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Future Fuels Initiative Ramping Up

Pilot grants awarded, faculty recruitment next for program that aims to reduce reliance on oil through interdisciplinary research.

Future Fuels Initiative Ramping Up
The Future Fuels and Energy Initiative is taking concrete steps into its second year with a pilot grant program and a visiting scholar program.

Provost C. L. Max Nikias established the initiative last fall. It builds on existing strengths at USC in methanol fuel cells, bacterial fuel cells, petroleum extraction and internal combustion engineering, aiming to reduce global reliance on oil through cross-disciplinary research that reaches beyond the science of alternative fuels to consider the economic, social, environmental and policy conditions necessary for a wholesale move away from fossil fuels.

“It’s a huge policy question,” said Randolph Hall, vice provost for research advancement. “This [initiative] is very interdisciplinary. People are approaching it from all directions.”

That much is clear from the projects chosen for pilot grants, which range from fundamental work on biofuel combustion through nanotube-based solar cell development to a cultural studies analysis of alternative fuels.

Karen Pinkus, associate professor of French and Italian in USC College, represents the cultural studies angle. She plans to study the “rhetorical and visual persuasion surrounding the development of fuels that have failed, for the most part, to become mainstream.”

In her proposal, she writes: “Future fuels will need to capture the popular imagination in order to succeed on a mass scale. My study stems from the conviction that the humanities – specifically literary, cultural and visual theory – can contribute substantively to interdisciplinary research on future alternative fuels.”

That most un-fuel-like among alternative fuels – solar energy – fascinates Mark Thompson, professor of chemistry in the College. With his pilot grant, Thompson is attempting a marriage of solar energy to nanotechnology, another longtime interest. In collaboration with Chongwu Zhou of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Thompson is testing carbon nanotubes as conductors in solar cells.

Solar cells today are made with indium tin oxide on a glass substrate, which results in a rigid, expensive and environmentally toxic product.

In contrast, organic solar cells could be safer to discard in landfills and flexible enough to manufacture cheaply in giant rolls, Thompson said.

“Carbon nanotubes are a great alternative. You can make mats of carbon nanotubes that look like wire mesh that’s all melded together on the surface, that is very flexible because it’s not a single unit.

“There’s a lot of people interested in organic solar cells as potential alternatives to silicon-based solar cells, where the cost differences could be quite large,” Thompson added.

The researchers are working to improve their carbon nanotube paper, whose efficiency, according to Thompson, already compares favorably to that of indium oxide.

Fokion Egolfopoulos, another faculty member in the USC Viterbi School, is responding to the upsurge of interest in biofuels – from cooking oil to ethanol – by performing basic research on how such substances behave in engines and examining what techniques might be useful to make them burn thoroughly and leave minimal pollutants.

Other pilot grants went to Atul Konkar of the USC Viterbi School for solar cell research; Mansour Rahimi, also of the USC Viterbi School, for his effort to build USC’s research capacity in assessing the environmental life cycle of future fuels; and Carol Wise of the College, for a study of natural gas development and export from the Andes range of South America.

The initiative’s visiting scholar program has brought two prominent energy policy researchers to campus for the current academic year: Adam Rose, professor of energy, environmental and regional economics at Penn State University, and Mark Bernstein, formerly a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. and senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Rose is studying how to accelerate the adoption of new energy technologies during his term in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. Bernstein, a visiting professor of political science in USC College, focuses on geopolitical issues involving energy and the environment.

The visiting scholar program is the first step toward a permanent expansion of USC’s capacity in future fuels research, Hall said.

“The focus in the coming year will be almost entirely on faculty recruitment. We are pursuing a cluster recruitment strategy to attract groups of senior accomplished faculty to USC.”