Energy Transition: Paving the Way to a Sustainable Future

A thin film of 2D halide perovskite crystals of uniform thickness. Rice engineers discovered a self-assembly method for producing the films from "seeds."

Houston's "energy capital of the world" status is here to stay — no matter the type of energy — says a report from Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. The study declares that Houston boasts the talent pool, tax advantages and business-friendly environment to lead in energy transitions and to pioneer the continuing evolution of the global energy system. Rice’s role in positioning Houston as the leading hub of energy and clean tech innovation is key and researchers at the university have been hard at work tackling the many challenges a widespread energy transition presents. They are exploring everything from wind energy, solar power, renewable natural gas, low-carbon liquefied natural gas and biofuels to battery manufacturing, energy storage enhancements, recycling technologies and carbon capture, use and storage. In 2021, researchers embarked on or continued several projects along these lines. Here are some of them:

1. Bottling the world’s coldest plasma: Rice University physicists have discovered a way to trap the world's coldest plasma in a magnetic bottle, a technological achievement that could advance research into clean energy, space weather and astrophysics. "To understand how the solar wind interacts with the Earth, or to generate clean energy from nuclear fusion, one has to understand how plasma — a soup of electrons and ions — behaves in a magnetic field," said Rice Dean of Natural Sciences Tom Killian, the corresponding author of a published study about the work in Physical Review Letters. "This provides a clean and controllable testbed for studying neutral plasmas in far more complex locations, like the sun's atmosphere or white dwarf stars." Read more about this research in Rice News.

2. Where the rubber meets the road: Rice scientists have optimized a process to convert waste from rubber tires into graphene that can, in turn, be used to strengthen concrete, the most-produced material in the world. “Making concrete produces as much as 9% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions,” said Rice chemist James Tour. “If we can use less concrete in our roads, buildings and bridges, we can eliminate some of the emissions at the very start.” Read more about this research in Rice News.

3. Solar energy collectors grown from seeds: Rice University engineers have created microscopic seeds for growing remarkably uniform 2D perovskite crystals that are both stable and highly efficient at harvesting electricity from sunlight. Halide perovskites are organic materials made from abundant, inexpensive ingredients, and Rice's seeded growth method addresses both performance and production issues that have held back halide perovskite photovoltaic technology. Read more about this research in Rice News.

4. BCarbon: In 2021, Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy created one of the best publicly available protocols for soil carbon offsets in the United States, according to CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that analyzes climate solutions based on the best available science and data. BCarbon is a system to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil as organic carbon. It is a scalable soil carbon storage standard designed to work for landowners, businesses and soil carbon storage buyers. Comprised of 10 principles, the standard allows landowners to monetize soil carbon storage as a property right. Read more about BCarbon and how it’s used in Rice News.

5. Fiber-optic monitors: Rice University geoscientists and their colleagues received support to develop sophisticated fiber-optic sensors and seismic sources to find and evaluate small faults deep underground at sites that store carbon dioxide (CO2) to keep it out of the atmosphere. The Department of Energy awarded Rice geoscientist Jonathan Ajo-Franklin $1.2 million to adapt his lab’s distributed acoustic sensing method to monitor storage sites where reactivation of small faults could allow leakage into adjacent groundwater or the atmosphere. The project is part of $4 million in grants announced in late May to enhance the safety and security of CO2 storage. Read more about this research in Rice News.

6. Turning heat into power: Invisibly small carbon nanotubes aligned as fibers and sewn into fabrics become a thermoelectric generator that can turn heat from the sun or other sources into energy. The Rice University lab of physicist Junichiro Kono led an effort with scientists at Tokyo Metropolitan University and the Rice-based Carbon Hub to make custom nanotube fibers and test their potential for large-scale applications. Read more about this research in Rice News.

7. Luminescent solar concentrators: Rice engineers developed polymer cores that redirect light from any source to solar cells suggesting a colorful solution to next-generation energy collection: Luminescent solar concentrators in your windows. Led by Rafael Verduzco and postdoctoral researcher and lead author Yilin Li of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, the team designed and built foot-square “windows” that sandwich a conjugated polymer between two clear acrylic panels, allowing them to generate energy from inside and out. Learn more about this research in Rice News.