Students and professors at ND work to learn more about the power of the sun

When you stop to think about it, the sun is really the source of our energy here on Earth.

Even the coal and oil we burn today needed the sun millions of years ago in order to form. At Notre Dame, professors and the next generation of scientists are figuring out new ways to capture the power of the sun.

“What we have right now is two resources. One is sun, two and there's water,” says Dr. Prashant Kamat, science professor at the University of Notre Dame. “If you could split water with light our energy problem is solved.”

This explanation from Dr. Prashant Kamat sounds promising. It is also a simple concept to demonstrate with a solar battery charger connected to two lead pencils.

“And now they are passing electrons into these pencils,” says Dr. Kamat. “You see the gas formation which is essentially hydrogen at one electrode and the other electrode has oxygen. The hydrogen could be our future fuel because we can burn it.”

Other experiments are also being done by Notre Dame researchers who are very concerned about the next generation of power.

“These are what are called sensitizers, and they make themselves sensitive to picking up energy from light,” says Kevin Tyrdy, a Notre Dame student. “So, we would couple those sensitizers with other materials that can accept energy from the sensitizer and then shuttle it into some sort of circuit and convert it to power.

This sounds very technical, but it is as simple as why we eat. We use the energy from food to power our bodies as we work, read or play.

“I have a lot of time here left, and I want to see progress made in the work I do,” says Tyrdy. “It is important for my generation and the kids we have to be able to leave behind a better earth than we came upon and support further expansion of population we will inevitably see.”

That population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion people by the year 2040, increasing our need for power even more.

Right now, communication is a global grid,” says Dr. Kamat. “If we can create a global grid and put all the solar panels in six desert areas, it can supply the entire world with needed energy.

The global use of solar power is being slowed down by the cost, but Kamat says that is changing.

“Twenty years back, 1 kilowatt cost $1,200 dollars. Today, $35.”

The lamps here simulate the actual solar spectrum, power wise, and different wave lengths of light.

Notre Dame is funding a $10 million initiative concentrating on cleaner coal, nuclear energy and solar fuel. While Kamat knows we cannot fulfill our needs without coal or nuclear, he believes in the power of the sun.

“Solar comes ahead of nuclear energy,” he says. “Nuclear energy installation needs government backing. Solar, once you install it, is clean in the sense you won't have a spill or an explosion. This way it is much more clean and sustainable. Oil and coal looks cheap, but if you add all the environmental costs are, even the people who pay the price, it becomes very expensive, and we consider the price.”

The price we pay will rest with the growing population of our planet.

“We want to do this because it is challenging,” says Dr. Kamat. “The whole entire scientific community is energized. We have young students who come here and have a passion to solve the energy problem because energy and environment and sustainability is an important area for the next generation.

“We are inspired every morning, you know, looking at the news,” says Kevin Tyrdy. “Hearing about the oil spill, saying we need to do something to try and prevent this for our children and children's children.”

There is a lot of potential for solar power to help provide energy for future generations. Right now, coal and nuclear energy supply 75% of our nation's electricity, so solar power today is not even a blip on the radar screen. That will change, though, as prices come down or there is a major breakthrough.

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