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Major new initiatives like the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) energy initiative and the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) seek to advance emerging energy technologies. Carolina investigators are poised and ready to compete for funding opportunities in clean energy technology and related areas.

Our researchers are addressing sustainable and renewable energy applications as they seek to better address our world’s energy needs through disciplines in basic science and applied engineering. They are working to develop innovative technologies to harness renewable energy sources and improve energy efficiency, all the while supporting our state’s economic development and providing hands-on opportunities for students.

In this month’s blog, I am sharing just a few examples of our recent advancements in those areas:

Breakthroughs in New Energy Sources

Carolina is helping to develop revolutionary technologies that will fundamentally change the way we produce and use energy. Our researchers are developing new ways to convert sunlight into electricity and heat and improving the efficiency of solar cells to make them more affordable.

One of Carolina’s most highly cited researchers, Applied Physical Sciences distinguished professor Jinsong Huang, is creating advancements in a promising avenue for the future of solar energy — as demonstrated in a recent paper published in Science. His team has demonstrated improved performance of solar cells while effectively converting sunlight into usable electricity. The team works with molecules that are also used for medication to treat blood toxicity, demonstrating broad benefit across scientific disciplines.

UNC’s Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy (CHASE) is on a mission to develop molecule/material hybrid photoelectrodes for cooperative sunlight-driven generation of liquid fuels from carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water. The center is a collaboration among Carolina, Yale University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania, North Carolina State University, and Emory University that advances liquid solar fuels generation.

Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor Jillian Dempsey is one of the principal investigators of CHASE. Her work focuses on efficient solar energy conversion processes by working across molecular and materials chemistry. Her applied research seeks to overcome barriers in generating liquid solar fuels. She is also leveraging novel technologies to identify next-generation catalysts for artificial photosynthesis to generate molecular fuels.

Hyde Family Foundation Professor Jim Cahoon and postdoctoral researcher Taylor Teitsworth have engineered silicon nanowires that can convert sunlight into electricity by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen gas, providing a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. The Cahoon Group has been working on the chemical synthesis of semiconductor nanomaterials with unique physical properties that can enable a range of technologies. Their breakthrough may represent a new pathway toward efficient and potentially economical production of hydrogen fuel from sunlight.

Chemistry Department Chair Wei You’s research has led to the creation of new materials for organic solar cells, transistors, and light-emitting diodes. He has also developed new methods for the synthesis and characterization of 2D materials.

Noah Kittner, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and the Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program, investigates a range of topics related to energy systems engineering, including electricity generation using solar, wind, hydropower, and energy storage technologies. He aims to improve health equity in the transition to green energy.

Innovating Economic Growth

The Institute for the Environment hosted the UNC CleanTech Summit this past March. Summit participants explored environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient technology and learned about North Carolina’s role in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Leaders in business, energy, finance, and government shared their respective expertise. Robert Blue, chair, president, and chief executive officer of Dominion Energy gave the opening keynote address.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that three known deposits in North Carolina contain enough lithium to supply batteries for over 50 million electric vehicles. Consequently, there is a significant opportunity to support this blossoming industry which could result in new jobs and assist in increased adoption of electric vehicles.

The NC Collaboratory is supporting initial research that will help guide private companies and policymakers in exploring the full potential of this market. Their work includes a geological study across central Carolinas to begin the process for identifying key mineral deposits, funding work to further technology that will extract lithium in an energy-efficient and cost-effective manner, and researching potential mineral mining areas and the economic impact of that mining.

The University is well positioned to integrate the results of those efforts to further our expertise in autonomous vehicle (AV) research — the next wave of transportation innovation. Researchers in computer science, such as Parasara Sridhar Duggirala, are focused on developing algorithms for autonomous driving, including sensor fusion, path planning, and motion control. The Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety works on various projects related to AVs, including developing algorithms for detecting and avoiding pedestrians and cyclists. Led by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, the NC Transportation Center of Excellence in Advanced Technology Safety and Policy is a three-year research program focused on building knowledge on the role of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) and improving existing infrastructure to advance road safety, mobility, and accessibility.

Beyond the Bench

The UNC Kenan-Flagler Energy Center promotes sound public policy through balanced programming, research, and career placement across the energy value chain. The center strives to advance conscientious and innovative leadership in the energy space through comprehensive programming for UNC Kenan-Flagler students.

UNC School of Law’s Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Economics (CE3) creates opportunities for law students to develop a deep understanding of environmental, energy, and climate law beyond the classroom, offering students opportunities to assist with research and coauthor publications. The center also works to inform public policy and private sector decision-making at the state and federal levels though nonpartisan, objective analysis.

Carolina is leading the way in research, technology development, student opportunities, and policy creation as our society shifts the ways we produce and use energy. We anticipate new and exciting opportunities ahead with new federal and non-federal initiatives. Carolina’s applied research in the energy area, in North Carolina and beyond, will be competitive for these new funding streams. Our leading researchers will no doubt make major contributions to the development of clean energy.

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