New Frontiers
Solar Conversion Research Center
Mines has been officially named part of the Center for Revolutionary Solar Photoconversion (CRSP), the newest research center of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory. CRSP is broadly focused on ways to convert the sun’s energy to low-cost electricity and fuels. “Mines involvement in CRSP will greatly enhance our research presence, particularly in the areas of photovoltaic materials and materials for fuel cells,” says Craig Taylor, a professor of physics and a CRSP co-director.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and officials from the collaboratory announced this spring that CRSP will be dedicated to basic and applied research at the collaboratory’s four member institutions: Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Renewable
Energy Laboratory (NREL). In addition, 12 companies will pay as much as $50,000 a year to be CRSP members.

Specifically, Mines and the other groups will perform research and engineering in photovoltaics (inorganic and organic), photo physics, photoelectrochemistry, photochemistry, photo biology and nanoscience.

Taylor says the original idea for the center was a response to a solicitation by the Basic Energy Sciences Division of the U.S. Department of Energy. “The proposal was mainly electrochemistry and photo-electrochemistry,” Taylor says. “This proposal was not funded, but the four member institutions decided to form an expanded institute that included materials research on photovoltaics and fuel cells.”

Dag Nummedal, director of the Colorado Energy Research Institute, calls the school’s involvement in CRSP “an exciting challenge” that will allow Mines to attract “even better students and new faculty because of the science and its great relevance to create a cleaner, cheaper and more equitable global energy system.”

Nummedal adds, “It’s an opportunity for the school to play a leading role at the frontier of such basic physics issues as how to convert photons from the sun to electrons for electricity far more efficiently than what is currently achieved in conventional solar photovoltaic cells.” He also said CRSP implies that the Colorado university community is taking the recommendations of the National Academy of Engineers seriously: “That the most important technology development for planet earth over the next generation is to make solar energy commercial.” Nummendal says, “Solar energy is, by far, our largest clean energy resource.”

Taylor said that he’s certain there will be a greater reliance worldwide on solar energy in the future, but by how much he’s not sure: “Whether or not solar energy will provide a large fraction of our demands for electricity and fuel in the next 25-50 years remains an open question.”

CRSP is wasting little time starting its work; researchers will begin testing some ideas this fall. Improving the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) panels is high on the agenda. Currently operating at between 8 and 20 percent efficiencies, Taylor says, “There’s considerable room for improvement, and in fact, there must be considerable improvement in both performance and cost before PV is a major contributor.” The same goes for other conversion technologies: “Solar thermal devices are not currently competitive with coal-fired power plants. Practical methods for using solar energy to split water to form hydrogen as a fuel are even further away from practicality,” said Taylor.

The collaboratory expects to announce additional centers in wind energy, carbon management and energy efficiency later this year, and Nummedal says the collaboratory is currently working on the prioritizing its research goals. “We expect all three centers to be approved by the board and announced before this year is out,” Nummedal says. “A number of excellent researchers are already in place and more than a dozen companies have offered financial support."

Mineralogy at Mines Fundamentally Changed by New Technology

Thanks to the opening of Mines’ new Advanced Mineralogy Research Center, mineralogy at Mines has been changed in some fundamental ways. The new center features sophisticated technology developed by the Australian firm, Intellection Pty Ltd that enables large-scale quantitative analysis of mineral samples with an unparalleled degree of detail and complexity. To date, Mines is the only university in North America equipped with QEMSCAN, as it is called, and Intellection is excited about it being used in such a robust research setting: “The AMRC has the resources and expertise to produce groundbreaking research while setting new standards for mineralogical training,” said the company’s CEO, Calvin Treacy, at a launch event on April 3.

Traditionally, geologists and mineralogists analyze minerals by using a microscope, electron microprobe or scanning electron microscope on small sample areas and making largely qualitative extrapolations to larger sample populations. With the imaging and software capabilities of QEMSCAN, scientists can derive quantitative information about the distribution, composition, and angularity of minerals, and the fabric, distribution, texture and porosity of materials. It can also examine how those qualities are related in a particular specimen and in larger sample groups.

QEMSCAN is based on a scanning electron microscopy platform, utilizing an electron beam source, four energy-dispersive detectors, and enhanced software capabilities for compositional and image analysis of materials. Electron beam dispersion patterns are determined by mineral composition; with specialized software that interprets these
patterns, a highly detailed analysis of the chemical composition and mineralogy of a given material can be deduced. Also, so long as samples present a relatively flat surface to the beam, they do not need to be specially prepared, allowing for rapid analysis of rocks, soils and materials.

Since opening, the center has used the new technology to study diverse samples for a range of interdisciplinary purposes. In geometallurgical research, ore materials from several copper, gold and diamond deposits are being examined to resolve processin issues and to enhance mining operations. In energy applications, the laboratory is being used to enhance understanding of oil shale in exploration and operations, providing a comprehensive picture of mineralogy and fracture distribution in rocks. Planetary scientists are calling on the center’s capabilities to help develop lunar simulants—materials that replicate the surface of the moon—in order to assist in engineering a possible lunar post.

In addition, basic fundamental research into the composition and distribution of minerals in materials is ongoing in the new center. Researchers have been studying and refining the diverse compositions of feldspar in granites from Scotland, minerals in metamorphic rocks from Antarctica, and a variety of diamond-related materials from South African kimberlites.

And the center has some less conventional projects in the pipeline. One will examine the iron content of soils in areas with high rates of tuberculosis infection in South Africa. Another involves analyzing the mineral precipitate scale that slows the flow of hydrothermal fluids through Iceland’s network of geothermal pipelines. The center will also take on larger characterization studies for some operating mines in the Americas.

Karin Hoal, director of the new center and a research professor of geology and geological engineering, believes the center’s new technology and its diverse intellectual resources have immense potential. “We’re really just beginning to see the potential the Advanced Mineralogy Research Center holds,” she said. “As companies, partner universities and researchers continue to introduce new projects and pose new questions, we are sure to uncover more innovative applications for our center’s expertise with this pioneering technology.”