NSF awards to UT Arlington researchers will fuel sustainable solutions

November 08, 2013

Two University of Texas at Arlington scientists working on innovative energy supply solutions are included in the first round of grants for a new National Science Foundation program aimed at promoting environmental sustainability.

Fred MacDonnell, a chemistry professor, and Qiming Zhang, a physics professor, were among the 101 scientists and engineers sharing in $49 million in inaugural grant awards for the Sustainable Chemistry, Engineering and Materials, or SusChEM, program. The NSF started SusChEM in 2012 to "support the discovery of new science and engineering that will provide humanity with a safe, stable and sustainable supply of chemicals and materials sufficient to meet future global demand," according to the agency.

MacDonnell, along with recently retired UT Arlington research associate professor Norma Tacconi, was awarded a three year, $430,346 grant to study a new method for converting carbon dioxide to methanol. Zhang was awarded a three-year, $188,548 grant to study the use of sulfurized hematite to build more efficient solar cell technologies.

"We're proud to have Drs. MacDonnell, Tacconi and Zhang recognized as part of this distinguished group of scientists who are using their work to address challenges that affect society as a whole," said Pamela Jansma, dean of the College of Science. "Their projects also include important components of outreach that will expose future science, technology and engineering students to research and scientific exploration."

MacDonnell and Tacconi are exploring photosensitive metal compounds as solar-energy collectors and catalysts for the conversion of carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas, to methanol, a valuable fuel source. Recent studies in their lab have shown that the process works, however the efficiency is still low and needs to be improved. The grant will allow them to pursue new photocatalyst designs and explore a wider variety of conditions in order to improve yields and photochemical efficiency.

"If we could efficiently convert CO2 to methanol using solar power, we could develop a carbon-neutral fuel cycle and produce a liquid fuel that requires minimal changes to the existing fuel distribution infrastructure," MacDonnell said.

Zhang is working with Meng Tao, a former UT Arlington engineering professor now at Arizona State University, to use an iron oxysulfide - iron oxide that with a small amount of sulfur introduced into it - as a building material for next generation photovoltaic solar panels. Their goal is to create a photovoltaic cell that is capable of producing the massive amounts of energy society needs and one that can use materials abundant in the environment.

Zhang's theoretical work has suggested the sulfurized hematite is a good candidate for an efficient conductor. The process for creating it is also less expensive and energy intensive than for silicon, the currently preferred material.

"Material scarcity and cost are two major bottlenecks for the expansion of solar electricity," said Zhang. "If we want to get to terawatt capacity, we have to lower the cost of the material production and employ earth-abundant materials."

Tao has a separate SusChEM grant for his portion of the sulfurized hematite project, which will also involve connecting American Indian students and communities in Arizona with educational opportunities. Zhang will incorporate outreach through projects at TexPREP, a summer camp for seventh through 10th graders held at UT Arlington each year.
The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive institution of about 33,300 students and more than 2,200 faculty members in the heart of North Texas. It is the second largest school in The University of Texas System. Visit http://www.uta.edu to learn more.

University of Texas at Arlington

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