Our civilization is predicated on abundant energy, but there are costs as well as benefits to the robust exploitation of global energy resources. The department is dedicated to minimizing those costs and maximizing the benefits — and much of our focus is on developing new and sustainable sources of energy.
Solar energy is of paramount interest to the department. Among our current projects is the synthesis of organic and carbon solar cells — technologies that hold the promise of reducing solar energy production costs by a profound degree and broadening solar applications to flexible cells and devices. We are also investigating applications of conjugated polymeric materials for solar cells and refining thin-film, quantum-dot and dye-sensitized solar cell engineering techniques.
Further, the department is augmenting the basic process of photosynthesis by engineering photosynthetic bacteria that convert sunlight to hydrogen. The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is a highly efficient fuel that produces water as a primary combustion byproduct, making it an extremely attractive energy choice for the 21st century.
In another line of hydrogen research, we are designing semiconductor materials for the production of the fuel. Most of the universe’s hydrogen is locked up in water, but it can be obtained by using specialized photoelectrochemical (PEC) semiconductors that harness sunlight to split hydrogen and oxygen atoms from water molecules. The cost benefits of the process, however, are determined by the efficacy of the semiconductors, making materials design crucial to alternative energy efforts.
Fuel cells are also a focus. These devices use alternative fuels such as hydrogen and hydrocarbons to produce electricity and are amenable to a wide variety of applications, from cars to commercial buildings. But better fuel cells are required to implement the technology on a global scale. We are working toward this goal by developing novel electrocatalytic materials — including catalytic thin films — for fuel cells, and designing fuel cell proton and anion exchange membranes. Our researchers are also engineering molecular mechanisms to facilitate electron transfer to and from conducting surfaces in microbial fuel cells.
Biofuel research promises sustainable sources of liquid fuels with minimal environmental concerns, and the department has made the field a priority. We are developing new computational tools to aid in biofuel design and we are engineering E. coli bacteria that produce fatty alcohols ideally suited for biofuel production. We are also designing new organocatalytic methods for better utilization of plant lignin feedstocks.
The department is also developing flexible and stretchable organic electronic materials that will have wide application, especially when combined with advances in the energy sector — most notably in the flexible solar cell realm. These two fields of research are innately compatible, and their merger promises breakthroughs in the development of products and energy systems that are cheap, efficient, rugged and environmentally benign.
Though the challenges implicit in sustainable energy production are immense, the department’s current research provides ample scope for optimism. We will meet and resolve these challenges — because we must.