Frontiers in Energy Research: January 2012

January 2012

An Interview with Dr. Héctor Abruña

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“Virtually all energy-related systems involve electrochemical interfaces,” says Héctor D. Abruña, Director of the Energy Materials Center at Cornell. Broadly defined, electrochemistry is the study of chemical reactions at the interface between a solution and an electrode. The chemical reactions are driven by an applied voltage, which places electrochemistry at the heart of many of the proposed solutions to the energy problem, whether that’s fuel cells to drive our cars, dye-sensitized solar cells to harvest the sun’s energy, or batteries for solar farms, storing energy from intermittent sources.

Experiment and Theory: The Perfect Marriage

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In establishing 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers, the U.S. Department of Energy moved to expedite the rate of scientific discovery by encouraging teamwork in a community more accustomed to relying on individual brilliance. This approach to science funding, which takes its lead from the common proverb individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds, brings together scientists with diverse backgrounds and skill sets to solve the most pertinent problems in energy research.

Research Highlights

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    Rust Splits Water!

    Efficient water splitting holds immense promise as a way to produce hydrogen for clean, sustainable energy conversion processes. Scientists working in the Center for Atomic-Level Catalyst Design, or CALCD, discovered that a form of rust, magnetite (Fe3O4), one of the most abundant materials in the Earth’s crust, performs water splitting at room temperature without the need for electricity or light to drive the reaction.
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    The Evolution of Radiation-Induced Defects in Iron

    Iron, in its role as a key building material of nuclear fuel containers, must withstand both natural forces from the outside and large amounts of radiation from nuclear reactions on the inside. In the past year, after the tragic earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster that struck the Fukushima prefecture on the east coast of Japan, it has become obvious that understanding the integrity of these housing structures is absolutely essential to guaranteeing the safety of local populations.
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    Deciphering the Black Box of Next-Generation Biofuels Chemistry

    Next-generation biofuels production uses high temperatures around 1000 °F to convert every part of a plant into molecules that are similar to those in fuels. A series of complex processes fracture large biomolecules containing millions of atoms into much smaller molecules with higher energy density and reactivity.
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    Modeling the Invisible

    Supercapacitors store energy as a static charge and not through electrochemical reactions, but suffer from low energy density compared to standard lithium-ion batteries. New research is tackling this problem.
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    Sculpting the Flow of Light and Matter

    Collaboration between two Energy Frontier Research Centers has produced the first 3D photonic crystal, a material designed to control the propagation of light, incorporated into an electronically addressable device.
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    Maximizing Solar Fuel Production

    Researchers at the Center for Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Production have successfully incorporated DNA-based nanocages into the pores of a transparent metal oxide material that conducts electricity while allowing sunlight to pass through it. The team is now significantly closer to constructing a transparent electrode with integrated catalysts, which is fundamental to developing a bio-inspired artificial solar fuel system.
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    Polymer Chains Could Help Electrons Go the Distance

    Imagine your cell phone reliably powered by sunlight. To make this a reality, energy from the sunlight must be absorbed by a semiconducting material and separated into charges. Using a new research technique, scientists at the Charge Separation and Transfer Energy Frontier Research Center are developing a better understanding of organic polymer materials that behave like semiconductors.
Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.