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Harvesting Energy from the Sun

The sun is the center of our solar system, and while many people appreciate its role in providing light and heat on a sunny day, they may not know how much energy the sun sends to the earth each day.  The light striking the surface of the earth contains an amount of energy equivalent to that used by the world’s population 20,000 times over, and this is after the light has traveled through 93 million miles of vacuum in space and the earth’s atmosphere!  


Nature uses solar energy to drive its chemical processes, and any perceived inefficiencies in these are swamped by their massive scale.  The sun drives our food system starting at the bottom of our food chain, where sunlight is converted into energy-rich molecules, creating billions of tons of new biomass each year.   In turn, decaying biomass, over millions of years and under specific environmental conditions, creates energy-dense materials in the form of complexes of carbon and hydrogen, such as coal, oil, and other hydrocarbons.  Over the past 160 years, the utilization of these relatively inexpensive and abundant materials have transformed much of the world by pumping additional energy into the food chain, providing for inexpensive travel and transport, and opening the door to new classes of materials through polymer chemistry.


TN-SCORE researchers are working to improve our capacity to harness the sun’s energy through more direct, immediate, and sustainable conversion of photons into usable energy such as electrons or easily converted fuels such as hydrogen. Borrowing from the systems that plants use to harness light to drive their chemical processes, researchers are using photosystem-I (PS-I) to capture light and extract the energy in a useful form.  TN-SCORE Research Thrust Leader Barry Bruce co-authored a recent article(1) that demonstrated significant improvements in photocurrent density while using simpler fabrication methods than previously used.  The novel use of nanostructured light-capturing antennae made from TiO2 nanocrystals and ZnO nanowires and cleverly tied into the PS-I electrochemistry improved absorption of incident energy and provided an overall conversion efficiency orders of magnitude higher than previous systems. 


This is just one area of research in which TN-SCORE is making significant progress in the sustainable use of our natural resources, which will provide for greater energy security and higher quality of life tomorrow. 


1) Mershin, A. et al. Self-assembled photosystem-I biophotovoltaics on nanostructured TIO2 and ZnO. Sci. Rep. 2, 234; DOI:10.1038/srep00234 (2012).



TN-SCORE Research Stimulation Award Recipients

TN-SCORE is proud to announce Dr. Firouzeh Sabri and Dr. Bert Lampson as recipients of Research Stimulation Awards (RSA). Dr. Sabri is an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Memphis and Dr. Lampson is an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at East Tennessee State University. The RSAs support the development of junior investigators and their efforts to obtain federal funding, while also encouraging collaboration with industry.

Dr. Bert Lampson


Dr. Lampson received Stage 1 RSA funding for his proposal “Development of a Plasmid Genetic Tool that will aid the Bioengineering of a Cynobacterium in Biofuel Technology.” This project builds on an internal research award furnished by East Tennessee State University after a competitive campus-wide review process. Dr. Lampson notes the importance of the TN-SCORE RSA, “the ETSU grant only provides funds for the salary of a research tech assigned to this project.  Among many duties, a dedicated lab worker is required to maintain the continuous propagation of the cyanobacteria needed for this research work.  The RSA award from TN-SCORE is vital for our research.  The RSA will provide funds for lab supplies, perishable materials, and money to synthesize the plasmid pMA4; a technology material central to this research project.” 

Dr. Firouzeh Sabri

Dr. Sabri and her faculty collaborator (Dr. Jeffrey Marchetta, UM) received Stage 2 RSA funding for her proposal “Aerogel-based Nanomaterial Insulation for Energy Conservation of Industrial Burners." She is collaborating with a corporation to reduce energy waste in industrial burners, which will offer a more attractive solution for customers. Dr. Sabri notes that the TN-SCORE award "provides a great framework for the industrial collaboration to take place and was a vital component that materialized this partnership.”


TN-SCORE Attends Strategic Synergies Workshop


Eight states sent their EPSCoR and Campus Compact representatives to build state and regional “STEM Pipeline” partnerships at the Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) Summer Institute. The Institute was held at Santa Clara University. On the last day of the conference jurisdictional teams developed “Frameworks for Collaboration” focused on integrating service-learning with EPSCoR outreach and revising university-level science courses. The paired teams will continue to meet this fall and plan to use the EPSCoR/SENCER/Campus Compact collaboration to assist a Girls Raised in TN Science (GRITS) program called Green Girls during the Spring/Summer 2013. Pictured are Angela Gilley and Samantha Brown from TN-SCORE as well as EPSCoR/Campus Compact representatives from Kentucky and West Virginia.

Supplemental NSF Awards

TN-SCORE would like to encourage all researchers with any NSF-funded projects to explore supplemental awards opportunities, such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) and Research Opportunity Awards (ROA). The latter of which is part of the Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program. These awards provide funding that aligns seamlessly with TN-SCORE objectives in workforce development and collaboration building. The supplemental REU awards from other TN-SCORE associated institutions would expand the state’s capacity to support the workforce development pipeline by training more undergraduates. The supplemental ROA opportunities can also provide summer and/or sabbatical support for faculty members at predominately undergraduate institutions to participate in NSF-funded research. 


If you are interested in these opportunities, please visit the above links or contact your program officer for your existing grant(s).  TN-SCORE is willing to assist in the writing process by providing successful samples of REU and ROA supplement proposals. If you are interested in assistance, please contact Dr. Josh Ennen (865.974.8035 or




Registration is open for the September 14 ORNL Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS) User Meeting and associated Workshops scheduled for September 11-13.  Of special note is the 2nd Annual Photovoltaics School on September 13. CNMS is also accepting user-facility applications, with a deadline of October 17 for proposals.

TN-SCORE researcher Bin Hu is chairing a joint Office of Naval Research and NSF Workshop on Key Scientific and Technological Issues for Development of Next-Generation Organic Solar Cells.  This limited-invitation meeting on September 20-21 in Arlington, VA consists of a series of presentations and discussion with national leaders in OPV research and applications.  


Upcoming Events

CNMS User Meeting & Associated Workshops
Oak Ridge, TN

Key Scientific & Technological Issues for Development of Next-Generation Organic Solar Cells Workshop
Arlington, VA