Richard Gross, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NYU Poly, is on a campaign to make clean energy actually clean. Gross is working on developing new methods of constructing and deconstructing materials that make up objects like solar panels and wind turbines, because—as it turns out—these “green” technologies may not be entirely environmentally friendly after all.
“As these technologies start to become more prevalent, we’re going to start seeing more buildings using them,” Gross, who is also director of NYU’s Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing, told NYULocal. “It’s great to have solar cells, but they have a lifetime—you have to throw them away.”
Gross and his team of collaborators are searching for a way to make this “throw away” aspect of sustainable machinery just a little more sustainable, through their National Science Foundation funded project, dubbed RENEW (Renewable Energy NaturE’s Way).
“They are major sources of waste,” said Gross. “It’s better to start thinking about the problem now rather than later on when we have major disposal issue.”
Gross’ team may be on the verge of a solution to this problem, however. The researchers have begun studying cellulose fibers extracted from wood, and using these tiny fibers to strengthen products like turbines, rather than glass or carbon fibers that require petroleum to produce. Similarly, the team is using biological components extracted from nature to synthesize materials that would capture sunlight in solar panels.
Gross predicts the technologies will be going “green” in more ways than one, as well. More precise, carefully engineered products means more money saved in upkeep and maintenance, bringing an economic benefit along with the environmental ones.
“We believe that the precision by which nature designs molecules can be used to deliver better performance in both solar cells and wind turbine blades, where the organization of components is critical to device efficiency and material properties,” he said in a release.
Although Gross concedes that the widespread implementation of the technology is a long way off—possibly even 20 years away—he sees his work as a step-by-step process toward more intelligent sustainable design.
“We could, in effect, ‘green up’ green energy,” he said.