This project will attempt to resolve the key technical issues and uncertainties regarding a breakthrough concept for low-cost high-efficiency solar power. The proposed approach is based on a conceptual system for providing independent power for cell towers that will allow them to function even after emergencies like hurricane Katrina. The solar engine is based on the Johnson ThermoElectrochemical Converter (JTEC) concept for converting heat to electricity invented by (Lonnie) Johnson, who will be available to assist Tuskegee University in carrying out this work. Except for the working fluid, JTEC is an all solid state engine that does not have mechanical moving parts. Different from conventional solid state thermoelectric devices, it does not have inherent parasitic heat loss paths. JTEC uses Membrane Electrode Assemblies (MEA) similar to those used in fuel cells; however, it does not require oxygen or a special fuel, only heat. The availability of a range of proton conductive membrane materials that operate from room temperature up to and exceeding 1200oC suggests that JTEC could generate electricity from practically any heat source, from very small, just a few degrees, to very large temperature differences. JTEC approximates the Ericsson thermodynamic cycle which is Carnot equivalent. Research on this technology offers the potential for achieving solar power efficiency of 50% in the short-term and 80% in the long-term, far beyond what is expected from photovoltaics both in efficiency and in cost.
(1) Intellectual merit of the proposed activity JTEC is a fundamentally new solid state engine concept. Critical research is needed to enable a credible analysis of its potential. Research is needed into the properties of proton conductive materials needed to make a working system. The materials are similar those being studied in fuel cell research, but new material properties must be investigated in order to optimize the choices for this application. Research is needed to model, simulate and optimize an integrated systems design for cost-effective recharge power for cell towers.
(2) Broader impacts resulting from the proposed activity: Cell towers running out of battery power were a crucial problem in the wake of Katrina and resulted unnecessary deaths and destruction. This project, with follow-on research, could provide un-interruptible, cost effective power for communications in areas threatened by hurricanes and other disasters that is not limited by battery life. The proposed engine technology will have major impacts on the international energy economy particularly with respect to the need for economical, green, renewable energy. This research is consistent with NSF goals for minority education and outreach. Tuskegee University is a HBCU institution and Johnson Research is a minority owned small business.