NSF grant to help create sustainable fuels through artificial photosynthesis


Credit: Patrick Mansell

A grant totaling $1.2 million over three years has been awarded to researchers at Penn State and Cornell University by the National Science Foundation to identify a material that can most efficiently separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, to collect hydrogen as a sustainable fuel source.

"One of the challenges here is to provide energy for a growing population and to support the economy," said Ismaila Dabo, assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Earth and Minerals Sciences and an Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE) co-funded faculty member. "We want to figure out how to bypass natural photosynthesis to create sustainable fuels."

With the support of this grant, Dabo and colleagues will be working to figure out how to create hydrogen fuel to be used as a clean alternative for transportation and residential applications, such as heating a home. The researchers are looking to produce hydrogen fuel from renewable sources, such as sunlight.

If successful, the researchers will make headway in positively impacting all three facets of the food-energy-water nexus, the concept that all three facets are closely connected and shifts in one facet impact the others.

Currently, biomass can create hydrogen fuel. However, this uses agricultural resources for fuel instead of food. The solar-to-hydrogen conversion that Dabo and his colleagues are working on would not require agricultural resources.

When hydrogen is used as a fuel, its catalytic reaction with oxygen generates electrical energy and heat. The byproduct of this reaction is clean water, with no carbon dioxide created or released.

Dabo and colleagues will build on existing knowledge of semiconductors and materials science to predict how to best create a semiconductor that can be used to split the two hydrogen atoms from the oxygen atom in a water molecule.

"A lot of people have studied the light absorbing part of semiconductors, but not how the electricity is transferred from the semiconductor material to the liquid environment," said Dabo.

This grant was awarded to Penn State researchers in part due to the levels of cooperation needed between experts in several fields to solve the challenge of artificial photosynthesis. Also working with Dabo at Penn State are Raymond Schaak, DuPont Professor of Materials Chemistry, and Venkatraman Gopalan, professor of materials science and engineering.

"The goal of this collaborative research is to develop a widely applicable computational protocol … to accelerate the selection of photoactive materials that can efficiently split water into hydrogen and oxygen," wrote the researchers.

Hector Abruña, professor of chemistry and chemical biology, and Craig Fennie, associate professor of applied and engineering physics, both of Cornell University are collaborating on this project as well.

This grant is part of the Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future and the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems programs with the National Science Foundation.

The Institutes of Energy and the Environment is one of seven interdisciplinary research institutes at Penn State. IEE works to build teams of experts from different disciplines to see how new partnerships and new ways of thinking can solve some of the world's most difficult energy and environmental challenges while simultaneously protecting and developing a healthy planet, people and economy.


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