Pizza Talk on Energy Sources

Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, hosted a pizza lunch at its headquarters in Research Triangle Park this past week. Thomas Meyer, the Director of the UNC Solar Energy Research Center spoke about the current state and future prospects of energy sources.


Source: David Sillitoe/Guardian

According to Meyer, fossil fuels are the predominate energy source, with petroleum fueling 40 % of US energy. He stressed that we need to utilize all non-petroleum energy sources, focusing on the viable long-term options of solar, nuclear and hydrocarbons with sequestration. Hydrocarbons result from incomplete combustion of fuel and serve as precursors to ground-level ozone. Sequestration would involve capturing, concentrating and storing these potential pollutants.

Half of the electricity in the US results from coal usage and the US has, within its borders, 27 % of the world’s coal supply. Meyer stated, “Coal could meet our energy needs, but this demands using it differently.” Technologies are available, but require time and money. A lot of money, it seems. Other energy sources are in the works. Hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells emit only water and heat and are high efficiency, but lack suitable storage methods. Nuclear energy could benefit from good recycling and processing strategies for the generated waste. Wind could be useful, too.

Meyer focused on solar energy, his specialty. Based on a graph he showed, we need to decrease the cost and improve the efficiency and that should be the ticket to success. Organic photovoltaics involve a photocurrent across two distinct surfaces, and these could be used practically as solar paint or solar shingles. Imagine your entire house solarized. Artificial photosynthesis, a possible method to create solar fuels, hits close to home because it was first developed at UNC in the 1970’s. Essentially you incorporate carbon dioxide into the photosynthetic reaction, producing oxygen and methane in place of hydrogen. Check out the Meyer lab research in this area.

The center collaborates with Duke, NCSU, NC Central University and University of Florida. Their stated mission is “to study light/matter interactions and chemical processes for the efficient collection, transfer, and conversion of solar energy into chemical fuels.” Funding is good right now, and the future of solar energy looks promising. That being said, I wouldn’t start saving for solar shingles quite yet.

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