March 27, 2015

Seven energy research projects to share in seed funding

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

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.