December 15, 2017

SIU undergraduates receive grants to further energy research

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Three undergraduate students will conduct energy-related research projects this spring after being selected for a special program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

SIU’s Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center selects students as Energy Boost Scholars each spring semester. The program is aimed at engaging SIU undergraduate students in faculty-mentored, hands-on research activities.

Giving students hands-on experience with research

The ACERC committee making the selection looks for creative proposals seeking to answer open questions or solve problems related to advanced coal and energy research. Proposals can explore a specific scientific question, work toward an invention or solving a local or global energy issue.

Selected students have the opportunity to explore their intended majors or areas of interest, develop relationships with faculty working in their field, and gain valuable research and critical thinking skills. Upon completion of their project, which includes presentation during SIU’s annual Energy Day in April, students receive a $500 stipend.

Students selected for spring semester 2018, and their research projects, are Ava Alford, Rachel Bolerjack and Lincoln Weber.

Monitoring the McClelland Lake Watershed

Alford, a sophomore in plant biology from Williamsfield, will work with Dale Vitt, retired professor of plant biology, on developing a vegetation monitoring program aimed at assessing the health of the ecosystem of the McClelland Lake watershed in Alberta, Canada, where a new oil sands project is scheduled to begin in 2027.

Before traveling to Canada, Alford will work with SIU doctoral student Jeremy Hartsock to examine regionally rare species of peat moss, which is the dominant moss in the Alberta wetlands area. She’ll lean to identify it and practice other field research techniques.

Using coal to improve solar energy

Bolerjack, a senior in chemistry from Mount Vernon, will work with Lichang Wang, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, to address two of the biggest roadblocks to solar energy: efficiency and potential effects on the economics of the energy markets. She will research organic dye-sensitized solar cells with the organic material of the dye being comprised of coal. 

Coal, due to the many aromatic compounds present within it, has been shown to have photosensitizer properties, meaning it can produce a current when exposed to light. Coal’s black color allows it to absorb many wavelengths of light, which is another promising property. It is difficult, however, to get the metal oxide surface of such devices to adsorb such dyes, which leads to poor efficiency.

The project is focused on the finding ways to treat the coal, including with certain oxidizers, which could improve its ability to attach to these surfaces. She will use dyes from Southern Illinois bituminous coal in an effort to merge the coal and solar sectors, thereby improving the environmental impacts.

Improving the efficiency of solar cells

Weber, a sophomore in mechanical engineering from West Lafayette, Ind., will work with Saikat Talapatra, professor of physics, on a project that seeks to evaluate the optical properties of certain extremely thin nanomaterials for use in solar cells.

Such materials – the thickness of which can be measured in atoms – have great potential to efficiently produce current in solar cells. Weber will focus on figuring out which materials SIU labs are most capable of synthesizing before performing optical and electrical testing for potential use in solar cells.

About the Energy Boost grant

SIU’s ACERC is funded by a $4.6 million Energy Boost grant, established the research center in 2015 and supports its mission of creating a new interdisciplinary academic unit charged with advancing technology while training a workforce to implement new energy solutions in the future.