AFOSR Celebrates Earth Day|
Posted 4/23/2012 Updated 4/20/2012
by Molly Lachance
Air Force Office of Scientific Research
4/23/2012 - ARLINGTON, Va. -- This weekend as the nation celebrated Earth Day, and many reflected on a few things they could do to help the environment, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research did the same -- continuing to review the environmental impacts of its basic research portfolio.
But this is not a once-a-year exercise for AFOSR. The efficient use of energy has been an ongoing part of AFOSR's research initiative since its founding in 1951, and by 1956; almost one-half of the organization's portfolio was dedicated to some aspect of energy research.
AFOSR chemical research in the 1970s concentrated on electrochemistry for more efficient fuel cells and batteries as well as an emphasis on increasing the longevity of aerospace systems by improving fatigue and fracture analysis, thus ensuring significant energy savings in system replacement costs.
Bio-inspired sciences and genetic engineering programs saw an increase in the 1980s and 1990s as environmental control standards became more regulated. One particular success from those decades was an AFOSR-funded treatment system for a hazardous environmental contaminant known as ammonium perchlorate, an essential component of solid rocket fuel.
At that time, Air Force scientists recognized the environmental concerns related to the compound, and searched for a way to convert this strong oxidizer into a harmless substance as quickly and simply as possible. In 1989, researchers discovered a microorganism that could convert the perchlorate ion into a chloride, or simple salt, at room temperature and under extremely mild conditions.
AFOSR's continued support of the work over the next few years, helped confirm the team's initial findings, and led to scaled-up version of the process, prototype, and ultimately an Air Force-patented process that allows the decontamination of sites that threaten water supplies.
Today, AFOSR continues to be heavily engaged in energy research but does so in many more areas and in far more sophisticated ways thanks to advances in computer analysis and nanotechnology which exploits our ability to better understand the building blocks of our universe.
As in the past, AFOSR funded programs are always looking towards the future. The following research programs demonstrate the promise for revolutionary energy savings in the years to come.
-- Improving Thermoelectric Devices: A University of Wisconsin-Madison research team has developed a new method for using nanoscale silicon that could improve devices that convert thermal energy into electrical energy. Thermoelectric devices can use electricity to cool, or conversely, convert heat to electricity.
-- Developing Brighter Bulbs Using Less Energy: A University of Rochester team has developed a laser process that doubles the brightness of regular incandescent light bulbs for the same amount of energy. This process could make a 100-watt bulb consume less electricity than a 60-watt bulb.
-- Creating Solar Cells Using Flexible Thin Film: Progress on improving the efficiency of solar cells for aircraft might allow the Air Force to start using solar-powered drones. A scientific team led by the University of Washington is developing solar cells that use a flexible film and thin glass coating mounted on aircraft wings. These dye-sensitized solar cells power sensors and actuators in the wings to eliminate electric wires and lighten the drone's load.
-- Boosting the Amount of Sunlight Solar Cells Capture: Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a new antireflective coating that boosts the amount of sunlight captured by solar panels and allows those panels to absorb the entire solar spectrum from nearly any angle; moving academia and industry closer to realizing high-efficiency, cost-effective solar power.
-- Developing Self-Powering Electronics: In a small step toward making electronics that can power themselves, researchers at Georgia Tech and the University of Dayton in Ohio have discovered how to generate electricity just by bending tiny wires back and forth. By embedding the wires in a thin film covering, they could be sewn into the sole of a shoe or woven into clothing, generating juice with each step and every movement.
-- Producing Oil from Algae: One AFOSR-funded researcher is looking for efficient oil producers, in particular, algae that can accumulate more than 30% of their body weight in oils. The aim is to develop algal jet fuel to supplement the 2.5 billion gallons of jet fuel used by the Air Force annually.
-- Using Natural Cellulose for fuel Cells: Tomorrow's fuel-cell vehicles may be powered by enzymes that consume cellulose from woodchips or grass and exhale hydrogen. Researchers at Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Georgia have produced hydrogen gas pure enough to power a fuel cell. Using cellulose instead of starch expands the renewable resource for producing hydrogen to include biomass.
-- Producing Hydrogen for Energy from Cyanobacteria: According to engineers at Oregon State University, it should be possible to meet much of the world's energy needs with nothing more than the combination of water, sunlight and cyanobacteria. And an important advance has just been made toward that goal. OSU researchers successfully got one type of cyanobacteria - more commonly known as blue-green algae - to live, grow and produce hydrogen for fuel.
-- Creating Thin Film Solar Cells for Fibers and UAVs: AFOSR is funding a project to integrate solar power cheaply and easily into the base materials used to build unmanned aerial vehicles. The University of Michigan team is investigating the energy harvesting potential of many different device applications, including thin film solar cells reshaped and coated onto long continuous filaments, or fibers. When such organic semi-conductor coated fibers are woven into a fabric system, the resulting textile can be used not only to form the structural make-up of the UAV, but also to generate the electricity to power it. To date, the team has demonstrated small, stand-alone prototypes that strongly suggest that this type of application is possible.
-- Splitting Water and Hydrogen Using Solar Light: A team at MIT has developed a process for using solar light to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This artificial photosynthesis has the potential to power an entire building throughout the day using only a few gallons of water and the light form the sun.
-- Revolutionizing Lighting Technology with Micro-Plasmas: A research team funded by AFOSR has pioneered the use of micro-plasmas in a revolutionary approach to illumination demonstrating wafer-thin, and very flexible sheets of light. Drs. Gary Eden and Sung-Jin Park of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have founded Eden Park Illumination, Inc. to bring this new this new lighting technology to the world.
-- Optimizing photosynthetic and lipid biosynthetic pathways: A collaborative effort among 10 laboratories including the Department of Energy and U.S. Air Force Academy is investigating the basic algal biology needed to engineer and enhance photosynthetic and lipid biosynthetic pathways. Program success could lead to a stable fuel supply and price, oil independence, carbon neutral power, and anti-climate change.
-- Developing Microbial Fuel Cells: An AFOSR-funded program at the Naval Research Laboratory is exploring both basic and applied aspects of electrochemically active bacteria. These microorganisms can be used as energy harvesters in microbial fuel cells (MFCs) to potentially power micro-air vehicles or other DoD-relevant systems such as distributed autonomous sensor networks.
-- Investigating How to Make H2 a Stable Fuel Source: Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory and the DOE along with eight other labs have developed techniques for high throughput screening of H2-producing phototrophs, identified physiological factors for increasing rates & yields of cellular H2 production, and engineered metabolic pathways with increased production of H2 with the long term goal of providing a stable fuel source for DoD applications.
-- Improving Cellular Fuel Production: Rutgers University is looking for methods to improve cellular fuel production efficiencies with their work in biosolar H2 cyanobacterial metabolism
-- Optimizing microbial fuel cells: A group of government laboratories is optimizing microbial fuel cells using genetics, modeling and nanofabrication techniques and has showed the value of bacterial biofilms for enhanced performance capabilities.
For sixty years AFOSR has contributed to energy breakthroughs via a wide variety of research endeavors. Fuel efficient aircraft designs, cost and energy saving manufacturing processes, more powerful yet lighter jet engines, and more energetic fuels are but a few of the many success stories related to this endeavor. Today, Energy, Power and Propulsion is one of AFOSR's basic research focus areas, and the research programs cited above are testament to our commitment to this strategically critical enterprise.
AFOSR continues to expand the horizon of scientific knowledge through its leadership and management of the Air Force's basic research program. As a vital component of the Air Force Research Laboratory, AFOSR's mission is to discover, shape and champion basic science that profoundly impacts the future Air Force.
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