.

Just as we do, algae store energy as fats, which can be refined into a liquid fuel. Producing fuel in this way is environmentally friendly, but not currently cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Johnson and his collaborators are trying to change that by creating a system that produces more than one product. The idea is to extract protein from the algae and sell it as animal feed to help offset the cost of producing fuel.

In addition to demonstrating the system on a large scale, the collaborators will analyze the economics and the environmental impacts. “It’s got to make money and be good for the environment,” Johnson says.

Duke is a natural leader for this project, which includes partners from other universities as well as industry. “We want to play a leadership role in making this happen,” Johnson says. “We have the administrative and university vision. Part of that is the Energy Initiative, part is the Nicholas School — there’s a lot of support, both moral and logistical, to get this together.”

On the transport and storage front, Jeff Glass, professor of electrical and computer engineering, is heading up a multi-institution, multimillion-dollar project that seeks to reduce methane leaks at oil wellheads. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, so these leaks are not only wasteful, but also contribute to global warming.

CAMMS-E schematic
A schematic of the mini-mass spectrometer

With almost $3 million from ARPA-E, Glass’s team is developing a field prototype of an instrument that can detect methane leaks. The instrument is a miniaturized mass spectrometer, portable via backpack, that is capable of detecting not only methane but also many other molecules as well.

Identifying other molecules will help determine the source of the methane, whether from a leak or a nearby natural source. The instrument’s small size is made possible by coded apertures, which are a series of small slits that let in many molecules at once. The results can then be decoded using computational techniques.

“The mass spectrometer has been around for a century, but no one’s ever implemented coded apertures in that type of instrument,” Glass says. “It’s been a fantastic role for Duke to be the first to try coded apertures and computational sensing in mass spectrometers. The only reason we can do this is because we have experts in computational sensing and experts in materials and experts in instrument design.”

Jeffrey Glass
Jeffrey Glass

RTI International in the Research Triangle Park is contributing its expertise in commercialization of early stage technology to the team.

The work of these researchers represents only a fraction of the energy-related research being done at Duke. Indeed, so many different avenues are being pursued that it can be difficult to learn the full landscape of energy research at Duke and identify potential collaborators. That is where the Energy Initiative plays a key support role.

Nico Hotz says he might not be working with some of his colleagues now were it not for the Energy Initiative. “The Energy Initiative is doing a good job in connecting and bringing a lot of people together, and that has increased energy research,” he says, “and there are more people interested in doing energy-related work because of seed funding.”

The connections extend to students, too. “The Energy Initiative has provided a forum where my students can present their work and interact with other researchers to enhance their career development in the energy sector and help them understand what’s happening outside of Duke,” Jeff Glass says.

Increasing awareness, spurring research and connecting people from multiple disciplines and stages of learning—these are all ways that the Energy Initiative is fueling energy research that has the potential to create a future where everyone will have access to affordable, reliable and clean energy.

Originally published on the Energy Initiative website