Seed Grants Propel Big Ideas in Alternative Energy

Aug. 4, 2008 -- Buildings that heat and cool based upon the number of occupants. Cheaper, more efficient solar cells, crafted with nano-scale lasers. Algae that transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into biofuel twice as efficiently as corn-based biofuel. A new type of  "solar cell" that will gather energy to transform water into hydrogen.

These are the goals of four University of Virginia research teams, which have each received seed grants from U.Va. aimed at developing alternative energy technologies.

The four grants, worth roughly $30,000 apiece, will enable the ambitious research projects to collect preliminary data critical to winning much larger grants from national agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy — agencies that have stepped up calls (and funding) for promising alternative energy research.

"Our goal is for them to win outside grants worth five to 10 times as much," said William F. Hall, an adjunct professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science who led the committee that awarded the research grants in May.

The proposals were required to be interdisciplinary. "The more that people bring together their diverse backgrounds and expertise, the better the research will be — at least that's our belief," Hall said.

These Collaborative Sustainable Energy Seed Grants will be awarded for at least the next two years. The next round of applications will be due in March 2009, Hall said.

The grants are jointly funded by the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

"These seed money awards show the willingness of U.Va.'s various schools to join together to address pressing issues of energy and the environment," James H. Aylor, dean of the Engineering School, said. "Through collaboration, these proposals are positioned for further support from a wider range of sources and also greater potential to solve our very real environmental challenges." 

Phil Parrish, assistant vice president for research, said U.Va.'s expertise in technology, policy, education and business concepts has much to offer the nation's need for alternative energy sources.

"The significant number of outstanding proposals received for this multidisciplinary seed funding is indicative of the strong faculty and student commitment to both addressing this critical area of global need and coalescing around multidimensional problems," he said.

Articles this week in U.Va. Today will explain how researchers hope to solve energy challenges with these four projects:

•    Tuesday: Patented nano-scale laser etching techniques will make a solar cell that looks totally black because it absorbs light so efficiently.

•    Wednesday: How the surface of a fuel cell or solar cell is structured at the nanometer scale may solve the biggest stumbling block for fuel cell technology — reliance on hydrogen as the fuel.

•    Thursday: Tweaking how much carbon dioxide and light reach a special type of algae promises many-fold gains in biodiesel production.

•    Friday: Sophisticated sensors and software will let heating and cooling systems respond to the precise number of occupants in a room at any given time.

[Each bullet will link to the more complete stories as they are published]

— By Brevy Cannon