The Global Quest for Energy Conservation

By Kara Socol

A new institute led by Texas A&M Engineering and funded by the National Science Foundation links some of the world’s top researchers in an effort to harness the power of “wasted” energy.

"Reuse" has become a buzzword for the environmental movement , which brings forth notions of recycling and limiting disposable items.

Thanks to a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), it's also become a buzzword for materials science researchers at Texas A&M University and their collaborators in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. But in their case, "reuse" is referring to energy itself.

"Energy is obviously a big issue for the world, and we need to look at alternatives," explains Raymundo Arróyave, a Texas A&M assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "But we also need to look at different ways to use the energy we already have."

Finding ways to capture and reuse wasted energy is the very purpose of the Texas A&M–led International Institute for Multifunctional Materials for Energy Conversion (IIMEC). Through this institute, researchers can connect across the globe to collaborate on energy conversion research.

Says IIMEC Director Dimitris Lagoudas, head and John and Bea Slattery Chair in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M, "We're doing something that is technologically very important for the U.S. and the other participating countries."

The NSF award

The NSF supports a select group of International Materials Institutes (IMIs) in an effort to advance worldwide collaboration on materials research. In January 2010, Texas A&M announced that it — in conjunction with another member of The Texas A&M University System, the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) — had been selected as one of the award recipients. Many of the researchers involved with the IIMEC hold joint appointments with Texas A&M and TEES.

Texas A&M's U.S. partners in the IIMEC are the University of Houston and the Georgia Institute of Technology. University researchers in 11 countries in North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean are already involved in the institute, with more countries expected to join.

In addition to the NSF award, TEES and the Texas A&M University College of Engineering contributed matching funds to the IIMEC, as did Texas A&M's Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.

Harvesting energy

Multifunctional materials are receiving considerable attention in the materials science world. Tahir Cagin, a Texas A&M chemical engineering faculty member, says that this area involves "harvesting" energy — capturing the excess energy produced by one energy form and using it to power a different form.

Vibrations produced by walking down the street, for instance, are a form of wasted mechanical energy. But when these vibrations are harvested, this mechanical energy can be turned into electrical energy, activating a light in a child's tennis shoe.

"You have heat around you, for instance, when a motor is running," explains Cagin, associate director of research for the IIMEC. "Harvesting that wasted heat enables us to convert it into a useful form. You basically have less loss. And if you improve the coupling, you improve the efficiency."

"Coupling" occurs when an energy-releasing process is used to drive an energy-requiring process. An example is the use of piezoelectrics. These minuscule materials can convert engine vibrations or even sound waves into electrical energy. (More about Cagin's research)

This electrical–mechanical coupling is one of three distinct research themes of the IIMEC.

Electrical coupling with chemican, thermal and optical energy sources is also an IIMEC theme. This often takes the forms of fuel cells, photovoltaics or thermoelectrics. Another theme is thermal–mechanical and magnetic–mechanical coupling. The research of Lagoudas, Arróyave and others on shape memory alloys (SMAs) falls under this category.

And computational materials science overlaps all three themes.

Experimental and computational methods

The experimental method side of materials science involves actual hands-on laboratory work. The computational side deals more with computer-generated mathematical modeling.

Arróyave, a member of the IIMEC senior personnel, is a computational researcher. He likens the two methods to baking a pie. Using the computational method, one can determine what ingredients are needed and how they interact. But achieving the goal of actually creating the pie also requires the experimental method, where, through trial and error, one determines the precise ingredient measurements needed and the optimal time and temperature to properly bake it.

The computational method provides an understanding of material behavior — it offers guidelines, Arróyave explains. But it takes the experimental method to best design and optimize the materials.

"If we can combine both the computational and experimental methods in a rational, relevant way, it's possible to accelerate the development of materials," he says.

The communications side

Only two members of the IIMEC leadership team from Texas A&M are not engineers. One is Yalchin Efendiev, professor of mathematics. The other is Guy Almes, director of the Texas Academy for Advanced Telecommunications and Learning Technologies in Texas A&M's College of Science.

"Intrinsic to the university world is the reality that researchers are interested in a specific, obscure topic, and that others interested in that same area are scattered across the globe," he says. In the past, collaborating with researchers in a particular field often required hopping on a plane. The Internet, of course, changed that. And the IIMEC is taking things another giant step forward.

"Energy is obviously a big issue for the world, and we need to look at alternatives. But we also need to look at different ways to use the energy we already have."

Although Almes readily admits he doesn't know a lot about materials science, his contribution to the institute is vital: If computer networks are unreliable in successfully delivering computational models or moving large data sets, researchers in different countries won't be able to collaborate on projects. And if collaboration fails, the entire mission of the IIMEC fails.

Maintaining quality communications goes far beyond keeping computer systems up and running. Almes says the computational requirements for modeling materials science projects — particularly at the atomic level — are huge. "It's the phenomenon of collaboration that interests me," Almes says. "The quality of connections makes a difference in collaboration."

Why North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean?

The decision to focus IIMEC efforts on the North Africa–Middle East–Mediterranean region is multifaceted. The obvious draw, of course, is the energy resources of the area. Sunlight is also plentiful, and there's a clear interest among researchers to look beyond oil and gas reserves to alternative energy forms.

The area is home to many well-trained scientific communities and advanced research facilities, along with researchers well versed in theoretical and computational methods. The venture is already providing graduate students with study-abroad opportunities. And in the works are conferences and workshops for both researchers and their students.

Many of the researchers at U.S. universities hail from this region, and their ties to fellow researchers there are already strong. An additional tie comes in the form of Texas A&M's campus in Qatar, another IIMEC participant.

"This is a big part of globalization. It will enhance our presence in a vital part of the world. It will expose our students to what is going on there. And, scientifically, it will advance us."

Another less-obvious impetus for, in particular, North African involvement has to do with the higher educational system, Lagoudas says. There's a push to transform their universities from the French model to the U.S.–British model. Being included in the IIMEC, he says, will help these countries establish the high-level university systems they desire.

On the governmental side, political and economic stability is a stated goal. The institute's efforts to improve the use of natural resources and bring balance between renewable and nonrenewable energy sources could ultimately contribute to peace and sustainability of the region's resources.

Globalizing Texas A&M

Though it's now a bit cliché to say the world's getting smaller, the fact is, globalization is today's reality. And for better or worse, Lagoudas says, Texas A&M has to be a part of it.

"The bottom line is that if we want to be a leader, we have to be a leader globally," he says. "We can't just say we're the best in Texas. It's just not enough."

Adds Arróyave: "We're not experts in everything. We're combining forces with our international counterparts to try to augment our capabilities. The end product isn't particularly the technology, but the process of actually organizing in a rational way experimental and computational methods from around the world."

"This is a big part of globalization," Lagoudas says. "It will enhance our presence in a vital part of the world. It will expose our students to what is going on there. And, scientifically, it will advance us and our partner institutions."