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Research Areas
Biofuels & Renewable Energy Technologies

The national need to employ alternatives to petroleum-based fuels has led to a major research focus at NC State for developing the science and technology needed to produce biofuels and renewable energy technologies such as solar cells and advanced batteries for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). In addition, the historically strong collection of biological resources within the University make our Department an ideal location to pursue that development. Eight faculty have research efforts in these areas, including collaborations with other departments, such as Biological & Agricultural Engineering, Forest Biomaterials (fomerly Wood & Paper Science) and Textiles, as well as companies such as Novozymes and DuPont.

Peretti - biodiesel

The groups of Prof. Dickey and Prof. Genzer are developing new three-dimensional, nanostructured architectures for solar cells. Nanostructured solar cells have the potential to increase the efficiency of organic photovoltaic devices in a low-cost manner such that they can be widely adopted.

Prof. Fedkiw's group and examines fuel cells and, in a collaborative effort with faculty in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, his group is using electrodeposition methods to prepare nanocrystalline metal deposits. Professors Fedkiw and Khan are also collaborating to study functionalized fumed silica for applications in composite polymer electrodes for lightweight rechargeable lithium batteries.

Prof. Flickinger's group has pioneered development of thin photoreactive biocatalytic composite coatings containing photosynthetic microorganisms for carbon sequestration, the production of hydrogen gas from waste organic acids, and microbial conversion of gaseous carbon (COx) to liquid fuels. Several nanostructured coating systems are being investigated such as multi-layer photo reactive adhesive coatings of purple non-sulfur bacteria, green microalgae and anaerobes. High temperature coatings of extremophiles for hydrogen gas and liquid fuel production are also being investigated.

Prof. Lamb's group is currently developing new highly efficient catalytic processes for converting bio-based fats and oils (triglycerides) into transportation fuels (including biogasoline) and byproduct glycerol into value-added chemicals, such as propanediols and glycerol carbonate. Biocatalysts (enzymes) are of vital importance in the production of transportation fuels from renewable resources. Bioethanol production in the US has expanded rapidly driven by high petroleum prices and government incentives for biomass-derived alternative fuels. Starch (from corn, wheat, barley, sweet potatoes, and other crops) and cellulosic biomass can be used as sources of sugars for fermentation to ethanol. Prof. Lamb's group is also working with industry to gain a better understanding of fuel ethanol production via simultaneous saccharification and fermentation of very-high-gravity corn mash using glucoamylase enzymes and yeast. Lamb - Centia biofuels

Prof. Parsons' group is exploring nanoscale process technologies to improve and advance solar energy conversion systems. For example, new fiber--based inorganic core-shell nanostructures formed by Atomic Layer Deposition are being explored to enhance charge separation for applications in dye-sensitized and hybrid organic/inorganic photovoltaic devices. Unique nanostructures will also be needed for organic solar cells to enable large densities of surface-functionalized molecules to be exposed to sunlight. Students in the Parsons group collaborate with chemists, material scientists, and electrical engineers to explore integration of new materials and new device designs, including porphyrin-based compounds that can mimic photosynthetic processes.

Prof. Peretti's group is interested in genetically engineered microbial systems used in the production of liquid fuels and fine chemicals. Metabolic modeling and flux balance modeling of microbial systems having applications in mixed culture production of biofuels from synthesis gas is of particular interest. The interplay between primary and secondary metabolism involving methanogens and ethanologens is particularly challenging to capture in a modeling framework. Protein engineering is also an interest in terms of the activity and selectivity of enzymes and membrane transport proteins. Work is also underway to modify lipase expression in fungi, leading to cell surface display of the enzymes. These whole-cell immobilized catalysts have potential applications for biocatalysis where enzyme purification costs are substantial. Molecular structural modeling studies are used to investigate protein structure function relationships for lipases as a means to modify substrate selectivity, and for membrane transport proteins as a means to control the uptake and efflux of aromatic precursors and products.

Prof. Velev's group is evaluating the performance of new classes of energy-harvesting and energy-saving devices based on soft materials that mimick living tissue. They are creating solar cells made of water-based gels enclosed in silicone rubber. These light harvesting devices have the potential to be flexible, scalable and environmentally friendly. These researchers are also investigating new heat-exchanging materials with networks of microfluidic channels similar to vascular networks in skin.

Professor Westmoreland's group is exploring the kinetics which govern the convertion of woody biomass to bio-oils by combining its expertise in experimental polymer pyrolysis, molecular modeling, and molecular-beam mass spectrometry.
The elementary reactions that thermally convert cellulose to bio-oils are being discovered with the aid of pyrolysis experiments and ab initio quantum chemistry. Their work provides comprehensive insights into how these fuels burn, which will be used to maximize efficiency and minimize biofuel-generated pollutants like aldehydes and NO.