Fill ‘er up with sunshine

Fill 'er up with sunshine
For more than 30 years, scientists have been conducting research in hopes of developing a process that utilizes solar energy to produce fuels for automobiles in much the same way that plants produce food through photosynthesis.

Because the global demand for energy is expected to double by 2050, the search for an abundant and economic energy source that isn't surrounded by political issues is becoming more important.

"Currently, our primary energy source is fossil fuels," said Dr. James D. Hoefelmeyer, University of South Dakota assistant professor of chemistry. "Besides the fact that those resources are becoming increasingly scarce, there is the issue of carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning the fuel. There is also a lot of political tension associated with oil production due to the location of much of the world's reserves in politically volatile regions."


Dr. Hoefelmeyer and undergraduate and graduate chemistry majors are researching a process that would utilize a catalyst to convert the solar energy to fuel, much as plants use light to create the chemical form of sugar that is their "fuel" supply. The search, Dr. Hoefelmeyer notes, has become somewhat of a "Holy Grail" of chemistry research.

The elementary steps of the energy conversion process Dr. Hoefelmeyer is researching take place on the nanoscale. Nanometer-sized objects are often observed with electron microscopes because the size of a nanocrystal is smaller than the wavelength of visible light. Dr. Hoefelmeyer and his students plan to work cooperatively with Oak Ridge (TN) National Laboratory (ORNL), a multiprogram science and technology laboratory managed for the U.S. Department of Energy. Scientists and engineers there conduct basic and applied research and development to create scientific knowledge and technological solutions that strengthen the nation's leadership in key areas of science.

Success in this area of research would mean that scientists not only have identified an alternative fuel source, but have also resolved the issue of greenhouse gases which result in global warming. Dr. Hoefelmeyer is hopeful that the work he and his students are completing in this area will contribute some details to the process that will enable the scientific community to identify a viable process within the next 30-50 years.

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