"We want to come up with technologies that can be deployed in the marketplace today to replace traditional energy sources. We should be able to do it in a way that could compete with the types of gasoline prices you might pay over the next 10 years or so."

According to Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Nate Siegel, making renewable or alternative energy resources cost competitive with conventional power generation or conventional fuel supplies is a really tough problem. "It's just so cheap to dig fossil fuels out of the ground and turn them into electricity or turn them into fuel," he says.

To take solar or wind resources and convert them into electricity or fuel can be complicated and costly. Even though sunlight is free and everywhere, it must be collected in large amounts to produce enough energy to displace fossil fuels -- and then it must be stored for use whenever it is needed, not just when the sun is shining.

Siegel and his colleagues at Sandia National Labs in New Mexico are addressing the problem by researching better ways to convert solar energy into fuel.

"We want to come up with technologies that can be deployed in the marketplace today to replace traditional energy sources. We should be able to do it in a way that could compete with the types of gasoline prices you might pay over the next 10 years or so," he says.

One of the methods the researchers are investigating is the use of mirrors to concentrate sunlight, focus it into a central location and create heat used to power high-temperature chemical reactions, producing fuels such as hydrogen that may be further processed to create liquid transportation fuels like gasoline and jet fuel. The goal is to offset gasoline obtained from petroleum.

"I really enjoy trying to get the most energy or the most work out of a given resource," says Siegel. "If you tell me, 'Here's some sunlight, I need you to turn that into electricity,' I want to do that efficiently and cost effectively."

Siegel says he is drawn to the challenge of converting the forms of energy in the environment to the forms of energy we use in our society. "It's a lot of fun to think about those problems."

Posted Sept. 27, 2011

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