Solar energy conversion focus of Emory chemist’s new research
By Senta Scarborough | Sept. 22, 2020
Tianquan “Tim” Lian, Emory’s William Henry Emerson Professor of Chemistry, will serve as the coordinator for the “Surface Characterization and Dynamics” portion of project focused on developing new tools for solar energy conversion.
Emory University scientists will search for a way to convert sunlight into storable and transportable fuels as part of a multi-institutional research group receiving a $40 million grant from the U. S. Department of Energy.
The highly competitive five-year grant was awarded to the lead institution, the University of North Carolina’s Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels, or CHASE. Tianquan “Tim” Lian, Emory’s William Henry Emerson Professor of Chemistry, will serve as the coordinator for the “Surface Characterization and Dynamics” portion of the project focused on developing new tools for solar energy conversion.
“I am excited to be part of the CHASE team. It provides funding, expertise and infrastructure to enable transformative and impactful solar fuels research,” Lian says. “Advancing solar fuels science and technology is one of the most important scientific endeavors of today.”
With the new funding, CHASE, in addition to Emory, is teaming up with researchers from North Carolina State University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University to gain a fundamental understanding of fuels-from-sunlight systems and develop new design principles for them.
Their aim is to develop hybrid photoelectrodes, composed of semiconductor materials and molecular catalysts, that can convert carbon dioxide and nitrogen into liquid solar fuels.
Rational design of such hybrid photoelectrodes requires molecular understanding of how the absorbed solar energy drives chemical transformations needed for fuel generation.
To achieve such molecular level understanding, Lian’s Emory team will lead the effort to develop advanced spectroscopic tools for studying these photoelectrodes under device operation conditions, while providing technical guidance and coordinating with other researchers.
Renewable energy has long been a focus of Lian’s research. He received a $7.5 million grant in 2018 from the U.S. Department of Defense to study electrochemical processes underlying fuel-cell technology.
Transforming solar energy into chemical energy
Sunlight, while the sun is shining, is an ever-constant supply of renewable energy.
Solar fuel generation, also known as artificial photosynthesis, is the process of transforming solar energy into chemical energy. This process could generate sustainable, transportable and storable fuels.
Researchers hope to make progress with liquid solar fuels where carbon dioxide and nitrogen are chemically transformed into fuel targets. If successful, this approach could be valuable not only for the production of fuels, commodity chemicals and materials, but the generation of ammonia to be used in fuels and fertilizers.
Solar panel technology uses photovoltaic cells which generate electricity from sunlight. In recent years, great advances have made it more cost effective. However, if the sun isn’t shining, the photovoltaics don’t create energy.
Solar liquid fuels would allow all that untapped energy to be stored, transported and used.
In late July, the DOE announced this grant as part of a $100 million in funding over five years for CHASE and another award focused on advancing artificial photosynthesis for the production of fuels from sunlight.
“Sunlight is the world’s most basic energy source, and an ability to generate fuels directly from sunlight has the potential to revolutionize the U.S. energy economy,” said Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. “This effort will keep America at the forefront of artificial photosynthesis research, a field of great challenge but also huge promise.”