Renewable Energy & Catalysis

Chemical Energy Research

Energy is one of the biggest challenges facing human kind.  Population growth and climate change make it essential that large-scale carbon-neutral sources of energy be developed and deployed on a massive scale.  Chemists are leading the way in developing alternative fuels (chemical energy) and mechanism of converting energy in ways that will drive society in the future.

Graduates go on to work in the chemical energy and commodity industry where there is a need for developing new sources of energy, increasing energy efficiency and green methods of synthesis. 

Chemical Energy Research Projects

Research at FIT into energy includes fundamental studies on energy transfer mechanism for converting light energy into chemical energy (photosynthesis) as well as the design of catalysts.  This fundamental understanding is directed at driving chemically useful reactions with light and for developing technology for solar fuel and photovoltaic technology. 

Energy transfer in photosynthesis: Dr. Baum and Dr. Brown investigate the properties of molecular systems that serve as models for the interactions of biomolecules with light to form chemical energy. Molecular spectroscopy, supplemented by other physical methods and molecular modeling, provides mechanistic information necessary to completely characterize these systems. Such an approach is essential for a deeper understanding of processes that convert light energy into chemical energy. By investigating the transfer of energy from light absorbed in natural processes such as photosynthesis can provide more efficient synthetic materials for the collection and storage of energy.

Catalysts for CO2 reduction and solar fuel generationWhile nature utilizes CO2 as its major carbon source, the industrial use of CO2 as feedstock is still in its infancy.  Strong Lewis acids, designed and synthesized by Dr. Wehmschulte's group, catalyze the reduction of CO2 with hydrosilanes to methane and toluene depending on the conditions.  Current efforts focus on the optimization of this system including the synthesis of more stable Lewis acids featuring strong Al-O bonds and internal π-stabilization through flanking arene substituents.

Dye sensitized solar cells and catalysts for green synthesis:  Dr. Knight's group is developing organometallic compunds that form monolayers of redox-active ruthenium complexes on nanocrystalline TiO2.  These systems are key for efficient electronic coupling with the surface that will allow efficient light-induced charge separation for the conversion of light to electricity. 

Artificial photosynthesis:  Given the scale of projected energy needs as well as the rapid climate change associated with growing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, there is a major push by governments to increase the rate of innovation and discovery in the area of carbon-neutral solar fuel production (chemical energy). Dr. Freund’s group is focusing on the development of membranes will likely play a key role in artificial photosynthetic systems. This effort includes the design and synthesis of new materials as well as the study of their electronic properties and their integration with light absorbers and catalysts required for functional chemical energy producing devices.

Driving reactions with light:  Dr. Liao's group is pioneering research into metastable state photoacids. This type of photoacid can reversibly produce large pH changes upon exposure to visible light, making it a powerful tool for controlling a wide range of important acid-catalyzed reactions by producing chemical energy from light. His group focuses on the design and synthesis of photoacids and materials that contain them, study the mechanisms of their photoreactions, and demonstrate their applications including photoresponsive electronic, optical and mechanic materials, shape/volume change materials, drug delivery materials, killing bacteria, pH jump for studying protein conformation and functions, and regulating local pH of biological systems.

Photocatalytic efficiency and solar energy.  Understanding the mechanism of a reaction allows us to optimize the reaction rate and predict its outcome. Dr. Winkelmann's current research in this area focuses on understanding how visible light can initiate chemical energy reactions that degrade pollutants into nontoxic or event useful products. Halogenated organic molecules provide interesting target molecules because they have a significant environmental impact as greenhouse gases and many such compounds cannot be destroyed by conventional oxidation techniques.

Clean Energy: Porous, crystalline materials are ideally suited to address the global energy problem by providing solutions to clean energy applications. In particular, Dr. Schoedel's group develops strategies and technologies to overcome the challenges encountered in the capture, storage, delivery and conversion of gas molecules such as carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen.

Focus Areas