Harvesting new possibilities in renewable energy research
UH researchers have made ground-breaking catalytic discoveries in energy harvesting and nanotechnology, paving the way for renewable energy via solar water-splitting.
The Bao Group, led by assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Jiming Bao, discovered a new approach to solar water-splitting using fabricated nanoparticles of Cobalt(II) oxide as a catalyst.
“Our group is the first group in the world to use this material (for water-splitting),” Bao said. “The next step, simply, is we need to develop a more efficient technique to make the nanoparticle. Once we understand that, then we can design the structure of the nanoparticle so that they can last a long time.”
Cobalt(II) oxide is capable of splitting water into its two chemical components, oxygen and hydrogen, upon exposure to natural light. Hydrogen can then be used to store energy to create fuel cells, among other uses. The catalyst in this process is used effectively without coatings or additives, which cuts down on costs.
Bao Group member Zhongzheng Zhao, a second-year graduate student of materials engineering, said he sees a bright future for this green source of energy.
“If we can use water to give us energy like hydrogen, this could be very promising and solve the problem of shortage of energy,” Zhao said.
Solar water-splitting through this process does not produce extra atoms, and the hydrogen and oxygen byproducts can be recycled as water. The solar-to-hydrogen efficiency of 5 percent using Cobalt(II) oxide is a breakthrough for the team. However, the efficiency would need to be around 10 percent to be commercially viable, Bao said.
Alternative energy has garnered more attention in the past few decades. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a subset of the World Health Organization of the United Nations, released a study in October 2013 titled “Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.” The release stated that air pollution is responsible for 223,000 deaths worldwide from lung cancer as a result of air pollution in 2010 alone.
Yang Li, a third-year electrical engineering graduate student who is also working on the project with the Bao Group, said air pollution is “harming people’s health,” and the process they are developing can bring a new era of global energy consumption.
“I think the new energy is a very attractive point. New, clean energy is a must for the world, because coal, the petrol —petroleum — they maybe can last 100 years, but after that people have to find some new energy,” Li said. “Also, maybe they can help to solve some environmental problems, prevent air pollution.”
Bao hopes to improve the solar water-splitting process by prolonging the lifespan of the Cobalt(II) oxide and its fabrication as a nanoparticle in the hopes of raising its efficiency to commercially viable levels.
The Bao Group collaborated with researchers from UH, Sam Houston State University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Texas State University, Carl Zeiss Microscopy LLC and Sichuan University. They were supported by the Welch Foundation, according to uh.edu.