Chancellor's Report 2012 Energy and the Environment

Energy and the Environment

In a world powered largely by fossil fuels, North Carolina is an energy have-not. In fact, not one of the 7.5 billion gallons of petroleum-based fuel burned in North Carolina each year is produced in the state. So it’s no surprise that developing alternative sources of energy has been a critical mission at NC State for decades.

In 1953 NC State installed the R-1, the first nuclear research reactor to be designed, built and operated by an academic institution anywhere in the world. The 10-kilowatt “water boiler” was upgraded over the years before being replaced by the 1-megawatt PULSTAR reactor in 1969.

Since then, NC State has become a global leader in programs advancing both energy development and environmental conservation. Researchers at NC State are conducting pioneering work in nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of solar cells, evaluating the performance of new classes of energy-harvesting devices based on soft materials that mimic living tissue, and developing high-temperature coatings of microorganisms to generate energy.

NC State is also working to develop practical ways to turn cotton stocks, wood chips, vegetable oil, animal fat and algae into fuel. Three materials found in abundance in North Carolina — sweet potatoes, switchgrass and loblolly pine trees — are also being studied as energy sources.

An ambitious effort to remake the nation’s power grid is under way on Centennial Campus, where NC State researchers are leading a multidisciplinary team from seven universities with funding from the National Science Foundation. The FREEDM Center, one of two NSF Engineering Research Centers at NC State, is developing a smart solid-state transformer that will make electrical power more reliable and facilitate its integration with renewables such as solar and wind. The project has been named one of the world’s 10 most important emerging technologies by the editors of MIT’s Technology Review.