Great Ideas on Energy: Artificial Photosynthesis, Algal Fuel, Hybrid Ships


A century ago, The University of Texas was built on energy. Some sources may have changed, but as these brilliant innovations prove, UT is still charging ahead.

5. Develop artificial photosynthesis.

The energy in fossil fuels originated millions of years ago as a product of photosynthesis. But humans, too, are learning to make fuel with sunlight. With the right chemical catalysts, we can get sunlight to split water, producing oxygen and hydrogen gas; the hydrogen can then be used as clean fuel.

Allen Bard, director of the Center for Electrochemistry, and his fellow chemistry professor C. Buddie Mullins are working to develop the “holy grail” of artificial photosynthesis: a sun-based system for splitting water that produces hydrogen cheaply enough to compete with fossil fuels. That system will have to cost about $1 per watt of energy produced, be 10 percent efficient at converting solar to chemical energy, and last at least 10 years.

As we continue to burn fossil fuels and climate change proceeds apace, the pressure mounts to find affordable energy alternatives. Bard and Mullins are testing thousands of chemical compositions, looking for the most promising candidates for photosynthesis and then trying to goose their efficiency. But the process is still in the discovery phase, Bard says: “We know how to do it, but the development of it into something that can be scaled up … is a really difficult problem.” —Jenny Blair

6. Use algae as biofuel.

Slimy and scummy, algae is a nuisance to many. But to UT scientists, it’s a gold mine. Locked deep inside algae is oil. What if instead of costly, hazardous drilling, we could grow our own oil by farming algae?

The Alcalde wrote about this prospect three years ago. But even more exciting developments have cropped up since: not only does UT now boast the nation’s largest algae demonstration facility, but it also is among a handful of research hubs worldwide that can already produce oil from the stuff.

“We are one of just a few places, if not the only place in the world, that can do it end-to-end,” says professor Bob Hebner, director of UT’s Algae Science and Technology Facility, “and we’ve partnered with more than 30 companies worldwide on algae research.”

Hebner says it’s the economics that pose a challenge. “Currently, the cost of extracting the oil is very high,” he says, “but we’ve found that, theoretically, you could get 500 times more energy out of algae than you put into it.”

He has reason to hope: in 2005, the oil cost $5 per gallon to produce. Today it’s a few cents per gallon and expected to go lower. But other costs, such as vital nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, remain prohibitively high.

At UT, more than 25 scholars are working at the Algae Science and Technology Facility to find solutions. And the UTEX Culture Collection of Algae is constantly growing new strains for them and global collaborators to study.

Hebner is cautiously optimistic about the biofuel’s potential. “We’re in the very beginning of this business, but it holds a lot of promise,” he says. The airplane industry is a likely first frontier. Continental, Virgin Airlines, Lufthansa, and Air New Zealand have all flown trial flights powered by algal fuel.

Deriving oil from algae, Heber says, is like fast-forwarding the conventional method of getting oil from plant matter buried in the Earth. “Right now, we get our oil from plants that died millions of years ago,” he says. “Now we’re trying to do in two weeks what Mother Nature does in a few million years.” —Rose Cahalan

7. Make battleships the Priuses of the high seas.

U.S. Navy destroyers consume massive quantities of fuel. Mechanical engineering postdoc Benjamin Gully is exploring the idea of putting hybrid power systems in battleships. He calculated what would happen if a class of modern destroyers with four gas-turbine propulsion engines were re-engineered to contain two such engines plus two electric motors. If the ships were to use the gas turbines for high-speed propulsion and their motors for low speeds, Gully found, they’d enjoy fuel savings of 37 percent compared to previous designs. The research earned Gully a PhD in August; he’s now preparing to publish. —Jenny Blair

Read the next great ideas on energy here.

Robert Hebner, director of the University’s Center for Electromagnetics, conducts research in a large algae growth demonstration facility for biofuels. The facility is located adjacent to CEM. Photo by Melissa Mixon.


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