Watson College researchers develop clean-energy technology | Binghamton News – Binghamton University

As climate change increasingly threatens humanity — with 2023 as the hottest year on record worldwide — many scientists and engineers are seeking better ways to power our high-tech lifestyle without dangerous levels of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.
Several initiatives at Binghamton University have received significant attention and funding over the past few years, mainly centered on the lithium-ion battery research of Nobel Prize winner and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry M. Stanley Whittingham. Those include the New Energy New York coalition of academia and industry partners, which the National Science Foundation named one of the 10 inaugural NSF Regional Innovation Engines eligible for up to $160 million in funding over the next 10 years.

Researchers at Watson College are taking the lead on other aspects of clean-energy technology, receiving more than $9 million in funding over the past five years. The college hopes to hire eight new faculty members specializing in energy research for 2024–25.

Here’s an overview of what they’re working on now.
For decades, nearly all solar panels have used silicon as their semiconductor material, but the element is expensive to mine and purify, and silicon-based photovoltaic cells are difficult to recycle after their time producing power is over. By 2050, 80 million metric tons of decommissioned panels could accumulate globally.
As the director for the Center for Autonomous Solar Power (CASP), Associate Professor Tara P. Dhakal from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has investigated a better system based on perovskite, a crystal structure initially named for a calcium titanate mineral.
Perovskite solar cells generate comparable power to their silicon counterparts and are less expensive, because they can be manufactured using a roll-to-roll printing method. Their major drawback is they fail faster in adverse weather conditions, so Dhakal’s research focuses on making perovskite cells more durable so they can spend years outside capturing and converting the sun’s rays into electricity.
“Silicon still wins in terms of stability, but although the cost has come down over time, it remains costly,” he says. “Perovskite has stability issues, but if we can overcome that, then it is cheaper. The material is abundantly found anywhere, including the U.S. If we can really produce perovskite solar cells with long-term stability, that’ll be good for society and our future.”

Dhakal has been developing stable perovskite solar cells using $700,000 in funding from the NSF and the Department of Energy. Based on the technology developed at CASP, a spinoff called Pinwheel Solar was established, and it is seeking Small Business Innovation Research, Small Busi- ness Technology Transfer and similar seed grants to scale up and commercialize it.

As the Internet of Things connects more devices into a collective network — even single-use sensors like food packaging, agriculture or “smart bandages” — ECE Professor Seokheun “Sean” Choi is developing biobatteries that use organic reactions to generate tiny amounts of electricity for sensors, tags or similar devices.
One project creates power from human sweat, while others use spore-producing bacteria. An ingestible version of the spore biobattery can be swallowed so that doctors can get a better look at the hard-to-reach small intestine. Other variations can produce power for weeks and potentially would still work after 100 years.
Choi has won nine federal grants since coming to Binghamton — seven from the National Science Foundation and two from the Office of Naval Research. In the past five years alone, he has received $1.75 million in energy research funding and published the results in top engineering journals.
The most challenging application for the Internet of Things, he believes, will be wireless sensor networks deployed unattended in remote and harsh environments.
“My ultimate target is to make it really small,” he says. “We call this ‘smart dust,’ and a couple of bacterial cells can generate power that will be enough to operate it. Then we can sprinkle it around where we need to.”
For more than 80 years, the power grid has relied mainly on large synchronous generators providing alternating current along transmission lines to places both near and far. Thousands of generators are synchronized through the power network to provide stability when problems arise.
Renewable energy, however, has different properties to what large coal- or gas-fired plants produce. Most renewable and energy storage systems interact with the power grid through power-electronic-based inverters known as inverter-based resources (IBRs). Those IBRs will introduce a very different dynamic behavior to our future power grids, so the operation and protection strategies of a carbon-neutral grid need to be revisited.

Several Watson faculty members are leading efforts to keep the electric current running. Associate Professor Ziang “John” Zhang from the ECE Department and his research team won a $1.2 million NSF grant in 2023 to better understand the behavior and improve the transient dynamics of the future grid.
“The dynamics of the current power system are dominated by synchronized generators that weigh many tons and put out a couple hundred megawatts each,” Zhang says. “If there’s a fault, it will create a disturbance to the grid, but those are typically absorbed by the rotating mass of synchronous generators. There are multiple lines of defense that power system engineering has designed based on the electromechanical dynamics of these generators.”
His collaborators — from Cornell University, Texas Tech University, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the New York Power Authority — include experts in both power systems (like he is) and power electronics who develop inverters for connecting renewable resources to the grid. The tools and theories they develop will be tested with NYPA in a simulated New York transmission system.

Solid-state transformers convert between AC and DC, as well as “step up” electricity for transmission and then “step down” for everyday use. In 2023, ECE Associate Professor Pritam Das won a $537,959 NSF CAREER Award to build transformers that are more efficient, deliver more power density, have fewer components and are less expensive to manufacture.
“I hope that this research will result in more investments in the work that we are doing here and also will attract commercialization partners that incorporate our transformer technology into products deployed in the field,” he says.
Several Watson College researchers are taking a wider view of the power grid, not just maintaining its reliability but also improving its performance.

One is ECE Associate Professor Ning Zhou, who is developing ways to increase situational awareness for power grid operators. He dives deep into past data to create mathematical models that will use artificial intelligence to find the delicate balance of sustainability, cost and reliability.
“Without situational awareness, a lot of power system engineers tend to be conservative,” he says. “They want to make sure the power grid will survive any events. Sometimes they are more conservative than necessary, and that means a lot of customers will lose their power supply.”
Zhou and Zhang also are working together on a $400,000 research project sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to develop open-source inverter-based resources that will better connect renewable energy and storage systems to the grid.

To help guide future policy decisions, Assistant Professor Neha Patankar from the Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering uses energy system models that input thousands of data points about how electricity flows into and out of the power grid.
Before coming to Binghamton in 2022, she earned a PhD in operations research from North Carolina State University and served as an associate research scholar at Princeton University. She worked on the REPEAT and Open Energy Outlook projects, which provide an independent environmental and economic evaluation of federal energy and climate policies.
Patankar and her students use a tool called Community Energy Compass to model different alternatives that look at costs, resources and other factors. Is it better to rely mostly on solar power? Where can new wind farms be built? How do we accommodate more electric vehicles?
And how can we wean ourselves off fossil fuels? You can see some of the work that she and her collaborators have done at repeatproject.org.
“Our power system is going to be changing the most in the next 10 years, more than the residential sector or the transportation sector or the industrial sector,” she says. “What we need to know are the tradeoffs between different options or different pathways that all will get us to the same goal.”

SSIE Associate Professor and Associate Chair Yong Wang is formulating energy solutions from a variety of angles, with the goal to balance the supply and demand of our electric needs. Through the Watson Institute for Systems Excellence (WISE), which embeds graduate students into industry to solve real-world problems, those projects include detecting smart grid cyber-intrusion, improving recharging of lithium-ion batteries and analyzing off-peak usage as one way to ease the strain on the grid. Industry partners for the research include GE Renewable Energy and Eos Energy Enterprises.
Wang is also developing better ways to detect and prevent cyber-intrusion in the power grid, using an optimization algorithm to help stop hackers.

“We want to come up with better solutions by improving the system one little bit at a time, and in the future, we can actually make the world better,” he says. “That is my hope.”


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