Professors Receive $2.5 Million to Better Convert Water Into Clean Hydrogen Fuel Using Sunlight

Sept. 16, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have received about $2.5 million to identify new materials that will efficiently absorb sunlight and split water (H2O) into clean hydrogen fuel, which could power cars and be used to generate electricity.

For the next three years, chemical engineering Professor Charles Mullins, chemistry Professor Allen Bard and mathematics Professor Irene M. Gamba will collaborate on the endeavor, which encompasses two grants from the National Science Foundation ($1.4 million) and the U.S. Department of Energy (about $1.1 million). Bard and Mullins are affiliated with the Center for Electrochemistry at the university.

The center is a multi-faculty collaboration devoted to research on fundamental and applied aspects of electrochemistry, which has already received research support for work on electrochemical energy sources such as batteries and fuel cells, solar energy research and new materials.

"Sustainable energy ultimately will involve the conversion of solar energy economically and efficiently to chemical fuels and electricity," Bard said. "Our work focuses on discovering new materials for this and obtaining a better understanding of how their composition and structure govern their behavior."

Mullins added, "The grants will fund us to explore finding new materials that will efficiently absorb sunlight and drive chemical reactions to break water into hydrogen (a fuel) and oxygen. These materials also need to be cheap and composed of elements that are abundant."

The researchers will be examining novel metal oxides (variations of more common ones like titanium dioxide and iron oxide), which can act as semiconductors.

Mullins said because sunlight and water are relatively inexpensive and plentiful starting points, the hydrogen fuel produced by an efficient process would also be cheap.

"Plus, it would be a sustainable form of energy," he said. "And energy, of course, is a terribly important problem that we are currently facing."

Mullins said that researchers have studied water splitting using photoelectrochemistry for the past 40 years and progress has been made. However, efficient, cheap and abundant materials have yet to be discovered to make solar water splitting a viable process.

He said Bard will use a "combinatorial" approach for rapidly making complex compositions of metal oxides and testing them for their promise as photoelectrocatalysts, the material that facilitates the split.

"Once promising materials have been identified, we'll research how to create nano-scale structures of that material that enhance the intrinsic properties of the material for light-absorption and water-splitting chemistry," Mullins said.

Gamba's past work in the mathematical treatment of electron and hole transport in semiconductors makes her essential to establishing useful theoretical models for these systems.

Mullins holds the Z.D. Bonner Professorship in Chemical Engineering, Bard holds the Hackerman-Welch Chair in Chemistry, and Gamba holds the Joe B. and Louise Cook Professorship in Mathematics.

For more information, contact: Daniel Vargas; Charles Mullins, Cockrell School of Engineering, 512-471-5817; Allen Bard, College of Natural Sciences, 512-471-3761; Irene M. Gamba, College of Natural Sciences, 512-471-7711.

6 Comments to "Professors Receive $2.5 Million to Better Convert Water Into Clean Hydrogen Fuel Using Sunlight"

1.  Isaac Trachtenberg said on Sept. 24, 2009

Buddy and Allen: Congratulations! Remember I worked for 4.5 years on these problems of hydrogen generation from photovoltaic generation and storage of the hydrogen. If I can be of any help, please contact me. I wish you good luck in your research efforts. IKE

2.  Richard Sweeney said on Sept. 24, 2009

This is absolutely fascinating! I had no idea that such a vital research topic as developing new fuel sources was occurring at our very own University of Texas at Austin. This very well could contribute to the future of our energy economy which is in dire need of rescue. It truly would be wonderful if UT could help find the method that leads to an efficient, healthy and RENEWABLE source of energy for our future.

3.  Jorge González Reyes said on Sept. 25, 2009

Dear Irene: I am interesting in the mathematical model that you use in the progress of your research. Could you send me information about the mathematics program at UT? Thanks for your information and congratulations. I am a chemical engineer working now for Peñoles, a metallurgical company at Torreón, Coahuila, México.

4.  Jason Ford said on Oct. 21, 2009

Congratulations. It's a great step, and thanks for sharing this information. I think water is the future fuel, and it will help us to prevent the problem of global warming. Thanks. Keep it up.

5.  Jerry Westermann said on Oct. 22, 2009

It is always encouraging to see government funding for such a worthwhile cause. Imagine if this research could lead to a process that is more efficient and economical than electrolysis, thereby paving the way to clean energy production and storage on a small scale.

6.  yosef said on Nov. 26, 2009

I appreciate the professors. Go ahead!