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UWyo Magazine

May 2016 | Vol. 17, No. 3

Professor Bruce Parkinson, who researches solar energy conversion, takes a group of students to see the solar panels atop the Energy Innovation Center.

Professor Bruce Parkinson, who researches solar energy conversion, takes a group of students to see the solar panels atop the Energy Innovation Center.

 

Capturing the Sun

School of Energy Resources and Department of Chemistry Professor Bruce Parkinson, the J.E. Warren Professor of Energy and Environment, made international connections early in his career, and those connections have led to ongoing collaborations.

Parkinson conducts research in a number of areas, including the basic science of solar energy conversion. “A big problem with solar is that the sun doesn’t shine at night, so you need to store it,” he says. “A lot of people around the world are working on solar energy storage, including some large cooperative efforts in the United States and one in Germany that I’m especially involved in.

“We work on converting sunlight directly to fuel by splitting water with sunlight to produce hydrogen fuel,” Parkinson continues. “The problem is that we don’t have the materials to do it so I came up with an idea where we use combinatorial chemistry to rapidly create and screen a lot of new materials.

“If we’re successful in finding useful materials for splitting water with sunlight, then we can go to the next step: making prototype devices, tweaking up the efficiency and seeing if this will be economically competitive.”

In 2015, Parkinson received an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Prize. As part of that award, Parkinson spent time last spring and summer working with fellow solar energy researchers in Germany.

“Another part of my group’s research is related to solar energy conversion at a fundamental level,” Parkinson says. “We’re looking at electron transfer and the process of absorption of photons, trying to get more than one electron out of each photon to increase efficiency at a very fundamental level.”

You may have seen the movie The Martian, and another of Parkinson’s endeavors sheds light on a discovery made after the book was written. “There was a discovery [in 2008] that the near surface of Mars has a high concentration of a rather unusual anion called perchlorate that is toxic to humans at low levels. It is not naturally abundant on earth, but it’s the most abundant negatively charged ion in the near surface soil of Mars,” Parkinson says. “In the movie they didn’t take into account that perchlorate is toxic, or (the character Mark Watney) wouldn’t be growing his potatoes and dragging soil into his habitat.”

There was an accepted conventional atmospheric chemistry explanation for the presence of perchlorate, but Parkinson and UW geology and geophysics Professor Carrick Eggleston came up with an alternative theory.

“We had an experiment showing we could make the stuff just with natural minerals, sunlight and chloride, which is in the soil there,” Parkinson says. “Now our explanation is actually the leading one.”

Whether Parkinson’s next big idea takes him to Germany or to Mars (at least on paper), there’s no doubt more compelling ideas are on the horizon.


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The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of the University of Wyoming


About UWyo

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UWyo Archives

Contact Us

UWyo Magazine
University of Wyoming
Dept. 3226
1000 East University Ave.
Laramie, WY 82071-2000
Phone: 307-766-2379
TTY: 307-766-6729
Email: uwyomag@uwyo.edu

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