More energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on the planet in one year. Yet, solar energy provides only about one-tenth a percent of electricity and less than one and a half percent of fuels.
The overwhelming need for carbon-neutral energy and the enormous potential of solar energy conversion defined the 25th Eastern Regional Photosynthesis Conference (ERPC), held at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., in April.
The conference was attended by eight Rensselaer graduate and undergraduate students, and co-chaired by assistant professor K.V. Lakshmi of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. She expanded the scope of this year’s conference to include industrial and applied topics on solar energy uses.
The students are members of Lakshmi’s laboratory, as well as the laboratories of assistant professors Peter Dinolfo and James Kempf of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
“It was interesting for the Lakshmi Lab to get to hear some of the biggest names in our field speaking on breaking solar research,” said Amanda Weyers, a graduate student in chemistry. “Their insights helped to put the work we do in a new perspective the structures we are working on and the research we are developing really are impacting understanding of photosynthesis and the direction of solar research.”
One possibility explored at the conference was artificial photosynthesis, or if photosynthesis could be duplicated outside the leaf using bio-inspired chemistry. Other topics included the exhaustion of fossil fuels due to peaking production and increased demand, and the various avenues being pursued to produce biofuels.
Pete Palomaki, a chemistry graduate student who works with Dinolfo, believes that solar energy will be a major contributor to energy resources. “The concepts are there, the manpower is there, the sun is obviously not going anywhere, and the research is what is necessary to make the leap to a solar society. We need to work hard to understand what it’s going to take to make a cheap and efficient photovoltaic device. There are a ton of great ideas out there, but the reality is that so far none of them rival silicon photovoltaics in efficiency and cost. I think the mindset of people is starting to change and they want to use solar and other types of renewables, but it’s still too expensive to justify it.”
Rensselaer was represented in all three areas of the poster exhibition with posters on artificial photosynthesis, photosynthesis reactions, and light harvesting.
“The conference was a great chance for us to see some of the research that is going on in the area of solar energy, and an opportunity to show experts in the field what we have been working on,” said Palomaki. “Personally, I got some great advice from top researchers in our field, and enjoyed sharing my ideas and results with them.”
As Lakshmi emphasized, the primary goal of the conference was to highlight the vast potential of solar energy conversion and to create a forum for the discussion of possible chemical and biochemical avenues for harnessing solar fuels. This conference had a combined focus on research, education, and outreach and catered to young scientists in the field. Lakshmi is the chair of the 26th ERPC to be held at Woods Hole in April 2009.
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