From solar energy to advanced batteries: new engineering faculty cohort strengthens UMBC’s commitment to Earth-friendly research

On April 22, when the campus community celebrated Earth Day, the scent of the natural awakening of spring filled the air. Birds chirped in the freshly leafed trees and students walked in the bright sunlight. But this pleasant day belied a troubling trend: In Maryland and beyond, the balance of Earth’s life-support systems is shifting, driven in large part by the heat-trapping greenhouse gases we humans are sending into the atmosphere. The Earth is getting hotter; weather patterns are changing; and ecosystems are under pressure.

“Climate change is forcing us to adopt a more Earth-friendly lifestyle and develop renewable energy,” he says Özgür Çapraz, associate professor in UMBC’s department of chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering, focusing on advanced battery technologies. Çapraz, who joined UMBC in fall 2023 from a teaching position at Oklahoma State University, was one of three recently hired faculty members in the College of Engineering and Information Technology (COEIT) who specialize in various aspects of sustainability and renewable energy research .

The three employees were part of COEIT’s efforts to build a recognized force in the environmental field while expanding expertise in important areas such as energy, he says Lee Blaneyprofessor in the department of chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering who led the search.

The other two mercenaries are Alok Ghanekar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who studies materials that can improve certain solar energy systems, convert waste heat into electricity and better cool buildings; AND Rajasekhar Anguluri, assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering, specializing in the mathematics that describes large, complex systems such as the power grid.

Energy puzzle

“Ever since I was a science major in high school, I have been interested in energy,” says Ghanekar, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern California before joining UMBC in the spring semester. “Growing up in India, there were regular power outages every week. It’s not a major problem at the moment, but energy demand continues to grow.”

Throughout the world, energy consumption is in many ways driving progress and improving people’s quality of life. However, burning fossil fuels to produce much of this energy increases the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. While the exact consequences of this change are uncertain, it is clear that the Earth is warming, and this trend is likely to put enormous pressure on societies in the coming decades.

The diagram shows solar panels and wind turbines connected to batteries, connected to the power grid.
To harness intermittent renewable energy sources, we also need to develop energy storage and distribution solutions. (Photo: Sara Levine | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Part of the solution may be a significant shift towards clean and renewable energy sources. Every new hire survey touches on this goal in some way. In Ghanekar’s case, he is researching human-designed materials called metamaterials, which, among other potential applications, could one day help significantly increase the amount of solar energy we can efficiently convert into electricity.

Getting more energy from the sun could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but since the sun doesn’t always shine, we also need ways to store that energy (perhaps with new battery technologies, Çapraz’s expertise) and ways to share that energy with the power grid without disrupting it delicate balance (a challenge Anguluri was working on).

As academic researchers, they work at the frontier of knowledge, asking and seeking answers to fundamental questions that can push technology forward: for example, how exactly do batteries with new chemical compositions work, or why does a material degrade over time? Anguluri’s mathematical knowledge spans a range of engineering disciplines. He and Ghanekar have already talked about collaborating on mathematically modeling the behavior of Ghanekar’s metamaterials.

No scientific “Eureka!” moment or technological advances in themselves will likely be the panacea for a problem as complex as global warming, but these incremental steps actually offer people more tools.

“As scientists, we like to think about solving interesting problems,” says Anguluri, who completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Arizona State University before coming to UMBC this year. “As global citizens, we must also pay attention to our values ​​and make wise choices.”

Tables line the sidewalk, with grass on both sides and buildings in the distance.  Standing groups of people talk to other people sitting at tables.
Çapraz, Anguluri and Ghanekar speak with community members during an Earth Day Community Event celebrating UMBC’s environmental research.(Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

Building on long-term commitment

Studying human impacts on the Earth and working to mitigate environmental damage is nothing new for UMBC researchers.

The university is home to many research centers that advance environmental research, from the Center for Research and Education on the Urban Environment to the Institute for Data Exploitation and the Model Revolution in the Polar Regions. The university has also had a long-standing partnership with NASA to develop new environmental remote sensing technology.

Çapraz, Ghanekar and Anguluri will join university faculty who will study sustainable aquaculture, wildfire smoke, water and sediment pollution, fusion energy and more.

“Sustainability research is COEIT’s strong suit,” he says Vandana Janeja, associate dean for research and faculty development at COEIT. “Now it has taken on a new meaning, and our recent hires are proof of that.”

“Climate change is an issue that so many of our students struggle with,” adds Blaney. “They are really concerned about the effects of climate change and want to do something to address this global challenge.”

As UMBC’s new faculty begin research projects and expand their laboratories, interested students will have increasing opportunities to learn about and join in their important work. This is good news because, as Earth Day celebrations on campus have shown, protecting our common home is the responsibility of all of us.

Tags: CBEE, COEIT, CSEE, MechE, research, sustainable development