Every few weeks, Ruchi Shah, a senior biology major, will take a look at Stony Brook-related science and research news.
Imagine if the pool in your backyard could become an energy harvester, with a floating blanket on its surface converting solar energy to hydrogen fuel. This is a long-term goal of an interdisciplinary research team led by Pelagia Gouma, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
The team, comprised of mechanical engineers, chemists and material scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University, has been awarded a $935,056 grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop the floating nanomaterial blankets and optimize the manufacturing process.
The first aspect of the project is to improve the nanogrids, or ceramic blankets, which are three-dimensional and self-supporting materials that can convert solar energy to hydrogen fuel through light-activated photocatalysts.
Usually, nanomaterials are in powdered form and disperse easily, but the ceramic fiber blankets provide a stable form for the reaction pathway.
When visible light hits the photocatalyst, water molecules are split into oxygen and hydrogen, facilitating energy harvesting from the sun in the form of hydrogen fuel.
Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed technology to measure the reactions in real-time and quantify how effective the ceramic blankets are. The team is now using the results to improve upon the current design.
It is important to find effective and inexpensive methods to make hydrogen fuel because it is a renewable and alternative energy source that can play an important role in current energy challenges.
The second aspect of the project is to develop manufacturing processes that will print the ceramic blankets quickly and inexpensively.
“It’s one thing to create nanomaterials in the lab in very small quantities, and it’s another thing to be able to make them in large enough quantities so they can become relevant for commercial use,” Gouma said.
To bring the blankets from the lab to an industrial scale, the team is optimizing a manufacturing process called high-throughput electrospinning, which will make the photocatalytic ceramic mats in large quantities at a low cost. The team is working to increase production quantity from 200 grams per hour to several kilograms per hour.
Despite the progress, the researchers face a variety of challenges, including assessing the quality and strength of the material and working out the details of the mechanics of the process. They plan to use the grant to address these challenges.
“The expected outcome from this project is that anybody who has a pool or a body of water can use his photocatalytic blanket to convert solar energy,” Gouma said.
Ultimately the team aims to develop more potent and effective photocatalytic materials that explore the full solar spectrum and provide alternative energy at the lowest cost possible.