UC Regents press UCSC, other campuses to intensify energy research

UC Regents press UCSC, other campuses to intensify energy research
UC Regents press UCSC, other campuses to intensify energy research
Thursday, January 18, 2007

Something to ponder next time you fill up your gas tank: Two-thirds of the energy produced by burning that fuel in your car's engine will be wasted as heat, while only one-third will be used to get where you want to go. UC Santa Cruz researchers are trying to change that.

The University of California's governing Regents, meeting in UC San Francisco's Mission Bay Campus, on Wednesday said they want to see alternative energy research aimed at combating global warming become a priority. Already at UCSC and other campuses, research is generating new technologies in energy production, efficiency and conservation.

A team led by Ali Shakouri, a UCSC associate professor of electrical engineering, is creating new devices using nanotechnology ' building devices on a microscopic scale ' to harness the elusive electrical charges given off by waste heat, and turn it back into usable energy that would enable vehicles to travel farther without refueling.

Shakouri is not alone.

UCSC chemistry professor Jin Zhang is working on two projects aimed at creating cleaner fuel for cars. The goal is to build a device that would produce and store hydrogen fuel using nanostructured materials. The device would produce hydrogen without any outside source of energy simply by being filled with water and placed in the sun.

A team led by physics professor Sue Carter is trying to develop the next generation of efficient solar-energy technology.

New materials being experimented with include semi-transparent, offering the possibility that windows could produce electric power, said researcher Veronica Sholin. Others are flexible, like plastic, and could be used in clothing or rolled out in sheets. So far, the new technology is much less efficient than traditional solar panels and must be improved before it could be marketed.

"In terms of what the University of California can contribute to the state and country, there are few other areas of research that should be a higher priority," said UC Regent Richard Blum.

Blum was speaking at Wednesday's regents meeting in San Francisco to Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs.

In a presentation to the regents, Chu spelled out the problem of human-caused global warming. He also made a pitch for his dream solution called The Helios Project, a $120 million research facility where experts in genetics, nanomaterials and other fields design new photovoltaic cells and harness the methods that nature uses in plants, insects and microbes to turn sunlight into energy.

Chu has been traveling the world throughout the past two years preaching about the nation's need to rid itself of the reliance on foreign energy, especially oil.

Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a $30 million budget proposal for Chu's project, along with another $19.8 million for the California Institutes for Science and Innovation, a portion of which could trickle down to the local institute at UCSC. The institutes, housed at UC campuses around the state, work with government and industries and have profit-generating potential for the university.

"There's a golden ring out there for California and we're trying to grab it," UC President Robert Dynes said in an interview Wednesday. "We have the opportunity to be leaders in the world of alternative energy and that opportunity is right now"