USF professor pushes for alternative energy sources

As the effects of America’s marriage to oil – like surging gas prices and negative environmental impact – make headlines around the world, researchers at USF are working to develop practical alternatives to these fossil fuels.

Elias Stefanakos, director of the Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), leads a research department that will revolutionize how people power their daily lives.

Advancements at USF include new ways to improve hydrogen storage, a problem scientists must overcome for hydrogen fueled vehicles.

“[Right now], if you wanted to use a tank that would take you 300 miles, it would be bigger than the car,” Stefanakos said.

The most promising solution involves storing hydrogen as a solid, which is more compact and easier to transport, he said.

Stefanakos has already developed a way to turn Tampa’s trash into clean energy. As garbage rots in local landfills, it produces methane gas that gathers beneath the surface, he said. By forcing the gas through a turbine, Stefanakos’ team channeled the energy to homes in the local power grid.

“That was sufficient to electrify, maybe, 30 homes,” Stefanakos said.

He believes that only a small portion of landfills’ potential energy is tapped, and that one landfill could potentially power thousands of houses. After the project’s success, Tampa Electric Company took over its management and continues to utilize the technology.

Another area that receives much of CERC’s focus is solar energy. While the technology to obtain energy from the sun has been used for many years, it is not yet affordable enough to compete with subsidized fossil fuels, said Yogi Goswami, a chemical engineer and co-director of the Clean Energy Research Center. His work, in part, focuses on creating cheaper and more efficient solar panels.

“With these new technologies, costs are coming down while the prices of fuels are going up,” he said. “There will come a point where these technologies will be cheaper.”

Solar power also avoids the problem of competition with emerging super powers like India and China, who will soon require fossil fuels in huge amounts, Stefanakos said.

“There is no competition for solar energy,” he said. “It is something that we all have access to.”

The expected benefits of Goswami’s solar technology have greater implications than merely replacing fossil fuels. Using special solar panels called photocatalysts, he employs solar energy not to produce power, but to break down contaminants in the air and water. While it seems like an ideal application, few are willing to pay for this technology.

“It is ready to be used on a large scale, but so far the economics have not dictated that it is a preferred method,” Goswami said.

The project has been successful when used in ventilation systems to remove indoor pollutants. When installed in an air conditioning system, Goswami said, the photocatalysts could remove harmful agents, including those used in bioterrorism.

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is critical to maintaining our way of life, Goswami said.

“We have no choice,” he said. “It took nature millions of years to produce fossil fuels and we have used most of them already.”

Researchers agree that the move towards renewable energy will be gradual and will utilize many different approaches. The first step, Stefanakos said, is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use daily. This means using a hybrid of existing fossil fuel technology and renewable sources while gradually increasing the latter.

Goswami said that his biggest concern for the future is not the limited amount of fuel, but the availability of drinking water.

“As we move into the future,” he said, “drinking water is going to be the biggest problem to face mankind.”

One of Goswami’s current projects is the conversion of salt water into drinking water. This process, called desalination, uses high amounts of energy to force the salt from the water. As we continue to waste and pollute our water supply, he said, people may have to completely depend on the sea for potable water.

Goswami and Stefanakos are not convinced by the recent popular idea of ethanol-based fuel grown from corn and other crops.

“This whole thing about using corn, we need to get away from that,” Goswami said.

He worries that using food resources for transportation will drive the prices of food higher.

Stefanakos concurred, adding that using an inedible crop might have possibilities but does not seem practical on a large scale.

“We cannot use [crops] for transportation and eat them at the same time.”