CWRU wins $3.8 million grant to wean sustainable energy off oil

Case Western Reserve University has won a $3.8 million grant to lead a new international effort reducing oil dependency: building wind turbine blades and solar panels from biomaterials.

During the next five years, scientists and engineers will first try to improve the quality and performance of existing materials then gradually replace unsustainable ingredients with those derived from plants, bacteria and fungi.

The eight universities involved in the project will add a dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers as well as develop new classes, build information-sharing websites and more for regular and visiting students.

“We’re not only creating new materials, but educating the next generation of scientists working in sustainability,” said Ica Manas-Zloczower, professor of macromolecular science and engineering and associate dean at Case School of Engineering. Manas-Zloczower, the primary investigator on the project, will become the Thomas W. and Nancy P. Seitz Professor of Advanced Materials and Energy during a ceremony tomorrow.

While the focus is on fulfilling needs for wind and solar energy, the investigators say that lighter, stronger, more durable materials they expect to create also will appeal to makers of automobiles, boats, tennis racquets, light emitting diodes, semiconductors and more.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the Partnership for International Research and Education grant. Other institutes involved are the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, University of MONS in Belgium, University of Bologna in Italy, and Santa Catarina State University in Brazil.

Not only are they pursuing more functional materials, but, by using renewable sources, they aim to eliminate reliance on a limited resource and reduce the environmental impact of production and disposal.

“The group provides expertise in synthesis, processing, characterization, theory, and lifecycle analysis needed to help solve these global problems,” said Manas-Zloczower, who will lead the wind turbine blade research.

Currently, the amount of energy wind turbines can produce is limited by the weight of blades. The heavier the blade, the more energy required to move it. But lighter, often more flexible blades fail to maintain the shape needed to get the most from the wind.

Marcio Loos was a postdoctoral researcher working with Manas-Zloczower at Case School of Engineering last year when he built a blade made of polyurethane reinforced with carbon nanotubes. Testing showed the blade was substantially lighter and eight times tougher and more durable than current blades.

Loos leads a group of researchers at Santa Catarina who, with Manas-Zloczower, will continue to advance that technology.  They will also team with Richard Gross at NYU and investigate starch and lipid-based polymers reinforced with cellulose nanowhiskers, among other options.

Traditional solar panels built of silicon are heavy; far lighter thin-film solar cells lack the durability of their kin. And makers of both are still striving to increase the efficiency of each. Organic materials have shown promise for the next generation low-cost photovoltaics.

Case Western Reserve physics professor Kenneth Singer will lead solar cell materials research and continue a long collaboration with Virgil Percec, at the University of Pennsylvania, and more recent work with Goran Ungar at the University of Sheffield and Richard Gross at NYU. They are investigating ways to make new organic semiconductors out of self-assembling structures made of natural materials. For example, they will biologically manufacture polypeptides– a costly and difficult process if done artificially.

“We will begin with basic research into materials with potential applications in solar cells,” Singer said. “In the later years of the grant, we will attempt to make new devices with these semiconductors, such photovoltaic cells and organic light emitting diodes.”