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Creating New Knowledge
Creating New Knowledge

The Sun Also Rises in NU Energy Research Centers

"ANSER"ing Our Energy Needs

Why is there talk of an energy crisis, some ask, when enough sunlight falls on the earth's surface each day to more than meet our energy needs? In fact, ten thousand times more sunlight strikes the earth at any moment than all the energy being used on the earth.

Solar energy is a small player in the energy field now because coal and other fossil fuels produce energy at a much lower cost. These fossil fuels, however, generate the carbon dioxide that causes global warming. And they are not renewable. In 2050, our planet will need twice as much energy as now produced to fill world needs-and in 2100, we will need three times as much.

For many, the answer is solar energy. And at Northwestern, solar energy is the ANSER, the newly established Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center. ANSER combines and expands the research interests of both institutions to take on the challenges of economically viable solar energy use.

"ANSER is the natural outgrowth of many collaborations already taking place between Northwestern and Argonne," says Michael R. Wasielewski, chemistry, director of the new center. "Thanks to Northwestern's collegial nature, we had the connections and activities right here to make it work as we noted when we were writing the solar energy proposal for the Department of Energy grant."

State of the art facilities exist here and at the Argonne National Laboratory, where the newly built Argonne Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) will play an important role in creating new solar materials. CNM is physically attached to the Advanced Photon Source (APS), which is the brightest pulsed x-ray source in the U.S., and serves as an essential tool for studying new solar energy materials.

Northwestern and Argonne researchers have organized into four teams comprised of a total of 26 researchers to work on new strategies for solar energy. Examples of these team efforts include:

Wasielewski and David Tiede of Argonne will be continuing their bio-inspired work in which chemical processes mimic photosynthesis at no harm to the environment.

Tobin Marks, chemistry, and Lin Chen, chemistry and a chemist in Argonne's photosynthesis group, will probe further into the development of flexible, cheap organic photovoltaic structures (similar to the solar cells in calculators, yet based on large-area thin films), that even can be woven into clothing for portable power.

Joseph Hupp, chemistry, and Michael Pellin, chemistry and senior scientist, group leader, and materials science division associate director at Argonne, will work with nanostructured materials that can increase the efficiency of new electrodes in solar cells.

Mercouri Kanatzidis, chemistry and a materials scientist at Argonne, and Arthur Freeman, physics, will continue to work with thermoelectric materials to convert solar heat to electricity with improved efficiency.

Northwestern and Argonne have a decades-long tradition of joint appointments to integrate research and teaching in the sciences and engineering. New joint appointments are being made to enable Northwestern and Argonne researchers to work more closely in the solar energy field. Argonne scientist Lin Chen, for example, has joined the chemistry faculty at Northwestern. Her expertise is using the APS for structural work on solar energy-related materials for organic photovoltaic systems.

The educational aspect of solar energy research is crucial, says Wasielewski, for it is the next generations that will most likely come up with important breakthroughs in this field. "Larger, more visible solar energy research efforts in the United States will attract the best students. If we were able to spend up to $5 billion nationally per year, we could make serious progress on this issue. The more we spend, the easier it will be to attract the best students."

Other nations, Sweden and Australia in particular, are spending much more per capita than is spent in the United States to find ways of making solar energy more efficient and cost-effective. Wasielewski sent one of his students to work with the Swedish researchers at a solar energy research institute in Sweden this past summer.

Most of the researchers working at ANSER are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, but Wasielewski says they also will be pursuing grants from industry. He thinks they will succeed in attracting more funds: "Northwestern and Argonne offer a uniquely qualified critical mass of people working on solar energy solutions and we have excellent facilities to do the job."

Center for Catalysis and Surface Science

The Center for Catalysis and Surface Science resides on Northwestern's Evanston campus, but director Peter Stair divides his time between the center and Argonne National Laboratory. Stair, who has held a joint appointment between Northwestern and Argonne since 2003, set up his own lab in the Chemistry Building at Argonne where he uses state-of-the-art spectrometers to measure the vibrational spectra of molecules with catalysts. He also collaborates with researchers at Argonne, including Christopher Marshall, who uses the APS to characterize catalyst materials while they are in the reactor.

"One of the major advantages to having a joint appointment is that I can be involved in research programs both at Argonne and Northwestern and write contracts and grants for each entity," says Stair. "It also gives me the ability to make these programs work together synergistically."

One of these collaborations is sponsored by the U. S. Department of Energy in a program called the Institute for Catalysis in Energy Processes (ICEP). At ICEP, researchers study chemical reactions catalyzed by solid catalysts that relate to energy conversions from one form to another, for instance, the catalysts used by the oil industry to convert sludgy crude oil into fuels and lubricants that can be used in vehicles. Argonne and Northwestern groups are also working together to make a solar fuel, but they are delving more deeply into the chemistry of the process first to understand it more fully.

Stair and ICEP are beginning work on a biomass conversion project. This involves figuring out how to use oxygen from the air to convert biological materials from one form to another. There are many useful chemicals that contain some oxygen that they would like to be able to make directly from their precursors or "parents." If the amount of oxygen in those chemicals could be controlled, it would move them closer to being used as fuels.

"Our relationship with Argonne enables us to set up opportunities that are mutually beneficial," says Stair. "For example, a Northwestern graduate student who was writing her thesis was able to work at Argonne where she could make materials she couldn't make here on campus. We arranged for her to be supported by Argonne, where the materials she made were also useful to the Argonne research. And the cost of supporting a student was far less than Argonne would have paid for another skilled worker." Stair says, "Everyone wins in that situation-the University, Argonne, and especially the student. I'd like to see even more collaborative opportunities like that where everybody wins."

For more information on science, engineering, and education at Argonne National Laboratory, visit

- from CenterPiece, Fall 2007

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