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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC collects $10.8 million grant for solar energy research

With a $10.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, UNC’s Energy Frontier Research Center plans to continue its research into producing power directly from sunlight. Meyer, a chemistry professor, pioneered and continues to lead the research.

“Solar energy is great,” said Ralph House , a research manager at the Energy Frontier Research Center. “The sun puts more energy on Earth in an hour than the world uses in 365 days.”

With this latest grant, researchers at the Energy Frontier Research Center plan to begin the next phase of research. In phase two, the results from a previous study will be used to design solar cells that operate with energy directly from the sun. These cells will function without any external sources added to the chemical reactions that led to water splitting into hydrogen and oxygen.

“Because of the importance of the topic and its possible relevance, this area has been an underlying and constant theme,” Meyer said about solar energy conversions into fuel.

This advance could make plugs irrelevant, as electricity would no longer be a necessity, House said.

Phase one, which was completed in five years, received $17.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009. This phase focused on the underlying research needed to create an energy cell that would use light to split water molecules in order to produce fuel.

Research in the center is based on specialized teams which meet biweekly in Murray Hall.

The Energy Frontier Research Center was the first center to use this concept to create an artificial leaf that uses molecules to absorb light, split water and produce fuel simultaneously.

“Let the molecules do the work,” House said was the team’s motto.

Solar energy is also utilized within housing on campus. The solar water heating panels on the roof of Morrison Residence Hall help supply hot water to the building.

Rick Bradley, the associate director of housing and residential education, said in an email that utilizing the grant money for campus housing would be worth a conversation if he knew more specifics about the program.

Bradley said his department’s approach to energy has been to reduce its energy usage. The department does that by placing water flow inhibitors in showers, implementing energy conservation programs and contests known as “Green Games” within the halls, replacing window air-conditioning units with central systems whenever possible and installing automatic lighting in corridors that turns off when no one is present.

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