Coal sustained the Industrial Revolution. Petroleum fueled economies and politics in the 20th century. What energy source will define the 21st century? The answer to this question will be determined largely by discoveries made in materials science research groups.
Materials scientists are working on solutions to the hottest challenges in alternative energy technologies, including solar, wind, nuclear, and hydrothermal. Engineered materials are the key to making these technologies possible, economically viable, and widespread.
Energy Generation and Conversion
- Solar cells use a combination of semiconductors to produce electricity from sunlight.
- Thermoelectric generators use a combination of semiconductors to produce electricity from heat.
- Fuel cells need ceramic ion-conductors and metal catalysts to produce electricity from hydrogen.
- Nuclear fusion reactors of the future will require the superheating of hydrogen gas into plasma. Materials scientists who specialize in plasma-matter interactions will be needed to help design reactors capable of withstanding the heat and protecting the plasma from contamination.
Some energy-generation technologies can be miniaturized using nanotechnology, allowing us to build more effective mobile power sources for devices ranging from consumer electronics to field gear for soldiers and scientist, and even tiny autonomous surveillance cameras that can fly like an insect or crawl into tight places.
Energy Storage and Transport
Looking to buy an electric car? Or a hydrogen powered car? Battery technology is advancing thanks to new materials that can store electrical charge at higher densities, giving them a longer lifespan because they can be rechared more times, and hold their charges longer as they age. Similarly, new materials for hydrogen storage may one day supply cars with sufficient amounts of hydrogen fuel without a high risk of explosion.
How is MSE at UMD Reshaping Energy?
A Battery Made of Wood? MSE and University of Maryland Energy Research Center professor Liangbing Hu's group say a sliver of wood coated with tin could make a tiny, long-lasting, efficient and environmentally friendly battery. More
Mining the Sea for Uranium: Need uranium? Graduate student Chanel Tissot knows where you can find about 1000 times more that you can extract from mined ore: dissolved in seawater. She's working on a specially fabric capable of collecting it more safely and easily than mining can, and it could also be used to clean nuclear accident sites. More
Want Fuel Cells? Think Outside the Hydrogen Tank! When most people hear the words "fuel cell," they think of eco-friendly, hydrogen-powered cars that emit nothing more than water. But that, says MSE professor and University of Maryland Energy Research Center director Eric Wachsman, is a problem. More
Energy-Efficient Air Conditioning, with No Liquid Refrigerants Required! MSE professor Ichiro Takeuchi's group has designed a solid-state cooling technology based on shape memory alloys that could replace the vapor-compression based air conditioners and refrigerators, which utilize hydroflourocarbons and hydro flourochlorocarbons (such as Freon) that are harmful to the environment. More
Are Nano-scaled Thermoelectrics Better? MSE professor Oded Rabin's group is investigating heat-to-electricity conversion in nano-materials to figure out when smaller is also more efficient. More
Smaller, Cheaper Solar Cells? Parag Banergee, a former MSE graduate student, is developing more cost-effective energy storage devices that could make products like solar panels available to more people. More
The Future of Nuclear Energy: MSE professor Gottlieb Oehrlein was part of an international team of scientists trying to make clean, safe fusion reactors a reality. More
Watch a materials video demonstration about energy:
Thermoelectric devices can produce cooling by using the electrons in semiconductors to carry heat away from an area, not much differently than the way electrons carry a charge along copper wires and in electrochemical cells. Professor Oded Rabin explains how refrigerators using this technology could be made very small, light and portable, and have a fast response time and good temperature stability. They would have no moving parts that degrade with time. Our movie demonstrates the operation of a 1-inch device made with the semiconductor Bi2Te3 that cools a copper plate to more than 20° below room temperature. See a movie demonstrating a thermoelectric device »
For more information online:
University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC)
Find out what researchers throughout the university are doing to improve alternative energy, energy policy and economics, and energy education.
Alternative Energy Tutorial
Covers the fundamentals including batteries, fuel cells, conducting polymers, inorganics, liquid and solid electrolytes, and plasticizers and binders.