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

How Much Did That Shower Cost? Energy Data Analytics Lab

Smart thermostatSmart shower heads that conserve water. Wi-Fi thermostats you can control from your iPhone. There’s no doubt that home appliances have changed significantly in the last twenty years.

And with climate change and cost almost ever-present on the minds of consumers, the energy and appliance industries are drawing on new tech to become faster, more efficient, and friendlier to budgets as well as the environment.

At the same time, advances are providing more information about our production and consumption of energy than ever before. Individual appliances can provide feedback about usage, access Smart Grid technology to draw energy at non-peak times, and perhaps more importantly, let us know if we left the oven on when we’re out of the house.

With this new tech has come an ability to gather an incredible amount of data from energy systems. The challenge: interpreting that data to provide research-backed solutions that improve reliability, resiliency, environmental sustainability, productivity, and affordability.

The Energy Data Analytics Lab is a groundbreaking hub of research and education activity that aims to do just that. Supported by the Duke Energy Initiative in Gross Hall, the Lab embraces the challenges of working with an ever-changing industry that produces so much raw data.

“It’s an interesting area of research because it’s technology that didn’t exist before,” said Kyle Bradbury, managing director of the Lab. “We have to ask ourselves what we can do to transform this rich source of information into actionable efforts. So we convene people around ideas regarding what the frontiers in energy data are.”

These frontiers in energy data require interdisciplinary expertise. In the Lab, engineers, statisticians, public policy experts, and social science researchers all work together to maximize the potential for the data and resulting insights to have an impact on behavior.

Adjacent to both the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) and the Information Initiative at Duke(iiD), the Lab is positioned both literally and figuratively to take advantage of the wealth of expertise in the interdisciplinary community at Duke.

The need for understanding these insights and what they mean for the industry, policymakers, and consumers is crucial. “You never really think ‘this shower cost me 50 cents,’” said Bradbury. “So the social science question is how we get this across to people.”

Projects so far have included building smart meters that can disaggregate individual appliance data from aggregate building data (in other words, tell precisely how much energy the clothes dryer in your home is using), developing control systems to maximize the energy efficiency of residential hot water heaters, and tracking solar panels across geographic regions using satellite imagery to estimate solar energy capacity in certain regions.

Now in its third year sponsoring a Bass Connections project team, Bradbury credits Bass with providing fresh talent and knowledge to the Lab. “Students typically fall into roles where they see strength. We’ve been fortunate to have some incredible students work with us here.”

For more information about the Energy Data Analytics Lab at Duke, click here.

To find out approximately how much energy the appliances in your house use, click here.

Originally published on the Social Science Research Institute website

Bass Connections Films Examine Complex Role of Energy Resources

How do energy resources in post-conflict regions affect peace-building efforts? How can years of video footage from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) help us to understand and communicate the connections between political stability, natural resources and human and environmental health?

To answer those questions, a Bass Connections project team, Exploring the Intersection of Energy and Peace-building through Film, digitized, cataloged and explored over a decade of UNEP footage from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and other countries.

Drawing on this rich source of material, the team created short films to shed light on the complex relationship between post-conflict regions and their physical environment.

Today, the final versions of four short films are available online for educators, policy-makers, documentarians and anyone interested in the impact of civil unrest on the environment. They provide insights into the effects of armed conflict on local natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; access to clean water in refugee camps; water and soil contamination in Nigeria; and UNEP’s collaboration with the community of Ogoniland to address environmental pollution.

Exploring Livelihoods in the DRC

Exploring Livelihoods in the DRC

Exploring Livelihoods in the DRC

Crude Oil

Crude Oil, produced by Phia Sennett, Cassie Yuan, Meghan O’Neil and Yi Ying Teh, won the Oliver W. Koonz Prize for Best Alternative Project. This honor recognized the team’s work in addressing critical issues surrounding human rights in the Niger Delta.

Crude Oil

Water Resources: Pressures in Post-Conflict Areas

Water Resources: Pressures in Post-Conflict Areas

Community and UNEP after the Crisis in Ogoniland

Community and UNEP after the Crisis in Ogoniland

In addition to long hours of editing footage, Bass Connections team members met with policy experts and documentary filmmakers, who provided deeper insights into environmental peace-building efforts as well as strategies for visually communicating these complexities. The team also conducted interviews with United Nations, which they incorporated into their films in order to better contextualize the footage’s visual illustrations of conflict reduction, energy resource management and environmental management efforts. They also traveled to Washington, DC, to attend the Environmental Film Festival, an annual event that offered a sampling of ways other filmmakers approach and express similarly complex topics.

Duke students, see the 2016-17 project teams and find out how to get involved in Bass Connections. Applications for priority consideration are due February 26.

Interdisciplinary Teams Take a Hands-on Approach to Energy Innovations

klein-solar638Bacteria that eat methane and turn themselves into cattle feed. A solar-powered pressure cooker that sterilizes medical equipment in rural clinics. A fleet of FedEx trucks powered by natural gas that would have been burned off through flare stacks and wasted.

Duke students working with Emily M. Klein and Josiah Knight are coming up with innovative approaches to pressing energy challenges, and gaining the skills and experience to play leadership roles in a rapidly evolving energy future.

Klein is professor of earth and ocean sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment. She is also deeply engaged in work on campus that furthers diversity and inclusion, including as the founding faculty director of the Baldwin Scholars program for female undergraduates. Klein and Knight, who is associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, serve on the Duke Energy Initiative’s faculty advisory committee and are codirectors of the Certificate in Energy and the Environment, designed to help students understand the energy system as a whole and the interconnections among policy, markets, technology and the environment.

“The certificate program was a joint Nicholas School-Pratt School effort that was supported in part by a wonderful, visionary donor, Jeff Gendell,” says Klein. “A certificate is like a minor, but it crosses departments—and in this case, it crosses schools.”

The certificate is only for undergraduates, though. “So when Bass Connections came along with the Energy theme, it was wonderful,” Klein says. Bass Connections project teams are designed to include graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty and outside experts. Since Fall 2014, she and Knight have led a Bass Connections project to identify, design and prototype new energy technologies, systems or approaches.


“We put together teams of Pratt and Trinity undergraduates, as well as graduate students, to come up with their own ideas of what they’re interested in working on in the realm of energy and the environment,” she explains. “Last year one project was driven by a student who did DukeEngage in Nicaragua and was working with an NGO. They have clinics in rural areas, and they’re off-grid. These people needed an inexpensive, solar-powered autoclave that would sterilize small instruments.”

A group of mechanical and civil engineering students, an environmental science student and a public policy student researched many approaches. “They determined that a pressure cooker gets up to the temperature needed to sterilize medical equipment. So they built this reflector, a solar concentrator, and did all the calculations on heating time, weather conditions in Nicaragua…it almost got there by the end of the year. The first-year student worked on it further over the summer and figured out where the heat was being lost.”

Among this year’s projects are stationary bikes that can run a filtration system to clean water from the Baltimore Harbor through artificial wetlands, an energy-efficient small vehicle and use of novel materials like grapheme for energy-saving applications.

“Being involved in this experience has made me want to delve more into energy in my own research,” says Klein. “It’s made me want to make a connection to resource availability and impacts on people, communities and the environment. That led to my beginning to work on another Bass Connections project, The Effects of Unconventional Shale Gas Development on Rural Communities. It’s giving me a forum to begin to work with students and my colleagues on this incredibly important area of fracking and its human impact.”

Seven Energy Research Projects to Share in Seed Funding

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Seven energy research projects involving 15 Duke University faculty members and featuring a sub-focus on the intersection of energy and global health will share in seed funding from the Energy Initiative, the Provost’s Office, the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) and the Pratt School of Engineering.

The seven projects were selected in the second annual round of awards from the Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund. Last spring, the fund supported six projects that touched on energy materials, solar energy, water and shale development, and industrial energy efficiency.

The Energy Research Seed Fund provides a financial head start for new multi-disciplinary, collaborative research teams with the larger goal of enabling Duke University investigators to obtain critical preliminary results that have a high likelihood of obtaining external funding.

“This year, our request for project proposals had a special sub-focus on research topics that aligned not just with the Energy Initiative’s goals, but with the goals of the Global Health Institute as well,” Energy Initiative Director Richard Newell said. “Those types of projects might address the role of energy in human development and health, look at how energy efficiency and distributed energy resources can strengthen health systems, or investigate how energy could be harnessed in sanitation.”

This year, the Energy Initiative and its funding partners received proposals from 15 teams comprised of 35 energy researchers from Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Environment, Law, Policy, and Medicine. The proposals were reviewed by 17 faculty members spanning several disciplines.

“To receive funding, the projects must align with the Energy Initiative’s goals to explore solutions to top global energy challenges: meeting growing energy demand, reducing the environmental impact of energy, and addressing energy security concerns,” Newell said.

In addition to the 15 faculty investigators, the seven funded projects involve four postdocs, five Ph.D. candidates, and several professional and undergraduate students across six schools and DGHI. A cluster in energy materials and a focus on the intersection of energy and health emerged from the selection process, and further integration and collaboration across these groups will be encouraged.

The funded projects:

  • Mining Metabolic Biodiversity for Bioenergy Applications – To reduce our current reliance on fossil fuels and petrochemicals, sustainable and renewable technologies are needed to generate both fuels and chemicals to meet growing demands. A significant potential exists to use biological systems in these new approaches, but metabolic diversity in archaea (a type of single celled microorganism) so far has been largely underexplored. This project proposes to develop new tools for the rapid identification and characterization of novel metabolic pathways; and demonstrate the use of these tools, ultimately providing an array of new options for efficient metabolic pathway engineering to produce biofuels. INVESTIGATORS Principal Investigator: Amy Schmid, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Co-PI: Michael Lynch, Pratt School of Engineering.
  • Interface Engineering for High Performance Energy Conversion – Interfaces are critically important and typically determine the success or failure of semiconductor-based energy conversion devices such as solar PV. The current program seeks to combine expertise in interface modification with strength in device design and fabrication to tackle several critical issues arising in the recently discovered and highly promising perovskite-based PV devices. The project will focus on the interfaces between the electron transport material and the perovskite absorber INVESTIGATORS PI: David Mitzi, Pratt School of Engineering; Co-PI: Jie Liu, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.
  • Defect Engineering in Photovoltaic Materials – Despite the promise of zinc-blend-related photovoltaic technologies for reducing the cost-per-watt of solar energy conversion, these already-commercialized approaches rely on elements that are either costly and/or rare in the earth’s crust or that present toxicity issues. This project will engage computational and experimental approaches to gain better chemical/physical understanding of and control over disorder in complex electronic materials, thereby facilitating the development of new semiconductors with enhanced performance for PV and related energy applications. INVESTIGATORS PI: David Mitzi, Pratt School of Engineering; Co-PI: Volker Blum, Pratt School of Engineering.
  • Energy Optimization and Field Demonstration of the Anaerobic Digestion Pasteurization Latrine – The Anaerobic Digestion Pasteurization Latrine (ADPL) is a promising decentralized and autonomous sanitation system that harnesses the energy in fecal waste for pathogen elimination. The ADPL converts organics in fecal waste to biogas, part of which is then burned to pasteurize the treated waste. The ADPL offers a potentially viable alternative to basic pit latrines, but require optimization and field testing before it can be deployed on a large scale. This project seeks to optimize energy generation and utilization in the ADPL by incorporating passive solar for heat sterilization and using inexpensive microcontrollers, then implement and monitor three ADPLs in Eldoret, Kenya. INVESTIGATORS PI: Marc Deshusses, Pratt School of Engineering and Duke Global Health Institute; Co-PI: Josiah Knight, Pratt School of Engineering.
  • Sustaining the Benefits of Clean Household Energy Technologies in the Indian Himalayas – Cooking with biomass fuels in inefficient stoves degrades the environment, increases the global burden of disease, and perpetuates energy poverty. However, there is a dearth of rigorous evidence on the benefits of improved cooking technologies, particularly with respect to health. This project will build on an intervention that successfully disseminated cleaner-burning cooking technologies among rural households in north India by incentivizing sustained use and measuring the impact of these technologies on household air quality and health. INVESTIGATORS PI: Marc Jeuland, Sanford School of Public Policy and Duke Global Health Institute; Co-PI: Joel Meyer, Nicholas School of the Environment.
  • Developing a Framework for Assessing the Economic, Environmental and Power Grid Reliability-Related Benefits of Investments in Non-Generation Resources –The need for greenhouse gas reduction, coupled with significantly lower natural gas (NG) prices, suggests that the electricity system will shift toward NG and renewable energy (RE). This will pose new challenges to maintain reliability in the face of multi-hazard threats from RE intermittency, NG price volatility and lack of onsite NG storage at power plants. This project will develop a framework that facilitates a fair valuation of energy efficiency investments and new power system technologies. The framework will contribute a novel way to think of energy investments and the necessary policy and market design mechanisms to create incentives for their deployment. INVESTIGATORS PI: Dalia Patino-Echeverri, Nicholas School of the Environment; Co-PI: Angel Peterchev, School of Medicine.
  • Plasmon Enhanced Hybrid Photovoltaic/Photocatalytic Hydrogen Generation – The goal of this project is to develop and investigate a novel composite material to combine catalytic water-splitting reactions with the utilization of solar power to generate renewable hydrogen. INVESTIGATORS Co-PI: Nico Hotz, Pratt School of Engineering; Co-PIs: David Mitzi and Tuan Vo-Dinh, both Pratt School of Engineering.

2016 Energy Research Seed Funding: Materials, Policy, Environment

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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.

The third annual 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 Research Seed Fund provides a financial head start for new multi-disciplinary, 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.

Read more about the projects that earned seed funding in 2016.

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