9 February 2011

The search for clean energy: Director talks about Mag Lab's research

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The horrific April oil spill in the Gulf, which dumped 206 million gallons of crude oil in the ocean, put the energy issue upfront in everyone's mind. What you might not know is that Magnet Lab research helped identify some of those oil samples to determine what oil wells they came from — and who was responsible.

Lab Director Greg Boebinger will talk about that and other critical energy research at the Tuesday, Feb. 15, Magnet Mystery Hour. The roughly 45-minute presentation, one in a series of talks geared for a nonscientific audience, begins at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Magnet Lab, 1800 East Paul Dirac Drive. Arrive by 6:30 p.m. and you're also invited to a quick tour of the lab — including a stop at the world's strongest magnet, where you can also see the Guinness World Records certificate that proves it! Best of all, both the tour and energy presentation are free.

"There's a great need for clean energy sources," Boebinger said, "but as soon as you start talking about using wind and solar energy, the problem that immediately arises is storage. It's hard to store solar energy and wind energy."

Fortunately, that's the kind of problem many scientists see as a challenge. At the Mag Lab, they're investigating potential ways of storing nature's tremendous power in fuel cells. And while those researchers explore new ways to bottle up the sun and wind, others work on ways to turn throwaway stuff like pine-tree waste and peanut shells into fuel for our cars.

But perhaps the most futuristic topic Boebinger will explore is the hunt for better superconductors, i.e. materials (metals, alloys and ceramics) that allow electricity to flow without resistance. The problem with today's superconductors — and it's a big problem — is that in order for them to work, they have to be kept super cold. As in minus 200 degrees F., or cold enough to turn you and everything else into a permanent Popsicle.

Scientists keep trying to find superconducting materials that don't need to be kept so insanely cold. Remember that floating mineral dubbed "unobtainium" in "Avatar"? That was a room-temperature superconductor, the Holy Grail of the energy search. Boebinger — a physicist whose own research is on superconducting materials — will have plenty to say about this very cool subject, too.