The Non-Conventional Energy Category Nominees
Scientists dealing with the processes of artificial photosynthesis, the production of new types of biofuels, the creation of integrated systems for the production of solar energy and agricultural products, and the development of hydrogen energy have become the Global Energy Prize laureates in the Non-Conventional Energy nomination.
Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science Peidong Yang is known all over the world for the discovery of the “artificial leaf” made by his group of researchers, which became a breakthrough in the field of artificial photosynthesis.
The scientist was born in 1971 in China and is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a winner of USTC AAGNY awards, World China Prize, R&D 100 Award and the Scientific American 50 Award. In 2014, Thomson Reuters named Peidong Yang among the most likely Nobel Prize candidates. However, the scientist has not yet become a Nobel laureate. The team of scientists led by Y.Peidong has achieved an impressive discovery. The technology they have created makes it possible to obtain oxygen and organic compounds from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water.The device is a hybrid system: it is a “forest” of nanowires based on silicon and bacteria, which captures solar photons, breaks down carbon dioxide molecules and produces nutrients. The bacteria can proliferate, which enables us to address the issue of providing astronauts and future colonisers of other planets with oxygen, fuel, medicines and other resources. Since the atmosphere, for example, of Mars, almost entirely consists of carbon dioxide, such a biogenerator would come in handy for exploration of the “Red Planet”. However, Peidong is sure that the device will be useful on Earth as well. NASA plans to present prototypes of such devices that can generate 40 kW as early as by 2023. Another widely known work is the synthesis of Si/Ge superlattice nanowires based on the Vapor-Liquid-Solid (VLS) mechanism. This discovery shows great promise as it provides high-performance thermoelectric materials suitable for waste heat recovery in power plants, refineries and automobiles.
German scientist Adolf Goetzberger is a pioneer in the field of solar energy research and the author of the idea of agro-power plants that combine the production of solar energy and agriculture.
Goetzberger was born in 1928 in Germany. He is the founder of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems. The scientist was named as the European Inventor of the Year 2009, and also received such awards as the Einstein Award from SolarWorld AG, European Solar Energy Award, ISES Award, 1st Class Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Baden-Württemberg Medal.
A few decades ago, he began to view solar energy as a very real alternative to fossil fuels. Today his ideas for using the solar energy to generate electricity are coming to fruition. The problem with solar energy is that even if there is a decrease in cost, solar power plants take up huge spaces. Goetzberger proposed to combine them with agricultural lands, placing panels above the crops. A number of projects around the world using this idea have proven to be very successful.
Adolf Goetzberger has not only developed an advanced photovoltaic technology, which has every chance of becoming the cornerstone of the tomorrow’s energy systems, but also built from scratch the world’s second largest research institute for solar energy, which now employs more than 1200 people.
Jay Keasling from the USA is one of the world’s most renowned scientists in the field of synthetic biology. His research on new types of biofuels and chemicals is well positioned to save the planet from climate change one day.
Jay Keasling, the head of the Joint Bioenergy Institute, was born in 1964 in the United States. In 2006, The Discover Magazine recognised him as Scientist of the Year. Keasling’s awards include the Eni Award for Renewable Energy, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Award, the International Metabolic Engineering Award, the US Environmental Protection Agency Award, and the Biotech Humanitarian Award.
While working on biofuel production, his team has developed several strains of microorganisms that can yield fuel similar to hydrocarbon. Moreover, the scientists developed the entire “conveyor” required to produce biofuel: the strains of E. coli obtained by them are able to break down cellulose and other components of biomass and to convert them into sugary compounds, finally yielding organic molecules that can be used as fuel. The resulting fuel is currently used as an additive in diesel buses in Brazil and as jet fuel on some aircraft.
The scientist’s research had made it possible to solve the extremely challenging issue of producing an inexpensive drug for the treatment of malaria, which is very important for developing countries. Medicines for malaria are based on Artemisinin, but the drug is expensive due to the raw materials shortage. Keasling’s team has managed to synthesise microorganisms and obtain ten times cheaper Artemisinin, whose production also does not depend on climatic conditions. The new technology is expected to produce 100 to 150 million doses of the drug per year for the countries of Asia, Africa and South America. Genetic engineers have also managed to synthesise cannabinoids from baker’s yeast, including those that cannot be obtained directly from plants. This discovery could be a breakthrough for medicine and pharmaceuticals, since cannabinoids are already used in therapy and the possibility of their more frequent use is being actively studied. In addition, J.Keasling’s technology has made it possible to obtain “transgenic beer” by growing yeast that can completely replace hops used in the brewing technology.
Piotr Zelenay from the USA is one of the world’s most influential scientists engaged in hydrogen energy and in the development of new generation catalysts. His research will make it possible to introduce revolutionary fuel cells in transport.
The scientist was born in 1953 in Poland, graduated from the University of Warsaw, and is now a professor at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a winner of the Polish President’s Award, R&D 100 Award for environmentally friendly electrocatalysts not containing precious metals, and of the Electrochemical Society and US Department of Energy awards.
Hydrogen fuel cell electrodes currently require platinum-based catalysts, which are incredibly expensive. Scientists are developing their counterparts without precious metals. A team of scientists was able to synthesise catalysts offering comparable performance and based on inexpensive alternatives to platinum. The new material is an iron-nitrogen-carbon electrocatalyst synthesised with two nitrogen precursors.
Moreover, the researchers were able to obtain unique data on the efficiency potential of this material and the knowledge of exactly how and where the catalysis occurs.
Thus, thanks to P.Zelenay’s effort, the future of hydrogen vehicles is becoming more and more attractive, since the discovery solves the issue of the costly serial production of hydrogen fuel cells.
Masahiro Watanabe from Japan is researching fuel cells and developing practical solutions to enable the development of hydrogen vehicles.
He was born in Japan, and now he is a Ph.D. at the Fuel Cells Nanomaterial Center of Yamanashi University. The scientist’s awards include the Electrochemical Society of Japan Medal, the Award of the Minister for Science and Technology, the IPHE Award for Engineering Achievement and the Japan Society of Catalysis Award, the Kato Memorial Award and the Award for Distinguished Scientists of the Yamanashi Academy.
Several new concepts of bimetallic alloy catalysts proposed by Professor M. Watanabe are already being used in the fuel cells of the first commercial hydrogen cars manufactured by a number of major automakers, including Toyota and Honda.
In the course of implementation of a large national project, Watanabe invented the so-called “Nanocapsule Method”, which makes it possible to manufacture new catalysts for hydrogen vehicles. These catalysts show extremely high performance characteristics and durability compared to traditional ones. The scientist also proposed a bifunctional mechanism of catalysis, having generalised the theory for the development of new catalysts. The revealed nanosized particles and their catalytic characteristics were accepted by many scientists and engineers. As a result, the catalysts have found their use both for the production of commercial direct methanol fuel cells and for the production of polymer electrolyte fuel cells employed in household cogeneration systems.
To make hydrogen vehicles cheaper and more popular, it is necessary to solve the issue of methane synthesis at low temperatures, using various types of catalysts. In particular, the researchers have found that strontium titanate exposed to light in combination with rhodium nanoparticles, converts methane and carbon dioxide into synthesis gas at much lower temperatures than those employed in thermal reactors.