Energy to Burn

Photo credit: Phillip Krantz, Columbia University

For much of the world, energy is a necessity: It powers phones, cars, homes and workplaces. Most of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Now, NSF-funded researchers are exploring new ways to hack or harness nature to discover more sustainable and efficient solutions to everyday energy challenges.

But what about solutions that can work with the fuels of tomorrow and today — by simply resulting in less energy being used?

Photo credit: Marcus Lehmann, CalWave Power Technologies Inc.

Ocean waves can do more than delight surfers. Ocean wave energy is a potentially important and readily available source of clean electricity, yet it remains underutilized as an energy source. Berkeley-based startup CalWave Power Technologies Inc., aims to change that.

With support from NSF’s Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR), CalWave is developing a patented and durable technology that will convert mechanical power from ocean waves to electrical power, similar to an offshore wind turbine. During the development phase, the company utilizes wave tanks to test scaled models.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Schifman for Columbia Engineering

Humans produce a lot of wastewater, and treating it can be laborious, energy intensive and expensive. In one part of the treatment process, for example, wastewater is churned in aeration tanks, which provide oxygen to microorganisms that extract nitrogen pollution from the water. The process of aerating microorganisms, however, requires a lot of energy.

NSF-funded researchers from Columbia University’s Engineering School are investigating ways to clean wastewater more efficiently. By fostering the growth and activity of anammox, a type of bacteria that uses 60 percent less oxygen to remove nitrogen pollution, researchers have been able to lower energy and other costs. The structures seen here start off white but are colonized by anammox and other bacteria, which produces a reddish-orange biofilm.

Photo credit: Tim Schoon, University of Iowa

Uranium 238 fluoresces under a black light.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 90,000 metric tons of nuclear energy waste in the U.S. is in need of disposal. NSF and other federal agencies support the training and development of the next generation of scientists and engineers with expertise in radiochemistry and related fields to address the persistent challenge of disposing nuclear waste — without harming the environment or human health.

Exploratory research funded by the National Science Foundation often leads to breakthroughs that transform science and society. Today’s investments in basic research and early stage startups will ultimately help address some of the most complex global challenges.

To find more NSF-funded energy solutions check out this Discover gallery.