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Energy Research at the Technion
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With the world’s rising demand for oil inexorably beginning to outpace our ability to supply it, the science of energy – in all its many forms – has uniquely become a matter of “global survival.”
That’s the phrase used by Professor Gideon Grader, leader of an intense multi-disciplinary campaign to focus the Technion’s own unique energy source – brainpower – on the world’s growing need for new answers.
The new Nancy and Stephen Grand Technion Energy Program (GTEP) is bringing together some of the Institute’s best minds to discover and tap alternative and renewable energy sources, promote more efficient energy use, and reduce the environmental damage caused by the production fossil fuels.
While the Technion has been involved in energy research for decades, Grader says the GTEP will provide the resources to focus and enhance this work. Vitally needed state-of-the-art labs have already and will be created for specialties such as fuel-cell design, photovoltaics fabrication and catalysis, a key to most lines of energy research.
More than 40 faculty members are already involved in GTEP projects, and another GTEP goal is to recruit new experts who will specifically focus on energy research.
“The GTEP is a statement that we are going to create a focused program on energy,” Grader explains. “It is not going to investigate the whole arena, but focus on particular promising segments most in line with our strengths and experience.”
The Technion Energy Program is focused on four key research areas:
- Non-carbon fuels
- Hydrogen technologies
- Biomass-based fuels
Renewable Energy Sources
- Solar thermal technologies
- Photovoltaic cells
- Wind power
Energy Storage and Conversion
- Safe and efficient fuel cells
- Powerful, long-lasting batteries
- Conservation-minded urban planning
- Better buildings insulation substances
- Smart windows that can deflect sunlight as needed
- Improved engine performance through reduced friction
- More efficient combustion processes
- Improved tire design
GTEP head Prof. Grader is personally involved in the development of new non-carbon fuels, and hydrogen technologies that are the key to this quest.
But while hydrogen is clean and abundant, the substance suffers from some drawbacks. It must be stored under very high pressure and low temperature, the containers are bulky and leaks can cause explosions.
So Grader instead is studying how it might be converted into a more convenient nitrogen-hydrogen compounds, such as ammonia. But because ammonia is highly toxic and must be handled with extreme care, the ultimate answer lies in creating safe compounds that can power an engine without oxidizing the nitrogen.
“That’s the show-stopper,” Grader says. And the search for some way to use nitrogen and hydrogen more cleanly and efficiently involves not just his fellow Chemical Engineering professors, but experts in specialties such as reactor engineering, catalysis and engine design.
In this video, Prof. Gideon Grader, head of the Technion Energy Program, uses his background in ceramic materials to help his research into the development of alternative fuels, particularly those made from nitrogen-hydrogen compounds. The challenge is eliminating the chance of explosion and developing theconditions to help them burn in a clean way.
The success of the biofuel movement will depend on finding a way to process leftover crop materials, or plants that can grow in arid lands with little water, instead of food crops such as corn and sugar that are more urgently needed to feed the world population.
But right now the only way to use this agricultural waste is to burn it, which is very unclean. Can you take it and convert it cleanly to a liquid fuel such as alcohol? Many experts are working on the problem, but nobody knows how to do it effectively.
The answer may come through the teamwork of Prof. Shimon Gepstein, of the Biology Department, and Biotechnology Faculty member Prof. Yuval Shoham. With Shoham already probing the conversion problem, Gepstein meanwhile has been trying to genetically modify plants so they can grow in harsher climates, live longer and thrive for extended growing seasons.
Putting their heads together, the pair hope to genetically modify the unwanted plants best suited for biofuels, so they can be grown on otherwise useless land like desert, and be more easily and cleanly be converted into fuel.
Solar thermal technologies use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to heat a working fluid. The hot fluid can be used to vaporize a liquid which then turn power turbines or used to drive water away from various solutions. One solar-thermal project, led by Professor Gershon Grossman of Mechanical Engineering, is using the heat of the sun to run air conditioning systems.
Nano quantum dots are the focus of work by Chemistry Professor Efrat Lifshitz. These “dots” could be used to create solar panels with excitingly enhanced capabilities. Dr. Nir Tessler of Electrical Engineering works on organic photovoltaic material. Both Efrat and Nir are also active with the Technion’s Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute.
Wind turbines are being made more powerful and efficient at the Aerospace Engineering and mechanical Engineering Faculties, through new materials and concepts in aerodynamics.
Looking to improve upon bulky and inefficient solar panels, Technion Ph.D. student Yossi Cori is floating an intriguing idea – small lightweight balloons with a thin coating of photovoltaic cells.
Shaped something like flying saucers, the balloons are tethered to the ground via one line to send helium up and another to pass the gathered solar power down. One or two of these floating disks might meet a household’s complete electric needs, while larger buildings or municipal facilities could float numerous vertical cables with balloons stacked every few feet.
Cori and Technion research partner Dr. Pini Garfil also envision bringing much-needed power to impoverished regions far from power lines. And unlike a big, noisy power plant, “they have no negative effect on the environment at all,” says Cori, a professional architect. Prototypes of various sizes are now being tested.
Energy Storage and Conversion
The establishment of a fuel cell development and testing lab – the first of its kind in Israel and one of the most advanced in the world – will help make the Technion to become a world leader in fuel cell research.
Unlike a battery, a fuel cell doesn't run down or need recharging but continues producing energy as long as fuel and air are supplied. Fuel cells have many unique advantages: they are highly efficient, clean and silent, reliable and easy to maintain. They can be scaled for use in a wide variety of applications ranging from personal electronic devices to industrial scale power plants. The heat generated by larger fuel cells can be used as an additional energy source.
With oil prices and environmental concerns on the rise, fuel cells using elements such as hydrogen can become a competitive and more widely used energy source both for vehicles and stationary generators - but some significant technological obstacles remain to be solved. Hydrogen, for example, must be stored in heavy canisters, cutting its efficiency in car engines.
Technion researchers, under the coordination of Dr. Yoed Tsur, from the Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering, are working to make fuel cells more potent, practical and economical in the hopes of making their application more widespread.
Joining Tsur in this research are experts such as Prof. Yair Ein-Eli, from the Faculty of Materials Engineering, who is working on novel polymer electrolytes and water management in fuel cells, as well as advanced materials to improve the storage of solar power and its release as electricity.
Recently Prof. Ein-Eli developed a new, environmentally friendly silicon-air battery capable of supplying non-stop power for thousands of hours without needing to be replaced.
Created from oxygen and silicon (the second most plentiful element in the earth’s crust), such batteries would be lightweight, have an unlimited shelf life, and have a high tolerance for both humid and extremely dry conditions. Potential uses include medical applications (for example, powering diabetic pumps or hearing aids), sensors and microelectronics structured from silicon.
According to Yair Ein-Eli these batteries will be used like the ones already in use today. He also says that in three to four years, silicon-air batteries could be made more powerful, and rechargeable. In 10 years, it could be possible to build electric car batteries made from silicon that will turn into sand, and then be recycled into silicon and back into power.
A new generation of porous materials that are lighter and more versatile could have a wide range of applications including fuel-cell technology. The new PolyHIPE substance (polymers based upon high internal phase emulsions) is being developed by Materials Engineering Professor Michael Silverstein.
A Zero-Energy House, designed to balance the energy coming in and going out of the structure. The Civil Engineering and Architecture departments will be teaming up to integrate features such as windows and insulation that can collect energy when available (on a sunny summer day, for example) for use when needed, at night or in winter.
WHO’S WHO IN THE GTEP
Professor Gideon Grader, leader of the GTEP initiative, is an expert in high-tech ceramic materials. Ceramics may seem a far cry from the hunt for energy solutions, but Grader explains that he same high-temperature reactions and catalysts that power his ceramics breakthroughs are crucial as well to new fuels and better engines. The ultra-light ceramic foams Grader has developed are now being used commercially for high-temperature insulation in industrial processes. The foams are being produced at Cellaris, a company Grader established within the Technion's Entrepreneurial Incubator framework. Grader has been with the Technion since 1989.
Dr. Avner Rothschild, from Materials Engineering, is doing what Grader terms “exciting research” on new ways of using sunlight to efficiently decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen. Rothschild also is working on a promising idea to reduce carbon dioxide, emitted in combustion processes, such as power plants, and convert it with solar energy back into a fuel.
Prof. Benny Natan, Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, is studying how gel fuels burn, in search of a process that will allow jet engines to operate at lower temperatures to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.
Dr. Yoed Tsur, from the Faculty of Chemical Engineering, is coordinating the fuel-cell technology project. His current interests are in novel fuel cell stack design, new materials for solid-oxide fuel cells and impedance spectroscopy of fuel cells.
Prof. Yair Ein-Eli, from the Faculty of Materials Engineering, is working on novel polymer electrolytes and water management in PEM fuel cells, as well as advanced materials to improve the storage capacity of batteries.
Prof. Ilan Riess, from the Faculty of Physics, is focusing on ionic transport in solids and solid oxide fuel cells.
Prof. Daniel R. Lewin, from Chemical Engineering, is researching fuel cell modeling & control.
Click here to visit the GTEP Web site.
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