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Eco-news from around Indiana's colleges

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Purdue developing better solar panels

Researchers at Purdue University are working to reduce manufacturing costs and increase efficiency of the solar cells.

"Production costs of solar cells have been greatly reduced by making them out of thin films instead of wafers, but it is difficult to create high-quality microchannels in these thin films," said Yung Shin, professor of mechanical engineering. "The mechanical scribing methods in commercial use do not create high-quality, well-defined channels. Although laser scribing has been studied extensively, until now we haven't been able to precisely control lasers to accurately create the microchannels to the exacting specifications required."

Through a three-year, $425,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers hope to develop an "ultrashort pulse laser" to create the microchannels in thin-film solar cells.

Who knows, maybe if they're successful, Purdue will ditch their coal.



Goshen College adds sustainability semester

Goshen College might be a small college, but is thinking big when it comes to sustainability. Next fall, a group of students at the northern Indiana school will take part in the school's new sustainability semester. The students will study sustainability at the college's Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, home of Indiana's first LEED platinum building — where the students will live.

“We hope that students will leave this program with hope for the future and feeling empowered to be able to effect change in their own communities,” said Lisa Zinn, director of the sustainability semester. “We want them to understand that environmental problems are complex and that there is always a wide range of perspectives on each issue. However, we want them to leave feeling they have the tools to approach those complex problems and work with others to address them in effective ways.”

Classes will have a focus on water — especially relating to the Elkhart River — but will also include topics on environmental policy and politics, regeneration, sustainable living and eco-justice.

(Full disclosure: I am a Goshen College alumnus)



Rising CO2 is choking plants, says IU prof

Not long ago we found out that Indiana has some of the worst carbon dioxide pollution in the country. A couple commenters thought they would teach me. “CO2 is not a pollutant!” they proclaimed. Of course, it is naturally occurring. But it's not meant to be spewed into the atmosphere at such a high rate. And here's some more evidence why. IU professors found that the density of stomata in plants — the pore-like structures on plant leaves that absorb CO2 — shrank by 34 percent. The result means that not only do plants capture less CO2, they also release less water into the atmosphere.

“The carbon cycle is important, but so is the water cycle," said IU Research Scientist in Biology and Professor Emeritus in Geology David Dilcher. "If transpiration decreases, there may be more moisture in the ground at first, but if there's less rainfall that may mean there's less moisture in ground eventually. This is part of the hyrdrogeologic cycle. Land plants are a crucially important part of it.”

The take home message: don't count on plants to make it rain.

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