Project Report

The East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute (EAPSI) program made possible an 11-week trip to the University of Wollongong (UOW), Australia, to continue my graduate studies on water splitting and artificial photosynthesis. There is great evidence to suggest that worldwide dependence on nonrenewable, carbon based resources (oil, gas and coal) has had negative environmental effects. This is compounded with economic instability, as new deposits of these resources must continuously be located and mined- a task that grows in difficulty as current reserves are depleted. The science of water splitting offers appealing attributes as an alternative fuel source. The supply is the most abundant resource on the planet, the product (H2) is environmentally friendly and already widely used in industrial processes; hence, cost of infrastructure adjustment to a hydrogen economy is minimal. However, the energy required to split water is large- more than that obtained from product hydrogen. Large scale electrolysis of water is thus not cost-friendly. Yet every day, plants split water as part of photosynthesis, at only the cost of sunlight. My research is dedicated to implementing the chemistry of plants in order to create practical, low cost devices which split water spontaneously. In all plant life, the same small cluster of metals (calcium and manganese- highly abundant) serves as the catalytic site to convert water to oxygen. This cluster has a geometry which resembles a cube- hence, we focus on making molecules with cubic topologies. To study how to apply our catalysts in real life: on electrodes, fuel cells, and solar cells, we collaborate extensively with Dr. Gerhard Swiegers at the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute in the Australian Institute for Innovative Materials at UOW, headed by Dr. Gordon Wallace. This Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence contains state of the art instrumentation in a world-class facility, and has the capacity to perform measurements vital in development of solar cells and water splitting devices. Through this EAPSI program, I brought some of our materials to UOW and consulted with their staff of leading industrial chemists and engineers. With their supervision I conducted studies on a prototype plastic solar cell. Briefly, we created polymer thin films which contain our catalysts, with the goal that these films can be deposited on plastic. When these films are exposed to sunlight and immersed in water, hydrogen and oxygen gases evolve spontaneously. As part of this research, we looked at printing and deposition techniques such as spincoating, sputter coating, gravure printing, ink-jet printing, and screen printing. These techniques allow flexibility over film parameters without losing precision. Films were characterized by optical profilometry, electrochemical and spectroscopic techniques, and by X-ray studies via the beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron. Our improvements in catalyst design, coupled with our renewed efforts at parameter optimization via this EAPSI program, show that, relative to our solar cell described in 2008 literature, our films improve hydrogen output by 100-fold accompanying a reduction of cost by at least 10-fold. Further, our films demonstrate enhanced catalysis when illuminated with light of sun-intensity. While several months of prototyping are still needed, the EAPSI program has accelerated the studies of the yield and characterization of the water splitting device as planned by our joint bilateral collaboration between UOW and Rutgers University. These studies would not have been possible from a distance, and the experiences obtained by living in Australian culture, combined with the teachings of leading industrial experts, give great value to an education which stresses broad thinking and problem solving mentalities.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA)
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Carter Kimsey
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Smith Paul
United States
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