Conjoint Associate Professor Eric Ho
Conjoint Associate Professor
School of Medicine and Public Health
- Phone:(02) 4921 3658
A new direction in solar energy
One of the most challenging aspects of an intensive three-year research project within the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment is its goal of simplicity.
Material engineers Dr Heber Sugo and Professor Erich Kisi have received $515,000 from the Australian Solar Institute to create a new device that converts solar energy directly into electricity.
Researchers in Europe and the United States are working on a similar concept but they are using much lower-temperature materials. "Our device will comprise materials used to power the electrical systems of spacecraft, and will reach temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees Celsius," says Sugo, the principal investigator.
"Being able to work at higher temperatures allows a more efficient conversion of heat into electricity, thereby reducing production and environmental costs. More efficient energy conversion means that smaller solar arrays can give the same energy yield.
"A device of this sort has a tendency to become complicated, so designing something for its simplicity is particularly challenging," adds Kisi. "Our device will generate electricity in a single step and has no moving parts."
The centrepiece of the project is a thermionic device, which will be attached to reflective "parabolic dishes" that concentrate solar radiation. The dish holds a number of mirrors that focus light rays onto the device. When heated, the device emits electrons and generates electricity. In its final form, the thermionic device would feed power inverters which in turn would then supply electricity to the grid.
This research differs from other projects in that it is the first to use refractory materials in the thermionic device. The short-term plan is to create a prototype that could be scaled up and commercialised to provide clean energy to households.
While the concept itself seems simple, its development is anything but. At the time of going to print, Sugo was designing a series of experiments involving various materials. "We need to make the materials because they are not currently available," he says. The researchers will have to design and manufacture an emitter and a collector, test them individually and then combine them into a working prototype.
In theory, their device will be far more efficient than current methods. "There are environmental costs in levelling tracts of land to install current solar technologies," says Kisi. "Our model will greatly reduce the amount of space needed through greater conversion efficiency and a single-step process that requires no additional infrastructure."
Sugo and Kisi are part of the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER).
When it comes to research, Professors Bogdan 'Bodzio' Dlugogorski and Eric Kennedy believe two minds are better than one.
The pair started at the University of Newcastle within two weeks of each other in 1994 and immediately forged what has become not only a firm friendship but a highly successful professional partnership.
Dlugogorski and Kennedy are leading researchers and directors of the University's Centre for Energy, and jointly supervise a team of 20 research students. Dlugogorksi is a chemical engineer and Kennedy a chemist.
It was a shared interest in the science of fire that first brought them together. Ironically, Dlugogorski's research focus was in suppressing fire while Kennedy's was in starting it, specifically through catalytic combustion.
At that time there was a national imperative to replace ozone-depleting halon compounds as the commonly used fire suppressant. The two teamed up on a project researching alternative chemicals for fire mitigation and ways to convert stockpiles of halons into useful, less dangerous chemicals.
They have since joined forces on numerous projects, including groundbreaking research on dioxins released during combustion.
Their work in this field began in the mid 1990s with a BHP Billiton funded project to minimise the formation of dioxins in the sinter plant at the now closed Newcastle steelworks. That research led to the pair establishing a state-of-the-art laboratory capable of the highly intricate task of measuring and analysing dioxins.
As Dlugogorski explains, it is the scientific equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.
"It is one of the most difficult and sophisticated analyses in chemistry," he says. "Dioxins are highly toxic and the concentrations are extremely small. You can have one molecule of that pollutant in a billion or a trillion other molecules."
Currently, they use this technology to analyse the potentially toxic pollutants formed when biomass that has been contaminated with pesticides is burnt. The project, spanning both energy and fire safety research, is funded by the Australian Research Council.
What makes their partnership work is deep mutual respect for each other's research. Kennedy credits Dlugogorski with outstanding analytical and mathematical skills and a sponge-like ability to absorb highly technical information. Dlugogorski, in turn, describes his colleague as an intuitive quick thinker and a first-class chemist.
"Bodzio and I don't always approach a problem from the same perspective," says Kennedy, "but by combining our specialist expertise we produce a better outcome."
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