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The Truth About the Future of Energy

It sounds like the tagline of a commercial: Renewable, affordable and better for the environment. Yet these types of energy are right in front of us, thanks to the collaborative work being done among UCF researchers and policy drivers.

There are no empty drink cans strewn around James Fenton’s desk. He powers himself on natural energy. You could say his lifestyle and his career align with the concept of “sustainable, waste-free energy.”

We should pause on the mention of the word “energy.” Fenton, who serves as director of the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), knows how minds tend to wander when his passion topic comes up.

“The subject overwhelms people,” he says. “We all care about energy because we all rely on it, but the big picture has become politicized and confusing.”

His group is among several energy-focused clusters and centers at UCF that are bringing clarity to everything in the picture: the technology, the sustainability, the costs, even the ease for the typical consumer to understand it. They’re also trying to remove one of the most stubborn barriers to progress.

“Skepticism gets in the way of truth,” Fenton says. “The truth about what these groups are doing will lead us to a better future. But we need everyone to know about it.”

Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC)

“Fossil fuel energy as we know it is a terrible investment. The sun and wind are free. And there’s no harm done when sunshine spills.”

On any given day, some of the 60 UCF-affiliated experts within FSEC could be at their hub in Cocoa, in a lab at Research Park, on the grounds of the state capitol in Tallahassee, or in a walk-in cooler at Publix.

“We’re completely immersed in the future of energy,” Fenton says. “It’s 100%  of our jobs, 100% of the time.”

The FSEC team advances every piece of the puzzle: solar technology, transportation charging, energy storage, hydrogen production and consumption, smart microgrids, virtual powerplants and high-performance buildings. It didn’t start out this way. The Florida legislature greenlighted FSEC in 1975 to take advantage of the research capabilities at UCF (still known as Florida Technological University). Their first task: discover methods to test and certify the thermal hot water heaters on the roofs of homes. The launch came during an historical oil and energy crisis in this country, when gas was being rationed and people were urged to turn off Christmas lights.

“I remember sitting in line for two hours at gas stations,” Fenton says. “If there was any good from it, people began to care about the scarcity of energy and being smarter consumers. When prices went back down, people stopped caring. We became wasteful. Today, people everywhere care again. We all know the impacts of waste and high costs. That’s why our work is more relevant than ever.”

FSEC has been at least a generation ahead of the energy curve since its inception. Among other breakthroughs, they’ve developed energy-efficient building codes, efficient air conditioning technology, and a ceiling fan that’s found in millions of homes. Ultimately, they’d like to integrate all research findings so smart homes and smart buildings work as seamlessly as smartphones. We’d charge cars at home, charge them at work and live in homes running off stored solar energy.

“We need to get away from taking fuels out of the ground,” Fenton says. “Energy as we currently consume it is a terrible investment. You use it and it’s gone, and you still have to pay for it. The wind and the sun are free and the technology to harvest this energy is cheaper than fossil fuel use.”

Right now, homes use 54% of the electric energy burned in Florida. Fenton says it’s possible to cut that down to 0% by the end of the decade with energy-efficient retrofits using solar and battery storage. The FSEC team has a network of believers: energy corporations, utilities, government agencies, and companies like Publix, Disney, and Universal that are hungry for less-costly renewable energy systems.

The biggest hurdle, however, is not the technology. It’s the messaging. So, FSEC is part of educating, too.

They educate legislators. Fenton: “Energy should be nonpolitical. This is common ground, no matter where you live, who you support, or your socioeconomic status.”

They educate UCF students. “They experience the future of energy from A-to-Z, and they always find jobs. The clean energy workforce is growing exponentially. It’s why we’ve created the nation’s first solar energy apprentice program,” Fenton says.

They also educate the most curious population segment: K-12 students. They do this in part by organizing contests where students build solar-powered ovens and cook food to be judged, build and race small cars running on renewable resources, and build creature comfort cottages using energy efficient methods.

“It’s harder to get adults excited about energy because perspectives have already been framed by politics and the person knocking on the front door,” Fenton says. “Young people have open minds. That’s where our work can make the most difference. They’ll be our greatest ambassadors in the future.”

Resilient, Intelligent, and Sustainable Energy Systems (RISES)

“We are advancing the future of energy in ways that I couldn’t have imagined if I’d taken a different career path.”

The GE/FP&L Microgrid Control Lab inside the Research 1 Building is about the size of a large living room and, honestly, it does not look futuristic. There are cabinets, a few computers, and some test equipment. Pegasus Professor Zhihua Qu, the director of RISES, is also here. He explains what surrounds him.

“This building is a testbed,” Qu says. “We have a project underway so we will not lose power, ever. We are essentially in a microgrid. As we perfect it, we can create a network of microgrids for UCF. And then there are no limits.”

The 16 faculty members in RISES form a community working on power systems, artificial intelligence, communication networks, photovoltaic panels and energy policy. They’ve grown from a cluster to a center because of their advancements in less than a decade and the $18 million in funding for six or seven major projects currently underway.

Research 1 microgrid is another collaborative project between UCF and Duke Energy. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Energy could use the self-sustaining microgrid model in rural or underserved communities, where a single fallen tree limb can wipe out electricity for days. Qu knows what it’s like. He remembers rolling blackouts when he lived in China, so RISES is also developing a mobile resilience hub that could be moved into neighborhoods to provide immediate power and potentially save lives.

“The power companies have to supply energy 24-7 and rely on universities like ours for research,” Qu says. “That’s why I chose this as my career, for the far-reaching differences we can make.”

After he completed his schooling, Qu applied for a job with a major power company in California. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to climb the corporate ladder or dedicate himself to research and education.

“My Ph.D. advisor suggested I choose a career with the most impact,” Qu says. “That’s why I have no regrets. We are advancing the future of energy in ways that I couldn’t have done if I’d taken a different career path.”

Qu recognized years ago that the power grid as we know it would have to change. It would require a wider pipeline of talent, so he introduced a secure cyber physical systems  class at UCF to complement courses on renewable energy and power systems. Two students used their experience with RISES to help a major energy company identify cybersecurity vulnerabilities, averting potential disaster. Those students were inducted into the company’s hall of fame last year. In 2022, RISES faculty graduated 10 Ph.D. students, after completing their work as RISES researchers.

“Companies contact me all the time, saying they need experienced people,” Qu says. “Our students are sought after because of their classwork and their research activities in our center. They’re ready to lead all of us forward.”

Renewable Energy and Chemical Transformation (REACT)

“A student who grew up desperate for electricity on another side of the world can inspire faculty and students who never had to worry about energy.”

It would be easy to assume a Ph.D. in physics led Pegasus Professor Talat Rahman into her research on renewable energy solutions. However, she didn’t need multiple degrees to understand the needs for groundbreaking (and ground-saving) ideas. For her family, it’s personal.

From the time Rahman’s son was a toddler, she’s been taking him on regular visits to the villages where she grew up in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The electricity occasionally goes out. The air is stifling hot. The little boy worries, not for himself, but for his cousins.

“He once said he wished he could create so much electricity that no one would ever be without it,” Rahman says.

She’s been working toward his dream through her work as the cluster lead for REACT, which aims to develop processes that are simple, clean, and affordable enough to be implemented literally anywhere. The U.S. Department of Energy pays close attention to findings from this group of material scientists, physicists, chemists, engineers, and statistics analysts. They believe catalysis could be provide the best answers.

Catalysis in this context is the use of a catalyst (like titanium oxide) to convert harmful gases (like carbon) into useful and safe energy. Rahman saw an example of catalysis more than 40 years ago in Los Angeles, where smog from cars burning leaded gas would envelope the city during the day. Once cars were required to use catalytic converters, using platinum as the main catalyst, the smog began to dissipate.

“It worked, but platinum is expensive and once it’s gone from the earth, it’s gone for good,” Rahman says. “Our goal is to find ways where we don’t need so much metal as a catalyst, with little or no impact on the environment and zero carbon released into the atmosphere.”

They’ve already discovered how to limit the use of platinum to microscopic atoms. If those work as catalysts, then maybe materials as plentiful as boron and nitrogen could work, without scratching the earth’s surface. Or what about silica? Could a grain of sand be the answer?

“We look at what’s being done in Silicon Valley, where they use sand to change the world of computing,” Rahman says. “That’s the type of positive impact we’d like to make with energy.”

REACT does its trial and error experiments on computers instead of burning through natural resources. Only when they find a workable form of catalysis does the finding go to a lab in Research Park for material testing. From there, they can scale it up with the help of partners like BASF, Siemens, Merck, and Intel. Those companies are often landing spots for UCF students starting their own careers.

“They’re all desirable candidates because they’ve been part of an interdisciplinary team moving research forward,” Rahman says. “That’s how it works in the real world.”

The students and faculty also learn from each other’s life experiences. Rahman shares stories about villages in Pakistan. A student from Nepal describes families desperate to have electricity for everyday living. The conversations open the eyes of all students.

“It inspires us as a team,” Rahman says, “because we can see the world as it is today, but also what it needs to be five, ten, or 20 years from now.”

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