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UNC, NCSU researchers make strides in solar power

As UNC and N.C. State University prepare to compete in tonight’s basketball game after the sun sets, researchers at both universities have come together to learn how to harness and store solar energy when the sun rises.

Led by UNC chemistry professor Thomas Meyer and the Energy Frontier Research Center at UNC, researchers discovered a way to store solar energy in the form of hydrogen.

Cindy Shea, director of UNC’s Sustainability Office, said UNC has already incorporated some solar energy in an attempt to reduce greenhouse emissions, and this advancement makes solar energy much more useful.

“Any time you can use an intermittent resource during a greater number of hours, then that increases the likelihood of it being deployed,” Shea said.

Meyer said researchers have used the process of photosynthesis as a model.

“We’ve replaced billions of years of evolution with a lot of busy graduate students and post-docs who have to make all of these components,” he said.

For the past three years, Professor Greg Parsons of N.C. State has worked with Meyer on developments that allow them to coat necessary particles in Meyer’s energy-storage system.

“By marrying the unique chemistry that Professor Meyer is developing with the chemistry that we understand, we were able to get this improvement in performance,” Parsons said.

These developments came in part through an initiative of the Research Triangle Institute to encourage collaboration.

Meyer said this technology, which would allow solar energy to be stored in large power plants, could be essential for areas that don’t have the same infrastructure as the United States.

“If you are sitting in the middle of Africa, where you have no infrastructure, you have no power lines, to be able to have a unit like that could be of real value,” Meyer said.

Both researchers said they admit that a prototype is years away from being developed, but they hope eventually to have an inexpensive, commercially viable product.

Parsons sees these developments as representative of the power of collaboration.

“This is an example of how institutional partnering can lead to scientific and technological advances.”

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