Like many of its counterparts around the world, the College of Engineering is seeking to better understand how energy can be best utilized and incorporated into daily lives. Yet, the impact of energy — clean, safe, and renewable energy — is such that no single institution can focus on all of the potential aspects of energy. For this reason, the college and its researchers have selected five areas — energy efficiency; safe nuclear waste storage; clean coal technologies; carbon dioxide separation, storage, and usage; and renewable resources — in which they have considerable expertise and through which they will continue to focus their efforts. The college also offers several courses highlighting energy technologies, as well as the social, political, and moral aspects associated with energy usage.

Faculty Experts in Energy

  • Making the Most of Wind
  • Waste Not, Want Not
  • Replacing Current Technology

Making the Most of WindWind turbine blades (rotors) work in the same way as do airplane wings. The wind flowing over the blade produces lift. This makes a windmill turn, but wind turbulence can affect the performance of a turbine. If the wind is blowing smoothly, there are no problems. If the wind becomes unsteady, this not only affects the efficiency of a turbine (how much energy it is able to generate) but can also physically damage the turbine blades because of aerodynamic loads caused by the turbulence.

Researchers in the Institute for Flow Physics and Control — Clark Equipment Professor Thomas C. Corke, director of the center, and Professor Robert C. Nelson — are investigating distributed active flow control as a way to improve wind turbine performance. By placing plasma actuators, developed at Notre Dame, on a turbine blade, researchers can change the flow, and thus the aerodynamic load, of air around the blade in real time. This promotes continuous operation of a turbine at near optimal conditions in both steady and unsteady wind conditions, making the turbine more effective and more cost efficient. Other benefits of the actuators include that they are fully electronic with no moving parts, can withstand high-force loading, and can be laminated onto the blade surface.

Waste Not, Want NotFossil fuels are in limited supply, and their use negatively impacts the environment. Both are excellent reasons to be looking for alternative energy sources. If you follow the old adage of “Waste not, want not,” then researchers in the Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences may be on the right track. Senior Sarah Keithley is working with Assistant Professor Robert Nerenberg to develop less-polluting and more sustainable energy technologies.

Keithley is currently studying microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that can harness the energy in organic wastes, such as municipal or industrial wastewaters. MFCs work like chemical fuel cells, but they use microorganisms to enable reactions and transfer electrons to an electrode. Because they generate electricity from essentially any biodegradable organic matter, MFCs can directly produce electrical energy while treating municipal or industrial wastewater.

Nerenberg’s team is working to develop new and more efficient MFC configurations. They are also studying the basic mechanisms of MFC operation, including microbial community structure of the MFCs and their mode of electron transfer from the bacteria to an electrode.

Replacing Current TechnologyAssistant Professor Michael Niemier and a team from the departments of computer science and engineering and electrical engineering have been pursuing the design of circuit elements constructed with nanoscale magnets and using the QCA device architecture instead of electrical current. In magnetic QCA (MQCA), logical operations and data flow are accomplished by manipulating the polarizations of nanoscale magnets. Niemier and his team have designed MQCA structures that should facilitate more complex, circuit-level tasks and demonstrated how these structures interact with the on-chip drive circuitry. And, they are proceeding to the next step … fabrication.

Another advantage to nanomagnetic technology is that the magnets are inherently resistant to radiation. Thus, any type of MQCA system placed in space would be immune to the effects of radiation, which eventually destroy traditional CMOS chips. Still in the fundamental stages of research, Notre Dame is on the road to another first: developing an all-magnetic system that would provide more complex computations that uses less energy.