Researchers study renewable energy sources through interdisciplinary project

Writer: Daniella De Luca

Renewable energy researchers

New Mexico State University professor of physics, Heinz Nakotte; Igor Sevostianov, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Shyam Kattel, physics graduate student; Manjita Shestra, physics graduate student; and Joe Peterson, physics graduate student.

When a battery goes dead, you get a new one.

When a car runs out of gas, you refuel.

But, what if you didn’t have to?

A team of six researchers working across disciplines and colleges at New Mexico State University are partnering with other New Mexico universities for a statewide collaboration on these and other renewable energy topics.

In addition to NMSU, participants include University of New Mexico, Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico Tech and other institutions in the state. The universities split funding from a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Energy Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (DoE EPSCor) to study new pathways for energy generation. NMSU’s share is about $300,000 over the next three years.

“We want to explore this fast-moving field with tremendous potential economic and social implications,” said Heinz Nakotte, professor of physics and NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Starting last fall, the research team has been meeting weekly to discuss research results in the group, share recent findings, and compare journal articles or new information about this rapidly advancing field. Each member of the group, including three physics graduate students in this research effort, attends conferences or workshops to explore research directions that maximize the research impact of this synergistic activity at NMSU in New Mexico and nationally.

Through a partnership with the College of Engineering, represented by associate professor Igor Sevostianov, the physics department is creating an interdisciplinary research environment that allows for a combination of existing research strength on the NMSU main campus, with the goal to obtain relationships that will aid in designing novel materials for energy conversion and generation.

“When I first talked to my professor (Sevostianov) about this project, he said we were speaking two different languages. I thought, maybe I could correlate those, and that would be my contribution – getting us all to speak the same language,” said Manjita Shestra, a third semester physics graduate student. She and her physics student counterparts are eager to better understand the current concepts, designs and characteristics of state-of-the-art energy converters and fuel cells and how they will be used in the future.

They will conduct experiments at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories in addition to spending time on the network of the nation’s third fastest supercomputer “Encanto” housed at Intel Corp. in Rio Rancho, N.M.

Boris Kiefer, associate professor of physics, describes the project as “a stimulating, intellectual challenge” to contribute to possible solutions to energy and fossil fuel related problems society is likely to face in the 21st century.

“It’s difficult, but the prospect of getting it right brings a huge level of excitement,” said Joe Peterson, second year graduate student. He and co-researcher Shyam Kattel, also a second year graduate student, say they’re most looking forward to the prospect of increasing their ability to combine basic and applied sciences more directly. The students envision that this skill will assist them in having successful careers in high-tech jobs after graduating from NMSU.

“The project fits very well with the Year of Sustainability (at NMSU),” Kiefer said. “Sustaining our way of living in the light of increasing energy demands will require exploration and unlocking new energy sources.”

Over the next few months, each member of the group will attend international conferences or summer schools to promote the project. It’s one part of fuel cell collaborations among governments, academic institutions and businesses that enables the research and advancement of knowledge that is needed to develop new energy technologies.

Will they be successful?

“We can try,” Sevostianov said. “All challenges bring their own opportunities.”

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