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In an attempt to find a solution for the looming energy crisis in Egypt and the depletion of petroleum and natural gas reserves, researchers at the American University in Cairo's (AUC) nanotechnology labs, are working to find ways to produce renewable fuels and electricity from sunlight. "The international community is aware of the crisis arising from the use of fossil fuels and is increasingly focused on the development of zero-carbon emission technologies using renewable-energy sources," said Nageh Allam, assistant professor of nanotechnology and renewable energy in the Department of Physics.
Allam's research to harness solar power is divided into two stages. The first stage involves the use of nanomaterials to harvest sunlight for the production of clean fuel, such as hydrogen, to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases and, in turn, global warming. The second stage includes the use of nanomaterials to harvest sunlight and convert it into electricity via solar cells. "Solar energy is one of the renewable energy sources under consideration because it is the most abundant and, if harnessed efficiently, is capable of meeting global energy needs for the foreseeable future," Allam said.
Hydrogen is one of the lightest and cleanest gases. When used as a fuel, no emissions are produced. Its only byproducts are water, heat and energy. However, it takes a lot of energy -- and money -- to extract hydrogen from water. Currently, hydrogen gas is created using fossil fuels that generate harmful carbon-dioxide emissions.
"Sunlight is used to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen atoms that can be used to produce clean energy," Allam explained. "In theory, sunlight can be used to excite a semiconducting material, which in turn, acts as a catalyst for the water-splitting reaction in an electrochemical cell."
Putting his theory into practice, Allam is designing photo-electrochemical systems to carry out the solar-driven, water-splitting process. "This is one of the most promising technologies being developed by scientists in the 21st century," said Allam. "Our focus is on the production of hydrogen as a clean and efficient fuel because it can be used to power everything, from houses and electrical devices to cars and airplanes. We are also working on using solar energy to produce electricity and to convert carbon dioxide into useful fuels."
To properly conduct this research, Allam is establishing the Energy Materials Laboratory on campus to be used for the design and assembly of nanomaterials utilized for solar-energy conversion. When completed, it will include power supplies for materials synthesis, a solar simulator and equipment to test the efficiency of the devices created for solar-energy conversion, among others.
Using nanotechnology, or the science of the very small, scientists are making big advances in combating chronic problems such as the proliferation of greenhouse gases and the burdensome consumption of finite natural resources for generations to come. "The lab will be open to everyone in the AUC community as well as to those outside it," said Allam. "In fact, we are working to establish a diploma in solar energy and the students enrolled in such a program will spend almost 50 percent of their time in the lab ó developing, designing and testing solar-energy devices."
Allam recently received the prestigious Misr El Kheir (MEK) award for his research on solar-energy conversion. MEK is a nongovernmental organization that empowers Egyptians to develop self-sustainable development models. Allam received first place in the category of Physical Sciences Without Students for his article on nanoscale control of metal oxides to develop new materials and systems with unique physical and chemical properties, which can have promising applications. The article was published in ACS Nano, a nanotechnology research journal produced by the American Chemical Society.
After receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Department of Chemistry at Cairo University, Allam moved to the United States to complete his PhD in materials science and engineering at Pennsylvania State University. In 2010, he worked at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Laser Dynamics Laboratory where he focused on the fabrication of hybrid materials for solar-energy conversion. Last year, he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a research scholar, before joining AUC in Fall 2011.
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About The American University in Cairo (AUC)
The American University in Cairo (AUC) was founded in 1919 and is major contributor to the social, political and cultural life of the Arab Region. It is a vital bridge between East and West, linking Egypt and the region to the world through scholarly research, partnerships with academic and research institutions, and study abroad programs. An independent, nonprofit, apolitical, non-sectarian and equal opportunity institution, AUC is fully accredited in Egypt and the United States.
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