Water Technology Center Launched
There is no human life without water. There is no human civilization without water. Throughout history, communities have settled and developed within easy reach of fresh and potable water supplies. However, today's population growth and increasing water demands are exhausing water supplies, especially in the western U.S. To meet rising demand, municipalities are increasingly looking to non-traditional sources, such as surface water impaired by domestic and agricultural wastewater discharge, treated municipal wastewater, brackish groundwater, seawater and co-produced water from natural gas explorations. To better access and treat these marginal water supplies, more efficient and cost-effective technologies will have to be developed.
Well positioned to assist in this effort, Mines recently launched the Advanced Water Technology Center (AQWATEC). The new center brings together state-of-the-art infrastructure and the expertise to enhance existing water processing technologies and develop new ones.
The center was officially launched at a ribbon cutting ceremony on campus on August 29 which included President Scoggins and Congressman Ed Perlmutter. Speaking at the ceremony, Congressman Perlmutter pointed out that the availability of water is the key limiting factor to growth and development in Colorado and the West. President Scoggins spoke of the relationship between water and energy production, emphasizing the relevance of AQWATEC's mission to Mines' strategic priorities. "The water needed to produce the energy used by the average household each day is five times higher than the water used for domestic purposes," said Jörg Drewes, professor of environmental science and engineering, and one of the AQWATEC's directors.
Initially, the center will focus on developing advanced natural systems for eliminating contaminants from the environment; traditional and novel membrane separation processes for water purification, reuse and desalination; development of multiple-barrier hybrid processes to provide more efficient water treatment systems; decentralized water treatment facilities; and development of more efficient water treatment systems for the industrial and renewable energy sectors.
In addition to seeking new solutions, SQWATEC will explore ways to make existing systems mroe cost-effective. For example, AQWATEC is currently helping the City of Aurora increase its water supply by developing a riverbank filtration system that removes organic micropollutants prior to being piped to the city's treatment plant. Such a system would enable the city to use river water it was previously unable to process. For more information, please visit www.aqwatec.com, or contact Jörg Drewes or Tzahi Cath, who co-direct the center.
Energy Center Brings Supercomputer to Campus
Mark T. Lusk, professor of physics and mechanical engineering, recently finalized arrangements to create a high performance computing center dedicated to energy-related science. Called the Golden Energy Computing Organization, the center is a partnership between Mines, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Science Foundation. Although GECO will operate as an independent research center, the director reports directly to Mines' vice president for research. The cluster facility, to be located in the new CTLM building at the southeast end of campus, will have a peak processing capacity of approximately 15 teraflops, making it one of the most powerful supercomputers on the Front Range and one of the top 100 supercomputers in the world.
Demand for high performance scientific computing has skyrocketed in recent years because a combination of hardware and software advances now give the computational horsepower to tackle a broad range of open questions in science and engineering. By specifically targeting energy-related questions, GECO will help Mines become a national hub for computational inquiries aimed at new ways to meet the energy needs of society.
GECO's explicit goal is to develop and maintain a balanced energy portfolio by pursuing specific challenges across the spectrum of energy-related research. There are currently eight targeted challenges that fall into four areas of need (see accompanying diagram). GECO's advisory board will build on this to base to identify and address issues critical to the advancement of energy science.
In addition to its core mission, GECO will benefit Mines in other ways. The center will draw researchers together and is sure to attract substantially more and larger blocks of research funding to Mines. Several new educational programs in scientific computing are planned, including a PhD minor in high performance computing; the continued development of an existing five-year BS/MS program between the departments of Physics and Mathematical and Computer Science; a certificate program in high performance computing for industry training; and a range of new elective classes at the graduate and undergraduate level. On top of all this, the center will sponsor outreach, providing support for educational programs in high performance computing, as well as hands-on learning opportunities, to colleges and organizations serving underrepresented populations.
Access to the supercomputer will be prioritized according to use and researchers' affiliated agency. Researchers from the three partner agencies (Mines/NREL/NCAR) working on a primary challenge topic will get top priority. Mines researchers working on other energy-science topics take second place. Mines educational programs and other research requiring high-performance computing take third and fourth respectively. Other academic institutions conducting energy-related research are fifth, and energy-related research by industry comes in sixth.
The cluster, which should be completed in early spring, will occupy a total area of only 80 square feet of densely packed computer processors. It will be linked to the Front Range GigaPop - a consortium of 16 government, educational and research institutions. With closer links among these institutions, GECO may enhance the regional synergy among agencies concerned with computational research, while providing a powerful new resource in support of Mines' mission in energy science.
Opportunities in Solar Power
Until you check the price tag, the appeal of solar power is almost irresistible - with modern technologies that enable homeowners to run their electric meter backwards during the day, an array of solar panels on a sunny roof can provide free electricity to that home for decades. But because of the high cost, solar energy only accounts for less than 1 percent of the total energy generated in the U.S. and there are good reasons why this is the case. Factors like performance, availability, material cost, and the toxicity of the materials used all play a part. Additionally, the ease, cost and reliability of the processing techniques used for manufacturing are partly to blame.
However, despite these factors, solar energy is growing rapidly: Demand is at an all-time high, and development is being propelled by an increasing number of research grants, state and federal government incentives, and investment from venture capital firms.
One of the most promising breakthroughs in solar energy is thin film technology, which researchers at Mines have been studying for several years. The currently solar cell market is dominated by bulk or crystalline silicon with an average efficiency of 14 to 16 percent for commercially available cells. These cells are inherently expensive because of the relatively thick layer of crystalline silicon - about 100 microns - needed to convert sunlight to electricity. In contrast, thin film cells require a layer only five microns thick, thus drastically decreasing material costs. The three dominant thin film technologies currently under development are amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide. Although the latter of these has achieved an impressive laboratory efficiency of 19.5 percent, amorphous silicon is the option with greatest production capability, though its having laboratory efficiency levels is about 10 percent.
The basic structure of a thin film solar cell is similar to that of traditional solar cell technologies: there is an absorber layer and two contacts. When photons in sunlight are absorbed, electrons are excited and knocked loose from their atoms. These electrons then flow through a conductor band into the positively charged side of an electrical circuit, leaving behind an "electron hole" on the original host atoms. These holes are reoccupied by electrons returning to the cell on the negatively charged side of the circuit. This process of converting light to electricity is known as the photovoltaic effect.
The goal in solar cell development is to find a balance between the cost associated with manufacturing and the efficiency. Although thin film technologies are not, for the most part, any more efficient than crystalline silicon, they have the potential to be significantly more cost effective. Some of the most promising approaches being explored at Mines are spraying or printing thin film cells; plasma processing approaches; organic solar cells; the so-called "third generation*" cells, such as silicon nanodots and nanowires; incorporating solar cells into building materials; tandem amorphous silicon/nanocrystalline silicon silicon cells; and manufacturing cells that can be laminated onto flexible materials. With the considerable sums of money being channeled into each of these fields, progress has been lower-cost solar cells are making their way to market. And given that the cost of utility-generated electricity is projected to rise, the economics may soon swing in favor of photovoltaics, resulting in a rapid expansion of this most alluring technology.