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Accelerating toward energy independence

Accelerating toward energy independence

The U.S. Energy Department predicts the world's energy consumption will rise by 54 percent between 2001 and 2025. With rapid economic development in populous countries like China and India, the increase could be even greater. Closer to home, an over-reliance on fuels from unstable foreign regions threatens the United States' economic, political, and environmental climate.

Enter the Center for Renewable Energy, Science and Technology (CREST), an interdisciplinary effort by UT Arlington researchers to develop efficient, affordable, and eco-friendly alternative energy processes. One such method incorporates nanotechnology and Texas cottonseed oil to significantly reduce the cost and processing time of biodiesel production.

In a related endeavor, CREST researchers are refining the conversion of natural gas to liquid fuel. With advancements in accessing the huge deposits in the Barnett Shale, which sprawls below North Texas, natural gas is plentiful in the region.

The center's team members also are working on capturing and converting carbon dioxide to fuel. Krishnan Rajeshwar, associate dean of the College of Science and co-founder and director of CREST, says one of the challenges when producing alternative energy is "minimizing your carbon footprint."

"That's the Holy Grail," he says. "You have to minimize what you're doing to the environment with this technology. CO2 is a greenhouse gas."

Krishnan Rajeshwar

Krishnan Rajeshwar, College of Science associate dean

Dr. Rajeshwar believes that capturing carbon dioxide and converting it to fuel could solve the problem.

"The process will allow us to convert natural gas to liquid fuel, then capture carbon dioxide and use that as fuel as well. That answers everyone's concerns. We produce inexpensive fuel and convert CO2. The solution satisfies everyone."

Another CREST initiative involves creating more efficient solar cells. Electrical engineering Associate Professor Meng Tao has developed a surface texture using spherical microparticles that can be applied to all types of solar cells to reduce reflection.

"This improves sunlight collection, often by as much as 10 percent, because the spheres are omnidirectional," he says. "They can absorb sunlight from any direction, even on a fixed-orientation panel like those used on traffic signals and rooftops."

His invention led to the creation of ZT Solar, a technology start-up formed with support from the Texas Ignition Fund. Dr. Tao is seeking patent protection for the process and hopes to build a production-ready coating machine to test how well the technique works on commercial solar cells.

“WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE IS PRODUCING REAL SOLUTIONS TO THIS COUNTRY ACQUIRING SUSTAINABLE AND AFFORDABLE ENERGY.”

Other CREST projects focus on portable fuel cells, pollution reduction, and energy harvesting from wind, hydro, and tidal sources.

The center's efforts recently received a boost with the addition of lab space that will speed the advancement of new technologies that researchers believe will help the United States achieve energy independence while keeping Texas at the forefront of energy production.

"This is not hypothetical academia," says Richard Billo, associate dean for research in the College of Engineering. "What we're doing here is producing real solutions to this country acquiring sustainable and affordable energy."

- Herb Booth and Mark Permenter