Posted in | News | Renewable Energy | Energy | Hydrogen

Research on Electrochemical Water Catalysis to Tap Energy from Renewable Energy Sources

Utah State University chemist Yujie Sun, left, guides teens at USU's Summer Biotechnology Academy in laboratory procedures. Sun, assistant professor in USU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is a 2017 recipient of an NSF CAREER award. (Credit - Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University)

New, greener energy solutions are needed as fossil fuel energy is fast depleting and a leading cause of pollution.

"Water splitting" or electrochemical water catalysis is a chemical reaction by which water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. This can be used as one of the means to tap energy from such renewable energy sources as wind and solar. But the development of efficient and lucrative methods to realize commercial-scale water splitting remains a holy grail of science, says Utah State University chemist Yujie Sun.

Splitting water molecules is simple on an experimental basis, but difficult and expensive on a large-scale basis. Two half reactions are involved in the whole process of water splitting. One is water oxidation to generate oxygen and the other is water reduction to produce hydrogen.

Yujie Sun, Chemist, Utah State University

Sun is the assistant professor in USU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The slow kinetics of water oxidation remains a troublesome bottleneck for widespread, economical hydrogen production from sustainable energy inputs, he says. "Ironically, the product of oxygen from water oxidation is not of significant value."

Sun who is the 2017 recipient of a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development 'CAREER' Award from the National Science Foundation, is exploring potentially game-changing approaches, at the molecular level, of overcoming current hurdles.

The NSF's highly competitive grant program for junior faculty, CAREER awards acknowledges demonstrated excellence in teaching, research, and the integration of research and education. The award provides Sun with a five-year, $592,791 grant to continue his research, and inspire new scientists.

Researchers in my lab range from high school students to postdoctoral fellows. Together, we're looking beyond current knowledge to create novel electrolyzers, by employing inexpensive catalysts for hydrogen production at much lower energy input compared to those of conventional water-splitting processes.

Yujie Sun, Chemist, Utah State University

Sun is investigating a new oxidative process that would create value-added organic products in the liquid phase, while providing electrons for the production of hydrogen at the same time, which would be discharged in the gas phase.

"In this case, no potentially hazardous hydrogen-oxygen mixing would arise," he says. "The result would be a safer, easier-to-transport product and a clean source of fuel."

Specifically, Sun is examining the development of a biomass intermediate for the oxidation half reaction, which could offer a green, water-soluble polymer precursor to substitute such fossil fuel-derived polymers as polyethylene terephthalate or 'PET.' PET is used in all types of household products, fabrics, furnishing, vehicle interiors, appliances, and more.

"This could be very valuable," he says. "Imagine all the products around you that could be made from the clean and renewable energy sources like sun and wind."

Sun will also be teaching a group of undergraduates in an inorganic intermediate lab as a part of his project. The lab is involved in incorporating new, research-based experiments.

"We're replacing old-school techniques with cutting-edge research with an emphasis in green chemistry," he says.

Sun is pursuing his participation with USU Eastern Blanding Campus's Native American STEM Mentorship Program, which offers students chances to become involved in undergraduate research at USU's Logan campus, including Sun's Lab. Additionally, Sun is also mentoring high school students as part of the American Chemical Society's Project SEED, a summer research internship program for economically disadvantaged teens.

This project allows high school students to work alongside mentors in our lab and gain insight about college and future career paths. Some of these students will have opportunities to present their research and publish in professional journals.

Yujie Sun, Chemist, Utah State University

Sun is also continuing his association with the annual Utah Inorganic/Organometallic Symposium, a summer gathering he started with colleagues from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. He does this with a vision to share knowledge across Utah's campuses.

"We've found this is a great way to share information, foster ideas and collaborate with groups around the state," he says. "It's a wonderful networking opportunity for students to gain confidence, as they present their efforts to others."

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