New Paradigms : Utah’s research universities are green tech incubators

Utah professors are spinning out some sci-fi technologies that also have tremendous environmental potential. An algae that eats fracking wastewater, for example. Or jewelry that generates electricity from body heat. These and other green innovations offer the possibility of lessening the impact of the modern lifestyle on the planet.

BerardiTwo oxides make…a heterostructure?

Take, for example, a chemical reaction developed collaboratively by two professors from the University of Utah and the University of Minnesota, respectively. The team took two compounds, each of which had insulative properties, and combined them to create a superconductive “complex oxide heterostructure,” per their published study. In layperson’s terms, U of U researcher Berardi Sensale-Rodriguez and U of M researcher Bharat Jalan managed to take two materials that conduct very little electricity and combine them to create a new material that conducts a whole lot of electricity. Like five times more than silicon, which is the conductor used in most computers and other electronics.Strontium titanate (STO) and neodymium titanate (NTO) are oxides. Metal oxides—iron oxide, (rust) being the most well-known of the group—tend toward low electrical conductivity. Which is why one wouldn’t suspect them of combining to create something with a property, conductivity, opposite to that of its constituent elements. After all, as our mothers always told us, two wrongs don’t make a right. But in this case, however, two low-conductivity compounds create one high-conductivity heterostructure.

The new material has “electron densities … two orders of magnitude larger” than those of semiconductors in use today. Which means you can conduct the same amount of electricity with a much smaller amount of material. Or a much larger current with the same substance mass. Translation: a massive increase in electrical efficiency for power transistors. And power transistors are used in, well, pretty much everything. In a University of Utah press release, Bharat Jalan is quoted as hoping to “improve conductivity by an order of magnitude;” he believes his collaboration with Sensale-Rodriguez to be “bringing the possibility of high power, low energy oxide electronics closer to reality.” (Photo of Berardi Sensale-Rodriguez courtesy of Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering)

That fracking wastewater

A few hours north of the University of Utah, the city of Logan is home to Utah State University, where algae research is blooming. Ron Sims, resident phytoremediation expert, has discovered a type of “microalgae” that survives—even thrives—in highly saline and polluted hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wastewater. “We isolated a specific type of algae from the Great Salt Lake,” Sims explains. “It turns out that they rather like the fracking water.”

Algae themselves are a valuable resource: They produce methane as a byproduct, which can be captured and used as fuel. Additionally, large amounts of algae—biomass, in industry vernacular—when harvested and compressed, yield oil. But significant algal biomass requires massive nutrient input. Fracking, it would seem, offers a nearly unlimited nutrient source. “The algae use nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous” that are plentiful in the wastewater.

But the algae/frackwater connection may yield a further boon. “We think that the algae can metabolize the carbon in the wastewater,” Sims explains, adding that his team is conducting further studies at the moment. If Sims is right, his microorganisms might just be able to neutralize many or all of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are so problematic. VOCs are hydrocarbon-based chemicals that evaporate easily and cause air contamination. “If the algae can metabolize VOCs,” Sims says, “we’ll be able to significantly decrease air pollution in the Uintah Basin,” where so much of the fracking takes place. “The algae will degrade the carbon-based compounds before they have a chance to evaporate.”

Waste WaterUtah, with more than 12,000 fracking wells, desperately needs to manage its wastewater, known in the industry as “produced water.” And, for the environmentally minded among us who hold out for fracking’s discontinuation: Allow me to disabuse you of that hope. Our insatiable thirst for cheap energy isn’t going anywhere. Fracking is to U.S. energy independence what WWII was to U.S. worldwide military and economic dominance. Geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan even goes so far as to predict a global realignment and a new era of U.S. isolationism, all driven in large part by our ability to extract large amounts of oil from our domestic shale reserves (and not, as the news cycle might have us believe, by the whims of our current commander-in-chief). So fracking is sort of a big deal and will only increase in production and sophistication.

“Look,” Sims says, “I’m an environmental guy and I’m also an industry guy. I understand both sides of this thing.” He goes on to explain how we need to move beyond the “you’re either for industry or you’re for the environment” mentality. “I believe we really can have it both ways,” he says. Industrial activity produces what he almost euphemistically terms “residues,” and we need to learn how to “integrate them into a total system.”

In fact, Sims prefers not to see frackwater as toxic waste. “It’s a resource,” he says. Using a farming allegory, he likens produced water to fertilizer. Algae would be the crop, and biofuel the end product analogous to, say, bread or cider. “Biological engineering,” he says, “combines industrial outputs and the natural world and figures out how to integrate it all.” It is, Sims readily admits, a bit of a new frontier with considerable research to be done. “We need to demonstrate results,” he says, “to show that these ideas really are viable. It’s a new paradigm.”


A song of hot and cold

The so-called thermoelectric effect involves the generation of electricity from a temperature differential. Heat—energy—flows from a colder substance to a warmer one, and that energy flow can be harnessed. A least, theoretically—although a recent breakthrough by University of Utah engineers has made widespread thermoelectricity generation a much greater reality.

Ashutosh Tiwari, a materials science professor at the U, headed up the team. They combined three materials: calcium, cobalt and terbium. The resultant material “needs less than one degree difference in temperature to produce a detectable voltage,” according to a press release by the U of U.  While other materials have long been known to have similar thermoelectric properties, their production cost has proven prohibitive for any widespread adoption. Additionally, all previous thermoelectric developments have been based on highly toxic materials.

The compound developed by Tiwari, et al, in contrast, uses “basic elements abundant in nature,” according to Tiwari. As a result, his thermoelectric product is considerably “less expensive than [currently available] commercialized thermoelectric materials.” Additionally, his new material is non-toxic and environmentally friendly. “The fabrication process is easier,” Tiwari says, than that of other thermoelectric materials as well.

One of the immediately anticipated applications for Tiwari’s material is that of electricity-generating body jewelry. To be sure, a ring or necklace will produce only a small amount of wattage. But it may be enough to power, say, a pacemaker or insulin pump. The harnessing of body heat, however, is only the beginning. Tiwari is confident it will scale for use in “airplanes, ships, power plants” and other large-scale applications. A passenger aircraft flying six miles above the surface of the earth, for example, has a significant temperature differential between inside and out. Is it too farfetched to imagine a future in which airliners need just enough fuel to achieve elevation, and thereafter power themselves via thermoelectric generation?

While Tiwari and his cohorts can’t reveal too much, for obvious reasons of intellectual property and the like, they are working on commercializing their discovery. Tiwari explains that his team has been working on this research for about 10 years. After trying numerous “elements and their combinations” in this veritable research marathon, they finally have something that they hope to bring to market in one to two years.

When he invokes a “new paradigm,” Ron Sims encapsulates more than his own (not at all insignificant) research. He, Tiwari, Sensale-Rodriguez, and all of their colleagues and associates seek to disrupt the status quo. Why settle when we can make appliances more efficient, after all? Or why just assume that energy extraction and ecology are intrinsically antagonistic to one another? One could almost say that the ultimate goal of every researcher is to find and realize that new paradigm in his or her field that says “watch me.” (Photo of Ashkutosh Tiwari courtesy of Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering)

Jacob Andra is a writer and content marketing consultant in Salt Lake City, Utah. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Jacob Andra is a writer, award-winning digital marketer, and technologist living in Salt Lake City. Specialties include account-based marketing, growth hacking for startups, blockchain, fintech, and international issues. He enjoys history, the outdoors, podcasts, and a good book.